The Boston-bred tenor saxophone standout Ricky Ford had just flown to New York, and was visiting his daughter en route to a March 14, 2020, concert in his hometown, when he realized the world was about to be shut down by the COVID pandemic.
“I was in America for 11 hours,” Ford recalls via Zoom from his home in France. “I just picked up my telephone and did another reservation, got another ticket, and went back to Paris. I cooked my grandkids lunch, kissed my daughter goodbye, and said, ‘See you later.’ ”
Ford will get another chance to premiere his big band arrangements of music inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes on Saturday at the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library, joined by a 16-piece Makanda Project ensemble and poet Askia Touré for two performances.
And that’s not all Ford has going on this spring. Last month the New Bedford, Mass.-based Whaling City Sound record label released “The Wailing Sounds of Ricky Ford: Paul’s Scene,” a superlative, wide-ranging album whose subtitle references Ford having taken over Paul Gonsalves’s chair in the Duke Ellington Orchestra shortly after the deaths of Gonsalves and Ellington.
Backing Ford on the disc, recorded last summer in Queens, are his New England Conservatory classmate Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar, Mark Soskin on piano, and Barry Altschul on drums. No less an authority than NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson writes in the album’s liner notes: “As I listened to him play, I soon realized I was listening to some kind of miracle. … It was as if an ineffable rebirth had taken place.”
Golson had been immediately impressed upon hearing Ford play with Charles Mingus in the late 1970s, but, like many Ford fans stateside, had lost track of him during Ford’s decades in Europe. That makes Saturday’s two shows feel like a homecoming.
Ford’s jazz roots in Boston are deep. Now 68, he grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester. His first gig as a leader came as a teenager at Wally’s Paradise, the larger precursor to what is now Wally’s Cafe.
“It was sort of funny,” Ford recalls of the first time he performed at the club. “I didn’t know the songs, and [an irritated] Bob Neloms of Berklee got up off the organ and went and got a drink. And I said, ‘I’d better go home and practice.’ ” He chortles at the memory. “Maybe six or seven months later, I got the gig.” His practicing had been so successful he was put in charge of leading the weekend house band at the club for the next few years.
A friend introduced Ford to Ran Blake, who got him into NEC. Elma Lewis introduced Ford to Mercer Ellington, who hired him on the spot to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra at age 20. His new bandmates were astonished that a musician so young was so familiar with the Ellington charts, but Ford notes that he had already played on an album of Ellington music that NEC president Gunther Schuller had recorded earlier that year.
One of Ford’s NEC professors, Jaki Byard, introduced Ford to Mingus at Boylston Street club the Jazz Workshop, which eventually led to Ford’s next job. Ford’s familiarity with Ellington proved useful then, too, when Mingus allowed Ford to sit in with his band.
“I was kind of cocky back then,” says Ford. “I said, ‘Well, if you don’t let me sit in, the next time I’ll hold it against you.’ He looked at me and walked away.” Mingus relented because his trumpet player got sick, and invited Ford and some others to sit in on the Ellington classic “Take the A Train.”
“He had such a big smile on his face,” remembers Ford. “He couldn’t believe that us young guys — me and Ed [Schuller, Gunther’s son] — were playing ‘A Train.’ ”
A year after Ellington’s death, the Ellington Orchestra performed at a memorial concert held at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“Mingus played a solo,” says Ford. “He came up on the bandstand, he saw me and nodded. A couple days later, I had a letter from Mingus to call him. It wasn’t just a letter: He sent me the music in my mailbox. It had a letter with all of the music. And an itinerary.”
After Mingus’s death, Ford spent the 1980s and ‘90s cranking out albums as a leader and touring with bands led by Abdullah Ibrahim and Mal Waldron. Between 1985 and 1996 he also led student big bands at Brandeis University. When that teaching gig ended, he moved to Paris. While living overseas he taught several years at Istanbul Bilgi University, ran an art gallery in Paris, and founded the Toucy Jazz Festival in Yonne, France.
Ford was also featured in the 2008 documentary “A Great Day in Paris,” modeled on the film “A Great Day in Harlem,” which details the making of Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph of jazz greats. The Paris film, directed by Michka Saäl, features expatriate and French musicians Ford had gathered for a similar photo.
Saäl, who died in 2017, played an indirect role in the creation of Saturday’s music. While visiting her in Canada, Ford read Langston Hughes poems nightly from a book he found on her bookshelves.
“I had some music paper, and I started to write some music inspired by his poems,” Ford explains. “Then I decided to get more involved and to adapt other things that he wrote for big band. So I wrote big band charts for the Makanda Project.”
Ford had connected with the Makanda Project when the ensemble’s leader, John Kordalewski, spotted him at a NEC event several years ago. Kordalewski had met Ford decades earlier when Ford and the late Makanda Ken McIntyre (the Makanda Project’s namesake) performed at a loft Kordalewski was then running in Washington, D.C.
Ford has performed with the ensemble several times since that NEC encounter. Guest artists typically play a mix of their own compositions and works by McIntyre. Saturday’s program is the first in Kordalewski’s recollection to be focused entirely on the guest’s own music.
It was Kordalewski’s idea to have Askia Touré, a longtime Roxbury resident who was part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, read from the seven Langston Hughes poems that inspired Ford’s music.
“This is far from the first time anybody’s attempted to do something musical with Langston Hughes poems,” Kordalewski says. “But the way Ricky’s written these things that get at the melodic and musical essence of the poems — that’s sort of unique.
“But the charts are not a fixed thing. We have to understand what he’s written and how the poems can work with that in different ways. Every time we rehearse we get a little more insight into that. All of that has been in preparation for Ricky getting here and changing it based on things that he hears and has in mind in the first place. I think we’re much further along with all that than we were two years ago.”
THE MAKANDA PROJECT FEATURING RICKY FORD
With Askia Touré. At the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library, 149 Dudley St., May 14 at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Free, reservations recommended. To reserve seats (available for 8:30 show only), email email@example.com.
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.