The music world has always had more than its share of performers who died much too soon, in some cases making their mark in a big way but still leaving their fans wondering what might have been. In many cases drugs or drinking have played a part, but for some it was just having the bad luck to experience accidents or ill health. That was the case with jazz saxophonist Booker Ervin, whose strong, distinctive sound was silenced in 1970 when he died of natural causes at just age 39.
A Texas native, Booker Telleferro Ervin II was musically inclined while growing up, but his first instrument was a trombone. (Probably because his father had played it professionally with Buddy Tate’s band.) It was during his military service in the early 1950s that he decided to teach himself to play the tenor saxophone, and he completed his plan by then moving to Boston and spending a couple of additional years studying, all to prepare for a musical career.
After moving back West and gaining professional experience by working with Ernie Fields’ group, Ervin relocated to New York and struck gold by performing alongside star bassist Charles Mingus and alto sax master Eric Dolphy in some well-regarded recording sessions. It was the beginning of a period of a decade or more during which he would often work with the pair and other stars, while also leading his own group from time to time.
Throughout the 1960s Ervin spun out a number of records that were much appreciated by jazz fans then and now, but as the decade wound down his health began to deteriorate. Kidney disease proved to be too much for him to overcome and he died in New York in 1970.