Ron Holloway: Funksgiving at The Hamilton Live
Words By Dan Rozman
Photos by Mark Raker
Ron Holloway has established himself as one of today’s most in-demand tenor saxophonists across multiple genres. Renowned jazz critic Ira Gitler has described Holloway’s versatile playing style as both “hard-bop” jazz and smooth R&B ballads “with warm, blue feeling.” Holloway strives to push the limits of the tenor saxophone’s range using special fingering techniques, demonstrating extraordinary control across nearly five octaves. His passion and dynamic style create an exciting and signature sound.
Holloway is a saxophone legend in the DC area jazz and funk scene. He has received over 40 Washington Area Music Awards, including two for Musician of the Year. Holloway aims to honor the tenor saxophone’s illustrious history in his playing. As Ron puts it, “There’s much to be done!” And indeed he is busy doing it.
Holloway toured extensively with blues rocker Warren Haynes’ band; he has frequently collaborated on stage and in the studio with groups like Gov’t Mule, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Allman Brothers Band, and Little Feat. Over his prolific career, he has been a member of diverse acts including his time playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Scott-Heron, DC funk band Osiris, and Memphis-style boogie rock/blues band Root Boy Slim.
In addition to his many guest appearances, since 2014, Holloway has focused on the high-energy, sax-fueled Ron Holloway Band. Their live shows have been packing venues as fans connect with Holloway’s funky, soulful jams.
On Nov. 24, Ron Holloway performs for his second annual Funksgiving show at The Hamilton Live in downtown DC. This concert brings together Holloway’s world-class band and Gordon Sterling & The People to give thanks and get down. It’s becoming a beloved tradition for DC music fans. As Ron Holloway takes the stage at The Hamilton Live this Funksgiving, the audience can expect a musical celebration showcasing his remarkable career.
The show is billed as “’A Major Groove Happenin’ at the Hamilton!!! On FRIDAY, November 24th, after gobblin’ down all that Thanksgiving Turkey, join us for: FUNKSGIVING Gordon Sterling & The People + Ron Holloway Band!!! We’ll help you burn off all that excess poundage, ’cause you AIN’T gonna be able to stand there, motionless!!!”
Parklife DC’s Dan Rozman had the good fortune to speak with Ron about his career, collaborations, and the Funksgiving show.
Certain aspects of the research and/or drafting for this piece may have employed AI.
Dan Rozman: Please share with our readers a little bit about your musical background, and how you got started playing the saxophone.
Ron Holloway: Wow, you want to go back to the beginning. I was 13 years old, and just entering Carter G Woodson Junior High School in Washington, DC. All students were instructed to go to the auditorium for orientation where the music teacher said “Kiddies, he called us Kiddies, we don’t have enough students to form a school band this year. So come up to the band room at 8 am tomorrow, and we’ll figure out what instrument you will be playing. I was into science, not music but my friends convinced me to go. The teacher pulled out three instrument cases. We have a French horn, a clarinet, and an alto saxophone. Since my mom and dad loved the saxophone, that is what I picked. And the other two guys, almost in unison went Oh, man. Because you know, at that age, all of us were listening to James Brown. After about 3 months my teacher switched me from Alto to Tenor Sax. And sure enough, every day I would carry the instrument home and I would practice for about three hours after school and then have dinner. I quickly fell in love with the tenor saxophone. Since 1966, I have probably never really gone over a week without playing my horn.
DR: That’s a huge commitment but since you love what you do it doesn’t look like work to the audience.
RH: To me, it’s not work at all. I tell people that the last time I had what I would call a job was back in 1975. That was the last time I worked a day job. Once I experienced that feeling of playing my saxophone with other people, I was hooked and I didn’t want to put the instrument down.
DR: We have seen you a number of times with your own band but many more playing with others. How did you become the “special guest” to so many bands?
RH: As a teenager playing the saxophone, I eventually started playing jazz R&B, and soul music in public. On nights when I really felt the urge to play. I looked at a local music paper, The Unicorn Times, and various other sources to figure out who was playing where. There were times when I couldn’t sit in with a jazz band or a rhythm and blues band, and because I really wanted to play I would sit in with a country or a reggae band. That was good training, it was on-the-job training, I had to figure out how to play my instrument in that setting and blend in. So that’s been an obsession of mine. For many decades now, I have tried to fit the saxophone into any scenario.
DR: When did you form The Ron Holloway Band?
RH: It must have been about eight or nine years ago that we formed this version of the band. Jenny Langer was one of the first people in the band. At that time I had been sitting in with her band, Moonshine Society, and I approached her and asked, “Would you be interested in playing some clubs and some festivals?“ and we played at the Mad Tea Party and Peach Music Festival. Like many people I play with, Jenny is someone who loves music and is always striving to improve her craft. But it’s not just a craft with us, it’s more like a mission.
DR: How did you come to be signed by Warner Brothers two times with two different bands? Ron Holloway: Root Boy Slim had one record produced by Warner Brothers. They weren’t sure how to advertise him so they dropped the band after only one album. While playing with Root Boy Slim I was also practicing with Osiris. They were one of the funkiest bands that’s ever come out of DC and we also signed to Warner Brothers. So I ended up on Warner Brothers twice with two different bands.
Stream This Is Ron Holloway, a playlist, on Spotify:
DR: What did you do after Root Boy and Osiris?
RH: In December 1981. I started rehearsing with Gil Scott Heron’s band and in February of 82, we did our first gig at the Bottom Line in New York. That night Diana Ross was in the audience with various other musical celebrities. After the show, Diana Ross came backstage, looked at me, and said, “Hey, I liked your playing. You really know what you’re doing on that thing”. That was my experience the first time I ever played in New York. But being in the music business is a roller coaster. You know, it’s like ups and downs constantly.
There was a period of time there in the early 2000s when I traveled around with the Allman Brothers Band and they didn’t have room for me on the band bus. So I wound up traveling with Greg Allman on his bus. That was quite an experience.
I’ve been in some unique positions because of my involvement with music. I’ve been in Russia playing for four or four different times. I played London more times than I can remember and it was always great. It’s been quite an interesting experience, this music.
DR: Do you ever sightsee when you travel for shows?
RH: Yes, I probably wouldn’t do it so much now because I’m older. But when I was a younger guy I used to like walking around the city, maybe three or four hours before we played. I used the opportunity of being out of town to keep physically active. So being on the road was beneficial for me because that’s where I lost weight.
DR: We talked about some of the historical stories and the rollercoaster side of the music business. What do we expect in 2024 that might be new for you, and what do you have to do that’s new to keep it fresh for you?
RH: Well, it’s always fresh, even when I’m playing with the same bands because if you’re serious about music, you’re always trying to evolve. I mean, on some level, it’s always new. I’m sure I’d be doing some of the same things I’d be playing with my band and I certainly hope that I’ll continue to play various projects with Warren Haynes and I plan to be playing with Melvin Seals. I don’t know what else might pop up, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s great.
DR: How does it affect the band in a ‘listening club” when you can’t as easily see the energy of the audience?
RH: We can still tell when people are enthusiastic even when they don’t have a dance floor. We don’t need them to be dancing to feel the energy. It is still possible to feel their enthusiasm. For Funksgiving, The Hamilton has got the whole package, great acoustics, good food, and a palace upfront for people to dance.
DR: Let’s talk a little bit about Funksgiving.
RH: I was surprised the first time it materialized because I never even thought about Funksgiving. Somebody proposed the idea to me and I said why not? It must have gone well because The Hamilton Live asked us to do it again. It is a luxurious club. Like many musicians, we are quite fond of playing at The Hamilton. Funksgiving 2023 will have the same group as last year, Gordon Sterling & The People and The Ron Holloway Band. We have played together a number of times and it is always a fun show.
Be sure to follow Ron Holloway and get your tickets here for Funksgiving 2023 at The Hamilton Live.
Ron Holloway Band
Gordon Sterling & The People
The Hamilton Live
Friday, Nov. 24
Doors @ 6:30pm
Here are some photos of recent performances by Ron Holloway. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Mark Raker.
Ron Holloway in 2017
Ron Holloway in 2018
Ron Holloway in 2020
Ron Holloway in 2022
Ron Holloway in 2023