Tenor saxophonist Booker T. Ervin, Jr., was born in Denison, Texas, on October 31, 1930. His father played trombone with Buddy Tate and taught Booker the instrument at an early age. After finishing high school Booker joined the United States Air Force and was stationed in Okinawa, where he learned to play the tenor sax. When his service was completed in 1953 he enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he learned the essentials of music theory. The following year he moved to Tulsa and joined fellow Texan Ernie Fields.
Though Fields's band was primarily a rhythm-and-blues outfit, Ervin's playing became more refined, and he developed a sense of self-confidence that in 1958 led him to New York City, where he became highly regarded in local jazz circles. Shortly after his arrival he met jazz legend Charles Mingus, who was impressed with his style. Ervin joined the Mingus Jazz Workshop, and this creative association led to a string of recordings, including the 1959 masterpiece Mingus Ah-Um. Mingus was demanding and at times dictatorial, but he nurtured creativity and encouraged his musicians to improvise. Ervin soon developed a reputation as one of New York's finest young sax players. His playing could be explosive, yet his sensitive touch was powerful. Though he continued playing with Mingus through the 1960s, Ervin also recorded several solo albums for Prestige Records, including The Blues Book, The Space Book, The Freedom Book, and The Song Book. He died of kidney disease on August 31, 1970, in New York City and was buried in Long Island National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Jane Wilkie Ervin; a son, Booker; and a daughter, Lynn.