Sam Rivers: A Giant Among Us
AAJ: I'd like to hear about your early days in Boston.
SR: Well, I went with my brother Martin, because he was stationed there. He was playing bass in the Navy Band at that time, and so I moved there with him.
AAJ: Did you have a group together that played gigs?
SR: Yeah sure, we had a couple of groups. After he came out the Navy, we played together at clubs and went to school at the same time. Martin went to the New England Conservatory, and I went to the Boston Conservatory. We were playing with other musicians from Boston, like Jaki Byard and Charlie Mariano and Quincy Jones, as well as musicians who were studying at our schools.
AAJ: How did you meet Jaki Byard?
[Editor's note: Pianist Byard was fatally shot by a burglar in his home on Feb. 11, 1999]
SR: The usual way you would meet musicians in those daysat a jam session. Gigi Gryce was there too, at this session in Boston. Then later, we all rented a whole house together, where we lived while going to school. My brother lived there, along with Gigi, Jaki, myself and several other musicians.
AAJ: Didn't you meet your wife Bea around that time?
SR: Yeah (laughs), she was living next door! That was on Rutland Square, in Boston. We were a group of noisy musicians, and she was living next door with her family. We got married a couple of years after that.
AAJ: Were there a lot of jazz clubs in Boston in the late '40s and early '50s?
SR: Sure, there were quite a few clubs around back then. There were two up on Columbus and Mass. There was the High Hat Club and Wally's. In fact, Wally's is still there today. I'd say there was easily eight or nine jazz clubs, and Boston wasn't really that large of a city in those days. I played with the Jimmy Martin Big Band in several of those clubs. Jaki Byard did most of the arranging for that band, so that's how I got involved with Martin's group. Then, beginning in the early '60s, I played with my own smaller group at this coffeehouse on Harvard Square. It was me, Hal Galper on piano and the young Tony Williams on drums. We played there every weekend for years. It was more like a folk club than a coffeehouse. Joan Baez got started there, as did Judy Collins. We was all there together at the same time.
AAJ: Tony Williams was pretty young when he was playing with you then, right?
SR: Thirteen years old. He was a very mature player at that time, even at the age of thirteen. Tony didn't like to play slow tunes, and I was one of the few horn players on the scene that could keep up with him. My technique was strong enough that he didn't overpower me like he did other musicians on the scene. We worked well together.
AAJ: Through Tony, you hooked up with Miles Davis?
SR: Right, sure. After he moved from Boston to New York, Tony landed a job in Miles' band. Tony had these tapes of some sessions that my group had made in Boston, and so he played them for Miles. And Miles said, "Yeah ... call him up." I was on the road with T. Bone Walker's band at that time, when Miles hired me. So I had to leave T. Bone Walker's group to join Miles' band. It was in 1964. After some rehearsal, we packed things up and went to Japan on an extended tour. Miles was kind of sick at the time, and was playing pretty straight ahead. I know this sounds funny, but I was already ahead of that sound. I was stretching out, you know, and taking long improvised solos.
AAJ: So when did you decide to move to New York?
SR: Well, I'd already gone there in 1961 to record a record with Tadd Dameron, and I knew lots of musicians who were playing on the scene. By the late '60s, I needed to move to the city because I wanted to perform my own compositions, for big band and smaller groups. I had a lot of compositions for big bands, and there were a lot of great, qualified musicians living there, but they weren't as busy as cats from Boston. So the musicians were more available in New York than in Boston.
AAJ: Where did you live in New York?
SR: Bea and I moved to Harlem, to 124 Street near Lenoxright down the street from the park. We had two apartments up on the top floor of a house, and they both had six rooms. Basically, we had the whole top floor. But we couldn't really have a studio there; I couldn't get the space I needed.
AAJ:So that's why you opened Rivbea studios downtown?
SR: Yeah, 'cause downtown, there was a lot of space ... especially on the Lower East Side. I moved the family down there, to 24 Bond Street, in SoHo, and started playing with the Cecil Taylor Quartet.
MM: How did you hook up with him [Taylor]?
SR: Hell [laughs], I just met him on the street! I just told him, "You know, man, I enjoy your music and I admire your playing and I'd like to come and jam with you." And he said, "OK." That's the same I did with Dizzy! You know, one Christmas, I called up Diz to wish him a merry Christmas, and we talked a little bit, and I told him, "I'd like to join your group." And he said, "Alright then, what's your number?" [laughs] That's it, you know?