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Sam Rivers: A Giant Among Us

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You know, sometimes musicians want to hire you but assume that you're too busy with your own music. How would they know? I don't wait for them to ask me, I ask them!
[Originally published in the South Carolina Free Times in February 2002]

It's been said that jazz is dead.

Scores of notable jazz critics have made the claim that jazz, an art form that relies heavily upon change and improvisation, must continue to progress if it is to live and prosper. If the music cannot "constantly reinvent itself," as Ed Bland argues in his 1958 film The Cry of Jazz, then "it will die." Even Wynton Marsalis, the most public spokesman for jazz in the last two decades, has said, "there is no old jazz ... jazz is a new music."



Ideally, this means that jazz is spontaneous, ever-changing and ever-evolving. But unfortunately, many jazz artists are content to play the same old riffs within the same old standards, therefore making derivative performances easier to find than original and creative ones.



It is becoming more and more apparent that the newest musicians on the block are doing little to innovate the jazz art form. And so it follows that with the passing of each jazz legend—Art Blakey in 1990, Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra in 1993, Milt Jackson and Horace Tapscott in 1999, John Lewis in 2001—jazz seems one step closer to its inevitable death. Even if you believe that the up-and-coming "young lions" of jazz can one day fill the shoes of the passing legends, it's hard to imagine them taking the giant steps their fathers did.



Fortunately, one of the fathers is still walking among us. Sam Rivers, the legendary multi-instrumentalist, continues to perform and record music that refuses to take anything less than giant steps. His composition, sound and technique have developed exponentially since the day he first picked up a horn in 1937.



Born in 1923 in El Reno, Okla., Rivers was immersed in music at an early age. His grandfather, Marshall Taylor, published a collection of African-American spirituals in 1882. Both his mother and father performed gospel music in the well-known Silvertone Quartet, a group that began at Fisk University. By the age of 5, Rivers was already playing piano and viola, and when the family moved to Chicago in 1930, he quickly absorbed the jazz on the radio. After his father died in 1937, his mother moved the family to Little Rock, Ark., where she taught music at Shorter College. During this time, Rivers taught himself to play trombone and saxophone.



Rivers went on to study at Jarvis Christian College in Texas. After a short stint in the Navy, he entered the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1947 and studied there until 1952. It was during this time that he began performing with area musicians like Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, Ken McIntyre and Jaki Byard. He would eventually land a gig with Herb Pomeroy, one of Charlie Parker's sidemen and an extremely popular figure in the Northeast. For more than 10 years, Rivers performed in and around Boston. In 1964, he was invited to perform with the Miles Davis Quintet, through his association with drummer Tony Williams.



After working with the Miles Davis Quintet, Rivers appeared on Williams' Blue Note LP Spring, a recording made in 1965 that would help land him his own recording contract with the prestigious Blue Note label. He recorded three records under his name for Blue Note, as well as appearing on numerous other Blue Note recordings. He moved his family to New York City in 1968, and in 1969 he toured Europe with the Cecil Taylor Quartet.



During the 1970s, Rivers recorded and performed regularly. With his wife and business partner, Bea, he helped establish the "New York loft scene"—a term that defined the move away from clubs in the early '70s. The loft scene favored the artists' comfortable studios to the sterile environment of ritzy clubs or recording studios. During this time, many of Rivers' recordings were made in his loft and in other spaces created by artists on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition, he began recording for ABC/Impulse Records in 1973, a company that would distribute his music throughout the world. Almost every recording made by Rivers during the 1970s demonstrates his ability to play in both improvised and traditional modes of jazz.



By the mid 1980s, Rivers was reaching a point in his music that many of his contemporaries never reached. After 30 years of performing, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to join all three of Gillespie's performing groups, including the United Nations Orchestra.



For the past decade, Rivers has been living and making music outside of Orlando, Fla. The rhythm section of Rivers' current trio is made up of bassist/bass clarinetist Doug Mathews and drummer/pianist/ tenor saxophonist Anthony Cole. These accomplished young Florida musicians fully embrace Rivers' flexibility and have a keen, intuitive understanding of their leader's music. Currently touring the Southeast, the trio has completed more than two dozens tours and appeared on more than half a dozen recordings.



I recently spoke with Rivers about his tour, his history and his ideas on the music that he's been reinventing for the past 55 years.



All About Jazz: So how's the tour coming along?



Sam Rivers: It's been great so far. We started in Kentucky and have a few shows before we'll head over to the Carolinas; North Carolina and then South Carolina. After this tour of the Southeast, I'll do a few shows in the Northeast ... New York, Boston.


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