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Arthur Blythe, 1940-2017: A Remembrance

Todd S. Jenkins By

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The emotive power of Arthur Blythe's bracing alto saxophone tone and flighty phrasing set him apart from many of his generation. A poet, a muezzin, an angry activist, a lamenting lover: Blythe conjured a broad array of sonic images through his nonpareil approach to music. The beloved altoist, who had battled Parkinson's disease for the past several years, passed away on March 27, 2017 at the age of 76.

Blythe's musical cohorts and fans remember him with deep emotion and respect. As drummer Dougie Bowne recalls: "I saw Arthur Blythe (at the Tin Palace) a bunch, maybe it was three or four times, but it seems like a million, it was so important to me—intense and passionate and intelligent, his robust vibrato shaking off the tin ceiling that the joint was named for... meant the world to me, hearing these guys just then, traveling back and forth between the worlds... I never got to meet the man himself, and that saddens me now. I would like to have told him how important his music was to me, and still is, but I'd want to tell him about the walk from CB's (rock club CBGB) to the Tin Palace, that short, almost a block walk, and tell him how much his shit meant to me. I like to think he'd understand the real distance that the walk described, and I'd also like to think I'd be able to say thank you for being the destination, so often, and so fully."

Born in Los Angeles, Blythe moved to San Diego as a young boy and began playing the saxophone when he was nine. He found work in R&B bands as a teenager but fell in love with jazz before he finished high school.

Back in L.A., Blythe fell in with the circle surrounding pianist/composer Horace Tapscott, whose innovative collective—dubbed the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA)—included Stanley Crouch, David Murray, Jimmy Woods, and brothers Butch and Wilber Morris. A true collective, UGMAA engaged the African-American community on a grassroots level, even presenting a series of seminars at UC Riverside that focused on each group member's life and approach to music. Here Blythe began exploring sonic possibilities on the outer edges of jazz conception while touching upon the full spectrum of African-American musical experience. Tapscott's 1969 album, The Giant is Awakening (Flying Dutchman) marked Blythe's recording debut.

Writer Willard Jenkins: "I presented him very early on in my concert presenting years, in the early '80s with a Northeast Ohio Jazz Society presentation at Cleveland State University. My earliest encounters with Arthur Blythe's unforgettable sound on the alto came during his time with Horace Tapscott's big band, back when Arthur was billed as Black Arthur. I also fondly recall seeing him do alto battle on one of George Wein's festivals alongside Phil Woods and Paquito D'Rivera at Town Hall. Long live the singular sound of Arthur Blythe!"

A few years later, Blythe headed for New York where he hoped to find new inspirations and opportunities. He was eventually hired by drummer Chico Hamilton, with whom he spent two fruitful years (Peregrination, Blue Note, 1975). Further exposure came with the Gil Evans Orchestra, where Blythe often played alongside equally forceful altoist David Sanborn. There Blythe made the acquaintance of tubaist Bob Stewart, who became a longtime collaborator.

After spending time with Lester Bowie, McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, and Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition (whose self-titled debut contained some of the altoist's most outwardly aimed playing), Blythe set out on his own with a recording contract for India Navigation. By this time Blythe had developed some signature flares in his sound, including human-like wails and nearly overblown lines of tremendous power. His pinpoint mastery of the horn was astonishing at times; he fiercely tore at the edges of tone and volume through vibrato, smears, and squeals while ever maintaining control.

His first album as a leader, 1977's The Grip, teamed him with Stewart, cellist Abdul Wadud, drummer Steve Reid, and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. The disc's level of energy and pure creativity served notice to a jazz world that was awash in fusion, disco, and retro traditionalism. That same year, Blythe joined the group Synthesis with David Murray and trumpeter Olu Dara.

Saxophonist/bandleader Russ Gershon: "I remember a night of solos and duets he made with Olu Dara at the Brook loft in NYC in about 1978... I was at the Brook, having paid my eight dollars, sitting cross legged on the floor among about ten other audience members, listening to Arthur do his solo set. Suddenly, in the summer heat, the power went out and Manhattan assumed the peculiarly edgy but tranquil feeling it takes on during blackouts. The oppressive, amplified music and car noises that had been drifting through the open windows of this non-air conditioned venue evaporated into silence. The streets and the loft itself went dark, hazy moonlight casting faint shadows. The intimacy of the performance space deepened. After 39 years what I remember most was Arthur playing on in the dark, undeterred by the lack of electricity, the absence of a rhythm section and the likelihood of scant pay, swinging ferociously, his human voice pouring out of the windows, now the strongest and brightest sound in the New York night."

Drummer Ronnie Burrage: "Arthur Blythe was a musician's musician. His sound and soul would resonate so deep in my spirit, he made me smile no matter what the music is we were playing and made everything more beautiful! When I had any opportunity to hear Arthur play I made sure to be there just to get that magic he made. His notes were so pure and soared to the heavens. When Arthur asked me to play with him on occasion it was a dream; he was open, he was experimental, he was incredibly soulful and the music always expanding... I believe what always stayed with me was the fact that Arthur was present in the clubs supporting my efforts as a band leader, and he gave me so much joy in being able to play with such a master of his instrument... The sound Arthur produced took me somewhere mystifying."

Surprising the industry, in 1978 Blythe landed a recording contract with Columbia Records, a label not exactly known for its willingness to reach out into free jazz. A long string of phenomenally executed, well-received albums followed: In the Tradition, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, Illusions, Blythe Spirit, Elaborations, and the stellar Monk tribute Light Blue, which completely changed this writer's perception of where jazz could still go. His Columbia run lasted until 1987, when the label shifted its attention to promoting Wynton Marsalis and a more traditional bent of jazz.

Guitarist Kelvyn Bell, a key part of Blythe's electrifying 1980s quintet: "His playing and compositions explored the boundaries of what he called 'Expression...' He was able to bridge the gap between avant-garde and tradition African American music while bringing a new language to the continuum."

In 1986 Blythe became part of the supergroup The Leaders alongside Don Cherry, Chico Freeman, Don Pullen, Cecil McBee, and Famoudou Don Moye. From 1990 to 1992 Blythe was in the World Saxophone Quartet, where he had replaced Julius Hemphill; he recorded two albums with the WSQ. Blythe also enjoyed a stint in Roots, another all-star affair with Freeman, Pullen, Sam Rivers, and Nathan Davis.

Mallet artist Gust William Tsilis: "I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur in 1986. He was a resident in our building at 860 Riverside Drive, New York, NY. It took some time to get close to him, but after that he was the best friend anyone could hope for. His loyalty, compassion, dignity and the natural ability to be honest and forthright were always impressive to me. Most of the people who got to spend time with him knew he was a man of few words, but whenever he spoke he meant all he said. I knew Arthur for 31 years, and in that time I never heard him cast a disparaging remark to the universide. He transcended the negative and always embraced love and respect."

"He was a man of high intelligence and a proud man who did not look down upon others. He once told me there was a saying he had heard which was attributed to John Coltrane, and he practiced it daily: 'The only time I look down upon another is to stop and help them up.' All of us who had the great fortune to be in Arthur's presence benefited from his sweet soul and philosophical musicality... Arty, or "The Buddha" as many of his longtime friends called him, was a true gentleman with a pure heart, in spite of all the tough times he endured from this difficult world."

Blythe remained in demand as a sideman, taking part in unusual projects with Gust William Tsilis (Pale Fire, 1987); cellist David Eyges (Synergy, 1997); drummers Gerry Gibbs (First Visit, 2000) and Joey Baron (Down Home, 1997); and guitarist James Blood Ulmer's Music Revelation Ensemble (In the Name Of..., 1994).

From 2000 to 2003, Blythe cut a series of exceptional discs for the Savant label, including Hicks, Stewart, and drummer Cecil Brooks III. His last recording before his illness took him off the scene was Ace (2004), with David Eyges and drummer Abe Speller.

Writer W. Royal Stokes: "I last caught Arthur Blythe at D.C.'s The Caverns, c. 2000 with cellist David Eyges. He had made a rare visit to the East from California. We had a nice chat between sets. He was not only an extraordinary musical artist, he was a most simpatico individual and warm person. He will be missed by all who knew him and by the many who experienced his art."
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