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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.


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