When one thinks of great baritone saxophonists, the list is relatively short: Harry Carney, Serge Chaloff, John Surman and Hamiet Bluiett are the names that come most quickly to mind. Compared to the vast number of tenor and alto players, or even the throngs of soprano-doublers, the baritone is a criminally underrepresented horn. Part of this is that it was often a bottom-end instrument in large orchestras, often relegated to a supporting role: there are far more Bruce Grants than Harry Carneys in the instrument’s history. But as it became visible in the ‘70s, St. Louis-born baritonist Hamiet Bluiett set out to change all that, and he has in many ways succeeded in this project.
Born in 1940 on the outskirts of St. Louis (Brooklyn/Lovejoy, Ill.), Bluiett came from a musical family. His aunt, a music teacher and church pianist, attempted to teach him piano, “I started out at about four or five, and when the hands went two different directions I quit.” In grade school, Bluiett switched to trumpet as a result of his misinformed peers: “I told the other kids I wanted to play an instrument that was shaped like a saxophone, and they told me that was the trumpet.” After that didn’t work out, he switched to clarinet, finally picking up a baritone in his early college years in Carbondale, Ill. Bluiett joined the Navy at age 19 and played in Navy bands, finally moving back to St. Louis in the early ‘60s. The first band he played with in the area was Leo’s Five (with Eddie Fisher), and not long after he met altoist Julius Hemphill: “Nobody liked the way he played but me. I heard something in him that reminded me of Ornette.” Unlike others who lambasted the new directions in jazz during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bluiett embraced it with open arms: “When I first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy play, I might have been five, six, seven years old, and it sounded to me like two dogs barking. That’s the only impression I had of it. Then when I finally heard Ornette, it sounded like two dogs barking again, so I knew that it was great, because Bird and Dizzy were great. I don’t understand it and I don’t have to understand it, because I hear those dogs barking.”
Bluiett and Hemphill started the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) shortly thereafter, recruiting drummer (Charles) Bobo Shaw, trombonist Joseph Bowie and trumpeter Floyd Leflore among others. Though the BAG is often compared with Chicago’s AACM, in truth they could not have been more different: “It was a multimedia organization, and I had never heard of multimedia or interdisciplinary stuff then. There were poets, filmmakers, theatre, dancers, and Emilio Cruz, one of our greatest painters, he was also involved very heavily. So this is the kind of organization we had, and I don’t think there was another multimedia organization like that...[the AACM] worked with other people, but they didn’t put them all inside of one group; that was the difference. [The actors] would put on plays and we would improvise. You name it, we did it.”
But in 1969, Bluiett left St. Louis for New York, propelled by a desire to play the music he heard with other like-minded individuals. Shortly after arriving in the city, Bluiett began playing with Sam Rivers and saxophonist Gilton Callins, who introduced him to African drummer Olatunji: “That was my first time working with African drums, and the music went up in me and I could play with African drums. When they make the changes, a lot of people only hear ‘boom-boom-boom-boom’, but I hear music in it.” Bluiett was prepared for a wide variety of playing scenarios, as he cut his teeth on a variety of musical settings back in St. Louis as a way to truly understand the baritone horn: “The way I used to work, I would go to a job where the guy wanted a tenor. I would just go sit in. Somebody wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, and I would say ‘let me play,’ and they’d say ‘no, we need a tenor.’ Then I would take the parts and play them like a tenor and then drop down into baritone and the cats would say ‘damn, you got the tenor sound and I’ve got a big band! OK, we’ll hire you.’ And then after I’d leave, they’d say ‘no, we’re not going to do that anymore because we can’t find a replacement.’ I played in the Gateway Symphony Orchestra, concert wind ensembles, hillbilly bands, blues bands, everything you could think of.”