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.”
The seeds for Bluiett’s most famous association, the World Saxophone Quartet, were laid in 1974-75, following a record date with Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, and Hemphill [New York, Fall 1974, Arista]. As Bluiett puts it, “Ed [Kidd] Jordan came from New Orleans to do a sabbatical, and by that time the loft scene had started in New York. He heard us and said, ‘why don’t you come down to New Orleans and play?’ He asked me and Oliver and David Murray. But in terms of starting that group, Kidd asked us to come down and we played with a guy named London Branch on bass, Alvin Fielder was on drums, and the concert was a total success. Wynton and Branford Marsalis were there as young kids. After we were through, Alvin Batiste told me that Branford came up to him and said, ‘we don’t want to play like that; we want to play changes. Show us the changes.’ They took a different direction, but also the Dirty Dozen Brass Band started, and a lot of bands started after they heard us because they wanted to do something different. We called ourselves the New York Saxophone Quartet, and when we got back to New York, we found out there was another group by that name, so we started calling ourselves the Real New York Saxophone Quartet.” Of course, that didn’t stick long, and the World Saxophone Quartet was born.
Bluiett’s mission, however, is something separate from his associations, however much they figure into the elevation and evolution of the baritone. One of the most important factors, other I mean a real legitimate hit, and when that happens, the horn will be all over. Everybody will want than a technique that extends the language of the horn, is the paucity of compositions written with the baritone in mind. Bluiett is trying to change that, however: “Duke Ellington was one of the best writers for baritone, and he wrote Harry Carney into the melody. I’d take the melody and listen to it, and say ‘whoa, Harry Carney always has the melody!’ You listen to tunes like “Sophisticated Lady”, and those are the tunes that the baritone can excel on because it’s written for the instrument. What we need are some hits on baritone, like “Body and Soul” was a hit [for the tenor]. to play it, and that’s what I’ve been working on lately, just trying to do something that will propel the music forward.” He has over 150 compositions registered at this point, and it doesn’t look like the pace will be slowing any time soon.
For Bluiett, far and above bringing his horn to the fore is the importance of making music that, like all good music, “goes up in you.” The true mission of every creative musician is summed up by this concert experience: “I played with the Barbeque Band and we had a couple of people at the concert that they had wheeled in on wheelchairs and set right beside the stage. The concert was out of sight, and when we got through with it, we did a Marvin Gaye tune. I asked Donald Harrison ‘do you know “What’s Goin’ On”’ and he said yes, and when we got through it, he said ‘people in the audience were singing with me while I was playing.’ They gave me the solo, and I went crazy. People were just screamin’, and it was a total success; it was outdoors in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. When we got through playing, this guy in a wheelchair grabbed me and said, ‘young man, come here. I’ve been in this wheelchair a long time; I’ve been in it so long it used to frustrate me. But I finally made up my mind I would be in here for the rest of my life and I was satisfied with it. Man, when you started playing, I wanted to dance.’ Tears came to my eyes, it was one of my biggest compliments. I said ‘man, thank you,’ and cried because I didn’t ask him; that’s what he came and told me.” It can safely be said that Bluiett has infused both his horn and the music with the creative spirit it needs.