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Robin Kenyatta

Robin Kenyatta - alto and tenor sax, flute

In the 1960s and 1970s, Robin Kenyatta was one of the more original players in the new sound of jazz. Unafraid to put his alto sax through unexpected twists, Kenyatta became famous for his free jazz performances. During a career spanning four decades, he released 12 albums and appeared on dozens more. He held his own against the greatest jazz men of the twentieth century and, according to All About Jazz, is remembered as “one of THE altoists of the '60s.”

Born Robert Prince Haynes on March 6, 1942, in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Kenyatta was the third child of Thomas and Rebecca Haynes. The family, including older siblings Doris and Thomas, moved to New York City when Kenyatta was four. There, a neighbor played the saxophone. For years Kenyatta listened to him practice through the walls. He fell in love with the sound and, at the age of 14, got his hands on his first instrument an alto sax. He joined the school marching band, but as the instructor was focused on trumpets, Kenyatta learned mostly on his own. Eventually he met professional musicians who helped him along, including John Handy, a saxophonist who had played with Charles Mingus. Though alto sax would become his specialty, Kenyatta also learned tenor sax, soprano sax, and flute.

After graduating from high school, Kenyatta spent two years nurturing his craft. He learned how to write music and began composing. At the age of 19, he landed his first professional gig. In 1962 Kenyatta joined the U.S. Army and served two years in a military band. Upon his return to New York, he changed his name to Robin Kenyatta in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan nationalist leader, and begun to pursue a career as a professional musician.

Jazz during the early 1960s was in a heyday. Legends like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk were recording and gigging. Jazz sounds were as diverse as ragtime, swing, be-bop, and big band. In New York at the time, a style called free jazz was emerging. It was characterized by playing that broke the traditional rules of melody. Solos were sporadic, independent, and often mind-bendingly chaotic. Top free jazz players at the time included Coltrane, Bill Dixon, and Ornette Coleman.

Kenyatta was coming into his own as a musician during this era and he became known for his own experimentation on the sax. The Boston Herald noted that Kenyatta was considered “a fearless reedman willing to try his hand at any style, the edgier the better.”

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