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Roswell Rudd: The Musical Magus Turns 75

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Roswell Rudd and The Jazz Composers Orchestra playing Numatik Swing Band (JCOA, 1973), a suite of majestic compositions commissioned from Rudd in 1973 became my baptism by the trombonist and left such a profound impact on heart and soul that it echoes in my mind's ear. Four decades on, the profundity of the music—its aching melodies and sophisticated harmonies—is what truly classic music is all about... scintillating, enduring and utterly memorable. I told him that, when we spoke about a year ago, as I was preparing to honor him when he turned 75. But he was being characteristically modest. In actual fact there is much more that he gave the world of contemporary music. I discovered that when I looked deeper into his masterly repertoire that I first heard when I bought a copy of saxophonist Archie Shepp's Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966), that same year.

Shepp had, in that one seminal album, almost singlehandedly created a snapshot of African-American history. In its title track, for instance, the composer created one of the most sterling tributes to the central familial figure in society, deconstructing the socio-political setting in which generations of African-American youth grew up, keeping the culture alive. In doing so, Shepp deconstructed the blues with the burbling flow of his glorious tenor saxophone. Rudd played counterpoint when he was called to do so. But what he also did, when he punctuated his visceral playing with almost vocal shouts and guttural smears, was to create a primordial cry of the human being tortured, yet emerging triumphant from his endeavors; an artist who reached—body and soul—for the seemingly unreachable... falling, getting up, falling again and again, until finally reaching out and grabbing at life's Holy Grail. Rudd was already a part of the great revival of contemporary American music. A torchbearer alongside Shepp and Grachan Moncur III, Charlie Haden and Beaver Harris, and every other musician whose spirit the musicians on that record were keeping alive.

It is easy to think of an artist in the vanguard of musical revolution as being rambunctious, sometimes wayward, overly sentimental and even lost at times. But not Roswell Rudd. A premier composer and instrumentalist throughout his long and stellar career, Rudd has always had an acute sense of his place in the history of American music. Completely cognizant of its European, African and American folk roots, he has emerged over time steadily like a verdant outgrowth of music's enormous tree of life. He seems to have enjoyed the flowering of ragtime, Dixieland and swing and making this rewarding period of musical development an inherent part of his compositions... Although Rudd may seem to have missed the bebop era altogether—something that the ever-present Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson did—he (Rudd) did forge an alliance with the music of one of its great pioneers, Thelonious Monk. In addition, Rudd actually played on several occasions, but sadly never recorded, with the other great composer and pianist of that—or any other—period in time, Herbie Nichols. The association may have resulted in Rudd reaching terminal velocity as a writer. He and an old friend, Steve Lacy, together began to revive the music of those two pioneering pianists (until Lacy's untimely death in 2004) in some of the greatest repertory music ever made, with several bands, over the years.

However, almost unacknowledged even by the cognoscenti, Roswell Rudd had been clearing a path in history all his own. It was only understandable as Rudd had, in every sense of the word, been in the centre of contemporary American music from the first few decades of the 20th Century itself. His music has disregarded the obvious differences in geography and genre, and traversed generations from the early days of Dixieland until today. The reason is that Rudd has—almost alone—been a sublime melodic alchemist, singing with "mammalian" grandeur of the tragedy and ultimate triumph of human endeavor.

In the beginning, Rudd was merely an observer, a keen one, no doubt, in the history that surrounded him. He grew up in a home filled with music. His father was a drummer and his mother taught remedial speech therapy and championed opera, especially Gilbert and Sullivan. When not listening to jazz, the popular music of the day on the radio, Rudd took in performances by the stride pianists. He remembers attending one featuring pianist, James P. Johnson and bassist, "Pops" Foster when he was 12 years old. A few years later, when he was fifteen, he was first mesmerized by Louis Armstrong, who performed during the intermission of the 1952 movie, The Crimson Pirate. Rudd returned to see the movie three times just to listen to Armstrong.

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