Sam Rivers: A Giant Among Us


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You know, sometimes musicians want to hire you but assume that you're too busy with your own music. How would they know? I don't wait for them to ask me, I ask them!
[Originally published in the South Carolina Free Times in February 2002]

It's been said that jazz is dead.

Scores of notable jazz critics have made the claim that jazz, an art form that relies heavily upon change and improvisation, must continue to progress if it is to live and prosper. If the music cannot "constantly reinvent itself," as Ed Bland argues in his 1958 film The Cry of Jazz, then "it will die." Even Wynton Marsalis, the most public spokesman for jazz in the last two decades, has said, "there is no old jazz ... jazz is a new music."

Ideally, this means that jazz is spontaneous, ever-changing and ever-evolving. But unfortunately, many jazz artists are content to play the same old riffs within the same old standards, therefore making derivative performances easier to find than original and creative ones.

It is becoming more and more apparent that the newest musicians on the block are doing little to innovate the jazz art form. And so it follows that with the passing of each jazz legend—Art Blakey in 1990, Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra in 1993, Milt Jackson and Horace Tapscott in 1999, John Lewis in 2001—jazz seems one step closer to its inevitable death. Even if you believe that the up-and-coming "young lions" of jazz can one day fill the shoes of the passing legends, it's hard to imagine them taking the giant steps their fathers did.

Fortunately, one of the fathers is still walking among us. Sam Rivers, the legendary multi-instrumentalist, continues to perform and record music that refuses to take anything less than giant steps. His composition, sound and technique have developed exponentially since the day he first picked up a horn in 1937.

Born in 1923 in El Reno, Okla., Rivers was immersed in music at an early age. His grandfather, Marshall Taylor, published a collection of African-American spirituals in 1882. Both his mother and father performed gospel music in the well-known Silvertone Quartet, a group that began at Fisk University. By the age of 5, Rivers was already playing piano and viola, and when the family moved to Chicago in 1930, he quickly absorbed the jazz on the radio. After his father died in 1937, his mother moved the family to Little Rock, Ark., where she taught music at Shorter College. During this time, Rivers taught himself to play trombone and saxophone.

Rivers went on to study at Jarvis Christian College in Texas. After a short stint in the Navy, he entered the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1947 and studied there until 1952. It was during this time that he began performing with area musicians like Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, Ken McIntyre and Jaki Byard. He would eventually land a gig with Herb Pomeroy, one of Charlie Parker's sidemen and an extremely popular figure in the Northeast. For more than 10 years, Rivers performed in and around Boston. In 1964, he was invited to perform with the Miles Davis Quintet, through his association with drummer Tony Williams.

After working with the Miles Davis Quintet, Rivers appeared on Williams' Blue Note LP Spring, a recording made in 1965 that would help land him his own recording contract with the prestigious Blue Note label. He recorded three records under his name for Blue Note, as well as appearing on numerous other Blue Note recordings. He moved his family to New York City in 1968, and in 1969 he toured Europe with the Cecil Taylor Quartet.

During the 1970s, Rivers recorded and performed regularly. With his wife and business partner, Bea, he helped establish the "New York loft scene"—a term that defined the move away from clubs in the early '70s. The loft scene favored the artists' comfortable studios to the sterile environment of ritzy clubs or recording studios. During this time, many of Rivers' recordings were made in his loft and in other spaces created by artists on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition, he began recording for ABC/Impulse Records in 1973, a company that would distribute his music throughout the world. Almost every recording made by Rivers during the 1970s demonstrates his ability to play in both improvised and traditional modes of jazz.

By the mid 1980s, Rivers was reaching a point in his music that many of his contemporaries never reached. After 30 years of performing, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to join all three of Gillespie's performing groups, including the United Nations Orchestra.

For the past decade, Rivers has been living and making music outside of Orlando, Fla. The rhythm section of Rivers' current trio is made up of bassist/bass clarinetist Doug Mathews and drummer/pianist/ tenor saxophonist Anthony Cole. These accomplished young Florida musicians fully embrace Rivers' flexibility and have a keen, intuitive understanding of their leader's music. Currently touring the Southeast, the trio has completed more than two dozens tours and appeared on more than half a dozen recordings.

I recently spoke with Rivers about his tour, his history and his ideas on the music that he's been reinventing for the past 55 years.

All About Jazz: So how's the tour coming along?

Sam Rivers: It's been great so far. We started in Kentucky and have a few shows before we'll head over to the Carolinas; North Carolina and then South Carolina. After this tour of the Southeast, I'll do a few shows in the Northeast ... New York, Boston.

AAJ: I'd like to hear about your early days in Boston.

SR: Well, I went with my brother Martin, because he was stationed there. He was playing bass in the Navy Band at that time, and so I moved there with him.

AAJ: Did you have a group together that played gigs?

SR: Yeah sure, we had a couple of groups. After he came out the Navy, we played together at clubs and went to school at the same time. Martin went to the New England Conservatory, and I went to the Boston Conservatory. We were playing with other musicians from Boston, like Jaki Byard and Charlie Mariano and Quincy Jones, as well as musicians who were studying at our schools.

AAJ: How did you meet Jaki Byard?

[Editor's note: Pianist Byard was fatally shot by a burglar in his home on Feb. 11, 1999]

SR: The usual way you would meet musicians in those days—at a jam session. Gigi Gryce was there too, at this session in Boston. Then later, we all rented a whole house together, where we lived while going to school. My brother lived there, along with Gigi, Jaki, myself and several other musicians.

AAJ: Didn't you meet your wife Bea around that time?

SR: Yeah (laughs), she was living next door! That was on Rutland Square, in Boston. We were a group of noisy musicians, and she was living next door with her family. We got married a couple of years after that.

AAJ: Were there a lot of jazz clubs in Boston in the late '40s and early '50s?

SR: Sure, there were quite a few clubs around back then. There were two up on Columbus and Mass. There was the High Hat Club and Wally's. In fact, Wally's is still there today. I'd say there was easily eight or nine jazz clubs, and Boston wasn't really that large of a city in those days. I played with the Jimmy Martin Big Band in several of those clubs. Jaki Byard did most of the arranging for that band, so that's how I got involved with Martin's group. Then, beginning in the early '60s, I played with my own smaller group at this coffeehouse on Harvard Square. It was me, Hal Galper on piano and the young Tony Williams on drums. We played there every weekend for years. It was more like a folk club than a coffeehouse. Joan Baez got started there, as did Judy Collins. We was all there together at the same time.

AAJ: Tony Williams was pretty young when he was playing with you then, right?

SR: Thirteen years old. He was a very mature player at that time, even at the age of thirteen. Tony didn't like to play slow tunes, and I was one of the few horn players on the scene that could keep up with him. My technique was strong enough that he didn't overpower me like he did other musicians on the scene. We worked well together.

AAJ: Through Tony, you hooked up with Miles Davis?

SR: Right, sure. After he moved from Boston to New York, Tony landed a job in Miles' band. Tony had these tapes of some sessions that my group had made in Boston, and so he played them for Miles. And Miles said, "Yeah ... call him up." I was on the road with T. Bone Walker's band at that time, when Miles hired me. So I had to leave T. Bone Walker's group to join Miles' band. It was in 1964. After some rehearsal, we packed things up and went to Japan on an extended tour. Miles was kind of sick at the time, and was playing pretty straight ahead. I know this sounds funny, but I was already ahead of that sound. I was stretching out, you know, and taking long improvised solos.

AAJ: So when did you decide to move to New York?

SR: Well, I'd already gone there in 1961 to record a record with Tadd Dameron, and I knew lots of musicians who were playing on the scene. By the late '60s, I needed to move to the city because I wanted to perform my own compositions, for big band and smaller groups. I had a lot of compositions for big bands, and there were a lot of great, qualified musicians living there, but they weren't as busy as cats from Boston. So the musicians were more available in New York than in Boston.

AAJ: Where did you live in New York?

SR: Bea and I moved to Harlem, to 124 Street near Lenox—right down the street from the park. We had two apartments up on the top floor of a house, and they both had six rooms. Basically, we had the whole top floor. But we couldn't really have a studio there; I couldn't get the space I needed.

AAJ:So that's why you opened Rivbea studios downtown?

SR: Yeah, 'cause downtown, there was a lot of space ... especially on the Lower East Side. I moved the family down there, to 24 Bond Street, in SoHo, and started playing with the Cecil Taylor Quartet.

MM: How did you hook up with him [Taylor]?

SR: Hell [laughs], I just met him on the street! I just told him, "You know, man, I enjoy your music and I admire your playing and I'd like to come and jam with you." And he said, "OK." That's the same I did with Dizzy! You know, one Christmas, I called up Diz to wish him a merry Christmas, and we talked a little bit, and I told him, "I'd like to join your group." And he said, "Alright then, what's your number?" [laughs] That's it, you know?

AAJ: Tell me more about 24 Bond Street ...

SR: Well, that's when I got the studio together. You see, the reason why was because I was rehearsing up at a public school up in Harlem at 133rd street, someplace like that. It was good, you know, 'cause I could rehearse up there once a week. And every now and then give an occasional concert for the students, which was OK, you know. The problem was, we had to be out of there by 9 o'clock. No beer and no smoking. So that was a problem, cause you know that by 9 o'clock, the guys are just getting warmed up! That was the reason why, I said, man, I've got to get a space where I can rehearse 24 hours if I like ... any time of night. So anyway, I found this space downtown, owned by Virginia Admiral. She was an artist, and her son is Robert De Niro. And she was happy to rent me the space downtown like that.

AAJ: And you and Bea lived there?

SR: Yeah, we had two floors—the main floor and the basement. And first we had the music in the basement, then I moved it up on the main floor. I built some balconies and lofts so that I could have the music on the street level floor. It was a real nice performance space. Lot of musicians performed there when they came into New York. Most of them were already established themselves in their own scenes—in Chicago and St. Louis—and they were in their 30s, like Leroy Jenkins, [Henry] Threadgill and Hamiett Bluiett. Like myself, we were already complete musicians. In the past, that didn't happen. Most of the musicians who came in were like Miles and Wynton—they learned on the job. See, but we came in, fully professional ... after already learning on the job in our respective towns. And we were all playing our own music all the time. Not just a concert every once and awhile. That's what started us having concerts on Bond Street—being able to play anytime we wanted.

AAJ: Were there any young New York musicians that came around at that time?

SR: Sure, good players like David Murray were on the scene. And Chico Freeman, too. When Chico came along he'd just established himself; he came into New York with Elvin Jones, whom he'd been playing with for awhile. William Parker came around in the mid-'70s, and he was very young. I played with him, and he played with all the musicians. He was getting some good "on the job training" in those days.

AAJ: How did you hook up with Alan Douglas?

[Editor's note: Douglas was a producer for Arista Records]

SR: Oh, he was from Boston, and I knew him from there. I called him up when I moved to New York, and he set up a few jam sessions for me. Like one with Jimi Hendrix. Alan set that up, for me to play with Jimi down at his place in Woodstock, New York. Jimi had a studio in the city as well, but we went out to Woodstock for a few days and played some creative music. Later on, once I had Rivbea studio going, Alan came in to record the series of jazz records, Wildflowers on Douglas Records. So I invited over all the guys who were playing on the scene at that time. Guys like Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, Tony [Anthony] Braxton and Andrew Cyrille. Some critic made a point of saying that I didn't invite certain musicians who were on the scene, but the truth was, they were on tour. Like Dave Holland, who should have been there but was out of town.

AAJ: Earlier you said that you just called Dizzy Gillespie up and asked to join his band?

SR: That's right. We knew each other's work and respected one another. You know, sometimes musicians want to hire you but assume that you're too busy with your own music. How would they know? I don't wait for them to ask me, I ask them! In a way, it's intimidating to ask them a question like that, but that's the only way to do it. I was with him for four years, from 1988 until 1992. I actually played in all three of Dizzy's groups: the United Nations Orchestra (with Paquito D'Rivera, James Moody and Jon Faddis), his quintet and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

MM: When did you arrange your first big band?

SR: Well, in Boston, I worked in big bands and did some arranging with Jaki Byard. I'd been composing pieces for large orchestras since 1965, and I'd performed with several orchestras. But my first recording of this type of music was released in 1974—Crystals on Impulse. Then when I moved down to Florida, I met up with many musicians and music professors who came and played in my big band. The rhythm section is made up of the members of my trio: Anthony Cole on drums and piano, and Doug Mathews on bass.

MM: The trio will be with you at the Gallery 701, in Columbia?

SR: Yeah, Anthony and Doug are with me. This will be our second time playing at Gallery 701, and my fourth time playing in Columbia. The very first concert was back in the '70s with Dave Holland. It was held on the college campus.

AAJ: Yeah, that show was held in the Golden Spur, where you could drink boogies for $1. I think the date was 1977.

SR: Sounds about right. The Golden Spur? Don't remember the name, but I remember it was packed. And there were some freaks in there, too. Then some twenty years later, I came back and did a trio show with your organization [Editor's note: Minsker promoted shows through the Creative Music and Film Society] and we played at the USC Music School. I was also there for the jazz festival [Wailin' on Whaley]. Yeah, I like Columbia and look forward to going back.

AAJ: One last question: Is there a secret to making the kind of musical progress you've made?

SR: No real secret ... I'm a jazz musician. That means I'm not confined to just one style of music. I'm blues, I'm swing, I'm bebop and I'm free!

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