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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Sam Rivers


Saxophonist Sam Rivers
Courtesy of GRP Records

September 25, 1923 in Enid, Oklahoma


December 26th, 2011 in Orlando, Florida

A Father of Avant-Garde Jazz

Saxophonist Sam Rivers came up as a bebop musician, but his adventurous style brought him into the realm of free improvisation, where he rose to prominence along with the spread of free jazz in the 1960s. Rivers grew up on the road with his parents, Lillain and Samuel, who were gospel musicians. He began studying at the Boston Conservatory in 1947, and transferred to Boston University, where he studied composition. He soon got involved in the Boston jazz scene working along other students who would become known jazz musicians: Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, and Paul Gonsalves among others. It was through an important acquaintance, a young Tony Williams, That Rivers met Miles Davis, and performed with the trumpet player’s quintet for a brief time.

Rivers recorded Miles in Tokyo with the Miles Davis quintet, and though Davis eventually found a more fitting partner in Wayne Shorter, Rivers’ playing on this album is fluid and bold, and clearly headed in a unique direction. Rivers’ playing shows some influence from blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker, with whom he was working at the time. It also demonstrated a distinct approach to rhythm and harmony that would find a more appropriate home on the series of recordings he made with Blue Note Records as a leader.

Rivers is perhaps best known for his ballad “Beatrice” first released on Fuchsia Swing Song from 1964 on Blue Note Records with Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, and Jaki Byard on piano. This album, as well as three others recorded from 1964 to 1967, show a mature Rivers coming into his own as a player, bandleader and composer. “Beatrice” has since become a jazz standard, one of the tunes that jazz musicians study, commit to memory, perform and record. It is rare for a piece written by a jazz player to enter standard repertoire, as most standards are drawn from musical theatre of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

With his wife Beatrice, for whom the famous song is named, in the 1970s Rivers opened up his rehearsal space in New York for musicians to perform for the public without having to deal with economic concerns. The space became an important and iconic incubator for the New York City avant-garde jazz scene, and was known as Studio Rivbea. An invaluable document of this period is Wildflowers, originally issued as a five-LP set in 1976 by Douglas Records, and reissued by the Knitting Factory’s Knit Classics line in 2000. These recordings catch Rivers and contemporaries such as Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Albert Murray, among many others, searching for thief voices at the beginning of a musical movement.

Rivers eventually moved on to record four more albums as a leader with Impulse!, as well as other later albums with ECM, Black Saint, and other labels. A more complete discography as well as a biography with some revealing personal quotes can be found at Rivbea.com. Rivers’ later years found him focusing on a few important ensembles including his Rivbea Orchestra, a woodwind group called Winds of Manhattan, the Sam Rivers Trio with Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums, and another trio with multi-instrumentalists Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole.

Rivers relocated to Orlando, Florida in the early 1990s at the behest of local musicians eager to play his compositions for big band. About the move he said “I'm very fortunate because I can bring in all my music, anything I write, and these musicians are able to play it the first time down. So, I mean it's a very, very, very great experience for me.” Rivers continued to perform with musicians young and old through his last years, including an especially notable album with pianist Jason Moran called Black Stars, and will be regarded as an important musician who constantly redefined the character of jazz improvisation and composition and who helped nurture an entire generation of his contemporaries.

Sam Rivers died of pneumonia in Orlando on December 26th, 2011. He was 88 years old.

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