At seventy-seven, saxophone legend and sixties free jazz explorer Sam Rivers still has the energy and force of Niagara Falls. Yet until the past two years he'd somehow escaped the usual celebratory nod the jazz community bestows on its elder statesmen. 1998 changed all that. With one two-day recording project that yielded a pair of superb discs - 1999's INSPIRATION and last year's CULMINATION - Rivers managed a wave of critical accolades that tsunamied into twin Grammy nominations.
I checked in with the septuagenarian restless youth via phone from his Orlando, Florida home to see how much if anything's changed as a result of the new exposure. The Miles Davis/Cecil Taylor/Dizzy Gillespie alum and loft scene pioneer speaks like he plays - in frenetic, fluid streams of free flowing thought, linking up here, turning back on itself here, but always expounding his singular vision of a musical life on the edge. His tale is a fascinating solo work in progress.
Part I: THAT WAS THEN... CHILDHOOD
"My parents were both gospel musicians. I was born on the road in Chicago while they were on tour, lived there for a bit then we moved to Little Rock when I was sill young. My parents weren't jazz listeners - they played gospel and classical music at home. In fact, the first musical memory I have is my mother sitting me down at the piano to play Bach's Inventions. They did though take me to Chicago where we'd see Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines, all those guys at the top of their games."
"I ended up joining the navy to avoid the army, if you know what I mean, and finally wound up in Los Angeles. I didn't play in the Navy Band. Fortunately for me the band they wanted to put me in wasn't any good and I went on to Quartermaster School, working a nine to five kinda job. See, the Navy Band had to play at officer functions on the weekend nights while I could go down to the clubs in LA and play. I played with Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler, sometimes with bebop groups. I was playing that Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins stuff they loved. I remember T-Bone saying to me: 'I'm hiring you to play your horn; I'll take care of the clowning.' That was all right with me."
"When I got out I headed back to Boston and made a living ghost writing jingles. I also worked in those 'Send us your lyrics, we'll put music to them' places. Of course, I'd never put my name on those tunes but it was good money.
I'd met a young 13-year old musician named Tony Williams in a Harvard Square coffee shop. Jackie McLean ended up taking him to New York in 1964 where Miles hired him. Then a few years later, Tony recommended me to Miles before as a stand-in until Wayne Shorter could join the group."
"The move to New York was automatic after I'd played with Miles - you were one of the chosen. More importantly, I went because of my compositions. But moving from Boston to New York cut my income in half. It was a sacrifice.
In New York, I formed a group right away. We rehearsed at a Harlem public school at 133rd Street. Anthony Braxton and Bob Stewart showed up and any other musicians who had just hit town. Thankfully, it was a very fertile time and there were a lot of them.
Musicians are a strange lot. If the music's not happening, they want to get paid for rehearsal! If it's challenging and fresh, they'll play for free. I never had to pay anybody.
Soon we needed a bigger space so I found this "loft" downtown - an old 100' x 35' warehouse with a balcony - owned by Robert Deniro's mother. We called it Studio Rivbea after me and my wife, Beatrice. It was more for woodshedding at first, not really a performance space, but when the Newport Festival came to town in '68 and ignored all the new musicians we decided to start our own festival.
Europeans heard about us and would show up - five languages being spoken, two hundred people in the space. After six months, I got a call from the New York Council of the Arts and they said: 'You're doing a great thing. How can we help?' We were able to pay the musicians with that.
I did that for ten years but quit because other clubs got to coming round and stealing the musicians cause they could pay more."
Part II: THIS IS NOW... RIVBEA RECORDINGS
"The Rivbea All-Stars recordings stem from the loft idea. I got together with Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, all the good young players and others like Hamiett Bluiett, Baikida Carroll and Bob Stewart who'd played at Rivbea Studio. We rehearsed for two weeks, then went into Sweet Basil's (New York) for a week, then recorded (Inspiration and Culmination, both Grammy nominated CDs) in two days.
You look on the web and all the information written about me is there. They all say: "often ignored ad grossly underrated.." Why is that? What'd I do to them? I don't necessarily feel ignored but I am 'grossly underrated.' But you go to New York or Paris. a friend of mine was walking through Paris with a 'Sam Rivers' t-shirt on. He said he couldn't get two blocks without someone stopping him and asking excitedly where I was playing."
JAZZ and RECORD COMPANIES
"I'm so happy the majors are dropping jazz. Musicians will now learn to produce and market their own music. I'll hopefully never have to deal with a major record company again.
I've got the perfect situation at the Full Sail School here in Orlando. It's a studio, engineering environment where I record for free so students can see how it's done. I've just released a new trio CD called Firestorm on my Rivbea Sounds and I have a double CD waiting. I can sell 5,000 CDs and it's fabulous. 10,000 and I'm almost rich. For the big companies, that's a loss.
Moral of the story: If it's something creative, it's something on a small label. They're the future of jazz."
"I use one-word evocative titles for my songs. I learned early in Boston where poets like William Burroughs told me about imagery. The title for a piece of music is supposed to evoke an image but still give the listener the freedom to also make up his own story.
My upcoming double CD, Aurora, is about both the aurora borealis and aurora bustralis. Looking at pictures of them both, man, the colors and arcs and bands, everything I was thinking about in my music.
The themes emerge then we improvise and play the changes. Or we just play free. I've got over four hundred compositions written - some I haven't even rehearsed yet!
My trio is one of the most unique groups in the history of jazz. I play soprano and tenor sax, flute and piano. Doug Matthews plays contrabass and bass guitar and clarinet. Anthony Cole (of the Nat King Coles) plays tenor sax, piano and drums. We've got tunes for soprano, tenor and clarinet, for two pianos and bass. Such versatility!
I'm not supposed to be going on about this, that's your job. I end up sounding like Mohammad Ali. But, please, if you can find a trio with this degree of expertise and versatility, for god sakes, tell me and I can stop going on so."
NEW FAVORITES, OLD VOICES
"Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Joe lovano, Hamiet Bluiett, Chico Freeman, John Stubblefield, Davis S. Ware, Peter Brotzmann (I heard his Albert Ayler stuff in Germany back in the seventies and said, man, we don't even know Ayler yet in this country and this cat's playing him over here)."
"Our audiences in Orlando are all young people hip to the music. I don't know anyone over thirty down here. All the old folks are out on the golf course, I guess.
I haven't got time for that."