It is with great sorrow that I report the death of one of my heroes. Sam Rivers was not a household name. Few jazz musicians are. But even in the world of jazz, Rivers never really received the sort of recognition he deserved. His music isn’t what you would call “easy listening.” In fact, it could be quite difficult listening. I imagine for most tastes, his music is too cerebral or too introspective or too free. But his music was never cold and it was often playful. Though he never played toe-tappin’ jazz, Rivers’ music was rarely without some sort of groove.
He began his jazz career in the late ’50s, playing with a teenage Tony Williams. The two would go on to record a few excellent albums together for Blue Note before Williams went full time with Miles Davis’ famous quintet. Rivers himself played with Miles. Once. Davis apparently didn’t like Rivers’ style and so the two parted ways after recording Miles In Tokyo.
Sam Rivers didn’t sound like anyone else. The prevailing saxophone style at the time was big, thick and meaty. Everyone wanted to sound like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, or Dexter Gordon. But Rivers took a diametrically opposite approach. On wind instruments, he is nimble and agile with a sound as thin and curious as Rivers’ silhouette. On the piano, he was a tempest, all furious flurries and chord clusters. But by the end of the ’60s, Blue Note was becoming less interested in avant-garde jazz as soul jazz was becoming increasingly popular. So Rivers was forced to find a new home.
In the early ’70s, Rivers signed to Impule! Records which was much more open to experimentation and had a roster that included John and Alice Coltrane, Archie Sheep, and Pharoah Sanders. Though this was an excellent time creatively for Rivers, the jazz scene was going through a particularly dark time. The jazz clubs that proliferated in New York during the ’50s and ’60s were falling out of favor. The ones that were left preferred not to scare the dwindling customer base with free jazz. So the avant-garde scene moved into the lofts of Lower Manhattan. Sam Rivers and his wife, Bea, ran the most popular loft space, Studio Rivbea.
The loft jazz scene was a thriving hotbed of creativity and Sam Rivers was at the center of it all. It was, unfortunately, short-lived. The ’70s may have been tough on jazz musicians, but the ’80s were downright brutal. A cursory glance at Sam Rivers’ discography reveals just how bad it was. From 1964 to 1978, Rivers recorded 15 albums under his own name. This doesn’t include his work as a sideman, which would likely double that number. But for the entirety of the ’80s, Rivers made just three records as a leader.
But he never stopped playing. Right up until the end, Rivers was playing, recording, and touring with his big band and his trio as well as appearing as a sideman in several other groups. I saw his trio a few years ago and it was one of the best jazz shows I’ve ever seen. The man was a powerhouse. If no one told you, you would never have guessed he was in his 80s. But what I admire most about Rivers was that he always remained true to his vision and he never sold out.
There is, unfortunately, a dearth of good videos of Sam on the youtubes. I’ve spent a while looking and here are the two best ones I’ve found. The first is Sam at the piano playing “Streams” in 1989. The second has him getting all cosmically funky with James Blood Ulmer. Enjoy.