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Celebrating jazz great Sam Rivers, on what would have been his 100th birthday

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers was born a hundred years ago today in El Reno, Okla. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says Rivers could play it all - blues, bebop, big band music and free jazz - and sometimes mix them. He also gave other musicians a place to play. Kevin has this portrait.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS' "DANCE OF THE TRIPEDAL")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sam Rivers on tenor saxophone on his "Dance Of The Tripedal" from 1965, ambiguously poised between hard bop and the avant-garde. You couldn't typecast Rivers, who'd worked with blues icon T-Bone Walker and free jazz titan Cecil Taylor - and who'd toured briefly with Billie Holiday and jammed with Jimi Hendrix. Born on the road to itinerant gospel musicians, Sam Rivers picked up a few instruments early, about 5, before he got around to tenor sax. His first major exposure came in 1964, when he subbed for two weeks in Japan with Miles Davis. Sam, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams had some fun out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT (LIVE AT KOHSEINENKEN HALL, TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 1964)")

WHITEHEAD: In the mid-1960s, Sam Rivers recorded as leader and sideman for Blue Note, playing soprano sax and flute alongside his tenor. A few tenor saxists adopted soprano as an upward extension of the bigger horn, but Sam had played soprano first from age 13. Soprano is where he developed his sometimes full, sometimes precariously wiry saxophone sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS TRIO'S "HUES OF MELANIN")

WHITEHEAD: Sam Rivers on soprano in 1973 with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Arild Andersen. In the '70s, Sam fronted many improvising trios, playing piano alongside his horns. Some trios had tuba or might expand into a quartet or quintet. Their spontaneous music had jazz virtues. It was orderly with contrasting solo episodes and colors, and those bands could swing. Bassist Dave Holland called Sam's trio his finishing school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS' "VERVE")

WHITEHEAD: Sam Rivers' flute could sound oddly like his hoarse speaking voice. He had plenty to say but was more of a doer. In early '70s New York, there were more creative musicians than places to play. So Sam and his wife and full partner, Beatrice Rivers, started their own Lower Manhattan venue, Studio Rivbea. Others followed suit. Sam kept hustling. His chronicler, Rick Lopez's, massive, recently published "Sam Rivers Sessionogaphy" details a week in July 1973 when Sam was running his own festival and also played nine shows with various groups all over Manhattan and somehow squeezed in the recording of a trio album live in Switzerland. And all along, he'd also been composing for large ensembles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS' "TRANQUILITY")

WHITEHEAD: "Tranquility" for 14 players, recorded in 1974. That funk bass looks ahead to some later Sam Rivers big-band music. In the '80s, he began touring with bebop founder Dizzy Gillespie, who found that Rivers was even more fastidious about playing correctly on chord changes than he was. While in Orlando with Dizzy, Rivers spoke to some local theme-park musicians looking to play more stimulating stuff after hours. If Rivers moved to town, they said, he could have a big band stocked with good soloists ready to play anything he threw at them. That is just what happened. Sam Rivers led his Rivbea Orchestra in Orlando for two decades, starting in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS' "PULSAR")

WHITEHEAD: The Rivbea's Orchestra's multivectored busyness confirmed Sam Rivers didn't move to Florida in his late 60s to retire. In Orlando, he also had his longest-running trio with fellow multi-instrumentalists Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole. In later years, Rivers got the elder statesman treatment - all-star New York big-band records, a reunion trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul and guest shots with younger admirers like Jason Moran and Steven Bernstein. Sam Rivers died in 2011 at 88. He stayed busy till the end. There was always more music to write and one more gig to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM RIVERS' "HERITAGE")

MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." On tomorrow's show, we talk with Ben Goldfarb on how our reliance on highways and freeways is an environmental concern, as well as a social one. His new book is "Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping The Future Of Our Planet." I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER AND KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA")

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER AND KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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