Sam Rivers: Saxophonist at the cutting edge of jazz's avant garde


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The Independent Online

The avant-garde work of the saxophonist Sam Rivers was the most accessible free-form music for the general listener. The more prickly practitioners of the Sixties avant-garde saxophone treated their audiences with aggression, but Sam was almost without ego, a brilliant teacher and among the nicest of men.

Unusually for someone who worked outside the bounds of convention, he was universally respected and liked. As a teacher he was orthodox, but brilliant, making sure his students had a thorough musical grounding rather than forcing their flowerings.

In the last years of his life when he played with his quartet he was a black-hatted, bespectacled wisp of a man, often dressed from head to foot in black. He played with a dry yet lively tone that could ultimately be traced back to the Coleman Hawkins style, but his new ideas bore no relation to those of the older man. Despite being revolutionary, his music developed from a logical base and he enthralled audiences for almost half a century.

He came from a musical family, his career beginning conventionally. Leaving the US Navy in 1947 he enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where his local colleagues included Quincy Jones, Charlie Mariano, Serge Chaloff and, most importantly, Jaki Byard, himself a progressively-minded pianist. Rivers and Byard developed a strong musical partnership, although they didn't record together until 1964.

Rivers toured with Billie Holiday and then remained based in the Boston area until 1965. In 1959 he met a 13-year-old drummer, Tony Williams, whose playing was at the vanguard of contemporary drumming. They occasionally improvised together alongside abstract paintings in museums and art galleries. In 1964 Williams joined the Miles Davis band and in the summer of that year persuaded Davis to hire Rivers as his tenor player. Rivers took the chair that had originally been John Coltrane's but, unlike Coltrane, he found no inspiration in working for the trumpeter.

"I'd already been where Miles was at then some time before. I was years ahead of him," he said dispassionately. He found the music offered him no challenge and left a couple of months later after a tour of Japan with the band.

It was later in 1964 that he made recordings for the Blue Note label as both a leader and a sideman that were to become among his best known. Tony Williams, Davis's drummer, had recommended Rivers to the label.

Rivers then joined the quartet of pianist Andrew Hill, another revolutionary musician, and appeared on all of Hill's recordings for the Blue Note label in the mid-'60s. The two reunited in the 1993 album Summit Conference. In 1968, by now doubling on flute and soprano saxophone, Rivers worked often for the pianist Cecil Taylor, and the two were appointed musicians in residence at the Fondation Maeght in St Paul De Vence in the south of France, where they stayed until 1972. Rivers thrived in the European setting, and from now on worked there as often as he could.

In 1970 he and his wife Bea established the Studio Rivbea in a Manhattan loft and it became an important forum for forward-looking musicians. It stayed open until 1979.

Rivers was also composer-in-residence at the Harlem Opera Society from 1968 and taught at the Wesleyan University (1970-73). Back in Europe he can be seen playing in the 1974 film Jazz in Piazza made at the Umbria Jazz Festival. He worked often in the late '70s with the bassist Dave Holland; throughout the next 20 years Rivers worked mostly in Europe. In the late 1980s he joined both the Dizzy Gillespie quintet and Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra.

Rivers settled in Florida in the 1990s, where he worked to establish an avant-garde scene while still playing prolifically in Europe. During 1996-97 he played and recorded with the trombonist Julian Priester and in 1998 put together the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra in Orlando and continued to work from there with a trio. Rivers continued to rehearse the Rivbea Orchestra regularly at the Musicians' Union Hall in Orlando until last September, when illness overcame him.

"Music was his life," said his daughter Monique, who managed Rivers' concert bookings. "Music is what kept him alive. My father, in my eyes, was on vacation all his life. He used to tell me, 'I'm working, but I'm loving every minute of it.' Retirement was not in his vocabulary. 'Why do we even have that word?' he used to ask me. 'There should be no such thing.'"

Steve Voce

Samuel Carthorne Rivers, saxophone and flute player, pianist, bandleader, composer and teacher: born El Reno, Oklahoma 25 September 1923; married Beatrice (died 2005; one son, three daughters); died Orlando, Florida 26 December 2011.