Sam Furnace, 1954-2004
A precise and marvelous architect of jazz leaves this world
I first met Sam Furnace 30 years ago in the Henry Street Settlement Jazz Band, directed by Basie tenor man Billy Mitchell. We were both around 20 and he was the best and most elegant-sounding sax player my age I’d heard.
Sam couldn’t decide between becoming an architect or a professional musician, so in a way he did both. He created precise and marvelous architecture with his crisp sound and the complexity and penetrating turbulence of his lines. On alto or baritone he could tear the roof off at will. He was an incredibly smart and funny guy and a musician’s musician. On January 26, Sam left us.
Although he never recorded as a leader, Sam’s dossier reads like a Who’s Who of modern music. He led Mongo Santamaria’s band and played with McCoy Tyner, the Art Blakey Nonet, the Julius Hemphill Sextet, Fred Ho’s group, the Jazz Passengers, Elliott Sharp, and Arturo O’Farrill’s big band—plus Curtis Fowlkes, Jane Cortez, Neil Kirkwood, the New York Composers Orchestra, it goes on. His great friend and fellow sweet alto man Jimmy Cozier tells me that in Furnace’s late teens he even backed the Four Tops and the Temptations.
Writes Elliott Sharp: “The beautiful thing about Sam’s playing was that there was no trade-off between technique and emotion—his cascading lines revealed gorgeous symmetries and seared with a tone out of Cannonball and Dolphy that manifested Sam’s huge heart and soul.” Vibist Brian Carrot: “Not only was Sam obviously a wonderfully versatile musician but he had a cool spirit with a humorous angle on everything and that always made you feel good to be around him.” Longtime Hemp-hill sideman Marty Ehrlich: “Julius loved the deep soul and fire in Sam’s playing, and Sam’s great camaraderie continued the spirit of the ensemble in the years since Julius’s passing. We’re proud to have stood next to him all these years.”
Sam had learned from his draftsman father how to draw a perfectly straight line without a ruler. Jamming with him one night in the godforsaken cavern of the Knitting Factory Tap Bar, I closed my eyes and followed his lines. I watched his hard clear tone defy gravity, jumping and swerving over the most intricate changes. Watched ’em create repetitions and patterns that spun off in totally new directions. No ruler, no compass. A one-of-a-kind cat. —Roy Nathanson
A memorial concert for Sam Furnace will be held March 7, at St. Peter’s Church.
Golden Years Suck
Straitjacketing jazz to its past to prove it still is high art
Last month’s International Association of Jazz Educators Conference attracted around 8,000 pedagogues, students, publishers, label reps, presenters, retailers, and publicists. Much has changed since New York’s last IAJE: In 2001, Ken Burns’s PBS documentary had attendees hopeful about mainstream prospects, and Lincoln Center’s complex was just a twinkle in Wynton Marsalis’s eye. But now the jazz establishment seems reconciled to reliving the gloried past.
That’s where the IAJE money went, anyway. Though some great IAJE-affiliated music (notably saxophonist Miguel Zenon’s Birdland showcase) wound up in clubs, the conference’s biggest deal was the expanded NEA Jazz Masters program. This year IAJE flew in most of the program’s previous honorees and celebrated six additional living masters at a Friday night gala ceremony and concert. In his acceptance speech as the first writer to receive a Master award, Nat Hentoff joked that his renegade politics began when he ate a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur at age 12. But wheeled out to perform, frail trumpeter Clark Terry spoke the sad truth: “The golden years suck!”
In Dan Morganstern’s lively “Newport at 50” panel discussion, festival creator George Wein claimed astutely that “jazz is so recognized as an art form today that it’s lost its joyousness.” But the jazz-as-high-art theme still dominated IAJE, especially at Friday’s restaging of Art Kane’s classic 1958 Great Day in Harlem photo. It was fun to watch 22 venerable jazz musicians turn the shoot into a high-spirited reunion; Anita O’Day struck come-hither poses with fingers decorated in bright blue polish as if onstage at the old Birdland, and the Heath Brothers joined Roy Haynes to sing a few lines. Down in front, though, Cecil Taylor grimaced, perhaps wishing he’d worn darker sunglasses as a talisman against canonizing cameras. —Michelle Mercer
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 27, 2004