Sam Rivers, R.I.P.


A Spotify playlist of Sam Rivers’ work is here.

Jazz composer, multi-instrumentalist, and organizer Sam Rivers died of pneumonia on December 26. Rivers’ importance to the American jazz avant-garde extended beyond his recordings and performances. In his demonstration of artistic self-reliance and community-building with his Bond Street loft space Studio RivBea, Rivers (who mostly played saxophone and flute, though he did also play piano) set an example for modern events like the annual Vision Festival; his willingness, even eagerness, to play with musicians decades younger than himself provided a bridge between generations that has always been crucial to jazz’s development as an art and a culture.

Born in Oklahoma, Rivers got his start professionally in Boston, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory. By 1959, he’d formed a crucial musical relationship with drummer Tony Williams—then only 13 years old. In 1964, the drummer recommended Rivers to his then-boss, Miles Davis, as a temporary substitute for the departing saxophonist George Coleman; the guy Davis really wanted, Wayne Shorter, was still a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Rivers and Williams worked together brilliantly, but the saxophonist’s avant-garde style, dry and rigorously thoughtful even at its most explosive moments, didn’t mesh well with the trumpeter’s approach, and only one document exists of his weeks-long tenure in the band: the 1964 live album Miles in Tokyo.

That year, Rivers signed with Blue Note, and in addition to making four classic albums—Fuschia Swing Song, Contours, Dimensions & Extensions, and A New Conception—under his own name before the decade was out, he appeared on discs like organist Larry Young’s Into Somethin’, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, and the Williams-led albums Life Time and Spring. On the latter, he was paired with Shorter, their approaches to the tenor saxophone complementary, yet starkly different.

Though he was much older than many of the players he worked with, Rivers was crucial to the development of the “inside-outside” school of avant-garde jazz that Blue Note made almost a house blend in the mid ’60s. Combining the bluesy force of hard bop with the melodic complexity and eruptive energy of free jazz, the “inside-outside” players made some of the most innovative, yet still newcomer-friendly, jazz of the ’60s. Toward the end of the decade, Rivers joined pianist Cecil Taylor’s group, proving himself equally comfortable with the pianist’s avalanches of notes and marathon performances.

As the 1970s began, Rivers became one of the most important figures in the New York loft scene. Studio RivBea, opened with his wife Beatrice in 1970, was a central location for much of the city’s avant-garde jazz activity throughout the decade—the five-LP set Wildflowers, regarded as one of the best documents of the loft era (and available as a three-CD set), was recorded at a spring 1976 Rivbea festival. At the same time, Rivers was recording for Impulse Records; he made the live albums Shades and Hues with trios and followed those with 1974’s Crystals, a big-band effort that featured over 60 musicians and blended skronking free jazz, funk grooves, hard swing and extended solos and horn interplay into a unique, roaringly alive musical explosion. He also played on Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds for ECM, alongside Anthony Braxton.

Rivers’s profile was lower in the ’80s and most of the ’90s, but as the millennium turned, Rivers made a somewhat surprising comeback. He signed with RCA and released two big band albums, Inspiration and Culmination, in 1999 and 2000—these featured his compositions being performed by an all-star big band including saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, trumpeters Ralph Alessi and Baikida Carroll, trombonist Joseph Bowie, and many others. In 2001, he was invited by up-and-coming pianist Jason Moran, then 26, to guest on Black Stars, a strikingly vital album that felt at times like a tribute to the “inside-outside” sound Rivers helped pioneer in the ’60s. I saw that group perform at Iridium, the only time I ever got to see Rivers live. The warmth and affection the trio felt for him was palpable in the room, but he kept them on their toes at all times; it was no mere blowing session.

Rivers spent most of the last few decades in Florida, where he had both a version of the RivBea Orchestra and a working trio featuring that group’s bassist and drummer. He had a tireless energy and was constantly working; his compositions, which frequently bore single-word titles like “Zip,” “Dazzle,” “Flare,” “Bursts,” or “Exultation,” reflected that seemingly unceasing vitality.

Rivers was 88.