Sam Rivers / Sept 25, 1923 - Dec 26, 2011

One of my favorite multi-reed improvisors, Sam Rivers was born on this day in 1923. He came from Oklahoma, his father and grandfather were gospel singers and helped give little Sammy the music bug.

After some time as a youth in Chicago & Little Rock, he started his professional career on the West Coast in the '40s, playing in Jimmy Witherspoon's band, as well as with Quincy Jones. In Boston he started working with teenage drummer Tony Williams, who in turn brought him into the Miles Davis Quintet in '64, if only for a brief spell (captured on the Miles In Tokyo album). But he was too "out" for Miles at the time, so he was fired and Wayne Shorter came in.

Rivers put out a string of great records for Blue Note, including the classic Fuschia Swing Song (which includes the Rivers-composed standard "Beatrice"), as well as sideman dates for the label with Larry Young, Bobby Hutcherson (the amazing Dialogue), Andrew Hill and Williams. He worked with Cecil Taylor in '69 and in the '70s with Don Pullen, Barry Altschul, James Newton and on David Holland's classic Conference of the Birds.

He signed to Impulse! and cut the flowing live trio dates Hues and Streams, as well as Sizzle and the great big-band album Crystals. It was during this period that he was heavily involved in the NYC "loft-jazz" scene, even running the Studio Rivbea venue and helping lead the avant-garde of the era. In the '80s he worked with Steve McCraven and recorded the underrated Contrasts for ECM.

The late '80s saw him contributing to three great Latin-jazz albums by Hilton Ruiz, records that are common but very groovy. The '90s & 2000s found him leading large groups in Florida and kicking off another busy recording spree with James "Blood" Ulmer, Reggie Workman, Jason Moran, Steven Bernstein, Adam Rudolph, Dizzy Gillespie and others.

He was bestowed the Vision Festival's Lifetime Achievement honor in 2006. An extremely talented and versatile multi-instrumentalist, fluid on soprano, tenor, flute, bass clarinet, harmonica, viola and piano, he was one of the most significant avant-jazz artists the world has seen.

Tagged: avant-garde, Celebrate Icons, classic albums, jazz, out-jazz, reeds, Sam Rivers

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