Improvise or Shut Up

Jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing

The sorry fate of vanguard voices in American jazz is having their homeland turn its back on them. All too often jazz masters are ignored at home while being feted abroad. Unable to make a living in the States, they are forced to travel to Europe or Japan to find performance and recording opportunities. Still another smack in the face comes when true innovators are neglected while mere imitators are heralded. Maitland, Florida, based jazz renegade Sam Rivers has experienced both kinds of rejection during his five decades as a jazz originator. As he puts it, "Important musicians are not popular, and popular musicians are not important."

Rivers, now 69 years old, has felt the cold shoulder from the establishment even in the warmth of sunny Florida. "I haven't been invited to teach down here," he says sharply. "But I am invited to Dartmouth, I am invited up to Wesleyan, I'm invited to Harvard. But I'm not invited to any schools in Florida, which is great; don't invite me. They know I've been here ten years. I'm not even sure that I would accept an invitation now, I've been here this long."

Rejection isn't new to Rivers, despite being long acknowledged by the cognoscenti as a singularly creative jazz voice. Speaking of Studio Rivbea, the famed New York City loft-cum-performance space he ran in the Seventies, he declares, "Downbeat never mentioned it; Downbeat didn't say anything about it.... They never mentioned anything that I was doing, like I didn't exist. And I was wondering why. What did I do; what did I say to someone?" His voice rising, he muses, "Did I tell someone to kiss my ass that I should have, and they really took offense to it? It's probably something like that, you know?"

South Florida may ignore him, but jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing
Jim Seatherman
South Florida may ignore him, but jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing

Such rebuffs haven't stopped Rivers from continuing to create innovate approaches to jazz. He obviously feeds off that very opposition. Even a cursory look at Rivers's musical history proves that he has placed musical invention and a dogged dedication to individuality over petty squabbles. Born in El Reno, Oklahoma, to a family with a long and distinguished musical tradition, Rivers's grandfather was a minister and musician, who in 1882 published a book about African-American music titled A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies. His father was a graduate of Fisk University and a member of the influential Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Silverstone Quartet.

Rivers began studying music at age five, starting with violin and voice in the church, then moving to piano, trombone, and finally sax. His first professional gig was in the mid-Forties with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon in Vallejo, California, during his service in the navy. In 1947 he went east to attend the Boston Conservatory, a move that enabled him to play with some of that era's cutting-edge jazz musicians, such as Jaki Byard, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, Ken McIntyre, Joe Gordon, Paul Gonsalves, Nat Pierce, Serge Chaloff, and Alan Dawson.

In the late Fifties, Rivers took a break from the Boston scene and headed to South Florida. He was living in Miami "at exactly the same time as Castro took Havana. My brother was working down in Havana then. I was talking with him over the telephone one night, and he was telling me that Castro was coming into town, with gun-fighting." In a somewhat bemused tone, Rivers adds, "He put the telephone out of the window so that I could hear the gunfire. I told him to take cover some place. But they didn't bother any of the foreigners."

While in Miami, Rivers immersed himself in the then-vibrant jazz spectacle, jamming with many of the period's leading jazz lights. "I was working down here with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday," he recalls. "We played at Miami Beach, which was doing very extravagant things at that time: Nat King Cole had his show, Count Basie was out there, Dinah Washington, George Kirby, Cab Calloway's band, lots of comedians, all in different hotels. And then the musicians would come over to one of the clubs in Miami proper, and play until six or seven in the morning."

By the early Sixties, Rivers was back in Boston. To make ends meet, he worked as a ghostwriter as well as for Song Poem houses. The Song Poem job, putting music to "poems" people sent in response to ads in the back of magazines, was easy money. "I wrote one or two of those a day," he remembers. "It was up to me; I was pretty much the only one who was doing it, just looking at lyrics and putting music to it. I was making a really good living doing that kind of work. Those kinds of jobs pay excellent money for doing really nothing."

In 1964 he moved to New York City to join Miles Davis's group for a brief stint; legend has it that Davis became upset with Rivers's idiosyncratic improvisational style. Remaining in New York, Rivers certainly lived up to that maverick label, becoming a vital component of the jazz vanguard that began coalescing at the time. Spearheading this movement was the Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra, a pioneering collective formed to give avant-garde musicians the ability to control their own destiny. Rivers explains, "The main reason for the group was not to record for any of the record companies out here, do all of the recordings for ourselves, and keep the record companies out of it, because all they do is pollute and corrupt the music. And it was working. Cecil Taylor was there, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Michael Mantler, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, Gato Barbieri, Pharoah Sanders, John Tchicai, myself. We were all sitting there, just about anybody that was in modern or contemporary avant-garde music. The record companies got worried, so they went in and offered a couple of the guys nice fat advances. So they broke ranks, and that broke it up."

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