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; Downbeatdidn'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."

Undeterred by negative pressure from the music industry, Rivers went on to almost single-handedly found the downtown free-jazz loft scene with the opening of his performance space, Studio Rivbea. Although Studio Rivbea was to close by the end of the Seventies, Rivers asserts it was harsh weather, and not the equally brutal music industry, which prompted him to return to Florida.

"I was traveling with Dizzy Gillespie in the late Eighties; we traveled all over the world for four years," he says. "And I was looking for a place to get out of New York because I was tired of fighting New York winters. I had choices. I could have moved to Arizona, New Mexico, California, anyplace. I just chose Florida because of the weather. I was down here and I was talking to some of the guys; I was telling them I how was wanting to get out of New York, and they said, 'We have a lot of musicians down here. You could come down, and it would be very easy for you to put a group together.'"

Rivers's current residence in Maitland, just outside of Orlando, is in no way a retirement. He has since organized one of the few steady creative jazz orchestras in the nation using his trio with Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole as the nucleus. His huge backlog of compositions and unique orchestration technique keeps the orchestra on its toes at weekly rehearsals. "In my music the orchestra accompanies itself," he says firmly. "In most jazz orchestras that you see, the band is just sitting there most of the time with one guy standing up soloing and everybody else is twiddling their thumbs or reading a newspaper. Mine isn't like that. The musicians are playing pretty much all the way, all the time, like they do in the symphony. It's a real orchestra. It might be overdone, if anything, but none of the musicians are falling asleep up there."

Rivers also emphasizes creativity and the honing of a personal voice. He declares emphatically: "Sam Rivers wants young musicians to know that jazz is about improvising. A jazz musician is an improviser. I mean, that is 100 percent. You are a jazz musician because you have a particular individual statement to make; you don't imitate. That's the traditional stance of all jazz musicians. The musicians that I hire are all making a personal statement. It wasn't whether I thought that it was that technically flawless or something. No, it wasn't, but they were making a statement. I'd rather hear someone making a raggedy statement that's theirs, than to make a perfect statement that's copying someone else."

This dedication to inventiveness is in full view on Rivers's latest project, the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra's recent recording, Inspiration, and the soon-to-be-released companion disc, Culmination. This version of his orchestra consists of the cream of the crop of New York's open-minded jazz musicians, including Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Hamiet Bluiett, Ray Anderson, and Baikida Carroll. While fans of the ecstatic school of free jazz may at first be put off by the deep funk groove that underlies several of the tunes on Inspiration, the inspired solos and colorful orchestrations inevitably will draw them in. Ultimately these recordings bridge the gap between the seemingly mutually exclusive realms of free and soul jazz. In the words of free-jazz percussionist Charles Moffett, "Avant-garde got soul, too!"

Case in point: The butt-shaking opening groove of the tune "Nebula" unfolds a solid platform from which the soloists erect an undulating wave of sound. The arrangement telescopes from brief, subdued interludes in which only a single soloist is out front, to a full-out heady blast of collective improvisation by the entire orchestra.

Although Rivers welcomes the major-label marketing of Inspiration via BMG, he already is anxious to move on and introduce his several hundred unrecorded compositions to the listening public. "The next album, Culmination, is also being released by BMG," he says. "I signed for two and they're putting them out six months apart." Still, even a six-month gap (an exceptionally brief period given the glacial pace of major label scheduling) isn't enough to suit him. "I have plans to do many more albums as soon as I can. In fact I have new masters already done with the orchestra down here in Florida. For a while back in my career, I used to be very depressed about why I wasn't getting consideration, and then I grew out of that, and said, 'Well, I'm not going to get any consideration, but there's no need to stop. I'll just go ahead and write this music and have it ready.' Because I know that I have some of the most unique music of the time. The critics would rather ignore me, but it doesn't matter any more. I have no bitterness. There's no bitterness in me."

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