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Danish Saxophonist John Tchicai Dies at 76

Played with Coltrane, Ayler, Shepp and John Lennon

John Tchicai

Saxophonist and composer John Tchicai, one of Denmark’s most celebrated jazz musicians, died Oct. 8 in Perpignan, France, where he had lived in recent years. Tchicai had suffered a stroke on June 11.

Tchicai, an adherent of the free jazz style, was born in Aarhus, Denmark in 1936 to a Danish mother and Congolese father. His first instrument was the violin and then the clarinet, but he switched to the alto saxophone and, eventually tenor sax. Tchicai studied at the Aarhus Conservatory of Music and turned professional in the 1950s. In the fall of 1962, after meeting Archie Shepp, he moved to New York, where he formed the New York Contemporary Five with Shepp, Don Cherry, Don Moore and J.C. Moses and, in 1964, the New York Art Quartet. That same year he played with Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray on the New York Eye and Ear Control album on ESP-Disk’.

Tchicai played on John Coltrane’s Ascension album in 1965 and also worked with Archie Shepp, Carla Bley and Steve Swallow. He returned to Denmark in 1966 where he formed Cadentia Nova Danica, which existed for some five years. In 1969 he appeared on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music, No. 2: Life with the Lions. Tchicai took up teaching in the ’70s but (with the switch to tenor) continued to record into the ’80s and ’90s

In 1990, Tchicai became the first improvisational composer to be awarded a grant for life from the Danish Arts Foundation. He moved soon thereafter to Davis, Calif., where he played with Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser, among others. He remained in the Bay Area throughout the 1990s before returning to Europe in 2001. He was awarded an NEA fellowship in 1997.

Originally Published