Bob Stewart Remembers Arthur Blythe

Colleague and friend pays tribute to saxophonist (7.5.40 - 3.27.17)

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Arthur Blythe (photo: CBS Records/JazzTimes archive)

I first met Arthur when we were playing in Gil Evans’ orchestra in 1976. We had a gig in a church off Gramercy Park in New York City, and I remember a moment during one of Arthur’s solos, as he was taking flight with his signature fat, dark, piercing sound, when I looked over to the other alto player. He was transfixed, staring at Blythe with the same admiring look that was on my face; it was Dave Sanborn.

Later that year, Arthur asked me a simple question, “Bob, can you play bass on the tuba?” Up until that point my only experience playing basslines was at a club called Your Father’s Mustache, a chain of bars where traditional jazz was played (along with the added color of beer and peanut shells on the floor). But I lied my ass off and said, “Of course, no problem.”

Over the next year, I discovered the need to create a new concept and technique for continuous breathing, a method to develop endurance and a tuba-specific harmonic approach. Blythe’s compositions and sound inspired multiple new challenges and approaches for the tuba, and he gave me the autonomy to discover my own path. Arthur would never tell anyone in the band what to play, but he gave us confidence through his acceptance.

He couldn’t have known the impact of that question he posed to me in ’76, but it has since been echoed from the lips of many musicians and bandleaders to at least three generations of contemporary tuba players. Artists such as Henry Threadgill, Carla Bley, Steven Bernstein and Charlie Haden have all incorporated tubas into their ensembles at different times.

Our 30-plus-year musical adventure began at a time in New York when there was an air of entrepreneurship among the musicians and producers. Some began independent record labels while others utilized their construction skills to create multi-use artistic lofts located below Houston Street. Because our earliest recordings were done in these lofts, the music became known as “Loft Jazz.” These experimental spaces enabled Arthur to advance his two innovative ensembles, which he maintained for most of his career. The quintet featured Abdul Wadud (cello), Kelvyn Bell (guitar), Bobby Battle (drums) and myself. His quartet, called “In the Tradition,” comprised John Hicks (piano), Fred Hopkins (bass) and Steve McCall (drums).

He cared for his musicians like family, and I saw how truly dedicated he was to his real family when we returned home to New York after a tour in the late ’90s. Circumstance forced him to gather his children—Arthur Jr., Chalee and Odessa—and move to San Diego to ensure them a safe environment. There was no career consideration; he uprooted his life to move them closer to his family.

Arthur’s playing influenced so many musicians around the world. Two men who expressed great admiration for Arthur’s sound and musical approach—alto saxophonist Bruce Williams and pianist Lucian Ban—had the same reaction upon first hearing Arthur play: “A true original.” Bruce met Arthur in the late ’90s, and Lucian started listening to Blythe even earlier in his native Romania. “Arthur was considered the one who could bring together in a unified vision the jazz tradition and the ‘New Thing’ of the ’60s,” Lucian said. I remember having conversations about that very idea with the quintet while touring in the ’80s and ’90s. We were highly aware of the “politics of the 12 notes,” and of the musical factions they created.

A bit about those “politics”: In Arthur’s ensemble we were free to express ourselves with the musical vocabulary most suited to the emotion we were creating, which would quite often cross faction lines. It speaks volumes about Arthur’s adaptability and fearlessness. While he never spoke these words, Arthur seemed to not only look forward to musical curves, but would thrive on the ensemble’s creative responses.

One of the last projects Arthur and I worked on was a 2003 duo recording, Exalted Conversation, captured live at Columbia University. The concert was presented by the Center for Jazz Studies, directed by Dr. Robert O’Meally, and played before a standing-room-only crowd in St. Paul’s Chapel. By this point in our musical relationship we had become almost psychic in our responses to each other. O’Meally captures the essence in the liner notes: “Here was call-and-response—so often identified as one of the hallmarks of jazz music—raised to a higher power, befitting the beautiful space. Call/response as call-and-recall: working in the moment with anticipation as well as memory, collaboration become democracy, communication become communion.”

I last saw Arthur in 2014 in Los Angeles, and he looked as proud and happy as I had ever seen him, surrounded by his three grown children, by then in their late 20s and early 30s. With all the praise Arthur received during his lifetime, the platitude he would enjoy most was that he was a great dad. Love you Blythe.

Read JazzTimes’ obituary for Arthur Blythe from March 2017.