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In Memoriam 2020: A Playlist

JazzTimes' principal obituary writer remembers 12 of the year's many departed through their music

I’ve been JazzTimes’ primary obituary writer since 2017; last year, I wrote more obits than in the three previous years combined. It was a tragic year for jazz. So much so, in fact, that we couldn’t even fit all the greats who passed in 2020 into our annual In Memoriam feature. The 12 listed below are every bit as deserving of tribute as their comrades-in-arms. Including them here reflects our attempt to memorialize them through their music: the thing for which they all wanted to be remembered.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the tracks mentioned here:

Jimmy Heath Picture of Heath album coverJimmy Heath (10/25/26 – 1/19/20)
“Picture of Heath”
Picture of Heath (Xanadu, 1975)

Backed with one of the best rhythm sections of its era (or indeed any other), Heath gives unimpeachable evidence of his two greatest gifts: one for pithy, lyrical compositions, and another for refocusing the shapes of those compositions into aggressive, extended improvisations.

Cover of Herbie Mann album Flute, Brass, Vibes and PercussionRay Mantilla (6/22/34 – 3/21/20)
“A Ritual”
Herbie Mann, Flute, Brass, Vibes and Percussion (Verve, 1960)

The back half of “A Ritual” features a fiery interchange between Mantilla’s bongos, Ray Barretto’s congas, and Rudy Collins’ drums. Its true magic, though, is in the declarative comp line Mantilla maintains throughout the track. We hear his distinctive sound and uncanny rhythmic instincts.

Cover of Manu Dibango album Soul MakossaManu Dibango (12/12/33 – 3/24/20)
“Soul Makossa”
Soul Makossa (Fiesta, 1972)

Back in ’72, the whole world was moving to the rhythms of Cameroonian jazz. It was no fluke: The influence of Manu Dibango’s peppery tenor sax and unforgettable groove would vivify dozens of pop tracks in the next 50 years, from Michael Jackson to Childish Gambino.

Cover of Max Roach Drums UnlimitedJymie Merritt (5/23/26 – 4/10/20)
“Nommo”
Max Roach, Drums Unlimited (Atlantic, 1966)

Merritt’s clear-voiced bass ostinato on his own composition connects the older (soul-jazz) definition of funk with the newer (on-the-one) definition. His nimble solo, in the track’s final third, has the knowing feel of a singer in the sanctified church.

Cover of Ryo Kawasaki album Little TreeRyo Kawasaki (2/25/47 – 4/13/20)
“Quasar Infection”
Ryo Kawasaki and the Golden Dragon, Little Tree (Openskye, 1980)

Scintillating atmosphere, surprising colors, astounding chops—the ethereal “Quasar Infection,” from the Japanese fusion guitarist’s first album with his Golden Dragon band, has all those character-defining strengths. It also showcases his resourcefulness: The album introduces the guitar synthesizer, which Kawasaki helped invent.

Cover of Henry Grimes & Rashied Ali album Spirits AloftHenry Grimes (11/3/35 – 4/15/20)
“Arcopanorama”
Henry Grimes & Rashied Ali, Spirits Aloft (Porter, 2010)

A 10-minute-plus solo feature during a duo concert, “Arcopanorama” is a head-spinner, a free-form workout that highlights Grimes’ bass virtuosity from every conceivable angle. The only thing that astonishes more than his technical prowess is his boundless imagination.

Cover of The Giuseppi Logan Quartet albumGiuseppi Logan (5/22/35 – 4/17/20)
“Dance of Satan”
The Giuseppi Logan Quartet (ESP-Disk’, 1964)

With his raw sound and loose approach to tonality, saxophonist Giuseppi Logan sounded freer than he often was. Yet it’s certainly true that he was a complete original, and that he burst onto the scene fully formed in 1964. “Dance of Satan” sounds as fresh now as it did then.

Cover of Richie Cole album Alto MadnessRichie Cole (2/29/48 – 5/2/20)
“Last Tango in Paris”
Alto Madness (Muse, 1978)

Cole was known in the ’70s as the “keeper of the flame” for his fealty to classic bebop and his Parkerian alto sound. But on “Last Tango in Paris,” we hear him (and guitarist Vic Juris, who passed in 2019) pulling the edges of the harmony into out territory. All the same, he wails.

Cover of Introducing Wayne Shorter albumJimmy Cobb (1/20/29 – 5/24/20)
“Harry’s Last Stand”
Wayne Shorter, Introducing Wayne Shorter (VeeJay, 1959)

Come for the two-chorus solo—so perfect and resourceful that it’s become one of the jazz solos that drumming students are required to learn. Stay for the comping, so remarkable in its steadiness that Cobb is able to change his style several times without the casual listener even noticing.

Cover of Shirley Horn album Here's to LifeJohnny Mandel (11/23/25 – 6/29/20)
“Where Do You Start?”
Shirley Horn, Here’s to Life (Verve, 1992)

There’s splendor in every instant of Mandel’s arrangement of his own tune—from the French horn and flute figures in the intro to the delicate piano and synth ostinatos to the carefully swelling strings. It all seems calibrated for Horn’s behind-the-beat delivery, as if he knew exactly where her pauses would fall. It’s a tribute to Mandel’s masterful ear.

Cover of Ira Sullivan album After HoursIra Sullivan (5/1/31 – 9/21/20)
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”
After Hours (Go Jazz, 2000)

Ira Sullivan was a true polymath. On this performance of the Wolf and Landesman standard—with Sullivan on tenor sax—his chops are felt rather than heard. That is, he takes on the tune with taste, melody, and just enough muscle to show that a monster lurks under the surface.

Cover of Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Further OutEugene Wright (5/29/23 – 12/30/20)
“Unsquare Dance”
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Further Out (Columbia, 1961)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s metric experiments proved, among other things, how vital the bassist is to a jazz band’s basic ability to function. Eugene Wright’s unyielding 7/4 ostinato on “Unsquare Dance” may not be glamorous, but it’s both the bedrock and, in effect, the hook.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.