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Excavating the Career of Sam Rivers

He played with Miles Davis in the ’60s, essentially created the New York loft-jazz scene in the ’70s, and made compelling music for 30 more years. Will new books and archival albums finally give his legacy the respect it deserves?

Sam Rivers 1997
Sam Rivers at Sweet Basil, New York, September 1997 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

One of the most extraordinary jazz concerts I’ve ever attended was the unaccompanied duo of Sam Rivers and Dave Holland at D.C. Space on May 23, 1980. It was a small room filled with folding chairs on the second floor above a bar at 7th and E Streets in Washington. Standing at one end, Rivers improvised a phrase on soprano sax; Holland improvised a response on bass, and they launched into the first of two hourlong sets that justified every claim ever made for the concept of “spontaneous composition.”

It was spontaneous not just in the sense of working without notation or themes, but also in the sense of refusing to fall back on practiced licks. In the cramped quarters, the audience could tell that each musician was surprising himself as well as his partner, as each new phrase grew out of the previous one. That linkage of phrase to phrase into handsome architecture, built from frustration and satisfaction, validated the music as true composition—as structured and emotional as any painstakingly assembled score.

“He’d start playing; I’d start playing, and we’d be off,” Holland remembers. “It was all about listening to each other on the bandstand. It was immersing yourself completely in the music, embracing your fellow musicians and being ready to follow the music wherever it led. We could change on a dime. We’d hit a groove or a melody and it would sound like it was written. People would often say that.”

“Traditionally in jazz you play a theme,” Rivers told me in 2005, “and then you improvise on that or on the harmonic material. I decided to take it a little further. You take a theme and then depart from it without regard to the underlying harmonics. The next step is to start with nothing and just create everything right then and there. A lot of musicians were going in that direction: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. The high point was in the late ’70s. The unfortunate fact is that musicians are getting better, but the avenues of expression are getting less. It’s harder to make records now.”

Rivers and Holland had each toured with Miles Davis at different times in the 1960s, but now they were up to something more adventurous. Rivers, 49, his afro rising behind a spacious forehead, his high cheekbones angling to a goatee, moved on to tenor sax, piano, and flute. Holland, 33, his reddish short hair and modest beard framing a round face, switched from upright bass to cello for the second set.

“They worked against their own reflexive habits,” I wrote in the next morning’s Washington Post, “to create an austere music free of repetition and style but full of feeling and exploration. Each musician closed his eyes in obvious concentration, listening carefully to himself and his partner. As each lost himself in a creative trance, the music improved unmistakably as the night progressed.”

It was exceptional, and yet Rivers has never received his due in jazz history—not even in the subset of avant-garde jazz history. The reason for that was reflected in the audience that night, which numbered just seven people, myself included. It was the period between John Coltrane’s death and Wynton Marsalis’ debut album, when public interest in acoustic jazz was at a low ebb, and a lot of brilliant work was overlooked as a result. After interest ticked upward again with the “Young Lions,” Rivers moved out of New York in 1991 and relocated to Orlando, where he created a new scene and more terrific music, only too far from the spotlight.

“Sam was a free spirit who wove his musical influences into something beautiful and unique,” Holland says today. “But there are countless musicians who do amazing things that never rise to the status that you and I may think they deserve. It’s just the way the business works. It may be they chose a path that was more unique and more challenging. On the other hand, we played before thousands of people in Europe, and they were astounded by what we did.”

There are some signs that Rivers’ reputation may be on the rise at last. Rick Lopez’s The Sam Rivers Sessionography, an exhaustive compilation of his every known live performance and recording session peppered with illustrations and interview snippets, is being published this year. Ed Hazell’s Energy Center, a history of Rivers’ famed 1970s New York performance space Studio RivBea, is due next year. Most importantly, the Lithuanian label NoBusiness Records has released six rare live recordings from the Rivers family vault since 2019.

The latest release is this year’s Caldera, selections from a concert by Rivers’ Orlando trio with Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole at New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center on March 9, 2002. Here is evidence that what Rivers was creating in Florida was every bit as potent as the music he made for Blue Note in the ’60s or Impulse! in the early ’70s or when he was King of the Lofts in Lower Manhattan in the late ’70s.

The album showcases not only Rivers’ own multi-instrumental versatility but also the flexibility he encouraged in his bandmates. The set begins with Rivers and Cole playing dual pianos over Mathews’ acoustic bass and evolves into Rivers playing soprano sax and Cole tenor sax over Mathews’ bass clarinet. Finally they settle into their default format—Rivers on tenor, Cole on drums, Mathews on bass—for the leader’s most famous composition, “Beatrice,” named for his wife.

“I remember that was a very fun concert,” Mathews says today. “Things were hitting pretty good at that point. I might have recorded that show. It was always fun when we got to do something with two pianos, which happened maybe 20 times. We’d say, ‘Hey, there’s another piano on the other side of the stage; can we use it?’”

“Everything I play is an extension of the piano,” Rivers said in 2005, “because I’m a pianist first and foremost. You can play all these chords and melodies; it’s a self-contained instrument, everything’s right there. I played violin and piano in school, but I started playing soprano sax so I could get in the marching band. But even when I’m writing on the piano, I have the saxophone and the flute in my ear.”

The highlight of the NoBusiness releases is Braids, recorded in Hamburg, Germany, on May 15, 1979, with a quartet featuring Holland, tuba player Joe Daley, and drummer Thurman Barker. As often happened during a Rivers show, the music keeps getting better as the musicians tune in more exactly to each other’s frequencies. By the time the leader has moved from tenor to flute to soprano to piano, the collective improvisation is so cohesive that one could be fooled into thinking it was a chart, even though it was music no one—not even the musicians—had heard before.

“One of the last dates on that European tour was a broadcast from the Hamburg radio station,” Daley remembers. “That was an amazing, intimate concert, one of the highest levels we ever reached. The acoustics were really nice with top-quality microphones. The most important thing about playing in a quartet with Sam was being able to hear. It was all about listening.”

In both New York and Florida, Rivers worked with both small combos and big bands. While the former usually played totally improvised shows, the larger ensembles worked from the voluminous, challenging scores that the composer was constantly revising. The small combo usually formed the core of the orchestra, so there was always a connection between the two.

“This wasn’t like most big bands,” Daley adds, “where someone would stand and take a solo, while everyone else took a breather. With Sam, you’d have group improvisations, and then jump right back into the chart. Even though you were given the opportunity to improvise freely, the goal was to do it in a way that the audience couldn’t tell when you left the paper. We could do that, because Sam had rehearsed us enough that everyone could pick up on his colors and rhythms.”

“From 1976 till 1982, I basically didn’t take any gigs other than with Sam. I felt anything I wanted to do, I could do with him.” –Dave Holland

Whatever the size of the ensemble, Rivers’ music was rooted in the blues. All you may need to know about him is that in 1964 he went directly from T-Bone Walker’s band to the Miles Davis Quintet, from playing “Stormy Monday” with the showboating but gifted Texas bluesman to playing “So What” with the Prince of Darkness, and never missed a beat. The son of traveling gospel musicians, Rivers was born in Oklahoma in 1923, grew up in Chicago and Little Rock, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and studied with composer Alan Hovhaness at the Boston Conservatory of Music. That combination of blues, gospel, and cerebral art music would serve him well for the rest of his life.

“Sam always rocked,” says Marty Khan, Rivers’ manager in the ’70s. “He could be way out there and still be absolutely rocking. It was that blues groove and that blues language always kept him grounded, even when he got far out. He seldom got into that ether area, that spacy realm that a lot of his colleagues did. And if he did it for a minute, he’d go right back to the slamming.”

In the late ’50s in Boston, Rivers and Jaki Byard were the main writers in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, while the Sam Rivers Quartet featured pianist Hal Galper, bassist Henry Grimes, and a 13-year-old Tony Williams on drums. Williams repaid the favor in 1964 by convincing Miles Davis to hire Rivers as a replacement for George Coleman on a tour of Japan. Rivers was just holding the tenor chair until Wayne Shorter could get free from the Jazz Messengers, and he appeared on only one Davis recording, Miles in Tokyo, recorded in 1964 but not released until 1969 in Japan and 1996 in the U.S.

Holland played with Davis in 1968-70 and was exploring new avenues of improvisation when he followed drummer Barry Altschul to a Rivers rehearsal in lower Manhattan in 1973. The young bassist was so inspired by the experience that he started playing regularly with the saxophonist, even inviting him to play a major role on Holland’s landmark debut album as a bandleader, 1973’s Conference of the Birds, which also included Altschul and Anthony Braxton (Holland, Altschul and Braxton had recently been in the band Circle with Chick Corea).

“I have to teach musicians how to play my music,” Rivers said in 2005, “the same way I had to teach Dave Holland in the ’70s. Dave had just left Miles Davis, but my music was much more complicated, so he had a lot of catching up to do. If you’re used to reading one book and you start reading another book, you have to adapt. It’s the same with music.”

“From 1976 till 1982,” Holland says, “I basically didn’t take any gigs other than with Sam. I felt anything I wanted to do, I could do with him. Every night I could come and explore the music with Sam and the other musicians and have a completely blank slate, and introduce anything we wanted to introduce: swing, ballads, blues, free improv. I couldn’t think of anything else I could do that would offer as much inspiration and challenge as this method of open-plan playing.”

“There was some resentment from Dave‘s family that he turned things down to play with Sam,” says Khan. “It was really the music, what it did for each of them. That was a musical connection as powerful as I’ve ever seen with any two musicians. Whenever I booked Sam into Storyville in New York, Betty Carter came in every night and said, ‘Sam better treat that white boy right or I’m going to steal him.’ And then she did.”

(Dave Holland responds: “The quote from Marty Khan … [that] ‘there was resentment from Dave’s family that he turned things down to play with Sam’ … was absolutely not true … [A]nyone that knew my late wife Clare knows that she loved the music and was always 100% supportive, doing everything she could to make it possible for me to make those decisions and have a family. It is true that we, like many others, had many lean years as a result of the creative choices made regarding the music I felt I needed to play, but she was always ready to do what she could to enable that. … I’m sure there were no bad intentions on Marty’s part, he just didn’t know the reality.”)

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.