Strength & Power: In Praise of Roswell Rudd

A tribute concert and launch of a website containing the legendary trombonist’s archives are keeping his legacy alive

Roswell Rudd

On Dec. 22, 2017, the jazz and creative music world suffered a crater-sized blow when visionary composer and forward-thinking trombonist Roswell Rudd passed away after a long battle with cancer.

The glorious, volcanic, Dixieland-informed sound that blew from Rudd’s trombone is so unmistakably Roswell Rudd that it might as well be its own genre. From his seminal work with Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp to the New York Art Quartet and New York Eye and Ear Control (with Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray) to his latter-day collaborations with Malian, Mongolian, and Chinese musicians (the bulk released by Sunnyside Records), Rudd was the epitome of renegade. All the while, he inspired veterans and young upstarts alike, including pianist (and Kerhonkson, N.Y., neighbor) Jamie Saft, vocalist Fay Victor, and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who cites the New York Art Quartet and Shepp’s Live in San Francisco as touchstones that helped him realize the vision of Sexmob, his longtime avant-jazz group.

It’s arguable that many of Rudd’s latter-day achievements wouldn’t have happened without his creative and life partner, Verna Gillis. Having first met in the 1970s, they ultimately found kindred spirits in each other after they both lost their spouses. “It’s what I call a ‘full immersion life’ because we lived together, we worked together, we did everything together,” Gillis explains of the 19 years they shared as a couple. “It was a different time in our lives. What I really know about Roswell and his music is what we did together, what happened during those years.”

Now Gillis is celebrating Rudd’s musical life and legacy with a mammoth concert event in Brooklyn that will coincide with the launch of a website where the trombonist’s archive of audio, video, and print documents will be readily available. Rudd’s final recording, titled “Infrastructure Blues,” will also be released.

On Nov. 17, on what would have been Rudd’s 83rd birthday, Gillis (with help from ace show booker Adam Schatz and Bernstein) will present “I Never Left & Now I’m Back,” a tribute concert featuring a hall-of-fame-caliber lineup of Rudd’s collaborators and peers, at Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre. “People would turn out for Roswell’s sound, because of who he was as a player,” Gillis says. “Now we’re shifting the focus away from that to his music, because he was also a pretty amazing composer. That’s how he lives on. That’s what this is really about.”

Not only will Rudd’s music be celebrated onstage by over 30 musicians—including Bernstein, Saft, drummer Harvey Sorgen, trombonist Steve Swell, and singer Heather Masse—but the website containing his archives is also scheduled to go live that same night. “Through Ben Young, a scholar and historian who is writing a book on Cecil Taylor and Tom Bellino, all of Roswell’s archives will be at WPI, which is Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts,” Gillis explains. “Ben came over and organized everything. All of Roswell’s scores will be digital, and people will be able to download them. It’s definitely what I would call a coordinated effort.”

As for the concert’s quirky title, Gillis reveals the history behind it: “Roswell’s wife had been ill and he wasn’t getting out there. When his wife went into the nursing home, we started living and working together, so he was suddenly back out there, and one of the reporters said, ‘What happened? You disappeared.’ And that’s when Roswell said, ‘I never left and now I’m back.’”

In advance of the Nov. 17 events, JazzTimes spoke to Gillis, along with Bernstein, Saft, Sorgen, Victor, and Swell, who all paid homage to the late great “Incredible Honk.”

Buy tickets for “I Never Left and Now I’m Back” here (all proceeds will be donated to the Roswell Rudd Scholarship for brass students at the Roundout Valley High School in Accord, N.Y.). Click here for the Roswell Rudd Archive of the Jazz History Database site.

Roswell Rudd in performance, 2013
Roswell Rudd in performance, 2013 (photo: Ilene Carter)

Verna Gillis: I first met Roswell in the ’70s in New York. I ran a venue called Soundscape and he performed there several times. Then in 1981, right before [Thelonious] Monk died, I did a fabulous program that was actually the idea of my husband, Bradford Graves, called “Interpretations of Monk.” Brad had an extraordinary jazz collection so I would always hear Roswell in the house, and his sound just got into my body. I worked with artists over the years and I can tell you there’s a moment when you fall in love with them as an artist. Roswell was one of those people that just took me over. His music gets in your body, it startles you, it changes things for you. I got to live with that and that sound for so many years. I used to call Roswell “Big Ears,” meaning he could have landed anywhere in the world with his trombone and found a way into the music.

Steven Bernstein: I was in 10th grade in my town in Berkeley, California, when I went home with [Charlie Haden’s 1970 album] Liberation Music Orchestra and I heard Roswell play “We Shall Overcome.” That was it, man. I was gone. It was over for me. I heard this sound and I said, “This is just the greatest sound ever.” I’ve been a record collector since I was a kid, so I just got everything I could find with Roswell on it. Another one of my big favorites was his solo on Dinner Music by Carla Bley, on “Sing Me Softly of the Blues.” That was a huge influence on me, and New York Art Quartet.

Jamie Saft: I was particularly drawn to Ros’ work with Steve Lacy, as well as to a 1975 album called Flexible Flyer. The composition “Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi” from that album is absolutely crucial. Roswell always brought a particular positivity to all the music he was involved with. This really stands out, even in a large-group setting. He was a bridge between so many generations of musicians, an expert on most every popular style of music from the early 1900s and beyond. He understood Western classical music, African musics of all kinds, musics from all around the world. Roswell was a historian of music who had completely absorbed these traditions and transcended them. He brought this encyclopedic knowledge to his improvising each time he played. It informed everything he did—in music and in life.

Bernstein: Well, what can you say [about Roswell’s sound]? I mean, you can’t even put it into words. It called out to me but it called out to everyone. There’s so many people who’ve been influenced by Roswell. Here’s the deal about Roswell: He is basically the original guy who put everything together, in the sense that he was drawing on all kinds of music. Beboppers were creating bebop, swing musicians were creating swing, free guys were creating the free stuff—whatever you want to put it, people were doing what their community of music was doing and that’s what they were focused on, unless it was someone like Miles who kept changing. But Roswell, I think, was the guy that opened the door to bringing everything in early on.

Fay Victor (vocalist on Rudd’s final album, Embrace): I remember precisely when I heard Roswell Rudd live for the first time. It was 2008 at the Rubin Museum [in Manhattan], playing in a duo with pianist Lafayette Harris, and it was life-altering. His sound was big and warm, just a beautiful timbre with metallic edges. What hit me too was the spiritual power in his playing that felt like an extension of who he was, plus the great interaction with Lafayette Harris. At the end of the concert, I went up to Roswell backstage, meeting him in person for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt what I’d heard was absolutely true!

Harvey Sorgen: Ros came from a sorta Dixieland-type background and the jubilation in his playing, no matter what he was playing, was always there—that big sound, that joy, that strength. I found it really fascinating. He’s one of the cats, man.

Steve Swell: On December 22, 2017, I received a call at 4:45 a.m. from one of my sisters that my father had passed away. I woke up a few hours later to find out that Roswell Rudd was gone too that morning, at 6 a.m. The two men that meant the most to me and had the most impact on my life were gone. My father, who sparked my interest in music—he was a musician himself—and Roswell Rudd, my mentor and friend who inspired my love, commitment, and openness to music. Roswell initially did this before I ever met him, from my hearing his music over the radio. When I did meet him through the Jazz Interactions program on the Upper West Side as a 19-year-old new to the city, he was everything I expected. His classes focused on ways to do end runs around the more mundane approaches to improvisation, inside and outside. He was an original and remained so, calling his own shots, doing the music that most interested him at any given time throughout his life.

Sorgen: We did play a bunch and I met him very young, which was pretty amazing. I guess I was 18 and I met him in New Paltz. For one semester, at the school there [SUNY New Paltz], which happened to coincide with the one semester I went, Ros taught a course that knocked out all of us musicians that were involved with it. It was so different and so off the beaten track for a standard music program at a university. Being that age and hearing the things that he was talking about was completely enlightening.

“No matter what he did, they referred to him as ‘avant-garde.’ That’s crazy! He was a musician, above all. He had sympathy and empathy, and he found his way in.”

 

Bernstein: I realized when [Roswell and I] started hanging out that me and my friends didn’t really know enough about harmony, because Roswell had come through New Orleans traditional music. Being a trombone player, he would play what are called the counter-melodies. The melody person plays the melody notes, the bass person plays the bass notes, and the trombone player has to find the other notes and move them through the chords—which means you really have to understand harmony. Then, of course, he and Steve Lacy put together the first Monk repertory band in the early ’60s. Check out the record School Days [recorded in 1963, first released on vinyl in 1975 and reissued on CD several times since]. And he was studying and playing with Herbie Nichols, who was … not coming out of Monk, but similar in that he was an idiosyncratic piano player who wrote his own music. Here’s what I’m getting at: When most people play harmony, that’s what you hear, you don’t hear their sound so much. You know what I’m saying? You’re hearing it like, “Oh my god, all this incredible harmony!” But Roswell, you just go, “Oh my god, this sound!” He was a complete musician.

Sorgen: His juxtaposition of the inside and outside was completely unique. I didn’t hear anybody playing like that at that time. I was looking back in one of my filing cabinets and found a bunch of music that he wrote for the band. That was really nice, to look at his hand again, so to speak.

Bernstein: You look at his charts and they are meticulous, man. And he doesn’t take shortcuts. Most musicians write shortcuts to make things easier, but no, he was a very meticulous chart writer. Meticulous musician.

Saft: What a joy it has been to have Roswell and Verna as neighbors. I feel so fortunate to have been able to engineer a number of recording sessions for them. They were always cooking up a new tune or idea. Their love for each other was an inspiration to us all. I’d often go by their house and Roswell would be out toiling away in their garden with a giant smile on his face. Sometimes I’d sit inside at the piano and suddenly out of nowhere a giant BLAAAAT would come blasting into my ear—Roswell would walk around and play his trombone all day. Sometimes he’d be out in the yard playing music. His giant sound would soar over trees and through the woods, echoing throughout the whole neighborhood. It was a clarion call similar to the shofar, the horn of the ram used in Jewish ceremony. Roswell could cut through all the b.s. of life, of music, and get right to essentials. He was a great master of life, and his positivity and constant striving for something better stands as an inspiration to all of us.

Bernstein: I remember going to see Gangbé Brass Band at Joe’s Pub with Roswell sitting in. Jim Jarmusch was backstage and he was like, “Oh my god! It’s Roswell Rudd! You’re my hero!” One time I was over at Levon [Helm]’s house and Roswell called and Levon was right there. We were rehearsing for [the 2012 benefit concert] “Love for Levon.” Don Was was there, and I said, “That was just Roswell,” and Don Was says, “Roswell Rudd? That’s my hero!” So many people, from Sonic Youth to Jim Jarmusch to Don Was—all these people have been influenced by Roswell. I was thinking: How many trombone players are influential? There are great trombone players, and they influence other trombone players. He left a giant cultural footprint. Giant.

Victor: Roswell was a dream to work with! Always soulful and genuine. Even if he wasn’t feeling well, he was full of grace and caring. I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. And if he had an issue in the music, felt something needed addressing, he’d say that clear and positive as well. He often shared how he felt about the music in the moment. One of the things I miss most is the way Roswell would greet you. Arms up, open and stretched out, happy for a human embrace. He was as positive as it gets.

Bernstein: Roswell was the first one to cross-pollinate so much. He was just way, way, way ahead of everybody. I saw him sit in with an African brass band, and he went to Mali and made a record. I remember hearing an interview [with him] on WKCR and he was going on about going to Timbuktu and he goes, “When I was a little kid, they used to say, ‘From here to Timbuktu.’” We thought Timbuktu was the other side of the world—if you put a hole through the world and dug straight to the other side, you’d be in Timbuktu. He went and played in Timbuktu. What a story, man. He got stage-four cancer and lived another five years and made another six records!

Gillis: That was one of those unique things about him: Roswell could become part of any musical situation, he could just hear it all. In fact, a lot of the projects we did together were about that: putting trombone into Chinese music, Mongolian music, and Malian music. It was an extraordinary journey. No matter what he did, they referred to him as “avant-garde.” That’s crazy! In a certain way, being called avant-garde, honestly, became a kiss of death. Even when he did the things with the Malian musicians or the Mongolian musicians, they would refer to him as “the avant-garde musician Roswell Rudd.” He was a musician, above all. That’s who he was. He had sympathy and empathy, and he found his way in.

Roswell Rudd, 2004
Roswell Rudd, 2004 (photo: Alex Troesch)