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Bobby Few 1935–2021

The free-leaning American pianist became a jazz force in Europe

Bobby Few
Bobby Few at the 2000 Vision Festival in New York (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Bobby Few, a pianist whose intensity and originality were often overlooked in the larger jazz community, died January 6 in Paris. He was 85.

His death was first reported by the French newspaper Libération, and thereafter in multiple other outlets in France, where Few had lived since 1969. Cause of death was not disclosed.

Few was probably best known for his collaborations with saxophonists Albert Ayler, a friend of the pianist’s since their childhood in Cleveland; Steve Lacy; and Avram Fefer. He was among the first pianists to clearly show the influence of Cecil Taylor in his hammering, dense playing style.

However, Few’s range extended far beyond Taylor’s free jazz. He held much closer to the dictates of traditional swing rhythms and lyricism, often offsetting his freeform torrents with a lush, bell-like sound that suggested Duke Ellington or Dollar Brand; a janky, Monk-like rhythmic style; or an ethereal gauze that had few comparisons.

Establishing himself in his native Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s, Few moved later in the decade to New York, but spent only a few years there before settling in Paris. He remained there for the next 50-plus years, making occasional U.S. trips for festival or recording dates, but otherwise working steadily in the European jazz scene.

That remoteness from jazz’s homeland made him a fairly obscure figure in America. However, he remained well known and highly regarded in the avant-garde community, with U.S.-based musicians often making a point of working with him when they passed through Europe.

Robert Lee Few, Jr. was born October 21, 1935 in Cleveland to Robert Sr., a porter at a country club, and Winifred, a homemaker. Few grew up in Fairfax, an historic African-American neighborhood in the city. His mother first encouraged him to play classical piano as a child; in his teens, he discovered his father’s Jazz at the Philharmonic records and fell in love with jazz. Once he had become proficient in bebop, his father began booking him around town.

As a student Few played in a band with Albert Ayler, his classmate at John Adams High School (from which they both graduated in 1954). For the next dozen years, Few built a career in Cleveland. He worked with local heroes like trumpeter Bill Hardman, bassist Bob Cunningham, and saxophonist Tony Lovano; accompanied touring musicians who gigged on the city’s club circuit; and led trios of his own.

In about 1967, Few heeded his friend Ayler’s advice and moved to New York; he found an apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he discovered that his neighbor was Booker Ervin. Subsequently, Few made his first recording as a sideman on Ervin’s 1968 album The In Between. The pianist also found work with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and singer Brook Benton. In August 1969, he reunited with Ayler to perform on the saxophonist’s classic album Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe. The album served as his entrée into the free-jazz community, with which he would be associated for the rest of his life.

Few also worked regularly with another Cleveland acquaintance, saxophonist Frank Wright; he joined Wright’s quartet, under whose auspices Few went to Paris in 1969. He—and the rest of the band—soon settled in the city as a permanent home.

The band became known as the Center of the World, which evolved into a collective that also produced solo projects by each of its members. This included Few’s 1973 debut, More or Less Few, recorded with the quartet’s bassist Alan Silva and its drummer Muhammad Ali. (The band broke up in 1978.)

In the early 1980s, Few became close to another American expatriate, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, in whose working sextet the pianist became a member. In addition, he began collaborating with Archie Shepp and Sunny Murray, thus forging a community of American experimentalists living in Paris.

Few spent the rest of his career playing in Paris, touring France, and making the European festival rounds, with occasional appearances in the United States—perhaps most prominently a solo concert at the 2000 Vision Festival in New York—and sporadic recordings. After 2000, the majority of those recordings (and many of his American performances) were in partnership with tenor saxophonist Avram Fefer.

He made his final studio recording with the Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel’s group Undivided; The Passion was released in 2010.

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.