Dave Samuels 1948-2019

The Spyro Gyra and Caribbean Jazz Project vibraphonist passed away April 22

Dave Samuels at Litchfield Jazz Festival 2010
Dave Samuels at Litchfield Jazz Festival 2010 (photo: Nathan Turner)

Dave Samuels, a Grammy-award winning vibraphonist best known for his work over three decades with the crossover jazz-fusion band Spyro Gyra, passed away April 22 in New York City after a long illness. He was 70 years old.

His death was announced by the band on its official Facebook page, and confirmed by his daughter, Sarah Samuels. The exact cause of death has not been disclosed.

Prior to his work with Spyro Gyra, Samuels was a member of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s sextet, accompanying him on his legendary 1974 Carnegie Hall reunion concert with trumpeter Chet Baker. He was also a freelancer with the likes of Carla Bley, Frank Zappa, David Friedman, and Paul McCandless, and released several albums under his own name throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, Samuels founded the Caribbean Jazz Project, an acclaimed and award-winning Latin-jazz ensemble that became his primary vehicle for the remainder of his career.

“[I]f you’re an improviser, playing the same material doesn’t have to be a handicap,” Samuels told journalist Don Heckman of his approach to performance. “Even if you’re playing something for the 300th time, you can still come up with something new. Or at least you can inspire someone else to play something different. It’s one way to keep yourself vibrant and alive.”

David Alan Samuels was born October 9, 1948 in Waukegan, Illinois. The third of three brothers, he began to play drums at age six, inspired by his two older brothers who played saxophone and piano. He began playing professionally at 15, and shortly thereafter began exploring the jazz clubs in nearby Chicago. In 1966 he enrolled in Boston University, where he learned to play vibraphone and marimba, and extended his studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied under Gary Burton.

Samuels moved to New York in 1974, where his chops and Burton’s endorsement quickly gained him work with Mulligan’s band, as well as recording sessions on Bley’s seminal “3/4 for Piano and Orchestra” and Zappa’s jazz-infected 1977 album Zappa in New York.

It was as a session musician that he first encountered Spyro Gyra “when they were a local bar band up in Buffalo,” he told Heckman. “For the first five or six years I was basically just a hired musician who’d go into the studio and overdub my music.” Nevertheless, Samuels performed on each of the band’s first six albums before becoming a full-time member with their seventh, 1983’s City Kids.

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“One day they called me up and asked me to go on tour,” he recalled. “I looked in my date book, saw an awful lot of white space and said, ‘Why not?’ and it’s just continued on from there.”

His busy schedule with Spyro Gyra did not prevent Samuels from maintaining a solo career, however. He made his first album, One Step Ahead, in 1980—the first of 10 solo albums. He also continued freelancing with McCandless, Friedman, and others, and in 1995 was a part of Gerry Mulligan’s final recordings.

In 1993 Samuels founded, with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and steelpannist Andy Narell, the Caribbean Jazz Project. It soon became Samuels’ project alone, a vehicle for exploring various styles of Latin and Afro-Caribbean jazz. Samuels left Spyro Gyra in 2005 and made the Caribbean Jazz Project his primary musical outlet. The group won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album (2002’s The Gathering) and a Latin Grammy in the same category (2008’s Afro Bop Alliance).

Samuels was also an active and sought-after educator, teaching at both Berklee and the New England Conservatory of Music. He made a two-volume instructional video, Mallet Keyboard Musicianship, in 1988, and published a method book, Contemporary Vibraphone Technique, in 1992.

“It’s a process that’s always growing; it never stops,” he said of learning about music. “There’s always something new that someone is doing, or something different that someone is doing. It’s endless.

“It has nothing to do with whether you become a professional musician or not. It has to do with you becoming a professional human being.”

Samuels’ family plans to host a memorial service in New York in early May. Details will be announced as they develop on social media.