Eddie Gale, an avant-garde jazz trumpeter who pushed a forward-thinking vision and strongly advocated for both the music and its practitioners over a nearly 60-year career, died July 10 in San Jose, California. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his sister, Joann Stevens, who said that Gale had been battling prostate cancer.
Gale walked on jazz’s cutting edge from his childhood. He was taught to play trumpet by bebop legend Kenny Dorham; as a teenager in the 1950s, he jammed with such titanic figures as Art Blakey and Jackie McLean; and he joined the Sun Ra Arkestra at 21. In addition to Ra, with whom he would work until the mid-1980s, Gale appeared on iconic and important recordings by Cecil Taylor and Larry Young before releasing two highly acclaimed albums of his own in the late 1960s on Blue Note Records. The label noted in a statement that Gale had left an “incredible legacy.”
Relocating from New York to San Jose in 1972, Gale built the remainder of his life and career there, also building a strong profile as an educator. He founded the area’s Evergreen Youth Adult Jazz Society, and the We’re Jazzed! Youth/Adult Jazz Festival.
“I found that I really enjoyed teaching young people about jazz,” Gale told JazzTimes in 2007. “I received a lot of help from some great musicians early on in my life, so it felt good to share that same experience.”
The city’s mayor proclaimed him “San Jose’s Ambassador of Jazz” in 1974, a badge of honor that the trumpeter wore proudly for the rest of his life.
In addition, Gale was a passionate advocate and activist for musicians’ health and wellness; among other philanthropic endeavors, he founded Jazz Musicians’ Self-Help Healthcare, a fundraising program whose proceeds went to the Jazz Foundation of America.
Edward Gale Stevens Jr. was born August 15, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, an area famously rich with jazz musicians. McLean, Randy Weston, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins were neighbors; Bud Powell, he recalled, “lived around the corner from me.” Even as he was surrounded by the greatest musical innovators of the era, however, it took Gale’s joining of the Cub Scouts at age eight to bring him into music: He became the bugler for his troop.
The bugle would inspire him to try the trumpet, and at 17 he began taking lessons from Dorham. Gale was a fast learner: Before long he was holding his own at jam sessions with New York greats like Blakey and Roach, and sitting in with the likes of Sonny Stitt. (One night Stitt told Gale to go home and “learn how to play slow,” which he would later cite as a formative piece of advice.) By 1962, he was a member of the Arkestra.
It was both Gale’s professional and creative breakthrough; from Ra he learned to trust his imagination, which would inform his career thereafter. In May 1966, pianist Cecil Taylor brought Gale in to play on his Blue Note album Unit Structures, which would become a foundational text in the blossoming jazz avant-garde. Two months later, he played on organist Larry Young’s exploratory Of Love and Peace. His real mark, however, came with his own 1968 and 1969 Blue Note LPs, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening, albums that presaged the 1970s merger of jazz, R&B, and funk.
In 1970, Gale moved to California and became artist in residence at Stanford University, then relocated in 1972 to San Jose, where, in addition to performing and working in the local schools, he helped develop a music program at San Jose State University. He also forged a partnership with the San Jose State Cultural Heritage Center that allowed him to produce a series of annual Concerts for World Peace, and Concerts for Inner Peace in America and the World.
After performing on five Sun Ra albums in the 1970s and ’80s (including the classic Lanquidity), Gale released several more acclaimed albums as a leader, including 1992’s A Minute with Miles and 2004’s Afro Fire. Most significantly, he remained a stalwart of jazz in both San Jose and northern California overall, finding a new generation of fans as a collaborator with the Bay Area psychedelic band Mushroom on their 2007 album Joint Happening.
Gale was the recipient of the Sankofa Award from the California Arts Council in 2001, marking 25 years of service in the arts to the state, and was inducted in 2019 into the Black Legends Hall of Fame of Silicon Valley.
Among his final undertakings were a 50th-anniversary reissue of Ghetto Music in 2018, and an initiative to give away dozens of free trumpets to the youth of San Jose.
In addition to his sister Joann, Gale is survived by two other siblings; his wife of 35 years, Georgette; four daughters, Donna, Chanel, Djuana, and Teyonda; two sons, Marc and Gwilu; 12 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.