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Henry Grimes and Giuseppi Logan: Parallel Lives

The journeys of the bassist and multi-reedist seemed to mirror each other uncannily—but did they really?

Henry Grimes (photo: Seth Tisue)
Henry Grimes, November 3, 1935 – April 15, 2020 (photo: Seth Tisue)

Given the eerie similarities between avant-gardists Henry Grimes and Giuseppi Logan, what might be most surprising about them was what they didn’t share.

Grimes, a bassist (who died April 15 of complications from COVID-19) and Logan, a multi-reedist (who died April 17, also of COVID), were both born in 1935—less than six months apart—in Philadelphia; both received formal musical training; both became significant figures in the mid-’60s “New Thing” and recorded for the ESP-Disk’ label; both then vanished from the public eye for decades, only to resurface in the 2000s and be welcomed back into the jazz community.

And, in a final twist that might make Dickens blush, they both passed away in the same week, in the same city, of the same disease.

These uncanny coincidences—“their stories now feel cosmically linked,” as Giovanni Russonello put it in the New York Times—make it that much odder that they’re only known to have played together twice. The first was in November 1965 (probably—it was documented in a December ’65 issue of the East Village Other) at Slugs’ on the Lower East Side, with Grimes working in Logan’s quartet; the second was at the Vision Festival in June 2009, when headliner Grimes invited Logan to sit in for a two-minute duo.

Some of the poetic dimension fades once it becomes clear that their journeys weren’t made together. But then again, isn’t jazz an art form for the rugged individualist? Its practitioners interact, but it’s their uniqueness we celebrate. Perhaps the key to making sense of Grimes and Logan’s many points of common ground lies in the complicated, highly personal paths by which they arrived at them.

Although they shared a birthplace in Philadelphia, Grimes was already in New York at 17, a student at Juilliard. It wasn’t long before he had created a high demand for his playing. He was a member of bands led by Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Tony Scott, showing a robust tone and advanced ear for harmony, and playing so preternaturally at the center of the beat that he could have stymied Ray Brown.

Grimes appears in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the beloved documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, performing with Thelonious Monk; in fact, Monk was one of six acts with whom the bassist performed that weekend, including Benny Goodman and Sonny Rollins along with Konitz, Mulligan, and Scott. This 22-year-old was skillful, versatile, and seasoned: a force to be reckoned with.

Though he also experimented early with the avant-garde—playing with Cecil Taylor on the 1961 Gil Evans-led Into the Hot—he ultimately eased his way into it. From Taylor he went next to Shirley Scott Plays Horace Silver, arguably the hardest-swinging date of his career. He then tiptoed toward the outside via Roy Haynes (Out of the Afternoon), McCoy Tyner (Reaching Fourth), and the Sonny Rollins/Don Cherry quartet (Live in Paris). It wasn’t until mid-decade that he went all-in on the New Thing, appearing on such totems as Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice, Sunny Murray’s Sonny’s Time Now, and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures. He also worked with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, and in 1965 recorded his own (bold but remarkably accessible) trio album, The Call.

By the time he departed in 1968 for California—where he hoped to find steady work, but instead found 35 years of destitute obscurity—Grimes had left behind a remarkable legacy, charting his development from utility bassist to revolutionary.

Giuseppi Logan, May 22, 1935 - April 17, 2020 (photo: Jon Rawlinson)
Giuseppi Logan, May 22, 1935 – April 17, 2020 (photo: Jon Rawlinson)

The contrast between Grimes and Logan couldn’t be starker. The latter seemed on his 1964 arrival in New York to have dropped out of the sky a fully formed, abstract-expressionist genius. His evolution was undocumented. Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography, a massive online database of jazz recording information, lists 109 sessions across Grimes’ lifetime; for Logan, it lists six.

Of course, he was not an untutored phenom. Logan (who in early childhood moved from Philly to Norfolk, Virginia) had learned piano from his father, played alto saxophone in school, and apprenticed as a teenager with Earl Bostic, the jazz-turned-R&B saxophonist. He then spent his formative period in Boston, where he studied at New England Conservatory and made a habit of sitting in with visiting jazz musicians like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Milford Graves, the drummer who encouraged Logan to move to New York when he heard the saxophonist’s forceful but abstract sound.

When he came to the jazz capital, Logan appeared to be not just a visionary but also a readymade leader. He reached New York in September 1964; come October, he was heading up a trio at the infamous “October Revolution in Jazz,” almost immediately after which he recorded The Giuseppi Logan Quartet for ESP-Disk’. Unlike Grimes, Logan released a followup, the live 1965 More, showcasing a sound that borrowed Middle Eastern drones (among Logan’s instruments was the Pakistani oboe) and had its own intensity, distinct from those of Ornette Coleman’s vernacular honk and Albert Ayler’s relentless torrents.

Both men’s disappearances were related to mental illness: Grimes was treated for bipolar disorder in California, while Logan spent some time in institutions, apparently related to drug abuse. But while Grimes was entirely removed from the scene, living in Los Angeles squalor without a bass (or even hearing about Albert Ayler’s 1970 death), Logan vanished largely into plain sight, playing standards on his saxophone in Tompkins Square Park. Grimes was found by an enterprising fan who researched public records; Logan was found because he came into Sam Ash to buy a reed.

Knowing these different sojourns, however, we can celebrate the similar ways in which they reclaimed the top tier of the avant-garde in the 21st century, feted as returning heroes and farsighted pioneers who had overcome their demons. Soon Grimes was once again working as a sideman (though he made a few more albums of his own) with a new generation of innovators like Marc Ribot and Bill McHenry, as well as his old cohorts Roswell Rudd and Dave Burrell. Logan was once again a leader, writing new material but also performing standards with his newly formed bands. And both their deaths at 84 were far too soon.

In the end, Grimes’ and Logan’s adventures didn’t really parallel each other as much as it may have seemed … but they had no parallels anywhere else, either.

COVID-19: The Casualties

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.