CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Steve Grossman 1951–2020

Saxophonist for Miles Davis and Elvin Jones in the ’70s, an American expat by the ’80s, he won praise from his peers but lived an enigmatic life

Steve Grossman
Steve Grossman at the Jazz Standard, New York, September 2010 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Steve Grossman, a tenor and soprano saxophonist who played fusion and bop with equal brawny authority, died August 13 at Glen Cove Hospital on Long Island, New York. He was 69.

His death was confirmed by his brother, Myles Grossman, who said that the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Grossman burst onto the jazz scene as the 18-year-old soprano saxist in Miles Davis’ newly formed band—one of the most coveted gigs in jazz—that stunned the world with its moody experiments in fusing jazz and rock. Once established on that funky and free platform, Grossman quickly proved his swing bona fides as well, in the band of another jazz star, drummer Elvin Jones. His versatility made him one of the busiest musicians in 1970s New York. In the 1980s, however, he left the jazz capital for Europe, building a strong career there over the next 30 years but falling into obscurity in the United States.

Eventually, Grossman made a powerful return to New York bandstands. His high-profile run at the Jazz Standard in late 2009 was not unlike Dexter Gordon’s homecoming of 30 years before. (Grossman even made an album called Homecoming, as Gordon had.) Afterward, he shuffled back and forth across the Atlantic and into South America. But at the time of his death he was living in the Long Island suburbs, primarily making a living teaching private lessons out of his home.

Although his contemporaries included Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker, and Bob Mintzer, “[h]e was the best of all of us,” Liebman said in a 2012 interview. “We, the tenor players of that time from our generation, all acknowledged that.”

His comings and goings, however, made Grossman difficult to pin down. Liebman’s daughter Lydia, a publicist, recalled that “he was always a presence in our lives, but he was also shrouded in mystery.”

Steven Mark Grossman was born January 18, 1951 in Brooklyn. He primarily grew up on Long Island, though the family also lived in Pittsburgh for a few years. His mother was a jazz fan, and Steve grew up saturated in the music. At eight years old, he wanted to play drums in school music classes, but, he told interviewer Brian Pace in 2009, “they didn’t have any sticks left.” Instead, his mother suggested that he take up saxophone. Grossman started on the alto; his older brother Hal, a trumpeter five years his senior, treated the choice as an inroad into the music of Charlie Parker for Steve, who soon became obsessed.

At 17, Grossman switched to tenor, attempting to emulate the playing of the recently deceased John Coltrane. He soon matriculated at the Juilliard School in Manhattan; his most important classrooms, however, were the Lower Manhattan lofts of his friends, fellow saxophonist Liebman and bassist Gene Perla.

In autumn 1969, when Grossman was 18, Miles Davis hired him for his new band. Davis had already recorded (though not yet released) Bitches Brew, and Grossman’s experiments with the style of late Coltrane meshed with Davis’ plugged-in avant garde. They soon recorded together, with the results of their November 1969 session split between Davis’ Live/Evil and Big Fun. He then toured with Davis in support of Bitches Brew, also appearing on his albums Jack Johnson, Miles at Fillmore, Black Beauty, and Get Up With It.

These albums, and his tour with Davis, featured Grossman on the soprano. It was his work with Elvin Jones, beginning in 1971, that made him a tenor star. Jones’ band was a quartet, with Liebman and Perla, placing Grossman with his longtime running buddies in an acoustic group that skated the cutting edge of mainstream jazz but also swung hard. It was a breakthrough that allowed Grossman to establish a solo career (his debut album, Some Shapes to Come, appeared in 1974) and also led him to a prolific and wide-ranging freelance career. In addition to Davis, Jones, and Stone Alliance—an ensemble that featured Perla, percussionist Don Alias, and Grossman as its core members—he worked regularly with bassist Teruo Nakamura, cornetist Terumasa Hino, trumpeter Márcio Montarroyos, and many others.

In 1981, following a European tour with the Gil Evans Orchestra, Grossman relocated to Amsterdam. From there, he said, he “kept moving south”—to Milan and Rome, while also spending some time in South America. Most of the time, however, Grossman lived in Bologna, Italy. He continued his jazz career in Europe, touring the continent and the British Isles as well as Japan. For a while, he still played regularly in the United States, but after 1994, there were no further American gigs until his 2009 “homecoming.”

After that triumphant engagement, however, Grossman returned to Italy, though he quietly moved back to the U.S. in the mid-2010s. He was beset by health problems; at the time of his death he had recently completed physical rehab for an injury to his hip.

Grossman is survived by his brother Miles; sister-in-law Cheryl; a nephew, Ian Grossman; and three nieces, Saydie Grossman, Elena Grossman, and Sari Cavanna. The family hopes to organize a memorial concert in his honor once COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

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.