Hamiet Bluiett Dies at 78

The baritone sax innovator was a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet

Knitting Factory, June 29, 1997

Hamiet Bluiett at the Knitting Factory, NYC, June 29, 1997 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Hamiet Bluiett, one of the most renowned baritone saxophonists of the modern era, died Thursday, Oct. 4, at St. Louis University Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. He was 78. The cause of death has not yet been revealed, but his passing was confirmed on Facebook by two daughters, Anaya Bluiett and Bridgett Vasquez. Bluiett—who had worked since the 1970s as a leader and as a core member of the World Saxophone Quartet—had been battling severe health problems for years, having experienced numerous strokes and seizures.

In a 2001 JazzTimes review, writer Ron Wynn said, “There haven’t been many more aggressive, demonstrative baritone saxophonists in recent jazz history than Hamiet Bluiett. He dominates in the bottom register, playing with a fury and command that becomes even more evident when he moves into the upper register, then returns with ease to the baritone’s lowest reaches.”

Hamiet Bluiett was born Sept. 6, 1940, in Brooklyn, Ill. (outside of St. Louis), and studied piano, trumpet, and clarinet as a child. He began his professional career playing clarinet (which he continued to play throughout his life), and gravitated toward the bari sax while attending Southern Illinois University. He played in the U.S. Navy Band and, upon his discharge, co-founded the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, which mixed free jazz, dance, poetry, and experimental theater. Bluiett led the BAG big band for two years, after which it disbanded.

Bluiett moved to New York City in 1969, joining bands led by Charles Mingus and Sam Rivers. He toured with Mingus off and on into the mid-’70s. Following what was supposed to be a one-time gig in New Orleans, Bluiett co-founded the World Saxophone Quintet with Oliver Lake, David Murray, and the late Julius Hemphill (who has been succeeded by numerous saxophonists over the past 20 years). The group released its debut album, Point of No Return, in 1977 on the Moers Music label, and Bluiett ultimately appeared on more than 20 WSQ releases, stretching into the current decade. The quartet, which incorporates elements of free jazz, funk, R&B and more, has performed around the world.

In 1976, Bluiett recorded the music that would comprise his debut album, Endangered Species. He subsequently recorded more than 20 albums in all, for labels including Black Saint, India Navigation, Justin Time, and Soul Note. Bluiett also appeared as a sideman on recordings by Gil Evans, Abdullah Ibrahim, Anthony Braxton, James Carter, and others.

Long an advocate of unconventional configurations, in the 1980s Bluiett formed the Clarinet Family, which featured eight clarinetists. Then, beginning in the ’90s, he led the Bluiett Baritone Nation, consisting entirely of baritone saxophones and drums. In the 2000s he worked with a group of Connecticut music students, billed as Hamiet Bluiett and the Improvisational Youth Orchestra.

Following a bout with prostate cancer, a divorce, and a house fire that destroyed many of his possessions, Bluiett returned to the St. Louis area to live in 2002. He moved back to New York 10 years later, but it was only a temporary relocation; as his health failed, St. Louis once again became his home.

In 2006, Bluiett was featured on a segment of the KETC program Living St. Louis, in which he described his style as “just flat-out, wide-open-space playing.” When asked if he had a mission in life, he responded, “If there is a mission, it’s to bring some happiness in the music and some joy. Because I’m real funny … without trying to be.”