Roswell Rudd, a onetime Dixieland trombonist who became arguably the instrument’s first major practitioner in the avant-garde jazz movement, died Dec. 21 after a protracted battle with cancer. He was 82 years old.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Antje Huebner, and by his record label, RareNoise Records.
While Rudd was best known for his avant-garde associations—playing with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy, and co-founding the innovative New York Art Quartet—they no more defined him than did his Dixieland credentials. He spent his 60-year career following his muse wherever it led him, including funk, blues, Latin, straight-ahead jazz and world music, the lattermost including collaborations with Malian and Mongolian ensembles.
“No matter what situation or person inspires me, it’s always about the sound,” Rudd told JazzTimes in 2009. “The only person in the Western world who was religious about sound was Pythagoras, going back 2500 years; his followers, the Pythagoreans—we’re sound worshippers.”
Roswell Hopkins Rudd Jr., was born in Sharon, Conn., on Nov. 17, 1935, and grew up in nearby Lakeville. As a young child he played French horn in his siblings’ family band; at 11, when he couldn’t find any jazz French horn players, he switched to trombone instead. He would take the instrument with him to Yale University, where he would join a Dixieland combo (along with bassist Buell Neidlinger, a lifelong friend) called Eli’s Chosen Six. Rudd appears with the band in a famous sequence in the landmark 1958 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, with the band driving through the streets of Newport, Rhode Island and playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
That same year, Rudd dropped out of Yale and moved to New York, where the lessons of New Orleans polyphony and rhythm ironically drew him away from trad jazz and into a circle of experimental musicians including pianists Herbie Nichols and Taylor, as well as saxophonists Shepp and Lacy (another Dixieland expatriate). Rudd would perform and record with all of these players over the next few years, forming a quartet that he co-led with Lacy to explore the music of Thelonious Monk. In 1964 Rudd worked with saxophonist Albert Ayler on the seminal soundtrack recording New York Eye and Ear Control, and that year also became a founding member of the New York Art Quartet with saxophonist John Tchicai and drummer Milford Graves. When they disbanded in 1966, he became a member of Shepp’s band.
For all of these associations, however, work in New York was sporadic, and Rudd often took day jobs as a tradesman or a cab driver. (He also began working as an assistant to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, a job that would continue off and on for 30 years and ignited a fascination in Rudd for world musical traditions.) In the mid-1970s, frustrated with the instability, he left New York, teaching ethnomusicology at the University of Maine for a few years before latching on to a house band at a Catskills resort through the 1980s and into the early ‘90s.
Rudd re-emerged in 1993, working with saxophonist Allen Lowe and with fellow trombonist Steve Swell and rebuilding his own reputation as a leader. He indulged his interest in world musical traditions, recording in the 2000s with musicians from Mali, Mongolia and Benin, among others, and dabbled in any number of other directions, from accompanying Anita O’Day on her final session to collaborating with trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s postmodernist project Sexmob.
“It’s a continuing revelation to me, the resources of the trombone,” he said in 2009. “The expressive resources, the tonal resources, are infinite. . . . [T]here’s room for all the great trombone personalities in the world in this instrument.”
Diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Rudd nonetheless continued working. His final recording, Embrace, was released in November; by that time, however, Rudd was unable to perform, and attended a celebration last month of his 82nd birthday as a spectator.
He is survived by Verna Gillis, his partner of 17 years.