Saxophonist Arthur Blythe Dies at 76

Distinctive, powerful alto voice melded free sensibilities with traditionalist precision

Arthur-Blythe

Arthur Blythe

Arthur Blythe, a powerful, free-influenced saxophonist who worked with Mose Allison, Lester Bowie, Jack DeJohnette, Gil Evans, Chico Freeman, Chico Hamilton, Julius Hemphill, McCoy Tyner, James “Blood” Ulmer and others, was a member of the World Saxophone Quartet and recorded over 30 albums as a leader, died on March 27 at age 76. Blythe had battled Parkinson’s disease for several years and had other health issues.

Blythe’s alto voice—sparkling yet sturdy with a steady vibrato that nodded to the past—was easily recognizable yet accessible. But his late start as a leader, uncompromising creativity and the emergence of the “young lions” of 1980s neotraditionalism combined to keep him on the outskirts of mainstream success.

Born July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles, Blythe moved to San Diego with his family as a child and started playing alto saxophone in the third grade. In the home his mother frequently played albums featuring saxophonists Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges, and their respective styles quickly became the foundation for Blythe’s bold sound. As a teenager, Blythe played in various blues, rockabilly and R&B groups while also focusing on jazz, studying with San Diego-based sideman Daniel Jackson and former Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra member Kirkland Bradford.

By age 19 he had moved back to Los Angeles, and began a long association with pianist Horace Tapscott and his Union of God’s Musicians and Artist’s Ascension, and later the Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Blythe made his recorded debut in 1969 on Tapscott’s A Giant Is Awakened, and continued working in Los Angeles until 1974 when he relocated to New York, seeking to expand his creative vistas.

Upon arrival in NYC, Blythe toiled for a time as a security guard, but quickly found work as a sideman. Billing himself as “Black Arthur Blythe” as a sociopolitical statement, he worked and recorded in more traditional contexts with Chico Hamilton and Gil Evans, and in freer formats with composer and alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, drummer Steve Reid and Lester Bowie.

In 1976 Blythe, Hemphill, tenor saxophonist David Murray and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett formed the World Saxophone Quartet, an improvision-focused a cappella group that found some mainstream success in the early- to mid-1980s. Blythe would leave and rejoin the group a few times over the next 20 years.

1977 found Blythe recording for the first time as a leader on the India Navigation label. The Grip and its follow-up release, Metamorphosis, captured Blythe in concert with a sextet including cellist Abdul Wadud and tuba player Bob Stewart, pointing to his enjoyment of unique ensembles.

In ’78 Blythe was signed by Columbia, and in 1979 recorded the standards-filled In the Tradition, conservative in its piano-bass-drums setting but pushed ahead by Blythe’s powerful alto engine. During the same span he played on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s groundbreaking album Special Edition. His next Columbia release, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, featuring flutist James Newton, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, Stewart on tuba, bassist Cecil McBee and DeJohnette on drums, set the tone for the remainder of Blythe’s output for Columbia: oft-free and peradventure-funky postbop recordings boasting stellar performances and strong original compositions—but just a touch outside jazz traditionalists’ wheelhouse.

After leaving Columbia in 1989, Blythe recorded for a number of smaller labels throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and toured frequently in Europe. Through it all, he remained uncompromising in his art, despite what he felt were some misunderstandings that affected his career. In a March 2000 San Diego Union-Tribune feature, Blythe stated, “I don’t reject any music; good music is always a positive. I feel the way I feel, and this music is based on expression, and interpreting that expression. If my music comes off as esoteric, or far-out, or rebellious, it comes off that way. But I don’t approach it like that.”