Sam Rivers wasn’t my teacher in any “official” sense of the word. The great saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist simply glided into my young life with a proposal.
I was 20 years old and a jazz pianist. At the time, I was living with my husband and baby daughter in a loft on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End. Word had gotten out about the jam sessions I was holding at the loft, and musicians like saxophonist Bayard Lancaster and pianist Keith Jarrett (who was just a teenager at the time), started coming by to play. I had a wonderful Chickering baby grand piano, which was definitely a draw. We mostly played far out weird free bag stuff, and that’s when Sam Rivers came into the picture. Sam, who died at the age of 88 in 2012 while still performing actively with his Rivbea Orchestra in Florida, was the grandpappy of avant-garde jazz, and took all of us local jazz musicians under his wing.
He had a proposal: to get a “little thing” going at a club in Roxbury. So we’d all traipse over there once a week to do an impromptu jam session. Sam never cared who showed up, or how many, he’d always make something out of it. Sometimes there were two bass players, or two drummers, or no drummer, or no horns and three piano players, but he’d always get something musical happening. He’d make up a little phrase and maybe add a chord or two and then he’d have us all play it together. Then he’d just let us develop on that bare bones structure. Sometimes we’d take solos, and other times we’d all play together, developing and expanding on the motif Sam had given us. Usually it would start out like a mess, but with Sam guiding us it would occasionally develop into something really exciting.
Sam was teaching us how to listen. He said you have to listen to the other players, not just yourself, especially when the music is free. In other words, the structure had to extend to the musicians themselves—it wasn’t just about the notes. We had to learn how to be our own structure, responding to each other, playing off each other, building on each others’ ideas. There had to be a sense of brotherhood.
That simple wisdom I learned from Sam has remained with me to this day. And even though I never became a free jazz player, I later discovered that the concept tended to pop up in my compositions and lent them contrast and excitement, even humor. It also ended up affecting every area of my life.
Years later, after an extended period of not playing at all, I ran into Sam in New York. I told him I wasn’t playing, and he gave me a look that was filled with both intensity and kindness and said, “You HAVE to play.” I took that to heart and never forgot it.
Samuel Rivers (September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011) was an American jazz musician and composer. He played tenor and soprano and saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, harmonica, and piano. Active in jazz since the early 1950s, he gained wider attention during the mid-1960s free jazz loft scene. Sam had a thorough command of music theory, orchestration and composition, and made numerous recordings both as side man and leader. Over the years, Sam played with many jazz greats, such as Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Archie Shepp, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and Sarah Vaughan.