Tag Archives: Sam Rivers

Life-changing teacher #2: Sam Rivers

SamSam 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.

About Sam:

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.




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Brotherhood and the avant-garde

A) When I was seven years old I started piano lessons, and like most piano students back in the 1950s, I learned to play little tunes note-by-note out of a book. Everything was very structured.

B) By the time I was twenty years old I was playing in free-form, “out” jam sessions with multi-instrumentalist and the father of avant-garde jazz, Sam Rivers.

So how did I get from A to B?

Well, first of all, I didn’t seem to be able to stick to the note-by-note routine very well. Within a year after starting lessons I was making up little tunes of my own. And as time went on, playing music out of a book felt more and more like being in a strait-jacket, at least to me.

At age 13 I dumped my lessons and taught myself how to play jazz by listening to records and trying to copy them on the piano. I learned how to improvise by putting together some chords in my left hand and just playing anything I felt like with my right hand.

But this certainly wasn’t free-form music. It still had structure. It followed a pattern. Nevertheless, it was more spontaneous than reading music out of a book, because I could make melodies up when I improvised.

So how did I make the leap from structured jazz to free-from jazz?

I actually didn’t, because there wasn’t any leap to make. So-called free-form jazz isn’t what some people think — just a bunch of chaotic sounds. I found out from playing with Sam Rivers that the avant-garde has structure, too.

Sam Rivers

Sam used to assemble a bunch of us young, green musicians on Sunday afternoons in a club in the Boston neighborhood Roxbury, and he’d give us a little musical motif to get us started playing. It would be a short series of notes, maybe five or six, and then we would play and build on this bare-bones structure. It was fascinating to me, because sometimes it would just sound like a big random mess, but then suddenly everything would come together and it would be magic.

I puzzled over this for a long time, and then it hit me: it sounds like a mess when we’re not listening to each other, but just to ourselves. So 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, listening to each other closely, responding to each other, playing off each other, building on each others’ ideas. There had to be a sense of brotherhood, if I can put it that way.

I didn’t end up dedicating myself to free jazz the way some other players have, but I find that the concept tends to pop up in the music I write for my band and also in my piano playing, even when I’m playing some straightahead tune. I use it for contrast, to build tension and release, and I find it very satisfying.

I know a lot of people, even the most devoted jazz fans, can’t stand listening to avant-garde jazz, but I’ve discovered that even the ones who despise it have a positive reaction when it’s used in small doses in a more mainstream context.

If you don’t know anything about avant-garde jazz and are curious, you might check out Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, and of course, Sam Rivers. Here’s a sample:


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