Sam Rivers, R.I.P.

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A Spotify playlist of Sam Rivers' work is here.

Jazz composer, multi-instrumentalist, and organizer Sam Rivers died of pneumonia on December 26. Rivers' importance to the American jazz avant-garde extended beyond his recordings and performances. In his demonstration of artistic self-reliance and community-building with his Bond Street loft space Studio RivBea, Rivers (who mostly played saxophone and flute, though he did also play piano) set an example for modern events like the annual Vision Festival; his willingness, even eagerness, to play with musicians decades younger than himself provided a bridge between generations that has always been crucial to jazz's development as an art and a culture.

Born in Oklahoma, Rivers got his start professionally in Boston, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory. By 1959, he'd formed a crucial musical relationship with drummer Tony Williams—then only 13 years old. In 1964, the drummer recommended Rivers to his then-boss, Miles Davis, as a temporary substitute for the departing saxophonist George Coleman; the guy Davis really wanted, Wayne Shorter, was still a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Rivers and Williams worked together brilliantly, but the saxophonist's avant-garde style, dry and rigorously thoughtful even at its most explosive moments, didn't mesh well with the trumpeter's approach, and only one document exists of his weeks-long tenure in the band: the 1964 live album Miles in Tokyo.

That year, Rivers signed with Blue Note, and in addition to making four classic albums—Fuschia Swing Song, Contours, Dimensions & Extensions, and A New Conception—under his own name before the decade was out, he appeared on discs like organist Larry Young's Into Somethin', vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue, and the Williams-led albums Life Time and Spring. On the latter, he was paired with Shorter, their approaches to the tenor saxophone complementary, yet starkly different.

Though he was much older than many of the players he worked with, Rivers was crucial to the development of the "inside-outside" school of avant-garde jazz that Blue Note made almost a house blend in the mid '60s. Combining the bluesy force of hard bop with the melodic complexity and eruptive energy of free jazz, the "inside-outside" players made some of the most innovative, yet still newcomer-friendly, jazz of the '60s. Toward the end of the decade, Rivers joined pianist Cecil Taylor's group, proving himself equally comfortable with the pianist's avalanches of notes and marathon performances.


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