Profile: Sam Rivers (1923-2011)

Samuel Carthorne Rivers was an American jazz musician and composer. He performed on soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, harmonica and piano.

Active in jazz since the early 1950s, he earned wider attention during the mid-1960s spread of free jazz. With a thorough command of music theory, orchestration and composition, Rivers was an influential and prominent artist in jazz music.

Early life

Rivers was born in El Reno, Oklahoma. His father was a gospel musician who had sung with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Silverstone Quartet, exposing Rivers to music from an early age. His grandfather was Marshall W. Taylor, a religious leader from Kentucky. Rivers was stationed in California in the 1940s during a stint in the Navy. Here he performed semi-regularly with blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. Rivers moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1947, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory with Alan Hovhaness.

Blue Note era

In 1959 Rivers began performing with 13-year-old drummer Tony Williams. Rivers was briefly a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, partly on Williams’s recommendation. This edition of the quintet released a single live album, Miles in Tokyo, from a show recorded on July 14 at Kohseinenkin Hall. Rivers’ tenure with the quintet was brief: he had engagements in Boston, and his playing style was too avant-garde for Davis during this period; he was replaced by Wayne Shorter shortly thereafter.

Rivers derived his music from bebop, but he was an adventurous player, adept at free jazz. The first of his Blue Note albums, Fuchsia Swing Song (1964), adopts an approach sometimes called “inside-outside”. Here the performer frequently obliterates the explicit harmonic framework (“going outside”) but retains a hidden link so as to be able to return to it in a seamless fashion. Rivers brought the conceptual tools of bebop harmony to a new level in this process, united at all times with the ability to “tell a story”, which Lester Young had laid down as a benchmark for the jazz improviser.

Loft era

During the 1970s, Rivers and his wife, Bea, ran a jazz loft called “Studio Rivbea” in New York City’s NoHo district. It was located on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan and was originally opened as a public performance space as part of the first New York Musicians Festival in 1970. Critic John Litweiler has written that “In New York Loft Jazz meant Free Jazz in the Seventies” and Studio Rivbea was “the most famous of the lofts”.The loft was important in the development of jazz because it was an example of artists creating their own performance spaces and taking responsibility for presenting music to the public. This allowed for music to be free of extra-musical concerns that would be present in a nightclub or concert hall situation. A series of recordings made at the loft were issued under the title Wildflowers on the Douglas label.

Rivers was also recruited by Clifford Thornton to lead a student world-music/free-jazz ensemble at Wesleyan University in 1971.

Later career

In the early 1990s Sam and wife Beatrice moved to Florida, in part to expand his orchestra compositions with a reading band in Orlando. This band became the longest-running incarnation of the RivBea Orchestra. He performed regularly with his Orchestra and Trio with bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole (later replaced by Rion Smith.) From 1996 to 1998 he toured and recorded three projects for Nato Records in France with pianist Tony Hymas and others. In 1998, with the assistance of Steve Coleman, he recorded two Grammy-nominated big-band albums for RCA Victor with the RivBea All-Star Orchestra, Culmination and Inspiration (the title-track is an elaborate reworking of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga”: Rivers was in Gillespie’s band near the end of the trumpeter’s life). Other late albums of note include Portrait, a solo recording for FMP, and Vista, a trio with drummers Adam Rudolph and Harris Eisenstadt for Meta. During the late 1990s he appeared on several albums on Postcards Records.

In 2006, he released Aurora, a third CD featuring compositions for his Rivbea Orchestra and the first CD featuring members of his working orchestra in Orlando.

Rivers died from pneumonia on December 26, 2011 at the age of 88 in Orlando, Florida.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Sam Rivers among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.

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