Joy and sorrow for jazz fans arrived Tuesday evening with the Kennedy Center Honors celebration of Sonny Rollins and the notice on Wednesday that versatile musician Sam Rivers had joined the ancestors. Rivers, 88, died on Monday, Dec. 26 in Orlando, Florida.
Whether at the piano, on flute or with a tenor saxophone, Rivers was a phenomenally creative musician, capable of invoking a mélange of musical tonalities, from blues to bebop and beyond.
Warm and gregarious, Rivers was genuinely personable and always ready to extend whatever musical knowledge he possessed to a fledging beginner. And even his accomplished associates experienced his care and generosity, an expansive goodwill that matched the diversification he brought to the world of jazz.
It was during the late sixties and seventies, particularly during the so-called loft era of jazz in New York City in Soho that Rivers found the venue and the audience most receptive to the avant garde sounds he helped popularize. In 1970, he opened his own spot, Studio Rivbea that combined his surname with Bea, his wife (She died in 2005). He would also pen a wonderful composition, “Beatrice,” in her honor that can seen and heard on YouTube.
Born in El Reno, Oklahoma, Sept. 25, 1923, Rivers was the product of an extremely gifted musical family, including his grandfather, Marshall Taylor, who published one of the first hymnals after the emancipation of slavery. His father, Samuel Rivers, was a gospel singer and his mother, Lillian Taylor, was a pianist and directed a choir.
Chicago and Little Rock, Arkansas were places where he spent much of his youth before he joined the Navy for a three-year stint. In 1947, Rivers began study at the Boston Conservatory of Music with a concentration on composition. Oddly, his instrument of choice at that time was the viola, though he had already gained proficiency on piano and other reed instruments.
When not in school, he was a regular at Boston’s busy nightclubs where he would meet such future greats as drummer Tony Williams, a child prodigy. It was Williams, then a member of Miles Davis quintet in 1964 who arranged for Rivers to have a brief stay with the band.
But Rivers penchant for more adventurous precincts of sound was not a comfortable fit with Davis. It was with such experimental pianists as Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, et al that he found his métier.
By the 1980s, however, he veered more toward the mainstream of jazz and was no less commanding; especially with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and groups he assembled and led.
A decade or so ago, many of his fans caught him live in concert at Lincoln Center for the last time. But this by no means ended the possibility of hearing him on recordings and none more impressive than the recent release “Sam Rivers and the Rivbea Orchestra—Triology.”
In this way Rivers flows forever.