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Incendiary drummer and great teacherCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Jarvis, CliffordClifford Jarvis was an inspirational presence on the London jazz scene for the best part of two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, but his reputation as one of the great jazz drummers of his time was made in his native USA, and in a remarkably wide-ranging variety of contexts. Jarvis added his sensitive but always incendiary drumming to the bands of leaders as diverse as Chet Baker, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and, perhaps most famously, Sun Ra.
He continued to play in diverse settings after settling in London, but made an even bigger contribution as a teacher in both history and music. His work in music education in Hackney brought great benefits to professional musicians as well as more community-based projects.
He was born Clifford Osbourne Jarvis into a musical family. His grandfather and his father both played trumpet, and the latter encouraged him to take up drums from the age of 10. He studied with Alan Dawson, best known for his work with pianist Dave Brubeck, at Berklee College of Music in Boston until 1958, then moved to New York and became a professional musician. He made his mark quickly, recording an album of the songs of Lerner and Loewe with Chet Baker and a disc with pianist Randy Weston in 1959.
His style drew on the expected influences of the great bop drummers of the period, notably Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, but he was equally clearly aware of swing era drum styles, and was able to adapt to just about any setting. He made notable contributions to a number of important recordings in the early 60s, including trumpeter Freddie's Hubbard Open Sesame (1960) and his classic Hub Tones (1962), and Jackie McLean's Right Now! (1965), and played or recorded with Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, Elmo Hope, Grant Green and Roland Kirk, among others.
In the course of that half-decade, Jarvis evolved a more experimental style of drumming, influenced by the work of Elvin Jones in John Coltrane's ground-breaking Quartet, which he honed playing with musicians associated with the burgeoning free jazz scene of the period, including saxophonists Archie Shepp, Sonny Simmons and Pharoah Sanders.
His most sustained association was with the Sun Ra Arkestra. He first joined the band in 1961, and remained with them throughout the Sixties. In his biography of the band leader, Space Is The Place , John F. Szwed describes Jarvis as "the most tempestuous and sophisticated drummer that Sun Ra would ever have," and describes a rehearsal in which the leader berated his drummers of the moment for not being able to live up to Jarvis's example, as well as an occasion where Jarvis so irked a bar full of gun-toting redneck locals in Nevada that the band had to sneak out of town under threat of severe physical harm.
Jarvis returned briefly to work with Sun Ra in an all-star outfit in Europe in 1983, and settled in London shortly afterwards. He led his own band, the Prophets of Jazz, for a time, but his impatience with bureaucratic necessities and his famously hair-trigger temper were not qualities conducive to a great band leader, and he grew increasingly focussed on his teaching activities, while continuing to work with other musicians in their own projects.
Jarvis viewed the various component parts of the drum kit as a complete entity, and even in the most straightahead settings, played with originality, invention and passionate intensity. Not everyone was able to cope with his forceful presence, but for every musician who found him an uncomfortable experience, there were several others who felt themselves pushed into new discoveries in the volcanic surge erupting behind them.
Jarvis had begun teaching history and music in the USA, and was deeply knowledgeable on the cultural and political history of jazz. He regarded inculcating an awareness of that history in his pupils as being every bit as essential as a grasp of the drum techniques he imparted with such distinction.