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Bebop baritone sax pioneerCopyright © 2007
Largely overlooked by jazz historians and the general public, Cecil McKenzie Payne was an important contributor to a number of bands during the height of bebop and, along with Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff, a vital contributor to the evolution of the baritone saxophone. Payne died of prostate cancer at the age of 84.
Payne began his musical career on guitar and then switched to alto saxophone. During a stint in the U.S. Army, he played clarinet in a number of forces bands. He began playing the larger horn in 1946, while a member of Clarence Briggs' band. He was briefly in a big band led by trumpeter Roy Eldridge, but it was during a three-year stint with Dizzy Gillespie that he gained attention for his fluid playing and melodic imagination. With Gillespie, Payne recorded popular songs including "Ow!" and "Stay On It."
After leaving Gillespie in 1949, Payne worked with James Moody and Tadd Dameron, among others, and then joined Illinois Jacquet for several years. Throughout the mid-'50s he was a busy freelancer, but dropped out of music toward the end of the decade.
In 1961, he reappeared as a composer and actor in the play The Connection and returned to touring with Machito, Lucky Thompson, Lionel Hampton, Randy Weston and Woody Herman. After another stint with Gillespie he joined the Count Basie Band in 1969. During the '70s he led his own quartet and recorded several albums, including Bird Gets The Worm for Muse in 1976.
Payne suffered from glaucoma and other health problems, which caused him to lead a reclusive life until the Jazz Foundation of America came to his assistance. In 2002, he came out of seclusion and became a frequent performer at Smoke on New York City's Upper West Side and the Kitano Hotel. At an annual Great Night in Harlem benefit for the Jazz Foundation, he was reunited with old colleagues like Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and Frank Wess.
Payne spent the last year of his life in a nursing home. His survivors include his sister, singer Cavril Payne.