Sam Rivers Ted Panken Interviews
Sam Rivers
(WKCR-FM New York, September 25, 1997)

copyright © 1999 Ted Panken

MUSIC: Sam Rivers-Jaki Byard-Ron Carter-Tony Williams, "Beatrice" (1964)

TP: First I'd like to ask you about the current trio, because you're always about the future and about the next step, and I guess this trio is the next step for the foreseeable future. So a few words about how it was formed and the musicians who are playing with you this week.

SR: Well, it was sort of formed organically, because I had no idea that something like this was possible. I moved to Florida around six years. I had been traveling around with Dizzy Gillespie, so I'd picked out where I'd go if I wanted to leave New York. I had a choice of New Mexico, California, Florida, Texas, whatever. So we went down to visit some people in Florida and we liked it, so we moved down there. In fact, the reason why we moved is because there musicians down there who work for Disney who are sort of trapped with the good money, but they're all good musicians. They can't leave, and they don't have any music to play, fortunately . . .

TP: So there you were.

SR: There I was with all these talented musicians. Most of them are teachers, and there are composers, and like I say they're trapped, because you've got a mansion and two cars in the garage . . . [LAUGHS] It's that kind of situation; you know, the good life.

TP: A similar situation to Hollywood musicians.

SR: Yeah, it's the same thing. There's a lot of very talented Hollywood musicians. But in Hollywood, when you're working in the studios, you get all this money and you sort of get trapped. I know a lot of guys like that. They say, "I hate it, but I can't leave it!" So for me, that's a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation where you can't leave -- it takes away your freedom.

TP: Well, you're someone who's created situations rather than get into them, and you've done that everywhere you've parked yourself, as it were, from Boston to New York City and Orlando, Florida!

SR: That's true.

TP: A few words about Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole.

SR: Right, I was getting to that. [LAUGHS] So I came down to Orlando, Florida, and fortunately at the same time Anthony Cole happened to move from Detroit -- pretty much the same day. He comes from Detroit and I come from New York, and we meet pretty much at a jam session probably the second or third day we got into Orlando. Anthony Cole comes by his talents genetically, I suppose, because he's part of the Cole dynasty, Nat King Cole and Natalie. He's one of the relatives. And his mother, Linda Cole, is a singer, too, an excellent singer. He was sort of like me. He was born a musician, born into a family of musicians. I was born on the road, and he was pretty much the same. Our careers parallel. So he accompanies his mother for vocals . . .

TP: On piano or drums?

SR: Piano and drums. Saxophone he's been playing for six years, and he's really up on the saxophone. Well, it's easy. If you have the stamina and the will, you can learn an instrument in six years. I mean, a lot of guitar players are out here making thousands of dollars after six months! But he's a very talented musician.

And Doug Matthews is a native Floridian. There's not too many of those down in Florida [LAUGHS], people that got started in Florida. I mean, some native Floridians, either they leave or they move back further into the swamps.

TP: A lot of good bass players from Florida, like Sam Jones, Jaco Pastorius, Curtis Lundy.

SR: Oh, sure. I know Jaco's family, his brothers and everything. We're good friends. But Doug went to the University of Florida and Berklee, and studied at Berklee. He's a bassist, plays bass guitar and contrabass, and he plays bass clarinet. Anthony plays also tenor saxophone, as I mentioned, so we have all these different combinations. I would say it's the most creative group that I've ever had the good fortune to be a part of.

TP: That's saying something, because you've been part of some very creative groups.

SR: That's saying something. I would say that. I've been very fortunate along the way. Sometimes, in the right situation . . . I mean, we have compositions for two grand pianos and bass, because Anthony and I both play piano. We have compositions for three reeds.

TP: So you can express almost anything, from an orchestral context to a small group blowing kind of thing.

SR: Yes. We can play free, but also, we all can play traditional -- play the changes, too. And that's really something. If we can play together and everyone can play changes and also be able to express themselves creatively, on the free side.

TP: How long has the group been a working unit?

SR: Five or six years, since we went down there. These things go organically. We were playing the usual group, me on saxophone and Doug Matthews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums. Most of the places we played didn't have a piano, so we were just doing our usual trio thing. Then Doug mentioned that he played clarinet all the way through high school, and someone gave Anthony a tenor saxophone, and he learned that. So I said, "Well, we can put these things together." It's not like you've got some musicians here who don't know what they're doing. There are so few drummers who can read music, and here's one that not only reads music, but plays the piano as adequately and competently as a piano player . . . Well, he is a pianist, too.

TP: He's a good pianist.

SR: Sure. That's what I say as far as creativity, never getting stuck in a rut, because there's too many different places to go. Each combination produces its own kind of creative stimulus. If we're playing the traditional piano-drums and bass, that's one thing; if we're playing piano, saxophone and bass that's another kind of stimulus; if we're playing two pianos and bass, that's another stimulus. So it's almost endless.

TP: Has this group sparked an onslaught of composition for you? Have you been doing a lot of writing for the group?

SR: This is the nucleus of the orchestra I have in Orlando. Doug Matthews plays bass and Anthony Cole plays drums in the orchestra, you see. For me, I have a chance to bring in all the music. Whatever I write, they can play. And I've never been in a situation like that either.

TP: It's not unlike the situation in Chicago in the 1960's with the AACM Orchestra.

SR: Yes, it's the same thing. This is a situation where, like I say, I'm writing traditional, in the traditional mode on all the tunes I write, because I want to make sure everything is right. I want to have people come back. This isn't like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington or something like that. I'm not sure whether Duke would be happy with people messing up his music the way that they do, but if you don't have anything of your own, then you go and pick around and use other people's material. I'm fortunate not having to be in that situation, where I have to go around and say, "Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else." That's not what music is about anyway. Jazz is especially about individuality, and you go out there and play somebody else's music, you're giving Jazz a bad name. You know what I mean? [LAUGHS]

TP: I can't think of anyone who's more of a rugged individualist in the music than Sam Rivers. And by the way, today is his birthday.

SR: Yeah, happy birthday to me!

TP: I forgot to mention it at the top of the show. It's hard to believe. You were born in 1923, and you don't look much older than you did when I used to see you at Studio Rivbea twenty years ago!

SR: You're right. It's a mental condition, I guess. I decided when I was like 14 that I was probably going to live until the year 2000. I planned it. These kind of things go on in your head. It's really a mental condition. I said, "I'm going to do it," and I looked in the mirror and said, "you're going to make it." Plus, I live moderately. I've done everything, but I didn't go overboard. You understand? And that's the main thing. There are temptations out there, and a lot of people are greedy. I haven't been greedy, and so I've survived. You don't survive if you're greedy. "What's that? Yeah, give me that! Oh yeah, I'll try that!" No-no, no-no. Up to a point, that's it. I never drank, because it slows you down. I tried playing drinking and it was embarrassing. My fingers wouldn't move. So I never really got into drinking. And the harder drugs, I never really got bogged down in them either. So I've been very fortunate.

The track we'll hear, "Sprung", is probably the most traditional composition on this album. I like to do that because since I'm one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes, I like to emphasize the fact that I'm also a traditional musician. Because if you don't emphasize the fact, they'll think you're just a free musician and have no knowledge of the tradition. Because it takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but it takes a few minutes to be a free.

TP: Well, Dizzy Gillespie obviously knew that.

SR: Sure!

MUSIC: Rivers-Mathews-Cole, "Sprung", "Figure" (1996)

TP: Before playing "Sprung," which you described as the most traditional piece on the CD, involving changes, you said you wanted to make sure people understand that you are both a traditional and a free musician.

SR: It's very important, yes.

TP: You said it takes more than a minute to become proficient traditional musician, so I'd like to address that in the next segment of the show. In the biographies, the encyclopedias of jazz, your birthdate is listed as 1930, but in reality it's in 1923, and that makes sense in terms of the accomplishments of your career. You're in the line of the great jazz musicians born in Oklahoma -- Enid, Oklahoma.

SR: yeah, but . . .

TP: You didn't spend much time there?

SR: No. Just my mother and father were on tour. I was born on the road. My father was a singer in the Silvertone Quartet, and my mother was the accompanist. They were living in Chicago at the time, and I was born in Enid while they were on tour. Touring in the South at that time was fairly easy for them, because there were always more churches there than bars. They were both college graduates. My father graduated from Fisk University and my mother from Howard University.

TP: Were they both music majors?

SR: My father was a music major. My mother majored in Sociology, and she played piano. My grandfather was also a musician, and his two sisters. They transcribed songs from the slaves, and he wrote books about the composition of the music, and he did some original music of his own hymnals. His name was the Reverend Marshall Taylor. He was Bishop in the Methodist Church in Cincinnati or somewhere like that. He published his own music like I'm doing decades later. The publishing company is still in the family, but I'm not going to use it at this time until I get sort of situated. It's nice to say "established in 1881" or something like that.

TP: Have you played or seen the music?

SR: Yes, I have it. I have some of his writings from the 1830's or 1840's, something like that, and they look like they could have been written by Malcolm X. I'll probably put some of it on the back of one of the albums someday. He was a little before Dubois, but he had the same sort of feeling as Souls of Black Folk, that kind of situation.

TP: What was your father's name?

SR: My father's name was Samuel C. Rivers. I am "Junior." My son is a doctor and he works at Harvard Medical, and he is Dr. Samuel C. Rivers, III.

TP: Was your father born in Cincinnati?

SR: No, he was born in Boston. After I got out of the Service during the Forties . . . When I entered the Navy, I was one of the first who didn't go in as a musician or a steward. Robert Smalls and I went in as regular Navy men. We had a choice of whatever field we wanted to go into, Bosuns, Mates . . . I chose music when I went in, but the band they wanted to put me in wasn't good. I'm very young and arrogant, so I said, "No, I'll learn something else." So I went in as Quartermaster, correcting charts and steering the ship and all that, but I never went on board ship. I knew I wasn't going on board if I took something like that. I was transferred to Vallejo, California, which was my musical experience. It was very good I didn't go into the band, because the band had to play in the officers quarters every night. I wasn't in the band, so I could take my horn and go out into the city and play. Vallejo is near San Francisco. That's where I met Jimmy Witherspoon. One of my first professional gigs was with Jimmy Witherspoon while I was in the Navy. We were playing at this club someplace in Vallejo where he was everything. He was the Master of Ceremonies, he was the maitre'd, he was the comedian and he was the singer, and I was part of the group. That's pretty much the playing I did when I was in the Navy.

TP: When did you get out of the Navy?

SR: I got out of the Navy in 1945.

TP: I know the Billy Eckstine band came out there around '44 or '45.

SR: I thought it was one of the most . . . What can I say? Everybody was in the band!

TP: That's when Charlie Parker was in it.

SR: Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons, Art Blakey was the drummer. Oh, it was a beautiful band. Leo Parker, Frank Wess, Miles Davis . . . I'm not sure whether Dizzy was in that band ever.

TP: He was in at the beginning.

SR: Actually, it was a takeoff from Earl Hines band. Earl Hines was the master of that. I used to hear Earl Hines in the Thirties, when he had a beautiful alto player with him. [Scoops Carey, probably.]

TP: Let me take you back a little bit from Vallejo, California? Did you spend your early years, your adolescent years in Chicago.

SR: No, I didn't. I was growing up in Chicago, but then my father had an accident, and he couldn't . . . He was helping somebody move some rugs or something, and he got knocked over the bannister and he cracked his skull, and he wasn't any more good after that. He wasn't able to really stand. He kept his sanity, but he really couldn't work. So my mother took a job at Shorter College in North Little Rock, and so we moved down there when I was about 10 or 11, I think. So I came up on the campus in North Little Rock, pretty much. I was going to Catholic school and coming up on the campus. I remember a lot of conversations about economics there, and the main thing they were worried about was, if the businessman ever gets control, we're in serious trouble. [LAUGHS] That's all I could ever hear.

TP: So the idea of setting up your own situation took hold when you were 11-12-13 years old.

SR: That's right.

TP: What were your earliest musical experiences in terms of listening to jazz?

SR: Oh, when I was in Chicago. They weren't into jazz. They appreciated it, but they were real church people. My mother was as Puritan as they come. I can't imagine a more puritanical woman than my mother. She was very strict. She made me practice. I mean, there wasn't any fooling around like that. And I'm glad she did, because I wouldn't be a musician today if she hadn't done that. She stood over me for maybe a year or so. There were guys calling, "Mrs. Rivers, can Sam come out and play ball?" and she'd say, "No, he's got to practice." So that went on for maybe a year or so, and then I got to the place where I liked it. So after that the guys would say, "Come on, Sam, do you want to play?" and I'd say, "No, I want to practice," then she was telling me, "You'd better go out and play ball!" She started getting me away from the piano after a while. That's when I really got involved. It's been like that ever since. I really love the music.

TP: So the piano is the instrument you've been playing the longest.

SR: Yes, and violin. My mother played both violin and piano, so she taught me both. She was really a pianist, and my father was singer and she would accompany him.

TP: The notes to your complete Blue Note sessions on Mosaic say that you fell in love with the tenor saxophone in high school.

SR: Yeah.

TP: That would have been 1937-38-39.

SR: Yes. I was going to this Catholic school, St. Bartholomew's in Little Rock, and they had all these instruments. In those days, they had all these donated instruments, so if you wanted to play you could go in and choose whatever instrument you wanted to play. You didn't have to buy an instrument; they just had it there. First I took trombone, then the soprano saxophone, then I worked on the baritone horn, and then finally the tenor.

TP: They gave you a thorough training on the instruments in school.

SR: Yes, it was like that. I had a choice of doing it. And the priest who conducted the band, he was really a conductor only. The seniors were the tutors of the younger students. He didn't do anything but come in and raise his baton. When some of the younger students made a mistake, he'd ask them, "Who's your tutor?" The tutor would be graded on how good the student is, you see. That's the way he ran his band.

TP: So it wasn't like Walter Dyett in Chicago who would throw a baton at the student who made a mistake.

SR: [LAUGHS] No. It was a very hierarchical band

TP: Did you play jazz in that band, or was it outside of school?

SR: No, it was a military band. But when I got in college at Jarvis Christian College . . . I graduated from high school at 15 and went to Philander Smith for the summer, and then went down to Jarvis Christian College for the year. That's when I started playing the tenor saxophone and so on.

TP: It says here that Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Don Byas were among the first tenor-men that made an impression on you.

SR: Sure.

TP: Were you listening to jazz all the way through?

SR: Going back to Chicago when my father was well, he took us to see Cab Calloway at the Regal Theater or the Savoy. We saw all the bands, Duke Ellington, Count Basie [sic], Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole. Everybody there was to see, we went to see it. But my mother didn't really think of us as being . . . We were supposed to be teachers. She was raising her two sons to be teachers like she was.

TP: Well, she did.

SR: [LAUGHS] I guess so. Teaching is so demanding for me. When I think about it, I really respect teachers. It's hard for me to do teaching, because you're always going back in your memory to bring up things from the past. When you're teaching you don't go into the future. You're always dealing with the past. And I have a problem with that sometimes. It's tedious for me to keep returning to the past. I don't really teach that much. My mind is completely creative. I keep it in the future rather than having to think about the tradition.

TP: So you heard all the big bands live in Chicago, and you'd hear the records.

SR: I heard them live. Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and all the singers who were around at that time, too. So we were very well versed. Plus, we had symphonies. She had Beethoven, and I practiced Bach! Everyone studies Bach; that's pretty much ordinary.

TP: When you started playing the tenor, were you listening to Coleman Hawkins, "Body and Soul," or Lester Young, "Taxi War Dance," and copying those?

SR: Yeah, we had it down note for note. Note for note, "Body and Soul"! [LAUGHS] I can still remember part of it. I liked Coleman Hawkins' harmonic approach, but Lester was really the man because he was so melodic. He was playing the changes, too, but it was kind of different because it really wasn't the changes. He was playing the changes but he really wasn't. He was just playing over the changes, something like that. It's a very different approach to music. Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker, that was pretty much the epitome. That was it. That was the height of it, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I heard Dizzy first, on the record with Billy Eckstine, "Blowing the Blues" away, one of those big disks. I was just listening to it, sitting there, and Billy was singing, then Dizzy came in, [SINGS DIZZY]. I said, "Wait a minute." I said, "Wait a minute." I said, "listen to this again; man, this is something." I went and took this record, because I knew all the musicians . . . I wasn't a musician myself; I was working in the office. Fortunately, I didn't have to do anything, because if you could type, you were set. Incidentally, I was the only guy who was pretty much straight in the office in the Forties. Understand what I'm saying? I mean, in the Forties the whole goddamn thing was . . . everybody in there was pretty much somewhere else. They're having a problem with it now, but really this has been going for fifty years.

But I took the music to the guys to listen, and they couldn't believe it either. They were listening to it and saying, "Wow, what is this?" There's no names on the disk. We didn't know who it was. So I called my brother up, because my brother was in the Navy, too, but he was stationed in Boston. He'd go back and forth to New York, so he knew the guys. And I'm in California, and nothing out there at that time, in the Forties. My brother had been listening to Dizzy and Bird, and I didn't even know them. This had been out almost a year, and nobody had even heard of them in California. My brother told me, "Yeah, man, that guy's name is Dizzy Gillespie who you're talking about." Then I got "Blue and Boogie," the first bebop record I ever heard, and that sent me on.

But I listened differently. When I heard the solo, I analyzed it on how it is in relation to the chords. Just the solo itself was not important. The important thing was how he did what he did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.

TP: So you were able to do that through listening to the records.

SR: Yes.

TP: You didn't need someone to show you, "This is going down like this."

SR: No, I was figuring out changes already. I could always play chord changes. I was working out my II-V's years ago. That was pretty much it.

TP: So after the Navy you went back to Boston. What was the scene like?

SR: The scene in Boston was very fertile. When I went to Boston, there was Jaki Byard, there was Gigi Gryce, there was Quincy Jones, there was Charlie Mariano, there was Nat Pierce, there was Alan Dawson, John Neves, Herb Pomeroy . . .

TP: Was Roy Haynes still there?

SR: Roy Haynes had just left. He had just left.

TP: With Lester Young.

SR: Oh, he worked with Lester before Bird? I remember hearing him with Lester. He was kicking, too. Lesterwas right there, and he was doing those fast tempos. It was amazing hearing Lester play fast. He was floating all the time. Those were really beautiful guys. Just listening to them was really an experience.

TP: You went to Boston and enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill? Is that how it went down?

SR: Yes, I went there. I was planning on going to New York right away. There was no doubt about it. Everything was set. Then I went home and my mother said, "You'd better go to Boston and take care of your brother; you know how wild he is." That's the only reason I went to Boston. Otherwise I'd have gone straight to New York, because I had the connections and everything. So I went to Boston and stayed there. I enrolled in school on the G.I. Bill. Also, all the musicians gravitated together. We rented this house on 13 Rutland Square, and we lived there.

TP: Which musicians?

SR: Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, the Perry Brothers (Ray Perry, a violinist), and a lot of other musicians. It was a 13-room house, and I lived on the top floor. And the only girl that ever got up there was Bea! [LAUGHS] None of the other girls that came to see me got to the top floor. It was that kind of situation, but I didn't mind. I was glad they didn't get up there. I was busy.

TP: When did you start writing music? Did that start when you hit Boston?

SR: Yeah, I pretty much started writing in Boston. I started writing because I was taking Composition and Theory at the university, and you have to write anyway because that's part of taking composition. It was Classical Composition because there weren't any jazz schools around then. Then only thing close to Jazz would be the Schillinger House, which a lot of musicians went to at that time, which changed to Berklee. It was Schillinger House originally, and then it changed. Jaki Byard and a lot of musicians studied there for a while, with the Schillinger system, and then transferred to the Conservatory.

TP: Michael Cuscuna writes that you also played viola professionally.

SR: I never really played it professionally. I was in the school symphony orchestra, but that's about as far as it went.

TP: It says you worked with Serge Chaloff's string quintet.

SR: Oh, that's right, I did that. But that was the only professional thing I really did with it. But I was in the school symphony. I remember that, yeah, but I don't remember the music!

TP: Now, Boston was a place where musicians would come through on the Northeast circuit, and I assume you went to hear everybody who would come through.

SR: Actually, the place I was working at the time in Boston was called Ort's(?) Grill, and it was across the street from the theater where they brought out all the musicians.

TP: Which theater was that?

SR: RKO. It was across the street. So I didn't go to see the musicians; they came to see us! [LAUGHS] Stan Kenton came in and hired Charlie Mariano out of the place, and some other musicians got hired working out of there. Quincy was playing trumpet at the time; I'm not sure what happened to him. Jaki Byard was there. I was working with a pianist who . . . There were so many different groups that played. It was one of those places where there was never a dull moment. It had like eight singers and stuff like this. So we just played the intermission. Our trio was me, Larry Willis on piano and Larry Winters on drums. That's a different Larry Willis, a stride pianist who knew all the tunes, but he played by ear. My repertoire came from listening, learning the tunes. I bought the fake book, then I learned all the tunes. I went through the whole book; they call it The Real Book now -- it used to be the Fake Book, now it's The Real Book. So I went through every tune in the Real Book, and I just picked out the ones that I liked.

TP: So you learned the American Songbook on that gig, and you're beginning to get your own compositional sensibility together.

SR: Right. I was beginning to write at the time like that. But fortunately for me, my Classical training, European Concert music was part of my tradition, too, since I came up with that -- and the spirituals and the Jazz. I'm pretty much comfortable in any of the particular idioms like that. I performed with the Symphony Orchestra, with Sergio Ozawa. In the past, when they needed . . .

BEATRICE: A soprano.

SR: Well, a saxophonist, an improviser, they would call me. Because I was considered an improviser who could improvise music that sounded pretty much like it would be . . . I really think that the music I have done and have created should . . . I guess after I'm gone, I'm not really considered one of the main people, but I consider . . . some people do consider me one of the main people, as far as one of the leading exponents of Free Jazz. Free Jazz, the way it's explained to people, is you state a theme, and then you pretty much improvise on that theme irregardless of the harmonic base. I have records out, myself and Dave Holland, and some in trio . . . I played for 12 years in New York just going out and playing, no theme, nothing . . .

TP: A blank page.

SR: I don't know any other musician who has done this. I don't know why I'm not considered the originator of this particular free jazz style, because I'm sure I am. Everyone else plays a theme. When I played with Cecil, pretty much all his music was written. I don't know anybody other than myself. I would like it if someone can write me and tell me who it is who really started the free jazz other than myself.

TP: Both Dave Holland and Barry Altschul say that you would practice 8 or 9 hours a day, and on a gig you wouldn't have any music at all until the first note was stated, it would take off from there, and that the communication was built on your practicing together so much and knowing each other's sounds and mindset so intimately.

SR: That's right. But no thematic material. I even write that on the back of some of my things, and I still don't see any of the critics picking up on it. If they tell me who originated it other than myself, I'd be glad to give them the credit. Maybe it's one of these anonymous kind of situations, like the Blues, where nobody really wrote it. It could be like that.

MUSIC: Sam Rivers, "Dance of The Tripedal" (1965); SR, "Secret Love" (1966)

TP: Sam Rivers and I were discussing his formative years in music, and we stopped in the early 1950's in Boston. I'd like to pick up with the years after Charlie Parker died, and you were an established figure on the Boston scene and encountered Tony Williams. How did things evolve?

SR: I had been doing concerts around Boston. I'd been playing with different groups.

TP: Had you started writing for big bands by that time?

SR: I started writing for big bands, but I didn't have one really organized. But I was writing thematic material for it. I was working at a club called Club 47 around Harvard Square. I'm trying to get this pretty much in chronology. I spent ten or fifteen years before I came to New York, and it was through Tony that I went to New York. I really didn't think it was necessary for me to go to New York, because I'd been traveling all around the world, I had been traveling with any kind of groups that wanted it. I went out with T-Bone Walker for quite a long time, and I did some things with B.B. King. But I pretty much stayed around Boston, because I was working for this publishing company, which I never really . . . I got a letter from some people the other day about this. It was "Send your poems up and we will put the music to it." I was very adept at doing that. I pretty much lived in Boston by writing music for lyrics, which is you send me a couple of lyrics and I'll have the music ready in an hour. I'd look at the lyrics and they'd suggest the music. It's not a big deal for me. I ghost-wrote a lot of jingles. Bring it up, if you want it in ten minutes I'll give it to you. A composer writes down his improvisations. That's what a composer does. He doesn't really sit down and try to figure out, "Look . . . " He's writing down . . . if he was an instrumentalist, this is what he would play.

TP: From the brain to the pen.

SR: Yeah, that's it. I don't know about other composers, but it sounds to me like they're writing their own improvisations. That's what I do. I write down my improvisations. I write down what I would do. Now, with my orchestra, which is 13 horns, each instrument is a solo part, so I write it. It's harmony and it's counterpoint and everything, but every part can be played by itself.

TP: In your own performances in Boston were you functioning as a multi- instrumentalist? When did the concept of playing tenor, flute, soprano and piano within a set of music evolve for you?

SR: I'm not sure. It was kind of an organic situation; I'm not sure how that happened. I was always a pianist. But when I was with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, Jaki Byard was such a fantastic piano player; I just considered myself playing chords. The only reason why I'm not a piano player today, I'll confess, is because I couldn't play Bebop. I can't play like Bud Powell. I couldn't do that kind of stuff! [LAUGHS] So I concentrated more on the tenor saxophone because I couldn't play Bebop. I can play any kind . . . I can play all the Classical music you want. Which is good for me, because especially for Classical it's more free-style than trying to play very traditional bebop, which is very difficult. My hat goes off to all Bebop players, because this is a very difficult style on piano.

TP: Why is it so difficult?

SR: I don't understand it. I don't know. I can't do it. There are musicians who can do it. All the Bebop piano players I know, they're good. If someone said, "Sam, recommend a Bebop piano player," I'd look at the guy and think which personality would fit with this guy, because all the musicians I know who are playing Bebop, from Tommy Flanagan all the way up to Herbie Hancock . . .

TP: They've got it together.

SR: They've all got it together. All bebop players are qualified.

TP: Do different personalities or different sides of yourself emerge on each of the instruments? If so, how would you describe it for each of them?

SR: It's hard to describe. Different sounds create different stimuli. If you listen to a certain sound, it produces a certain reaction. All sounds produce a reaction. If I'm playing one note, the first note produces an automatic reaction to go the second note. And I've studied so much, working with the Schoenberg, writing out my own 12-tone exercises, that I hear like that now when I'm playing. I don't really repeat notes. I mean, I can go on. If I want to repeat a note . . . So this keeps the music atonal. So I wrote my exercises, some very tricky and hard things to play, and worked on them myself and got it out, analyzed all the other musicians, which is very important.

But a jazz musician, I mean, to sound like someone else is giving jazz a bad name, because jazz musicians are supposed to be original people. They're supposed to create something. They're not supposed to be imitating anybody. So this is it. This is what I consider a jazz musician. Don't give jazz a bad name by listening to the . . . I mean, because the imitators are giving jazz a bad name.

TP: At one point in your life you were playing Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins solos note-for-note.

SR: Right.

TP: When did you start getting past that?

SR: That was at home. I never went out in public playing anyone else's solos. The standards, I had, and all my originals . . . I had all the standards I did that weren't standards . . . If a standard was recorded by somebody else, I stopped playing it, and I'd find something else to play. I was intent on being an original. I intended it. It was part of my thing. I don't want to copy anyone, and I don't feel that a jazz musician should be a copyist. That is the main thing. All the musicians that I ever respected did not copy anyone else. They were coming from themself.

I hear so many musicians nowadays, I listen to them play and it's like a history book. It's a reminiscing for me. I say, "Oh, I remember I heard this phrase and I heard that phrase, and I heard this cliche," and it reminds me of a certain thing. It takes me off on different things like that. I can only listen into a creative person that has his own style to really appreciate it, otherwise I'll go into where I heard this before, or I heard this cliche before. This is what I do for classes. I put on a record of somebody that just came out, some of the young old-timers, I put it on, and I explain "This happened in 1950" and "this happened in . . . " I explain what the young old- timers are doing in relation to what the original people did.

TP: You've mentioned that in playing with Tony Williams you got into the seamless presentation that because your trademark by the 1970s. You related an anecdote when we did a telephone interview right after Tony Williams died about hearing him when he was about 12 years old, his father brought him down to where you were playing, and he sounded like he had some talent, but I think the way you put it, he needed to go in the shed, he went, and he came back the next spring and played Max Roach, but his own ideas on it, he'd play what Art Blakey would play, then his own ideas . . .

SR: That's right.

TP: That's how it went down?

SR: Well, yeah, sort of like that. But we were neighbors. He lived not too far from me. So I'd go over. He had his basement where he would practice all day long, and he would say, "All right, Art Blakey plays like this." TING, TING-A-DING, DING-DING. "Max Roach plays like this," then he'd play all of Max's things. Then he'd say, "Elvin Jones plays like this," then he'd do Elvin's stuff. "And Philly Joe plays like this," and then the out drummer, what's his . . . from Philadelphia . . .

TP: Sonny Murray?

SR: Sonny Murray. "Sonny Murray plays like this." So he had them all down. But then when he played, he played his own style. Which I did, too. I played my own . . . I mean, I would analyze it to see . . . I would analyze Bird's solos to see how he played. I could hear what Coltrane was doing. By the time Coltrane came, I could really hear exactly what he was doing. It was very exciting for me.

TP: Did you like what Ornette Coleman was doing when his music came out in 1958-59? Did it speak to you?

SR: When it first came out, I thought it was really great. That was another situation where I took some records around to musicians so they could hear it. I put it down for one musician, and he listened to it, and he came over and he took it, picked it up, and just destroyed it. [LAUGHS] He just cracked it up. He couldn't stand it! When I came to New York it was the same thing. The older musicians said, "Sam, what are those young guys doing?" They couldn't understand. I was playing with an avant-garde Classical musician, and he needed somebody to improvise. Tony was in the group. We'd go to museums and we'd play the lines on the paintings, he would explain the painting, and then we'd play the music like this . . . The usual Dada kind of stuff. We'd throw ink splats on the paper, and do the rise-and-fall of this. I've gone through all these things, and Tony did too. So everything was pretty much downhill as far as the techniques of the Dada movement. [LAUGHS]

TP: It seems like maybe it was around '59-'60 that you began to incorporate these sort of yearnings towards freedom into your presentation.

SR: Mmm-hmm. Well, for piano . . . I mean, I was practicing piano, then all of a sudden one day I sat down and started playing the piano. I would say to musicians it's not an incline thing; you rise by . . . you go up plateaus. It's not a gradual thing. One morning you get up, if you've practiced for like six or seven months or something like this . . . one morning you get up and it's all there. It's not a gradual . . . The mind is a funny thing for me. I've noticed that you stay in one place for a while, and then you move. If you are practicing, you can feel the advance that you make. You advance in plateaus. It's not a gradual thing. The mind just keeps accumulating material, and then all of a sudden it explodes to the next level.

TP: What finally brought you to New York?

SR: Well, Tony. Actually, it wasn't really Tony. I had written all these compositions, and then to get musicians together . . . There weren't that many musicians. I moved to New York because of the musicians there. Which is the same reason I moved to Florida.

TP: You have that pool of good musicians just aching to play some different music.

SR: Right. So I never had a problem. As far as playing for rehearsals and calling the musicians, it's a challenge for them and they play it just when they have their nights off. If they come in to rehearse your music for nothing, then you know you're doing something that they appreciate.

TP: You mentioned earlier that you'd like to speak about your experiences with Miles Davis.

SR: Tony Williams got me with Miles. He had these tapes that he had done with me in Boston, so he said, "Miles, I want you to hear this tape." Miles said, "yeah, okay, later." He kept doing that. So finally, one day he trapped Miles. "Okay, go ahead, play it!" Tony said he heard the first track and he said, "Call him up. Get him up here right now." So he called me. I was on the road with T-Bone Walker, and he called me and said, "George quit; Miles wants you to join the band." I was out there on the road someplace. So I left T-Bone Walker to join Miles Davis.

But the thing is, there's always been this story out how much advanced I was, that Miles wasn't happy with my style. It wasn't that at all. Miles was right there with it. He understood. He could hear what I was doing. It wasn't a problem at all. The thing was that he had already been committed to Wayne Shorter. So the deal was that when Wayne left Art Blakey, I was supposed to go with Art Blakey, and it was supposed to be a trade like that. But I didn't want to go with Art Blakey. I went with Andrew Hill instead. So we went on tour with Andrew Hill, and that's the way it went down. It wasn't anything about me being much more advanced than Miles. Miles was just as advanced. In certain ways he wanted to produce his free stuff, which is what he did in Bitches Brew and everything. All these things are pretty much free over the static rhythm, like I mentioned before. So he wanted to make sure that I projected the music to the public, and reach a wider audience.

TP: By the late Sixties you'd become an established figure in New York. When did you begin to set up the workshop situations that led to something like Crystals, which is your first recording of big band music.

SR: As soon as I came to New York. That's what I came to New York for, to set up the band. I had a place, a rehearsal space downtown. A lot of musicians. I think I remember having the Brecker brothers in the band . . .

TP: Did you go to Bond Street right away?

SR: No, that was much later. I moved uptown. I had two six-room apartments on 124th Street. I had the whole top floor, 12 rooms, so I could do a lot of things up there. I did something for the Canadian Broadcasting System with Cecil McBee and a lot of other musicians up in my studio. But I was rehearsing at the Marion McCloud School up there, long before . . . The initial reason why I got the loft downtown was because I didn't have any place to rehearse, and I had music I wanted to rehearse, and at the school there was no beer, no drinks, no cigarettes, no nothing, so it was a very tight situation for us to rehearse in -- but it was available.

But then I started looking around downtown, and then eventually I found Bond Street. There was a very beautiful woman, Virginia (?), the mother of Robert De Niro, and she was very pleased that we made the whole building internationally famous. Bond Street, incidentally, was a very happening place, by the way. There was this woman up above us with her lady mate that was the first one who started the books on sexual harassment in the office. I saw her on TV once. I said, "Wow, look at her. She's got rouge and lipstick on; she's trying to look like a woman." Then up on the next floor there was Mapplethorpe! Robert Mapplethorpe was up on the fourth floor.

TP: Well, I'd say we had many strands of American culture at 24 Bond Street!

SR: 24 Bond Street, that's right. Mapplethorpe was there. He was a good friend of mine. He used to come down. He loved the music. I mean, he did some photos of me with my clothes on. [LAUGHS] They're around!

TP: The next music will represent Sam Rivers in the '70s. We've already decided we have to do a Sunday profile on the next trip to New York. Coming up is Crystals.

SR: This is the only big band arrangement I have. I have 200 compositions and arrangements for big band at this point, and I haven't been able to record any of them. I'm still trying to get discovered out here. I was looking at something on my way up there which says, "Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked." That was the first thing it said on this history, "Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked." Why? Why would I be often overlooked? I don't understand that. I'm sure that my place in the history of music is not really where it should be. But I am not bitter about it, because I really don't care. I am going to put my stuff together, and I'm going to have it for posterity.

MUSIC: Sam Rivers, "Tranquility" (1969); SR w/G. Lewis, "Circles" (1978)

TP: In our final hour, as we celebrate Sam Rivers' 74th birthday on WKCR, we'll hear some recent recordings. You've recorded prolifically in recent years on other people's recordings and collaborative situation. Let's hear the various recordings and cover the circumstances of each. The first track is from the 1996 CD, Configuration, on NATO, a French label, with Sam Rivers on reeds; Noah Akchote(?), guitars; Tony Hymus on piano (who is a composer on much of this); Paul Rogers, bass; Jacques Thollot on drums.

SR: It's more or less an international album. Tony Hymus is from London. Akchote(?) is French, and he's also teaching in Switzerland. The bass player is also from London. The drummer, Thollot, is French. This fellow decided to put this together. But he was mainly interested in doing commemorative kind of music for Cassavetes' movies. This is just a preliminary thing that happened during the extra. Also Tony Hymus is doing a concerto for me which will be performed with the London Symphony in January. It's all written, and I'm going over to do that. The piece needs someone who can improvise and sound . . . [LAUGHS] This was part of a project the French government is doing. He put the musicians together, I knew them all, and he asked me how it was. Everyone on the album is a bandleader, so it's an all-star group, and each one had to contribute some music. So I contributed three or four compositions on it.

MUSIC: Rivers, "Moonbeams" (1996); Rivers (solo), "Profile" (1995); Rivers- Workman, "Solace" (1995)

TP: I haven't known you to do too much solo performance over the years. I'm sure you have, but it's not been that documented much. Is this your first solo recording?

SR: It is. It's the first one I've done.

TP: I guess it's taking that blank page concept of free improvising to its ultimate extent in a certain way.

SR: I suppose so. I was very comfortable in doing it, because I've done it in the past, but I have never recorded it. I have done quite a few solo concerts, but they've never been recorded professionally like this one was done.

TP: How does it differ for you from, say, the duo or trio format of free improvising?

SR: I'm not really sure it's much different. I get added stimulus from the musicians who are playing with me, but that would be the only thing -- more stimulus and more creativity.

TP: How important is that dialogue with an ensemble for you in your improvising? Or, for that matter, in your composing? You said you pay heed to who the performers are sometimes when you compose.

SR: Yes, that's right.

TP: Talk about the input of the other improvisers within your concept.

SR: Improvising is sort of a real democracy kind of situation where everyone is performing in their own particular style or idiom of performing. But since it's musically, in a sense, correct, then it forms a unit. But it's a unit where everyone is doing their own thing, but it combines to become one unit, one whole like that. I think life is pretty much like that. [LAUGHS] Even the nucleus revolving around a certain entity through the universe. I suppose it would be random, in a sense, but physicists have put random into the equations. So everyone is doing a particular thing, but it comes out to be a complete unit, one particular whole. But it has to be individuals doing it. It doesn't have to be individuals, but it's a much more powerful, creative situation when everyone is more or less producing their own individual concept. Which is why producers love to have all-stars, because each person is going to be playing his own particular thing, but then it will combine to become one unit. They usually try for that. Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes there's a clash. But usually the musicians will work together. That's why producers like all-stars, so they can get the unit happening but everyone will have their own individual voice. So I'm fortunate to have musicians like that in my group now.

TP: A little bit less than a year ago, in November, you went in the studio with Julian Priester and a musician who deals with electronic sounds, Tucker Martin(?), and there's a new record out on Postcards entitled Light and Shadow. A few words about how that date came about, and your interaction and relationship with Julian Priester.

SR: My relationship with Julian Priester goes back many, many, many years. We did some things in the past, and then I played with him sometimes in Herbie's band when Julian was there and Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart. So I've known Julian over the years. And we taught together in Seattle. Ralph Simon is the producer of Postcards, he's producing most of the music there, and he's a very talented producer and saxophonist himself.

TP: I take it this was an improvised, collaborative date. Is that how it was set up?

SR: Yes, it was improvised.

TP: Did you do a couple of rehearsals going over stuff and then went into the studio?

SR: Yes, we did.

MUSIC: Rivers-Priester-T. Martin, "Heads of the People" (1996); Rivers- Schlippenbach, Backgrounds For Improvisers, "Terrain" (1995)

TP: Bea Rivers, do you remember when Sam composed your tune, "Beatrice"?

BEA RIVERS: Yes, I do. It was one evening when Tony Williams came by to spend the evening, which he did . . .

SR: Ron Carter, too, wasn't he there?

BEA RIVERS: Yeah, Ron Carter was there as well. But Tony Williams would come every day and play with Sam. One day he came in, and Sam said, "Tony, listen to this." Tony listened to it and he said, "Wow, what is the name of that?" He said, "I think I'll name it 'Beatrice.'" So that's how it came about.

TP: That was composed for the date, Fuchsia Swing Song. It wasn't one of your older tunes?

SR: I had already composed it. I hadn't planned to put it on the album. I had different music for the album, but it was a little too advanced for Alfred. He said he was going to cancel the date, so I went back and got other music. Fuchsia Swing Song was music I had done four or five years earlier. I really hadn't planned on recording that music. I thought it was much too old to record.

TP: Was that the music you had recorded in that quartet with Hal Galper, Henry Grimes and Tony Williams?

SR: Yes, that music.

TP: So the music performed on Fuchsia Swing Song was all music from 1959 and 1960.

SR: Yeah, Fuchsia Swing Song was old music. I had other music, but Alfred. . . As a matter of fact, all the music that Tony did with Lifetime, he had big problems with Alfred Lion because Alfred didn't want to do it. He really couldn't hear it. It seems like the music that musicians have the hardest problem getting recorded is the music that withstands the ravages of time. It's the ones that last the longest. You know what I mean? So you have the hardest problem talking to the producers, and it ends up that this music twenty years later is still fresh-sounding. You still have to convince the producers, because they would prefer something that they heard yesterday . . .

BEA RIVERS: Over and over again.

SR: Over and over again. Some of the recordings that the young musicians are doing, have they considered of what value that's going to be in another twenty years? Of no value at all. It's throwaway music. Most of the people that are recording now, it's throwaway. I'd rather hear Charlie Parker than hear any of them.

BEA RIVERS: That's right. They're recording what the masters have already done.

SR: That's not good, because they don't have anything . . . In the future, how good is this? The music that's being done right now by the young old- timers, how good is that going to be in another twenty years?

TP: Well, only time will tell, I guess.

SR: [LAUGHS] I guess only time will tell, but I'm really not happy with that.

TP: We could have a long conversation about that, but if we did, we wouldn't get to hear the next two tunes. So maybe we'll hear it on the Sunday we'll devote to your music sometime in the future.

MUSIC: Rivers-Matthews-Cole, "Point" (1996); Rivers-A. Anderson-Altschul, "Molde" (1973)

C o m m e n t s

Sam Rivers interview 1 of 1
Ed Scarvalone
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December 28, 11

What a great interview by Ted. So glad I came across it! He does a phenomenal job of getting Sam to open up, recollect, and explain. Excellent.

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