Sam Rivers has often been called a giant of avant-garde jazz. Yet it’s hard to think of another living jazz figure of equal stature — and there are precious few — who has been so grossly undervalued. (“What did I do?” Rivers once mused. “Did I tell someone to kiss my ass?”) Born into a musical family on September 25, 1923, Rivers received classical training in Boston after World War II and honed his tenor-sax chops playing bop in the city’s clubs. Big-band and R&B gigs occupied him for much of the ’50s, but by 1959 Rivers was firmly under the spell of free jazz and has plied those waters for most of his career. (His four years with Dizzy Gillespie in the late ’80s is a notable exception.) A ’64 stint with Miles Davis led to Rivers’ first recording as a leader that same year, the hard-bop-based free-jazz classic Fuchsia Swing Song; recently reissued, it sounds astonishingly fresh still. In 1969 he toured Europe with avant piano genius Cecil Taylor, and in 1971 Rivers and his wife, Beatrice, opened the downtown New York performance space Studio Rivbea, pumping fresh blood into the new-jazz loft scene and influencing an entire generation of players. Now based in Orlando, the uncompromising Rivers continues to operate without major-label support and remains as adventurous as any player around. His current trio, with bassist-clarinetist Doug Matthews and drummer-saxist-pianist Anthony Cole (a masterful flautist as well as a tenor player, Rivers also handles soprano sax and piano), is one of the most fascinating in jazz.
Were you encouraged to pursue music as a career?
No, no. We were raised to be teachers. Learning music was just part of being a civilized human being. You were a preacher and a musician, or you were a doctor and a musician, or you were a lawyer and a musician. Music was never considered the main profession by my parents — ministry, yes, but music, no. I ended up being what they wanted me to be anyway. I taught at Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard.
Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King — you’ve got one of the odder résumés among free-jazz players.
Freedom is a state of mind for me. I can play out, or in, I can play my style within the blues, or I can play my style playing changes. A jazz musician plays everything. The people you hear behind Britney Spears, they’re jazz musicians. Behind the country people, behind hip-hop, commercials — all jazz musicians. They can’t do without us. We are so much a part of this society we’re almost part of the furniture — so dominant you don’t even notice us anymore.
When did you start playing free?
When I was in Boston. What’s called free jazz — we were doing it already in the classical. This goes back to the Dada. In 1911, 1910, people were throwing splotches on paper and playing that, tracing the contours of mountains and playing that. I was with a classical group — the leader was a classical composer, but he had a kind of disdain for classical musicians because they weren’t able to do anything but read their music. We’d go to museums — he was also an art historian — and just play the paintings. Later, when Ornette Coleman came along, for some players it was a shock, but not for musicians that had classical training, who had heard Stockhausen and Stravinsky. It didn’t hit me as hard. Coleman, even Cecil Taylor — I loved their music immediately.
I’m always struck by how accessible your free work is.
I really try. Music — art — is all about emotion. That’s all that’s important. If you have the brain thing too, well, that’s an added dividend. Listen to Dolphy, for instance. He’s the only musician in jazz I haven’t been able to analyze. I don’t have the faintest idea what his harmonic concept is. But I enjoy it so much.
When did you start writing?
Around 1958. That was one of the reasons that I moved to New York in ’64, because from ’58 on I had accumulated quite a few compositions. The musicians capable of playing it in Boston were busy. New York, there’s a lot of qualified musicians looking for adventurous music to play, even just to rehearse. It’s the same in Orlando, which is the main reason I’m here. The musicians here, they’re all very good, all college graduates, all professors of music. So I’m sitting here writing. They perform everything I do, and I have to keep writing to preserve their interest.
You know, we’re teeming with great players out here . . .
Hollywood was my second choice. I was looking for a place to live other than New York, because I was getting tired of cold weather. But a $150,000 house in Orlando would be a shack in California. That was a big consideration.
Your current trio — its range, the way you switch around instruments — I don’t think I’ve seen one quite like it.
I’m sure you haven’t. I haven’t had a trio that’s as talented as this in my entire career. We play changes, we play free, ballads — everything. We are the history of the music.
You’ve got another big-band album coming out.
Yes, Aurora. I’m bringing it out on Rivbea Sound, my own label. I’m following in the tradition of Sun Ra and a lot of other musicians who never did perform with a major label, but were able to distribute their records all around the world. I intend to produce a record a month for the rest of my life. The music is ready. All I need is pen and paper and someplace to sit. The ideas are still bursting out of me. I understand how fortunate I am at 80, don’t think I don’t.
The Sam Rivers Trio plays the Jazz Bakery and celebrates Rivers’ 80th birthday through Sunday, September 28.