Hamiet Bluiett is widely regarded as one of the most talented baritone saxophone players in all of jazz music. An early start in musical studies led to his virtuoso turn on the less-popular sibling to the alto and tenor saxophone. Tutored by his aunt, a choir teacher, Bluiett began playing piano and trumpet at an early age and commenced study of the clarinet at age nine. Bluiett studied flute at Southern Illinois University, where he also picked up what would become his lifelong instrument, the baritone saxophone. "I saw one when I was ten, and even though I didn't hear it that day, I knew I wanted to play it," he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2002. "Someone had to explain to me what it was. When I finally got my hands on one at 19, that was it."
Bluiett left college before graduating and, following a stint in the Navy, moved to St. Louis in the mid-1960s where he became a mainstay in the city's thriving jazz scene. With such artists as trumpeter Lester Bowie, drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw, and saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, Bluiett formed the Black Artists Group, a collective dedicated to showcasing the work and fostering the creativity of African American artists. The collective comprised not only jazz musicians but poets, dancers, painters, and actors.
In 1969 Bluiett moved to New York City, where he joined saxophonist Sam Rivers's ensemble, while continuing to work with a variety of other jazz musicians and groups, including percussionists Tito Puente and Babatunde Olatunji, trumpeter Howard McGhee, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. In 1972 he joined the band of legendary bassist Charles Mingus, staying with that group until 1975 and appearing on Mingus's Mingus at Carnegie Hall album.
Bluiett's first album as a bandleader, Endangered Species, was released on the India label in 1976, and that same year he helped found the legendary World Saxophone Quartet with Hemphill and Oliver on alto saxophones and David Murray on tenor. The group grew out of a series of clinics and performances at Southern University in New Orleans, where the quartet, often playing without a rhythm section, garnered enthusiastic audience reactions. Originally billed as the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, the group debuted at the Tin Palace in New York City. Reportedly threatened with a lawsuit by the New York Saxophone Quartet, the group changed its name to the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) and recorded its first album, the largely improvised Point of No Return, in 1977 for Moers Music.
The group enjoyed unparalleled success throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s. All Music Guide 's Chris Kelsey noted, "[T]he WSQ is unquestionably the most commercially (and, arguably, the most creatively) successful" of the numerous saxophone ensembles that formed in the 1970s. "At their creative peak, the group melded jazz-based, harmonically adventurous improvisation with sophisticated composition," Kelsey wrote. Kelsey largely credited Bluiett for establishing the group's wide-ranging sound. "The WSQ's early free-blowing style eventually transformed into a sophisticated and largely composed melange of bebop, Dixieland, funk, free, and various world musics, its characteristic style anchored and largely defined by Bluiett's enormous sound."
Bluiett continued to record as a bandleader as well, and he began to make his name as one of the most versatile and wide-ranging baritone saxophonists working in jazz. "Hamiet Bluiett is the most significant baritone sax specialist since Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams," Garaud MacTaggart wrote in MusicHound Jazz. "His ability to provide a stabilizing rhythm (as he frequently does in the World Saxophone Quartet) or to just flat-out wail in free-form abandon has been apparent since his involvement with St. Louis' legendary Black Artists Group in the mid-1960s."
While focusing on the baritone sax, Bluiett also continued to play clarinet and flute and, true to form, often picked up the more obscure contrabass or contra-alto clarinet or bass flute. A clarinet ensemble, the Clarinet Family (comprised of Bluiett, Don Byron, Buddy Collette, John Purcell, Kidd Jordan, J. D. Parran, Dwight Andrews, and Gene Ghee on clarinets and saxophones, Fred Hopkins on double bass, and Ronnie Burrage on drums) released a live album, Live in Berlin with the Clarinet Family, in 1984.
As the World Saxophone Quartet began to slow down in the 1990s, after losing its major-label deal with Elektra, Bluiett began to embark on new experiments as a bandleader. In collaboration with the Mapleshade record label, he began producing Explorations, a group featuring undiscovered talents, young and old, and melding traditional and avant-garde styles. A 1995 recording of his own on Mapleshade, New Warrior, Old Warrior, features musicians whose ages span five decades. The unique approach drew accolades, but the results earned a mixed review from Down Beat. "The album puts together musicians from ages 20 to 70, and though this makes for satisfying listening in several places, when it doesn't work it's because the age ranges also translate into equally broad—and sometimes irreconcilable—stylistic ones," K. Leander Williams wrote.
A later project, 1998's Libation for the Baritone Saxophone Nation, was even less well received. "Here's a sax quartet consisting all of one species, and while the baritone is capable of playing several different roles with its wide range, the results get rather wearisome in the end," John Corbett wrote in Down Beat. "By the time Bluiett says, 'You're witnessing the birth of the baritone saxophone' … the gimmick is already threadbare." Ed Enright, in the same magazine, gave the group better ratings for live performance, however. "In Montreal, the Hamiet Bluiett Baritone Saxophone Group was a seismic experience…. And they blew—oh, how they blew—with hurricane force."
Bluiett discussed the concept of an all-baritone group with Enright after the show. "I'm tired of trying to fit in with trumpet music, tenor music, alto music, soprano music," he said. "It takes too much energy to play that way; I have to shut the horn down. Later! We've got to play what this horn will sound like." In addition to a desire to explore the outer reaches of his instrument, Bluiett also expressed a desire for greater respect. "[A]ll the music these days is written for something else," he said. "And I'm tired of being subservient to it. I refuse to do it anymore. I refuse to take the disrespect anymore."
For the Record . . .
Born on September 6, 1940, in Lovejoy, IL. Education: Attended Southern Illinois University.
Began playing piano and trumpet in early childhood; commenced study of clarinet, age nine; studied flute and baritone saxophone at Southern Illinois University; moved to St. Louis, helped form the Black Artists Group, 1960s; relocated to New York, played with Charles Mingus, 1972-75; helped found the World Saxophone Quartet, 1976; released first solo album, Endangered Species, 1976; released first album with World Saxophone Quartet, Point of No Return, 1977.
Addresses: Record company— Justin Time Records Inc., 5455 Paré, Ste. 101, Montreal, Quebec H4P 1P7, Canada, website: http://www.justin-time.com.
Bluiett has continued to record and peform as a bandleader into the twenty-first century, and he has consciously resisted the advanced technological techniques of the new century in favor of a more stripped-down sound. "I'm dealing with being more healthful, more soulful, more human. Not letting the computer and trick-nology and special effects overcome me," he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. "I'm downsizing to maximize the creative part. Working on being more spiritual, so that the music has power … power where the note is still going after I stop playing. The note is still going inside of the people when they walk out of the place."
Endangered Species, India, 1976.
Orchestra Duo and Septet, Chiaroscuro, 1977.
S.O.S., India, 1980.
Live in Berlin with the Clarinet Family, Black Saint, 1984.
Ebu, Soul Note, 1984.
Walkin' and Talkin', Tutu, 1991.
Young Warrior, Old Warrior, Mapleshade, 1995.
Same Space, Justin Time, 1998.
Libation for the Baritone Saxophone Nation, Justin Time, 1998.
With Eyes Wide Open, Justin Time, 2000.
The Calling, Justin Time, 2001.
Blueback, Justin Time, 2002.
If Trees Could Talk, Mapleshade, 2002.
With World Saxophone Quartet
Point of No Return, Moers, 1977.
Steppin' with the World Saxophone Quartet, Black Saint, 1978.
W.S.Q., Black Saint, 1980.
Revue, Black Saint, 1980.
Prophet, Black Saint, 1980.
Plays Duke Ellington, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1986.
Dances and Ballads, Elektra, 1987.
Rhythm & Blues, Elektra, 1988.
Metamorphosis, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990.
You Don't Know Me, Elektra, 1992.
Moving Right Along, Black Saint, 1993.
Breath of Life, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1995.
Takin' It 2 the Next Level, Justin Time, 1996.
M'Bizo, Justin Time, 1999.
Requiem for Julius, Justin Time, 2000.
Holtje, Steve, editor, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The Grove Dictionary of Music, Macmillan, 2002.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Down Beat, December 1995, p. 65; October 1996, p. 10; September 1997, p. 6; January 1999, p. 52.
Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 8, 2002.
"Hamiet Bluiett," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 1, 2003).
"World Saxophone Quartet," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 1, 2003).
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