In the 1960s and 1970s, Robin Kenyatta was one of the more original players in the new sound of jazz. Unafraid to put his alto sax through unexpected twists, Kenyatta became famous for his free jazz performances. During a career spanning four decades, he released 12 albums and appeared on dozens more. He held his own against the greatest jazz men of the twentieth century and, according to the Web site All About Jazz, is remembered as "one of THE altoists of the '60s."
Developed Free Style of Jazz
Born Robert Prince Haynes on March 6, 1942, in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Kenyatta was the third child of Thomas and Rebecca Haynes. The family, including older siblings Doris and Thomas, moved to New York City when Kenyatta was four. There, a neighbor played the saxophone. For years Kenyatta listened to him practice through the walls. He fell in love with the sound and, at the age of 14, got his hands on his first instrument—an alto sax. He joined the school marching band, but as the instructor was focused on trumpets, Kenyatta learned mostly on his own. Eventually he met professional musicians who helped him along, including John Handy, a saxophonist who had played with Charles Mingus. Though alto sax would become his specialty, Kenyatta also learned tenor sax, soprano sax, and flute.
After graduating from high school, Kenyatta spent two years nurturing his craft. He learned how to write music and began composing. At the age of 19, he landed his first professional gig. In 1962 Kenyatta joined the U.S. Army and served two years in a military band. Upon his return to New York, he changed his name to Robin Kenyatta in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan nationalist leader, and begun to pursue a career as a professional musician.
Jazz during the early 1960s was in a heyday. Legends like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk were recording and gigging. Jazz sounds were as diverse as ragtime, swing, be-bop, and big band. In New York at the time, a style called free jazz was emerging. It was characterized by playing that broke the traditional rules of melody. Solos were sporadic, independent, and often mind-bendingly chaotic. Top free jazz players at the time included Coltrane, Bill Dixon, and Ornette Coleman. Kenyatta was coming into his own as a musician during this era and he became known for his own experimentation on the sax. The Boston Herald noted that Kenyatta was considered "a fearless reedman willing to try his hand at any style, the edgier the better."
Joined Ranks of Jazz Greats
In 1964 Kenyatta was playing at a Harlem club when Bill Dixon came in. Kenyatta recalled in an interview with All About Jazz, "Someone had told Bill about me, because the word was going through the grapevine that some fantastic young alto player was coming up." He laughed with pride recalling the incident. Dixon was organizing a series of free jazz concerts called the October Revolution and promptly invited Kenyatta to participate. Kenyatta met Coltrane at the show. Coltrane "came up to me after the concert and told me how much he admired my playing.… He asked me how to do certain little tricks I was doing," Kenyatta told All About Jazz. "It was a big moment in my life—1964. Meeting Trane was fantastic!"
After the October Revolution shows, Kenyatta became a rising star in the New York jazz scene. He made his first recorded appearance on pianist Valerie Capers's 1965 album Portrait in Soul. The following year he was featured on two songs on the Sonny Stitt album Deuces Wild—"In the Bag" and "Me 'n You." The album cover proclaimed "Introducing Robin Kenyatta." Kenyatta released his first album as featured player and band leader in 1967. On the Vortex label, Until highlighted Kenyatta's eclectic style and featured one of his most memorable tracks, the 11-minute "You Know How We Do."
During the rest of the 1960s Kenyatta continued to appear on albums by prominent jazz musicians. In 1969 he relocated to Paris, France, where jazz musicians were more highly regarded. By the end of the decade he had recorded two more of his own albums—Beggars and Stealers and Girl from Martinique. The latter, which was released in 1970 on ECM, is another exploration of the more experimental edges of modern jazz, this time with a Caribbean tinge. Highlights included the title song, "Blues for Your Mama" and "Thank You Jesus."
Lived Out Musical Legacy in Europe
After three years in Paris, Kenyatta returned to New York and landed a record deal with industry giant Atlantic Records. He released three albums in quick succession: Gypsy Man in 1972, Terra Nova in 1973, and Stompin' at the Savoy in 1974. All three albums were commercially successful and the latter album even prompted critics to label Kenyatta the "Magician of Swing." The albums were also markedly more mainstream than his earlier works. "I changed. I was not interested in esoteric music," he told All About Jazz. "I wanted to touch a larger audience." During this same era Kenyatta had his biggest hit, a cover of "Last Tango in Paris." Though it was also a more commercial song, Kenyatta told All About Jazz that he had utilized elements of free jazz in the recording. "I did it in such a way that it was commercial. People didn't even realize they were listening to a 'free' style of playing."
In the mid-seventies Kenyatta moved back to Europe and settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. According to an obituary written by Kenyatta's daughter Ayo on All About Jazz, "[he] felt that American jazz was becoming too conservative and status quo and went back to Europe where the audiences embraced him and his musical style." He taught music at the Ecole de Jazz Musique Actuelle in Lausanne and later founded the Hello Jazz Music School and shop. Every few years he recorded a new album. He also performed extensively throughout Europe, making appearances at the world's top jazz festivals alongside legends such as George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, B. B. King, Paul Simon, and The Isley Brothers.
In 2001 Kenyatta finally returned to the United States. He settled in Manhattan and took on a long commute to a weekly teaching position at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. The first album he released back home was Cool Blue, an autobiographical foray into funk and blues. He told All About Jazz, "If I were to go back, I'd have listened to a lot of blues. I'm sorry I missed it." By 2004 he was also developing a strong interest in traditional African-American spirituals. Though he landed a few gigs back stateside—and ignited the buzz of the jazz community with his return—Kenyatta found the re-entry difficult. "Trying to make a comeback to the status I had before I left hasn't been an easy thing," he told the Boston Herald. Some said it was because he had been away too long. Kenyatta disagreed. "When I listen to other musicians play, I don't feel that I'm behind. In fact, at times I feel that I'm a little ahead of the game." In October of 2004 Kenyatta traveled to Switzerland for a performance. While there he suddenly died in his sleep, leaving the sold-out crowd—and the worldwide jazz community—with an unsated desire to see just what musical game Kenyatta had in mind for his fourth decade in the game.
At a Glance …
Born in 1942, in Moncks Corner, SC; died October 26, 2004, in Lausanne, Switzerland; married Pauline Rochester (divorced); children: Ayo, Lorin, Brandon. Military: U.S. Army, 1962-64.
Saxophonist, 1960s-2005. Atlantic Records, musician, 1970-73; Bentley College, Waltham, MA, jazz instructor, 2001-05.
Until, Vortex, 1967.
Beggars and Stealers, Muse, 1969.
Girl from Martinique, ECM, 1970.
Gypsy Man, Atlantic, 1972.
Terra Nova, Atlantic, 1973.
Stompin' at the Savoy, Atlantic, 1974.
Nomusa, Muse, 1975.
Take the Heat Off Me, ITM, 1979.
Live at Cully: Blues for Mama Doll, Jazz Dance, 1987.
Ghost Stories, Koch International, 1991.
Free State Band, Musidisc, 1995.
Cool Blue, Jazz Dance, 2001.
The Boston Herald, February 17, 2004.
The New York Times, November 15, 2004.
"Recent Deaths in Jazz," Jazz Times,http://jazztimes.com/columnS_and_features/news/detail.cfm?article=10218 (August 31, 2005).
"Robin Kenyatta," All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=685 (August 3, 2005).
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