Composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, one of the most original and acclaimed voices in jazz, was often overlooked by the mainstream throughout his career. Rather than attempting to attract a wider audience for his music, Rivers instead concentrated on teaching younger generations of artists and developing new musical concepts. A versatile player known for his imaginative blending of jazz forms—from the blues and straight-ahead jazz to the avantgarde—Sam Rivers played with the greatest effect on soprano and tenor saxophone and flute, instruments on which he displayed his signature light, dancing style. However, he also became accomplished on piano, bass clarinet, and viola, all the while establishing himself as a composer and arranger of considerable talent. Rivers, a master improviser who frequently switches gears from liquid jazz to all-out funk, continued to record, perform, and influence fellow artists well into his seventies. Maintaining an obvious interest in all the styles jazz offers, Rivers explained to Down Beat’s Dan Ouellette, “I play the history of jazz because I’ve been through it all.”
“Sam comes out of a school of saxophone playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins and that I call ‘the snake school,’” explained alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who produced Rivers’ albums during his time with RCA Records and played in the orchestra, to Down Beat writer Ted Panken. Represented by the likes of Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, and Lockjaw Davis as well, this “school” of players used an array of directional shifts in their lines and intervals. “Sam makes it even more pronounced because of his attack, the way he smears the notes,” Coleman further commented. “You can instantly hear it’s him. His sound and phrasing and rhythm are very slippery, sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy. It goes beyond music; when he’s directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance. Before the band plays, he sings the music exactly like it should go. Nothing he could say would give you more information than watching him move.”
Although in his later adulthood Rivers professed, “I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes. It takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but a few minutes to be a free one” as quoted by Panken. The master jazzman’s roots stemmed from a more formal, as well as spiritual, source. Born on September 25, 1930, in El Reno, Oklahoma, to a family of musicians, Samuel Carthorne Rivers grew up surrounded by traditional influences. Rivers’ grandfather, for one, published a book of hymns and African American folk songs in 1882, while his parents, both college graduates originally from Chicago, played and toured with the Silvertone Quartet, a gospel group in which his father sang and his mother accompanied on piano.
While still an infant, Rivers and his family returned to Chicago, where from the age of four the youngster sang in choirs directed by his mother and joined his father on excursions to famous South Side venues—namely the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom—to hear the top big bands of the day, from Duke Ellington and Count Basie to Earl “Fatha” Hines. Around the same time, in 1935, Rivers also learned piano and violin, an instrument he dropped two or three years later to concentrate solely on piano.
In 1937, Rivers’ father died in an automobile accident (some sources state that the accident occurred around 1934 and left him incapacitated), and afterward his mother accepted a teaching position at Shorter College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Here, Rivers continued to develop his musical talent, playing trombone beginning at the age of eleven in the marching band of his school. Two years later, he picked up a saxophone. Finding the saxophone more to his liking than the trombone, Rivers, from that moment, considered that instrument his first love. In all, by the time the gifted young man graduated from high school in Little Rock at age 15, Rivers had learned, in succession, trombone, soprano saxophone, baritone horn, and eventually tenor saxophone, the instrument he discovered while a student at Jarvis Christian College in Texas.
For The Record…
Born Samuel Carthorne Rivers on September 25, 1930, in El Reno, OK; son of a singer and pianist, who toured with a gospel group called the Silvertone Quartet; married Bea. Education: Attended Jarvis Christian College in Texas; studied composition and theory at the Boston Conservatory of Music; also attended Boston University.
Formed first quartet, 1959; played with Herb Pomeroy’s group, 1960-62; toured with Miles Davis, moved to New York City, released debut album, Fuchsia Swing Song, 1964; opened Studio Rivbea, 1971; moved to Orlando, FL, where he started his big band, an 11-piece wind ensemble, and a trio, 1991. Performed and appeared with artists from a variety of influences such as jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, and Andrew Hill; blues masters T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Witherspoon, and B.B. King; as well as symphony orchestras including the San Francisco Orchestra with Serge Ozawa. Former faculty member and visiting artist at Wesleyan University, Dartmouth College, Cornish Institute, and the New School of Music in New York.
As a young man Rivers started improvising, later documenting these early origins for his poetic interpretation of “Body and Soul” from the 1991 album Lazuli, released on the Timeless label. “I had ‘Body and Soul’ down note for note,” he said with a laugh to Panken. “I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester Young was really the man because he was so melodic, floating all the time.… I analyzed Chu Berry’s ‘Stardust,’ too. In those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself. That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players then. Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow. Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy [Gillespie], that was the epitome.” Rivers first heard these jazz legends in the mid-1940s while working as a navy clerk stationed near San Francisco, California, where he spent off-hours moonlighting on gigs with singer Jimmy Witherspoon and participating in various jam sessions around the Bay Area. One record in particular, 1945’s “Blue and Boogie” featuring the front line of Gillespie and Parker, intrigued Rivers. “It was the first bebop record I ever heard,” he recalled, “and that sent me on.… I analyzed what they did with it in relation to the harmonic framework. Both were coming from the blues.”
Inspired to take his musical training further, Rivers in 1947 enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition and theory; he also attended Boston University. During his student years, he worked from time to time with other conceptually ambitious jazz musicians, among them Jaki Byard, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, Gigi Gryce, Herb Pomeroy, and Alan Dawson. “Jaki was a very important in the early day,” Rivers told jazz critic Leonard Feather, who wrote the musician’s 1968 press information for Blue Note Records. “He was such an imaginative pianist that sometimes I found it hard to play with him. I was so busy listening to what he was doing. He is extraordinarily flexible, understanding every style of jazz just as I wanted to.” These days also saw Rivers playing with an intermission trio at the RKO Theater, where musicians from touring big bands would often dine and hang, with Pomeroy’s 13-piece band, and with a rehearsal bop-oriented band led by pianist/singer Jimmy Martin.
In 1952, Rivers dropped out of Boston University and fell ill for the next few years. Although he spent some time composing, he remained more or less inactive as a performer. Taking a hiatus from the Boston area after recovering, he then moved to Florida in 1955 and worked with his brother, bass player Martin Rivers, in Miami and toured the South with various rhythm and blues bands. Around 1957 or 1958, he returned to Boston, supporting himself by writing jingles before re-joining Pomeroy’s group (1960-62) and forming a quartet in 1959 with pianist Hal Galper, bassist Henry Grimes, and a then 13-year-old drummer named Anthony (Tony) Williams, who Rivers predicted would enjoy a brilliant future.
Williams and Rivers would meet again in the summer 1964, when the saxophonist, upon Williams’ recommendation, joined the Miles Davis Quintet to replace George Coleman in the tenor chair. During his two months with Davis, Rivers toured with the group in Japan and as part of the World Jazz Festival. Shortly after his brief stint with the group, that same year Rivers moved to New York City after finding that in Boston, where he set out to form his own band and had been composing seriously since 1957, most of his peers were so busy with teaching and performing that they lacked time for other responsibilities.
Arriving in New York, Rivers moved into two adjoining apartments on 124th Street and signed with Blue Note. In 1964, he made his debut as a bandleader with Fuchsia Swing Song, for which he performed music from the 1959-60 Boston quartet with Byard, Williams, and Ron Carter that demonstrated Rivers’ movement from post-bop conception into the free-jazz zone. He followed this achievement with 1965’s Contours, a quintet session with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Herbie Hancock that adhered closer to mainstream jazz, then crossed back into free-jazz territory with 1966’s Involution.
In the meantime, Rivers also grew increasingly interested in teaching, eventually workshopping his big band music at a Harlem junior high school. Among his group of eager, aspiring jazz players were baritone saxophonist Harriett Bluiett and tuba player Bob Stewart, both of whom joined Rivers on his later RCA recordings. Then in 1971, after touring with the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1969—he played with that group from 1968-73—as well as a six-month stint with McCoy Tyner, Rivers and his wife Bea opened Studio Rivbea, a performance and living space at 24 Bond Street in lower Manhattan for rehearsals and performances of his own original compositions as well as those of other deserving musicians. During the 1970s, the studio became a nurturing ground for numerous improvisers trying to make it in New York.
Between 1972 and 1982, after working again with Davis as well as Chick Corea’s Circle, Rivers steadily performed and recorded in duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and big bands in a variety of settings, all the while continuing to foster his studio. “Rivbea was a very personal environment for the music to happen in,” bassist Dave Holland, who collaborated with Rivers extensively during this time, including for an exchange that marked one of the greatest jazz albums of the 1970s entitled Conference of the Birds, recalled to Panken. “It put on these wonderful series of concerts that gave musicians a chance to focus on their ideas without any commercial constraints. So it was a breeding ground for a lot of interesting musical ideas which weren’t being heard in New York. Of course, this kind of activity brought people together, and opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.”
As the next decade got underway, Rivers continued mostly as a bandleader, recording for Impulse! and for several lesser-known labels. His 1983 effort, Colours, showcased Rivers’ unique ability to write music for large groups of saxophones, flutes, oboes, and piccolo with no other accompaniment. Lazuli, released in 1991, saw Rivers trying to gear his music for a wider audience, though it failed to make a satisfying impression on critics.
In 1991, soon after concluding four years of steady touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet and big band, Rivers left New York, settling with his wife in Orlando, Florida. The couple, while on vacation there, had discovered a talented network of musicians who worked in the area theme parks and studios. Throughout the 1990s, Rivers, in addition to forming his own record label called Rivbea, continued to complete one composition a month for each of three Orlando-based ensembles: a 16-piece big band, an 11-piece wind ensemble, and trio that is also the core rhythm section for the orchestra. “I’m writing more than ever,” Rivers remarked to Panken. “I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal. When I first went to New York, we’d spend three hours on one tune. That doesn’t happen here. Anything I write, they can play.” In the summer of 2000, Rivers released a double-CD on Rivbea documenting his Orlando big band. This followed the release of two acclaimed albums for RCA, the 1999 Grammy Award-nominated Inspiration as well as Culmination, released in May of 2000.
Fuchsia Swing Song, Blue Note, 1964.
Contours, Blue Note, 1965.
Involution, Blue Note, 1966.
A New Conception, Blue Note, 1966.
Dimensions and Extensions, Blue Note, 1967.
Hues, Impulse!, 1971.
The Live Trio Sessions, I.A.I., 1972.
Configuration, Pelican Sound, 1973.
Streams: Live at Montreux, Impulse!, 1973, reissued, 1989.
Waves, Tomato, 1973.
Crystals, Impulse!, 1974.
Sizzle, Impulse!, 1975.
Capricorn Rising, Black Saint, 1975.
Dave Holland/Sam Rivers, I.A.I, 1976, reissued, 1992.
Dave Holland/Sam Rivers, Vol. 2, I.A.I., 1977.
The Quest, Pausa, 1976.
Paragon, Fluid, 1977.
Contrasts, ECM, 1979.
Colours, Black Saint, 1983.
Lazuli, Timeless, 1990.
Concept, Rivbea, 1997.
Portrait, FMP, 1997.
Live, GRP, 1998.
Inspiration, RCA, 1999.
Culmination, RCA, 2000.
The Complete Blue Note Sam Rivers Sessions, Mosaic, 2000.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Boston Phoenix, August 5, 1999.
Down Beat, January 1997, p. 59; December 1997, pp. 78-79; January 1999, p. 67; April 2000, pp. 33-36.
Playboy, July 1984, p. 23.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 4, 2000).
Rivbea Music Productions, http://www.atlantic.net/~rivbea.html (May 4, 2000).
Sam Rivers Press Bio (1968), http://www.eclipse.net/~fitzgera/blakey/rivers1.htm (May 4, 2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (May 4, 2000).
"Rivers, Sam." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rivers-sam
"Rivers, Sam." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rivers-sam
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