Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Rivers, Sam (Samuel Carthorn)

Multiinstrumentalist and composer Sam Rivers has amassed a distinct and varied body of work linked by a devotion to improvisational freedom and a relentless commitment to unfettered creativity.

Samuel Carthorne Rivers was born in El Reno, Oklahoma on September 25, 1923 into a musical family. His grandfather was a minister and musician, who published “A Collection of Revival Hymns & Plantation Melodies” in 1882.

His father was a graduate of Fisk University, where he sang in The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Silverstone Quartet. His mother played piano for the group. Rivers sang in his family’s vocal group at the age of five before taking up the violin, piano, and trombone, before settling on the saxophone at age thirteen.

Rivers’ father died when the boy was ten, after which he moved with his mother from Chicago to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she took a position teaching music and sociology at Shorter College.

Largely self-taught on the saxophone, Rivers advanced rapidly and played his first professional gigs with singer Jimmy Witherspoon while in the navy in the late 1940s. After the navy, Rivers settled in Boston, where he attended the Boston Conservatory in 1947 and then Boston University.

As a composition major at Boston Conservatory, Rivers studied under the prolific American composer Allan Hovhaness, who also mentored alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce. By the early 1950s, Rivers had become a fixture of the Boston jazz scene, along with contemporaries like pianist Jaki Byard, Serge Chaloff, Gryce, Ken McIntyre, Paul Gonsalves, and Alan Dawson.

Two early influences on Rivers were tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Hawkins was a master of creating snaking, intervallic lines that vertically outline harmonies.

Davis added his own gruff phrasing to Hawkins’ vertical approach to create a sound that was equally at home in rhythm & blues and jazz. Building on this, Rivers added his own note-smearing attack and advanced harmonic sensibility, which bring his solos to the edge of tonality.

In 1955, Rivers to moved to Miami, Florida for health reasons. He performed infrequently over the next few years with his brother Martin and with various R&B groups, and once at a jam session in 1957 with vocalist Billie Holiday.

Returning to Boston in 1958, Rivers joined The Herb Pomeroy big band, and then formed his own group to play original compositions. Rivers and his band were improvising freely before it became fashionable.

A typical gig of the period involved Rivers and his Boston Improvisational Ensemble improvising behind Boston University professors as they lectured on the painting styles of Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack, and Wassily Kandinsky.

Rivers’ working band in the late 1950s included pianists Jaki Byard and Hal Galper, bassists Ron Carter and Henry Grimes and an adolescent Tony Williams on drums. Also during this period, Rivers worked heavily in the growing R&B circuit. He was musical director for artists such as Wilson Pickett, B.B King, Maxine Brown and T-Bone Walker.

While touring with T-Bone Walker in 1964, Rivers was asked by Miles Davis to join the trumpeter’s quintet as a replacement for George Coleman. The invitation came largely at the behest of Tony Williams, who had since joined Davis’s rhythm section. Despite his short tenure with the group, the appointment was the break that Rivers’ career needed.

The saxophonist added an explosive energy to Davis’s group during a tour of Japan, but wasn’t what Davis was looking for. “Sam didn’t complete the sound of that band,” recalled pianist Herbie Hancock. Davis replaced Rivers with Wayne Shorter shortly after the tour. The album Miles in Tokyo is the single, fantastic document of Rivers’ time with Davis, which shows his dynamic approach already at full maturity.

Rivers moved to New York City in 1964. Between 1964 and 1967, he recorded four albums as a leader for Blue Note, and appeared as a sideman to other Blue Note artists, including Andrew Hill, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson and Larry Young. Rivers’ output on Blue Note dramatically raised his profile and portrayed the diversity of his talents as an instrumentalist and composer.

Rivers’ Blue Note debut, Fuchsia Swing Song, featured compositions and personnel – pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams – that harkened back to the his days in Boston. 1965’s Contours featured Rivers in challenging but traditional jazz settings. Involution, in contrast, set Rivers in an entirely avant-garde terrain.

In the late 1960s, Rivers began teaching in addition to playing professionally. His associations with the Harlem Ensemble and as musical director of the Harlem Opera Company brought him into contact with baritone saxophonist Hamiett Blueitt and tuba player Bob Stewart, with whom he would later record.

Also during the late 1960s, Rivers toured and recorded with three of the era’s most dynamic pianists: Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. The stint with Taylor was the longest and most fruitful artistically for Rivers. “I’ve never been with a musician more precise than Cecil. His rehearsals were stamina things too…I remember almost completely out-of-body experiences with him,” Rivers recalled.

In 1971, Rivers along with his wife Beatrice opened Studio Rivbea on Bond Street in lower Manhattan. The living space and performance venue became the epicenter for the 1970s jazz-loft scene, and featured a mix of young talent and established veteran performers in a setting that emphasized improvisational freedom.

“The main contribution I give to the music is spontaneous creativity,” elucidated Rivers. This was the common trait among Studio Rivbea’s regular cast of characters, which included Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Randy Weston, and Leo Smith.

Rivers signed a recording contract with Impulse! Records in 1973, and recorded four albums for the label with his trio of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors, later replaced by Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.

In 1974, he recorded Crystals, a large-ensemble session that foreshadowed the work that he would record later in his career. Also during the mid 1970s, he recorded as a sideman with Dave Holland, notably on the bassist’s seminal Conference of the Birds, and on a two-volume set of improvisations for Paul Bley’s Improvising Artists label with pianist Don Pullen, blues guitarist John Lee Hooker and pop singer Joe Cocker.

The early 1980s were a time of relatively limited output for Rivers, although he continued to tour as a leader and sideman. Starting in 1987, he spent four years touring and recording with Dizzy Gillespie in big and small bands.

For the past 17 years, Rivers and his wife Beatrice have called Florida home. “I had come through Orlando with Dizzy and met some musicians there. They told me, ‘Mr. Rivers, if you come down here, we’ll have a band waiting for you.’ And the first day I was down there, the band was ready for me,” Rivers recalled Rivers’ about his decision to relocate.

In the years since his move to Florida, Rivers has become the centerpiece of a thriving music scene there. His RivBea Orchestra – an ensemble built around the core trio of Rivers, bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole – performs and records regularly, even as Rivers enters his ninth decade in music.

Rivers’ playing style, like his career, spans the history of jazz and. More than most, he has succeeded in marrying traditional jazz with the avant-garde ethos of the 1960s and beyond. As Rivers succinctly put it: "I play the history of jazz because I've been through it all."

Contributor: Matt Miller