Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Few have what it takes to rise to the top of the jazz avant-garde even once, much less twice - but trombonist Roswell Rudd did just that. After minting his reputation as one of the top avant players of the 1960s, he retreated from the scene. After nearly twenty years, he returned to reunite with former collaborators and new ones, from as far away as Mali and Mongolia - and proved he had lost none of his imagination or tone.
When playing Dixieland, free jazz or Puerto Rican jibaro music, Rudd’s style ranges from warm and bluesy to brash and insistent, depending on the context. No matter the setting, the trombonist remains thoughtful and melodic, full of shape and color.
Roswell Rudd was born in Sharon, Connecticut on November 17, 1935, and he grew up in Lakeville, Connecticut. His father, an amateur drummer, would set up his traps in the family's living room and play along to recordings by Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. His mother was an amateur jazz pianist.
Rudd started on mellophone at age 9 or 10, then switched to French horn in 1946, at age 11. By 1947, his siblings had taken up instruments, and a family band was born. Around 1948, after realizing that there weren’t any French horn players on his father’s jazz records, Rudd started on what would become his trademark instrument: the trombone.
Between 1948 and 1949, Rudd played with his family and school bands, and in the Lakeville-Salisbury American Legion Band. Also during these years, he arranged church music for a brass choir at Lakeville Methodist Church, where his grandmother directed the vocal choir.
In 1950, Rudd enrolled at the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Lakeville. There, he performed with the school's orchestra, band and glee club, and led his own jazz group. He remained at Hotchkiss through 1954.
In 1952, Rudd and a friend traveled to New York City to see Louis Armstrong perform. Armstrong was performing between screenings of The Crimson Pirate,a comedy adventure film which starred Burt Lancaster, at a movie theatre near Times Square. Rudd sat through three screenings to hear Armstrong play. Afterwards, he went to shake Armstrong’s hand, and the trumpeter encouraged the boy's interest in music. Rudd also saw James P. Johnson perform in 1948.
In 1954, Rudd entered Yale University, but he left in 1958 without graduating. He returned in 1960 to complete his bachelor's degree in music history, with a minor in music theory. While at Yale, he performed with the Dixieland group Eli’s Chosen Six, and recorded two albums with the group, in 1955 and 1957. These were Rudd’s first two recordings, credited to “Roz Rudd.”
In 1958, Rudd moved to New York City, where almost upon arrival, he fell in with a crowd of forward-looking jazz musicians. These artists included Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Gil Evans, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Herbie Nichols and John Tchicai.
“Jazz music being a more oral than written tradition, I doubt that anything could have taught me more in this area than the live experience of associating and working with some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians,” Rudd wrote on his resume in 1973. “This is mainly what I’ve done since 1958 in the city of New York, except for a stretch in 1960 when I returned to Yale to finish my work there and obtain a B.A.”
Rudd recorded in New York for the first time in October of 1960, with Taylor and the bassist Buell Neidlinger, who had also been a member of Eli’s Chosen Six at Yale. Further recordings with these performers in January of 1961 resulted in the album New York City R&B, , which he coled with Taylor and Neidlinger, as well as the Taylor albums Jumpin’ Punkins and Cell Walk For Celeste.
Also during this time in New York, Rudd also played with Dixieland musicians, and it was through these circles that he met the pianist and composer Herbie Nichols. Rudd studied with Nichols off and on for two or three years.
“[Nichols] was the guy who, in one lesson, in one hour, obliterated four years in an Ivy League college studying music,” Rudd told Down Beat magazine in 1978. “I realized after that one lesson that I should have bypassed college and come down here and got a good private teacher in improvisation. That would have been the ideal thing to do. I blew it, but it’s never too late.” Rudd and Nichols also gigged together during this period.
Also through these Dixieland gigs, Rudd first encountered the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and the two remained close collaborators until the saxophonist’s death in 2004. From 1961 to 1964, Rudd and Lacy coled a quartet devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk. This group, featuring the bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Denis Charles, recorded one album, School Days, in 1963.
In 1964, following the dissolution of his quartet with Lacy, Rudd appeared on a pair of releases by avant-garde artists: Archie Shepp’s Four For Trane and Albert Ayler’s New York Eye And Ear Control. He also formed a new group, the New York Art Quartet. This group, which was active until 1966, included alto saxophonist John Tchicai, drummer Milford Graves, and either Lewis Worrell or Reggie Workman on bass. This group recorded two albums, New York Art Quartet in 1964, which featured spoken commentary by LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka and 1965’s Mohawk, before disbanding in February of 1966.
“It was a nice band, young, there were a lot of great moments and a lot of times, grey areas,” said Rudd of the New York Art Quartet. “Sometimes we couldn’t find each other but the thing is, we did take a risk. You start with so much music and little guideposts along the way. The rest of it had to be creative, from passion, from knowledge and from listening very hard to each other.” Also in 1964, Rudd began to work as an assistant to folklorist Alan Lomax. The trombonist worked on and off for Lomax into the 90s.
Around the time that the Art Quartet broke up, Rudd began working with Archie Shepp’s group. Between 1964 and 1967, Rudd recorded on six dates lead by the saxophonist, including Freedom, Live In San Francisco, Three For A Quarter, One For A Dime and, what Rudd considers his finest album with Shepp, Live At The Donaueschingen Music Festival.
Also of note during this period was Rudd's appearance on Shepp’s Mama Too Tight album in 1966. On the album's title track, a driving blues, Rudd trades simultaneously funky and lyrical trombone solos with Grachan Moncur III.
These recordings brought Rudd critical acclaim, but he was often without work during this period, and turned to day jobs to pay the bills. Between 1958 and 1972, he worked as a messenger, plumber, carpenter, and mover. He also worked at the post office and, from 1968 to1971, he drove a cab.
I’ve always felt my music was a habit that I had to support," Roswell has said. "It’s a shame I have that attitude about it, but circumstances! That’s the way I came to know it for a long time. It shouldn’t have been like that.”
His collaboration with Shepp came to a close around 1968, and Rudd began to lead his own groups on albums like Flexible Flyer, and 1976’s Inside Job. He also recorded on bassist Charlie Haden’s groundbreaking 1969 Liberation Music Orchestra, his first as a leader. One key track from this album is the 13-piece group's interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s “War Orphans,” on which Rudd’s trombone is heard growling and crying alongside the other horns.
In 1972, he began teaching on the college level, beginning with at Bard College, where he stayed until 1976. In 1976, discouraged by the lack of outlets for his brand of creative music in New York City, he left for the University of Maine, where he taught until 1982.
Rudd did not return to New York City from Maine, but rather retreated to the Catskills, where he took a job in the house band at the Granit Hotel, now the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa. There, according to The Village Voice, you could find Rudd in a tuxedo, “backing showbiz legends on the way down.” The trombonist stayed in the Granit's house band until 1992.
It was during this period that Rudd appeared on a pair of releases by the rock band NRBQ: 1989’s Wild Weekend and 1992’s Honest Dollar. In 1995, the trombonist appeared on Terrible, an album by NRBQ pianist Terry Adams, and he contributed a notable solo to “Hilda,” which also featured the bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Bobby Previte.
Around 1994, Rudd began gigging again in New York City. In 1999, he participated in a reunion of the New York Art Quartet, and then coled a recording date with Steve Lacy for the first time in nearly forty years. These sessions resulted in their Monk’s Dream album, which was released in 2000.
Also in 2000, Rudd reunited with Shepp at the Jazz Standard in New York. The pair fronted a band featuring Workman, drummer Andrew Cyrille, Moncur, and Baraka. These gigs are documented on their Live In New York album, released in 2001.
Recent years have also seen Rudd collaborating increasingly with musicians from around the world. 2003’s MALIcool, recorded over six days in the West African country of Mali in 2001, pairs the trombonist with kora player Toumani Diabate and an ensemble of Malian musicians. 2005’s Blue Mongol features Rudd alongside a group of Mongolian musicians, and 2007’s El Espiritu Jibaro finds Rudd in the company of cuatro player Yomo Toro, who some call the “Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix.”
In 2008, Rudd premiered a new group, the ‘Trombone Shout Band.’ The group features two additional trombonists, Deborah Weisz and Steve Swell, bassist Henry Grimes, tuba player Bob Stewart, and drummer Barry Altschul.
“The main thing is that music should be life supportive,” Rudd has said. “It may not be life supportive in an economic sense, but it should always be spiritually supportive… as long as playing music is refreshing and relaxing and gives a beautiful feedback from life ad infinitum, it’s worth doing.”
Rudd and his partner Verna Gillis share their time between an apartment in Manhattan and their home in Kerhonkson, New York.
Select Discography As a Leader:
As a Leader:
1965 – Roswell Rudd – America
1966 – Everywhere – Impulse!
1974 – Flexible Flyer – Freedom
1976 – Inside Job – Arista
1996 – The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 – CIMP
1997 – The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 2 – CIMP
2000 – Broad Strokes – Knitting Factory
2003 – MALIcool – Sunnyside
2005 – Blue Mongol – Sunnyside
2007 – El Espiritu Jibaro – Sunnyside
2008 – Keep Your Heart Right - Sunnyside
With Cecil Taylor:
1961 – Cell Walk For Celeste – Candid
1961 – Jumpin’ Punkins – Candid
With Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger:
1961 – New York City R&B – Candid
With Albert Ayler:
1964 – New York Eye And Ear Control – ESP
With New York Art Quartet:
1964 – New York Art Quartet – ESP
1965 – Mohawk - Fontana
With Archie Shepp:
1964 – Four For Trane – Impulse!
1966 – Live In San Francisco – Impulse!
1966 – Three For A Quarter, One For A Dime – Impulse!
1966 – Mama Too Tight – Impulse!
1967 – Freedom – JMY
1967 - Live At The Donaueschingen Music Festival – BASF Systems
As Coleader With Archie Shepp:
2001 – Live In New York – Verve
As Coleader With Steve Lacy:
1974 – School Days – Emanem
1999 – Monk’s Dream - Verve
With Steve Swell:
1996 – Out And About – CIMP
With Sex Mob:
2003 – Dime Grind Palace - Ropeadope
Contributor: Brad Farberman
In Conversation with Roswell Rudd by Tomas Peńa