With my friend and colleague, and this paper’s eminent jazz authority, incapacitated the past several weeks, he has permitted me to substitute for him temporarily. Ron Scott’s musical footprint, as many of you know, is quite impressive, but let me pursue his request with a few words on three notable jazz giants who recently joined the ancestors.
Oct. 29, Muhal Richard Abrams, the esteemed pianist, composer and bandleader, passed in Manhattan. He was 87 and most of those years found him as avatar of progressive music, and nothing symbolized this devotion more than his co-founding the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Born in Chicago Sept. 19, 1930, Abrams adopted Muhal during the era of intense Black nationalism, and it reflected his independent political and musical pursuits. That independence emerged during his brief attendance at DuSable High School from which he dropped out in 1945. Unlike many of his cohorts who were mentored by Walter Dyett, the renowned musical director at DuSable and Phillips, Muhal was basically self-taught.
He obviously taught himself well because he would later perform with many of Dyett’s proteges, as well as a parade of notables who sought him out as a sideman when they ventured through Chicago. Later, as a tribute to his musical accomplishments, he was the recipient of the Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, another organization of which he was a co-founder.
From session to session, with more than 25 recordings to his credit, Muhal’s style is difficult to peg. He could be lyrical, as he was with bassist Malachi Favors on “Sightsong,” atonal, as his compositions were on “Blues Forever,” or a little bit of everything, including abstract swinging, as heard on “Made in Chicago,” his last recording two years ago.
Add Muhal to the list of those iconoclastic pianists such as Cecil Taylor, Phineas Newborn, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill and Erroll Garner whose sounds are instantly recognized. He should be instantly recognized for effectively and progressively advancing creative music.
A performance by vocalist Jon Hendricks was also immediately recognized and he, in the tradition of Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, put his own singular touch on the unique vocalese style. Hendricks, died Nov. 22, in New York City. He was 96. Like many singers, Hendricks got his start in church as a member of the choir. One of 15 children, he was born in Newark, Ohio Sept. 16, 1921, but was raised in Toledo. By the time he was a teenager, he was singing on the radio and later at a nightclub, where he was featured along with the great Art Tatum. Tatum, an incomparable pianist, often gave Hendricks lessons after the gigs, insisting that he learn to sing back some of his infinitely complex and rapid succession of notes.
After his stint in the Army during World War II, Hendricks returned to his music career as a singer and drummer as well as taking English classes at the University of Toledo. At the time he was interested in pursuing a career in law, but after a musical gig with Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, he was convinced that he possessed a musical gift and to put the law career on hold.
Bird’s words were encouraging but it was tough going for Hendricks once he arrived in New York City in the early ’50s. Although there were occasional gigs and a few songs for Louis Jordan and other groups, he was struggling to make headway until he was swept up by the sound of Jefferson and Pleasure. A top song of the day was Jefferson’s lyrics to a solo by alto saxophonist James Moody, and like many aspiring singers of that time, Hendricks committed “Moody’s Mood for Love” to memory. An encounter with singer Dave Lambert and their subsequent forming of a duo pushed Hendricks even deeper into vocalese, penning his own lyrics for solos. After some failed attempts to make the riffs of Count Basie take flight via chorale, the two, soon joined by Annie Ross, decided to do it themselves. And thus was born Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
In 1958, the trio hit the charts with “Sing a Song of Basie” and four years later won a Grammy with “High Flying.” Later in 1962, Ross left the trio and was replaced by Yolande Bavan, and there was minimal success until Lambert was killed in a road accident in 1966. On his own, Hendricks continued to provide lyrics to songs, most rewardingly with Joao Gilberto and “No More Blues.”
Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s Hendricks lived in London, occasionally performing on television, but soon he was back in the states and teaching jazz history at universities in California. He ventured back onto the stage with his show “Evolution of the Blues” for five years in San Francisco. With his second wife, Judith, he revived the trio with other family members, including his son and daughters.
He shared a Grammy with singer Bobby McFerrin in 1986 for their contribution to the album “Vocalese” by Manhattan Transfer, a vocal ensemble. Two years later he composed lyrics for Carmen McRae’s album of Monk tunes. Hendricks was honored as an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992. After a brief reunion with Ross, Hendricks joined Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany in a group called Four Brothers. And he was featured in Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” portraying the griot Juba. From 2000 to 2015 he taught jazz singing at the University of Toledo. On tap are his lyrics to Miles Davis’ album with Gil Evans, “Miles Ahead,” which, if nothing else, will solidify his already distinguished legacy.
Sunny Murray, who died Dec. 7, at 81 or 82 in Paris, might not have played with Muhal or Hendricks, but given his versatility, he would not have missed a beat. As a percussionist, Murray, who was born James Marcellus Arthur Murray Sept. 21, 1936, in Idabel, Okla. and raised in Philadelphia, could set up his arsenal of drums and musical intelligence behind any leader, no matter their style or genre. Even so, he was most comfortable in the avant-garde format, particularly in company with the dynamic pianist Cecil Taylor. It was with Taylor that he initially made his mark, recording in an experimental motif where he could fully exercise his evolving free format.
In fact, he was among the pioneers in the “free” jazz period, with such illustrious performers and legends as Albert and Donald Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp. But he was less explosive than in another tandem, with Sonny Rollins. Moreover, there were eventful collaborations with Max Roach, John Coltrane and Gil Evans. His most productive period was in the late ’60s when as a bandleader he fronted a number of formidable players, particularly during his long years in Paris. In 2008, his life was captured in a French documentary “Sunny’s Time Now.”
In Valerie Wilmer’s book, “As Serious As Your Life—The Story of the New Jazz,” there are several riveting comments from Murray, especially as he talked about the limitations of the drum and the music that was “getting beyond rhythms.” He stated, “First of all, there is nothing more you can do—all the way down to breaking the bass drum or making the cymbals split. There is no more there, and that is actually reaching the point of unmusical music—it’s below the cultural octave of something.”
Given these limitations, Murray began developing a different kind of drum set using electricity to sustain oscillating pitches. This, instrument, he told Wilmer, would put him “more in touch with the human voice in terms of humming, screaming and laughing and crying.”
In his quest to exceed the limits of the customary drum set, the human voice was the ultimate sound.
And he might have found such vibrations in the intonations from Kevin Mahogany, the singer who also passed recently. If Ron isn’t back next week, we will devote time and space to this magnificent singer.