Eli Fountain, the multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator who defied the concept of categorization, having played with a varied list of renowned artists that included Glenn Campbell, Aretha Franklin, Butch Morris, James Carter and Sam Rivers Rivbea All-star Orchestra, died May 17, in New York. He was 64.
Fountain spent some time in a rehab/nursing home in New Rochelle last year but a specific cause of death was not given by his longtime partner Cheryl Foster.
While Fountain did not have a string of recorded albums as a leader, he did appear on a host of albums with such artists as Geri Allen, Lena Horne, Charlie Persip and Superband. He was a first call musician for any genre of music which was part of the surprise, you never knew where he would be heard next—could be pop, avant garde, jazz or gospel with Shirley Caesar. The multi-instrumentalist who doubled playing vibraphone and percussion was leader of the innovative ensemble Percussion Discussion and the Organizers. This improvisational group offered Fountain the opportunity to play a variety of percussive instruments from all over the world. Under the ensemble’s name, he composed the music for their CD “Masterpiece.” “Not only was he a versatile musician, he was a deeply informed scholar and conversant on social and political affairs,” stated author, journalist and longtime friend Herb Boyd.
His love for classical music and arranging found him composing his first ballet “Play” that was performed by The Complexions Dance Company and choreographed by Dwight Rhoden. His ballet (SIC) was performed by Daniel Squire’s Dance Company. His last ballet entitled “Change” was choreographed by Dianne McIntyre and performed by Dance Theater of Harlem.
Eli Fountain Jr. was born on July 13, 1958, in Detroit, to parents Janet and Eli Fountain, who was a noted session saxophonist for Motown Records. It is his father’s saxophone heard on the opening of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On.” His father often added an “e” to his last name. The young Fountain graduated from Cass Technical High School (that included such alumni as Regina Carter, Geri Allen, Ron Carter and Alice Coltrane). After graduation he attended Cincinnati Conservatory of Music where he met Max Roach, who recommended he check out New York. After spending a little time in Denver, he followed Roach’s advice, in the early 1980s. Once in New York he connected with drummer Warren Smith, a friend of Roach’s. “Once we met, the friendship never ended, he stayed at my studio [WIS] for a few years before moving uptown,” said Smith.
“He became an original member of the Composers Workshop Ensemble. We never stopped playing together.”
Roach immediately took Fountain under his tutelage and became a member of his now legendary M’Boom. While playing in Harlem clubs, he met saxophonist Patience Higgins and became an original member of his Sugar Hill Quartet (along with bassist Andy McCloud III, pianist Les Kurtz). “We played together in the Broadway show ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ and the Apollo Theater’s production of ‘Dreamgirls.’ We will miss Eli, he was an incredible human being, he left us far too soon.”
Fountain toured the world playing in Russia, Italy, Germany, and South Korea. He was Savion Glover’s dynamic percussionist and music director. Fountain was also proficient on the xylophone, timpani, and numerous other percussion instruments. He was a long-time instructor and clinician at Harlem School of the Arts, Juilliard, University of Massachusetts, Jazzmobile, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Fountain is survived by his longtime partner Cheryl Foster, his mother Janet, his brothers Gary, Leslie, Marcus and Myron, as well as numerous nieces, nephews and cousins. Eli was predeceased by his father, Eli.
Fountain’s funeral was held at the Northwest Church of Christ, in Detroit.