Rivers’ Edge

Commercial success may have eluded sax player Sam Rivers, but not the respect of his peers. At 85 and in frail health, he’s still showing musicians the way.


Sam Rivers

Musicians call sheet music a chart. Like a diagram or a map, it’s designed to help them get somewhere; specifically, it leads them through the changing chords of a particular tune. When you’re a musician in the 18-piece RivBea Orchestra, the charts written by jazz-saxophone legend Sam Rivers are maps of a very convoluted road.  

It’s 9 p.m. at the Plaza Theatre on North Bumby in Colonialtown, and charting the arrival of the band’s members is also complex. Set up on a stage in the chair-filled lobby and scheduled to start, well, now, they’re still wandering in for their “public rehearsal,” instruments in cases, eyes darting around the room to see if Rivers has arrived before them. He hasn’t, but at 85 and recovering from hip surgery and battling frequent bouts with pneumonia, showing up at all is a minor miracle.

Some of the players look the part. Had you seen them in the street, dark glasses and hip suits, you would say, “That’s a musician.” Several look like they’re conservative college professors, or trimmed-and-shaved Disney cast members in their day jobs. Which is what they are.

And some are just kids, bright-eyed 20- and 30-somethings, licking their lips a little nervously. Tonight, rehearsal or not, they’re on stage with the two-time Grammy-nominated Rivers, who might have played his searing sax solos for their jazz-fan fathers or grandfathers visiting smoky New York nightclubs decades ago.

Rivers has been doing these rehearsals with the big band in Orlando since he moved here 18 years ago. (He also has an orchestra of the same name in New York). It’s a way to keep the guys sharp and to practice one of the 500-plus compositions he’s written, including 30 symphonies and pieces for two full orchestras.

The audience also wanders in after the official start time, a crowd that encompasses a little bit of everything: college-age kids who wouldn’t know jazz great Dizzy Gillespie if he sat next to them, a young hipster dressed in black and wearing a porkpie hat (where did he get it?), middle-aged bankers, and gray-hairs who show up for every gig, to drink a beer and hear a master at work.

Rivers makes his appearance, ambling into the former movie theater that used to draw audiences that sat in its rocking chairs. Dragonfly-thin and dressed all in black like the baby hipsters, except he really is hip, Rivers perches on a stool with his tenor sax and flute. He touches each of his instruments with supernaturally long fingers, and a broad smile flashes across his still handsome face before he turns his attention to the band.

He raises one slightly shaky finger and there’s a quick blast of sound: A chest-rumbling bleat from the tuba on one side shakes the music stands, then a fast-fingered trumpet trill from the other side makes several heads turn. A low growl emanates from the amp next to bass player Doug Mathews, who’s been playing with Rivers since 1992. Rivers leans in to the microphone, and suddenly everyone in the room is listening.

“I bring in a new piece of music,” he boasts to the audience about the band, “and they play it like they’ve been rehearsing it all along.” Unlike Miles Davis’ trademark rasping growl, Rivers’ voice is soft and reedy, worn down from years of battles with pneumonia.

“We play music we don’t know!” he yelps. “Now, I want you to listen, because I’ll ask questions later.”

He peers quizzically at a chart, and hums the first four bars, then turns to the band and asks innocently, “Is that it?”  Front-row sax player Jeff Rupert, a jazz-music professor at the University of Central Florida and a highly regarded musician in his own right, knows the routine well.  “When he says, ‘Is that it?,’ he’s really saying, ‘I know that’s it. You better know it, too,’” Rupert later explains. “Everybody in the band is a little splinter of Sam, a little bit of his sound.”

There are at least 30 musicians available for these unpaid rehearsals, like this one in March, and they arrive eager for a chance to play with Rivers. His age and infirm health impart a sense of urgency to learn from one of the historic—yet unappreciated in some regards—names in the freeform and avant-garde jazz world.

“There’s nothing like this band around here,” says saxman Charlie DeChant, fresh off the road from his “day job” with pop-rock duo Hall & Oates. He’s been rehearsing with RivBea for at least 10 years. “It’s like a crash course in reading music.”

Sam Rivers

Light” and “smooth” are words often applied to jazz today, but the RivBea sound is neither. It’s dark, rough and intricate, sometimes as difficult to listen to as it is to play. Many “free” jazz players hoot and squeak, but Rivers always plays notes, even if they are supernaturally fast and from unexpected parts of the scale. “A disciplined inventiveness with a secure sense of form” is how noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff once described Rivers’ work.

Thanks to a crack rhythm section, there is always something for the neophyte to grasp: a killer backbeat, a funky groove, something. And once you’re seduced by the rhythm, you will eventually hear the beauty inside the multileveled cacophony.

“This one is Number 471,” Rivers says, picking up a fresh and untitled chart. The prolific Rivers claims to have written more music than Duke Ellington and Fats Waller combined, and has a room filled with his hand-written works, which are slowly being converted into computer files. “I look at the things I’ve written sometimes and I say, ‘How is this possible?’ It’s not something you can explain. I’m not really religious, but it’s spiritual. It flows through me and out to the paper.”

Most of his compositions have one-word titles, like “Neptune” and “Beatrice,” the latter the name of his beloved late soulmate and wife (RivBea is a combination of Rivers and Beatrice). “I think the title of this piece is going to be ‘Spice.’ ” He tells each section of the band to play its part of No. 471, so the audience can hear how the song is structured.

“Just the trombones,” he calls out. “Now trumpets. Okay, somebody’s not in tune, play again.” He waits, makes the trumpets play it twice. That smile flashes again. “You got it, and in tune! Beautiful, beautiful.”

In a  career that has stretched more than 70 years, Rivers has recorded dozens of albums, written music both intimate and massive, and played with, as he says, “everybody that’s worth performing with.” He’s composed operas and symphonies; played blues with John Lee Hooker and B.B. King; soul with Chaka Khan and Wilson Pickett; rock with Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix; and jazz with, well, you name it.

In 1964, trumpeter Miles Davis invited Rivers to play with his band for six months. Their one recording together, Miles In Tokyo, reveals two confident musicians spurring each other on with brilliant improvisations and some of the edgiest playing of Davis’ stellar career.

Twelve-time Grammy Award winner Herbie Hancock played on Rivers’ second record, Contours, which was recorded while the two toured with Davis. “Sam looked all bone and muscle,” Hancock told NPR in 2001, in a retrospective on Rivers. “And his playing had that kind of energy.”

Rivers never crossed over into commercially successful smooth jazz, a fusion sound of R&B and pop music. Rather he stayed true to his traditional roots, which stem from his upbringing in a family of gospel musicians and his immersion in jazz’ early years.

Samuel Carthorne Rivers Jr. was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, while his parents were touring with the Silvertone Quartet gospel group in 1923. Rivers was raised in a well-educated, musical family: his mother, father, uncles and aunts were all college graduates. Rivers graduated from college, too, as did all of his children. While serving stints in the Navy and the Boston Conservatory of Music, Rivers traveled through the jazz scenes of San Francisco and Boston, and gained a reputation as an edgy and highly creative player.

After working with Davis, Rivers moved to New York, where he was musical director for the Harlem Opera Company. He also taught as an associate professor and artist in residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. By the 1970s, jazz began to fade as rock ’n’ roll emerged as the powerhouse of the music industry. Many New York jazz clubs closed, cutting off musicians’ livelihoods as well as their outlets for artistic expression. Musicians moved to cheap—often unsafe and occasionally illegal—industrial lofts and basements in the seedier parts of the Lower East Side and the Bowery. They borrowed from and contributed to a raucous energy that not only created free jazz but rap, break-dancing, graffiti and the punk-rock scene.

Amid the seismic shift in the New York music scene, Rivers opened Studio RivBea at 24 Bond Street in an old factory building owned by Virginia Admiral, Robert De Niro’s mother. Artist Robert Mapplethorpe had his first studio there, just above the multi-floor space where Rivers, Beatrice and their four children lived. From 1970 to 1979, RivBea was the premier place for a new downtown sound. Musicians working in commercials and Broadway pit orchestras spent their after-hours crowded into RivBea in the hopes of scoring some session time with Rivers, just as musicians in Orlando do 30 years later at the Plaza Theatre. Rivers wasn’t from Charlie Parker’s dissolute school of jazz.  According to Rivers, he never used hard drugs or drank: His addiction was music.

Beatrice was the boss back then. She kept Sam on schedule and organized. When Rivers played in clubs, the promoter handed Beatrice the checks. She was known to make salmon salad sandwiches on raisin bread for the hungry horde of musicians that passed through the couple’s home, and while she fed them Rivers nourished their artistic souls.

New York photographer Tom Marcello was a witness to those loft days. “Sam’s place was like a cauldron of music in a void,” Marcello says. “The atmosphere was . . . dark. High, two-story ceilings and very subdued. Except for the stage. Sam was a force for those musicians. They had huge respect for him.”

In his book Considering Genius, music critic Stanley Crouch described Studio RivBea as “an avant-garde stronghold.” It was a place, he added, “where it might sound as though the world was ending that very night and nobody sounded better than its owner, Sam Rivers.”

That world-ending sound and the promise of mentorship have drawn dozens of musicians to Rivers, who recorded with young pianist Jason Moran in 2001 and klezmer musician Steven Bernstein in 2002.  Rivers also performed on trumpeter Brian Groder’s CD Torque, which garnered a DownBeat magazine “Best CD of 2007” nod.

Back At the Plaza Theatre, the band’s leader calls out the next number. “I think I have a ballad in here somewhere,” Rivers says. After a quick, multi-layered start, the music settles into a thumping beat that has people rocking in their seats. 

Jazz improvisation isn’t a matter of just making things up. Every tune a musician has ever heard will eventually make an appearance. There are touches of funk, New Orleans second line, Latin rhythms and—no joke—Broadway show tunes in the sound that emerges.

Jeff Rupert stands with his tenor saxophone and blows until his face turns red. Josh Parsons, whose regular gig is with The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland Band, plays a hot tuba solo, and Rivers points him out to the audience and asks for applause.

Claire Courchene, a 22-year-old British trombone player who’s been performing as a classical cellist since she was three, takes a confident turn. “When I first saw Sam play, I was shocked,” she says. “It’s a bit daunting, looking at those charts. But everyone gets a chance to improvise and say what they’re thinking.”

Rivers picks up a golden tenor sax and sounds a forceful run that flows through the pumping rhythm of the drums and bass. He’s past the days when his performing style included dancing onstage, but on this March night there’s no hint of his age or infirm health, just the influences of seven decades of appearing with jazz greats, rock icons and soul queens.
“I’m really trying to play free,” Rivers says, “but with a nice rhythm. I play dance music, but with all these different colors going on. We’re not supposed to be observed. We’re playing for you to dance!”

Sam Rivers

By early June, Rivers has missed several rehearsals because “he’s very weak,” says his daughter, Monique Rivers Williams. Recovering from surgery to repair a hip he broke in a fall last year “has just taken it out of him.’’ Rivers Williams says her father has had to decline offers to play overseas, where he remains popular.

In the States, Rivers’ name doesn’t resonate as it once did, but he says he’s satisfied with his place in the jazz chronology. Still, there’s an undercurrent of discontent in his voice as he reflects on his feelings of being treated by some music critics as a lesser-known and, consequently, a less-talented musician.

“Underrated? Oh yeah,” he says, with a laugh and a shake of his head. “Definitely, for years. Of course I’m bitter,” he admits, “but it doesn’t bother me. I guess it spurs me on. The critics ignore me, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. . . . Maybe some historian will go back and listen to some of my music and wonder why I’m not well-regarded as a tenor sax player.”

Sax player Branford Marsalis, a classically trained musician who’s enjoyed breakout success, offers some insight into why Rivers may not have received wider critical acceptance. “Sam is the embodiment of something that often gets overlooked in jazz,” Marsalis told The (London) Times, in 2004. “He proves that process is more important than product. To him it’s the act of constant creation that’s important, not the ‘latest album’ or the ‘new concept.’ ” Acceptance can come in many forms.

There is a story Rivers likes to tell about being in Berlin for a jazz festival in 1969. He is heading past the hotel restaurant when he spots jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, with whom he is sharing the festival stage.

“Sit down with me,” Rivers recalls Taylor instructing him. Rivers mentions he has a car waiting to take him to an interview. “You’re Sam Rivers. Let them wait,” Taylor replies.

“So I sat down and had breakfast.”

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