A handful of New York locations can be credited with generating era-defining scenes. In the 1970s, CBGB, perhaps the most famous, was just a stone’s throw from Studio Rivbea, a dingy and wonderful little performance space – and a major energy center for the revolutionary jazz of the decade. It was also home to saxophonist Sam Rivers, his wife Bea and their children. The family greeted you at the door, took your $4 and sent you down a creaking wooden staircase to the basement, where the adventure would begin.
“It was a mecca,” said bassist and urban guru William Parker. “It was a time of self-determination and musicians doing it for themselves. Sam didn’t work in the clubs, so he created his own space.”
Born on September 25, 1923 – a century ago next week – Rivers was both a traditionalist and avant-gardist, a Promethean improviser and prolific composer, an entrepreneur and scene-maker wherever he went. He played with Billie Holiday and Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor, T-Bone Walker and Joe Cocker, not to mention the conductor Seiji Ozawa. In the early 1970s, a time of fervent underground jazz innovation, artist-run jazz lofts, as they were called, popped up all over Lower Manhattan. Studio Rivbea, in a deserted neighborhood in the East Village, was formative. The music could go on all night: band after band, a maelstrom of righteous sound that defined the era.
“The copycats make money, but they’re not the ones creating their own vision,” Rivers said in a 1999 interview. “I like creating vistas.”
Rivers died in 2011 at the age of 88, but his DIY jazz den remains a model for a new generation of independently minded artists: “It’s the future of where we need to go as musicians if we want to continue to evolve,” he said. pianist Jason Moran. , who runs his own record label and will perform in a re-creation of Rivbea that he had made at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in November.
Recording and touring with Rivers in the early years helped take Moran “to the next level,” he said. He links Rivers’ innovations from the early 1970s at Rivbea to the hip-hop experiments of DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx. They represent two sides of “the black freedom struggle that was happening in the city at the same time, with musicians going off the grid and getting free, making music for the people,” he said. “That’s how revolutions start and then reverberate.”
The Rivers revolution is being celebrated again. A year ago, Rick Lopez, a music researcher in Erie, Pennsylvania, published “The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress,” an astonishing 768-page tome. A book about Rivbea by jazz writer Ed Hazell is in development. And Rivers’ archives — which include more than 500 handwritten scores and more than 300 audio and video recordings from 1957 to 2007 — were acquired by the University of Pittsburgh Library System in February. Concerts featuring his music scheduled this month and next in Harlem, Orlando, Florida and Los Angeles will commemorate Rivers’ centennial and remind listeners of his powerful achievements.
“It’s Sam’s time,” said tuba player Joseph Daley, who worked with the saxophonist for nearly 30 years. Daley, who jogged miles every day to stay in shape for Rivers’ marathon performances, recalled a big band concert at Mount Morris Park in Harlem: “The rain was pouring down and the stage wasn’t covered, but Sam just kept going and going and to go. Oh, it was one of the most glorious concerts – and Sam played the hell from his instrument.” He compared his friend’s improvisations to “a snake slithering through the environment.”
Rivers was born on the road in El Reno, Oklahoma, while his mother (a pianist) and father (a gospel singer) were touring with the Silvertone Quintet. In 1947, after a stint in the Navy, he enrolled at the Boston Conservatory. Deep in the local jazz scene, he studied composition, attended a lecture by Igor Stravinsky and connected with drummer Tony Williams, a child prodigy who was 13 when he joined Rivers in an experimental trio in 1959. Rivers in 1964 in Miles Davis’s quintet.)
In 1964, Rivers was recording for Blue Note Records. He moved to New York in the late 1960s, settling first in Harlem and then establishing Rivbea in the East Village. It didn’t take long before he got a contract with Impulse! Records, a prestigious showcase for his latest projects.
Endlessly adaptable yet utterly unique, he inspired his accomplices to find their own creative voice. Bassist Dave Holland, a longtime Rivers collaborator and Rivbea regular, compared him to Davis: “He just kept moving, growing and trying new things, and he wasn’t afraid to step away from what he had already accomplished and to leave behind. for something new.”
Rivbea was located at 24 Bond Street, in a building owned by Robert De Niro’s mother, the poet and painter Virginia Admiral. Bea Rivers (for whom Rivers composed his enduring ballad “Beatrice”) managed the place when her husband was on the road, serving up platters of fragrant chicken. The loft “had a homey feel to it,” said Hazell, the author. “The furniture was all second-hand; it was like being in their living room: relaxed, recognizable.”
It became a hub of the black creative arts scene: Davis might drop in, or Ntozake Shange, who gave her Broadway-bound “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” workshop at Rivbea. Patti Smith was there too; her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, had a studio on the fourth floor of the building. During the show, fans gathered in the basement, where it could get as hot as a blast furnace. A large parachute – Rivers had picked it up at a military surplus store on Canal Street – hung from the ceiling.
Around 10 or 11 p.m. the musicians came in and the performance started. The entry fee can net you three or more bands per evening, usually led by burgeoning stars of the avant-garde: Parker, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake. They were all booked by Rivers, who funded Rivbea with grant money and played there regularly with his own groups: sextets, woodwind choirs, a big band.
But his trio was his calling card. The virtuoso sets lasted an hour or two without a break – invigorating, improvised from scratch, yet sounding like a seamless conversation, with breakneck swing, funk vamps and freeform outbursts. It was also a visual treat. Rivers, in his big floppy hat and colorful dashiki, went all out on the tenor saxophone, then the soprano sax, flute and piano, screaming and shouting as he switched instruments.
Rivbea closed in 1978: the building flooded and rents rose. But later, during his four years on the road with Dizzy Gillespie, Rivers stopped in Orlando, where local music professionals urged him to settle down. Hundreds of musicians were working at Disney World or doing corporate gigs – well paid and bored, hungry for a challenge.
He and Bea moved there in 1991, and when Rivers called for his first big band rehearsal, the line of applicants was out the door. He hired a drummer named Anthony Cole, a cousin of Nat King Cole who also played saxophone and piano, and later a bassist named Doug Mathews, who doubled on bass clarinet. The trio became the heart of Rivers’ new big band, for which he continually composed.
Moran first heard Rivers with this trio in New York in the ’90s: “I was like, What? Who are these three magicians, jumping from instrument to instrument? It was insane. And who is this man, this bold man shouting into the microphone with his saxophone and voice?
Within a few years, Moran and Rivers were on tour — “a life-changing experience,” Moran said. Rivers didn’t tell him what to do, but he showed him the way by example are in the world. Rivers was around 80, but his energy was off the charts. He jumped three feet onto a podium. He was always “ready to make it happen — and he was willing to do it again if he didn’t like what he did the first time,” Moran said. “It pushed me to play with people who are completely unique.”
Moran’s own trio, the Bandwagon, developed much of its own language and flow while touring with Rivers. Spending time with “this daring man” was liberating, Moran said.
“He literally made the track I ride on.”
The New York All-Star Rivbea Orchestra will perform at Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church in Harlem on September 22; harlemjazzboxx.com.