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Sam Rivers (1923-2011)

A friend remembers the local legend

Photo: , License: N/A

Sam Rivers Memorial Tribute

with members of the Rivbea Orchestra
9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4
The Social, 407-246-1419

It’s as if this one was all for you, Orlando. Sam Rivers was truly among us from 1991 until the time he split on Dec. 26. If you’ve lived here for more than 30 minutes, you know that Florida is a methodical catch basin for established artists looking for the next, more temperate step in life – the warm place. That basic desire is how we became neighbors with Sam and Bea Rivers, the founders of the loft jazz era’s most celebrated location, following Rivers’ appearance with Dizzy Gillespie at what is now the Social.

We’ve bumped grocery carts with more than our share of iconic music types over the years in Central Florida. It would be a memorable day to have intersected with Roger McGuinn, Lee Hazlewood or Tiny Tim while picking up the soy milk. But none of our heralded transients, for their own entirely valid reasons, have made as enduring and active an imprint as Rivers. This tribute isn’t a “you missed out” finger wagging, but a summation of what we’ve had. It’s possible that you, without a trace of bullshit, can stake a claim to have heard Rivers play live scores of times and tell almost uniformly outrageous and profound tales of access.

Sam Rivers’ international legacy is just a search engine away these days, added to by a considerable number of obituary notices. The majority of his youthful musical impressions were formed in Chicago, experiencing its historical heyday for African-American music in the midst of the Great Migration. He got his start playing evening gigs with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon while serving in the Navy during World War II. Following the war, Rivers attended New England Conservatory and became a long-term member of the Boston music community alongside jazz heavies such as Jaki Byard, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce and Charlie Mariano. During a stint in Florida, he channeled his tenor saxophone heroes – Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster – by stepping into their role supporting Billie Holiday. Back in Boston, Sam and Bea often looked after an under-supervised 13-year-old neighborhood kid named Tony Williams, who quickly became Sam’s drummer.

Their musical communion led to Rivers leaving T-Bone Walker to briefly join the near-mystical Hancock-Carter-Williams version of the Miles Davis Quintet on the fly in 1964. In terms of available media, here we can trace Sam as an avant-gardist, thanks to several recordings from a Japanese tour documenting Rivers agitating the contour of Davis’ concept with the New Thing, influenced by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Sam gravitated farther from the mainstream even as he recorded Fuchsia Swing Song, his first Blue Note Records release, and then joined the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1969, the ultimate banzai charge for a jazz player – there was no return once you’d committed.

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