Written by Francis Davis from NPR
As a coda to the 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, here’s a roll call of jazz figures who died last year. Not all of them played an instrument or sang, and a few of those included here who did were better-known for their achievements in other fields of music. But each of these people contributed something to jazz in his or her own way; some are near-famous or semi-obscure, but all deserve this final remembrance.
Jean Bach: She was already in her mid-70s and retired as a radio producer when she made A Great Day in Harlem in 1994. The Citizen Kane of jazz documentaries, the film traced what went on behind the scenes of a storied Esquire photo shoot of close to five dozen leading musicians gathered on the steps of a Harlem brownstone one morning in 1958. This year’s death toll also claimed Virginia Wicks, Bach’s fellow socialite and the most tenured of jazz publicists, and Bert Stern, the fashion photographer who shot and directed Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), which is among the most cherished of jazz performance films.
Sathima Bea Benjamin: With her then-husband (and fellow “colored” South African exile) Abdullah Ibrahim, the singer recorded an album of “liberation” songs on behalf of the African National Congress in the late 1970s. But she’d made her recording debut performing Ellington songs with the composer himself producing, and her repertoire included the parlor songs of Victor Herbert and other early-20th-century pop composers. This seeming dichotomy — nostalgic longing side-by-side with fierce declaration — was somehow in keeping with her dual identity as both political activist and traditionalist. She yearned for “home” even as she went about creating a new one for her husband and their two children in New York City, and this gave her work its tremendous emotional power.
George H. Buck: This avocational drummer, radio station owner, New Orleans venue owner and entrepreneur was an indefatigable champion of Dixieland and other traditional styles. He’ll be long-remembered for constructing another timeless monument: the several hundred albums he produced or reissued on his own Audiophile, Circle, G.H.B. and Jazzology labels, a good many of them indispensable.
Herb Geller: A 1957 album by this alto saxophonist was called Fire in the West, and the title nicely summed up Geller’s position in jazz at that time. Though based in Los Angeles, he made music that conveyed all the heat and urgency of East Coast hard bop. Subsequently expatriating to Germany, he served as lead alto and resident arranger for the NDR Big Band for close to three decades.
Ronald Shannon Jackson: Before forming his own Decoding Society in 1980, Jackson supplied a shuffle rhythm and an occasional backbeat to the bands of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman — becoming the only drummer ever to work regularly with both of these idiosyncratic figures. No one has ever precisely defined “harmolodics” — not even Coleman, who coined the term, and not Jackson, either. But along with Coleman’s Prime Time recordings, Jackson’s Decoding Society provided the best working definition we’re ever likely to have.
Al Kiger and Paul Plummer: The trumpeter and tenor saxophonist, respectively, were mainstays in George Russell’s sextet of the early 1960s — a boundary-stretching band whose other members included, at various times, Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, David Baker and Steve Swallow.
Yusef Lateef: Playing saxophone, oboe, flute and whatever “exotic” woodwind or double reed that piqued his curiosity from the 1950s on, Lateef became jazz’s first significant multi-instrumentalist. But his accomplishments merely started there. No less a seeker than his friend John Coltrane, he helped introduce jazz not just to Eastern shadings, but to non-Western spirituality and musical forms. His word for what he did was “Autophysiopsychic Music”; at various times, others categorized it as world music or even New Age. But it was always recognizably jazz, too — never more so than when he played tenor sax, as on a series of straight-ahead albums for his own YAL label in the 1990s with fellow saxophonists Archie Shepp, Von Freeman, Ricky Ford and Rene McLean.
Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre: A charter member of the Chicago AACM, this bracing tenor saxophonist scuffled in later years, falling victim to the most ruinous hazards of the jazz life. But his solos could stop you dead in your tracks right to the very end.
Dwike Mitchell: With French-horn player Willie Ruff, this pianist was half of one of the most elegant and longest-running duos in jazz. But he should also be remembered for his driving, blues-soaked solos with Lionel Hampton’s big band in the early 1950s.
Butch Morris: Although he made his first mark as a trumpeter, Morris emerged as a major figure via his spontaneous compositions — or what he aptly referred to as “conductions.” Putting aside paper scores, he stood in front of an ensemble and employed hand signals and other forms of body language to shape a long piece from scratch in real time. His work along these lines has already exerted a strong influence on younger composers, and should continue to do so for decades to come.
Don Nelson: In 1957, Ozzie’s younger brother (and Rick’s uncle) was given the honor of being the first male singer to record “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and he delivered the lyric beautifully. Among the other fine singers who died this year were Gloria Lynne, remembered for her 1963 hit “I Wish You Love,” and Fran Warren, who had the original hit of “A Sunday Kind of Love” with Claude Thornhill’s band in 1947.
Johnny Smith: A favorite of fellow guitarists for his combination of technical polish and heartfelt lyricism, displayed to full advantage on his indelible 1952 recording of “Moonlight in Vermont,” featuring Stan Getz.
Stan Tracey: Shamefully under-recognized in the U.S., this probing, Monk-influenced pianist was a guiding light in British jazz for more than 50 years. In addition to backing visiting Americans and recording prolifically with his own small groups, Tracey also composed Under Milk Wood, an ambitious suite drawing on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. It is among the most successful jazz endeavors of its kind.
Frank Wess: He was hardly the first jazz flutist, but he was the one who established a presence for the instrument in modern jazz in the 1950s, around the same time he was squaring off with Frank Foster in Count Basie’s saxophone section. He was so versatile a musician that his mastery as a Coleman Hawkins-influenced tenor-saxophone balladeer often went overlooked — one more reason this year’s all-tenor Magic 101, recorded when he was 90, was so welcome.
Here’s a more thorough list:
Jimmy Amadie, Patty Andrews, Peter Appleyard, Pepsi Auer, Kevin Ayers, Jean Bach, Donald Bailey, Red Balaban, Kenny Ball, George Barrow, Sathima Bea Benjamin, John Bergamo, Ruth Berman, Sid Bernstein, Claude Black, Don Blackman, Steve Blailock, Bobby Bland, Ed Bland, Toto Blanke, Howard Brofsky, Cedric Brooks, Bob Brozman, Precious Bryant, George Buck, Dwayne Burno, Rahn Burton, Donald Byrd, Mike Canterino, Rune Carlsson, Oscar Castro-Neves, Lindsay Cooper, Father John D’Amico, Phil Darois, Rudolf Dasek, Jimmy Dawkins, James DePreist, Gugu Depuis, Henry Otto Donner, Frank D’Rone, George Duke, Boyd Lee Dunlop, Steve Ellington, Sam Falzone, Bob Friedman, Laurie Frink, Leonard Garment, Herb Geller, Jim Godbolt, Kris Goessens, Per Goldschmidt, Eydie Gormé, Bob Greene, George Gruntz, Tommy Gumina, Pat Halcox, Jim Hall, Bengt Hallberg, Chico Hamilton, Jane Harvey, Donna Hightower, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jef Lee Johnson, Wayne Jones, Larry Karush, Fred Katz, Eddie Kaye, Al Kiger, Joe Killian, János Körossy, Svatopluk Kosvenec, Jim Lackey, Yusef Lateef, Ricky Lawson, Gary LeFebvre, Ed Lewis, Terry Lightfoot, Ulf Linde, Little Willie Littlefield, Gloria Lynne, Bernie McGann, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Marian McPartland, Magic Slim, Jack Maheu, Fred Maroth, Dwike Mitchell, Mulgrew Miller, Ollie Mitchell, Sherman Mitchell, Kermit Moore, Dick Morgan, Herbert Morgan, Nate Morgan, Butch Morris, Sam Most, Albert Murray, Don Nelson, Claude Nobs, Rune Ofwerman, Patti Page, James Patrick, Eddie Pérez, Michael Point, Daniel Ponce, Jimmy Ponder, Al Porcino, Dick Ramberg, Phil Ramone, Arthur “Doc” Rando, Carline Ray, Lou Reed, Rita Reys, Mel Rhyne, Bobbi Rogers, Billy Root, Seth Rothstein, Sonny Russo, Howard Shapero, Ed Shaughnessy, Chris Sheridan, Don Shirley, Aldo Sinesio, Jaroslaw Smietana, Johnny Smith, Paul Smith, Cleotha Staples, Jonas Starker, Jerry Steinholtz, Bert Stern, Kerry Strayer, Lee Tanner, Paul Tanner, Bobby Thomas, Bob Thompson, Jimmy Tolbert, Stan Tracey, Frank Tribble, Ben Tucker, Ken Vail, Bebo Valdes, Bernard Vitet, Gyorgy Vukan, Cedar Walton, Butch Warren, Fran Warren, Derek Watkins, Ricky Wellman, David Wertman, Frank Wess, Tommy Whittle, Virginia Wicks, Bert Wilson, Robert Zildjian, Mike Zinzen.