Interview with Sam Rivers

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers passed away yesterday (Dec. 26, 2011) at the age of 88. I have a warm memory of  the last time we spoke in 1997. He was in D.C. to perform with his trio and stopped by my radio program for a brief conversation on-the-air. Here is the transcribed broadcast interview:

Sam Rivers, Larry

WPFW-FM July 27, 1997

You new record is “Concept.” Will you be playing pieces from that or are you likely to pull things from your past 40 years?

Actually, both.  I’m not sure I’m as known as I should be for my contribution in music. I’m probably the first one that came out and just performed without any thematic or harmonically based material, just performing the music.  I did that in 1973 with “Streams.” It was a concept I had been working on since the late 1950s. “Streams” was with Cecil McBee and Norman Connors, but later I used Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. That style was just to go out and play for two hours, improvising. But it wasn’t really improvising, because in order to improvise you have to have a theme, something to improvise on. We were not improvising on anything. It was creative music, in a sense.

Improvising on your imagination?

(Laughter) Imaginative improvisation.

Don’t you have to have discipline in order to be free?

That’s right. I’m sort of a perfectionist in playing things right and making things as precise as I possibly can. So when I get out there, everything is chance. And beforehand, I leave nothing to chance.  I’m pretty much prepared, technically speaking, harmonically, melodically. Years ago I went through the Real Book, it’s really the Fake Book, and I learned all the tunes and played them on some commercial gigs that I had. The broader a person is, the better able they are to project their experiences through the music.

Musicians know about you and your music, but for young players just discovering you, let’s fill them in on some details.  You’ve been playing professionally for what, 50 years?

Professionally? Yes, I would say so. I was born into a musical family. My father was a singer in the Silvertone Quintet and my mother was the accompanist. And they toured all around the south and the southwest. They were touring in Oklahoma and I was born on the road in Enid, Oklahoma. In those days there were a lot of spiritual groups working because there were a lot more churches than bars. My grandfather was also a musician, he wrote songs and he transcribed some slave songs and he wrote a hymnal. There’s been a publishing company in the family since 1880.

So you grew up in an environment surrounded by spirituals, hymns and religious music. How did your family feel about you playing with Jimmy Witherspoon and other blues and r&b artists? Did that sit well?

They didn’t necessarily approve of the music, but when we lived in Chicago they would take me to see Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk. They wanted us to enjoy all kinds of music. I also studied classical and went through the Bach inventions. When I went into grammar school I had to take up a wind instrument because they didn’t have piano or violin in the marching band.

When you were starting out, did you memorize anybody’s solos?

Yes, but it was more to analyze them to see how they fit harmonically. It’s not wise to memorize just one person’s solos. It’s best to mix them up with different styles because we’re the sum total of all our experiences. And if you zero in on one person, you’re going to be a clone of that person. So the idea is to get as many influences and come up with a potpourri and in the end, it’s you.

I know you’re living in Orlando, Florida now. Why Orlando?

I traveled all over the world with Dizzy Gillespie and I knew which area would be the most comfortable for me to live in. And if you have a fax machine, why do you need to live in New York? I went to Orlando for vacation and I was speaking with some musicians there and they said they had a lot of great musicians there who were working for Disney Entertainment. They hire a lot of musicians and it’s the typical Mickey Mouse kind of situation.

In more ways than one.

[chuckles] These musicians are making good money but they’re not really playing anything. They’re underutilized. I said I’ve got all this music and they said they would put a band together and give me the band. And that’s it. So I’m there and I’ve got all this music and we rehearse every week when I’m in town.  Actually, I don’t travel all that much, which is why I’ve got all this music. I’ve always wondered why so many great musicians didn’t have many compositions. It’s because they were always on the road. No time to write. Duke Ellington was the only one who was able to do it. But then he had all these wonderful improvisers and individual voices. There will never be another band like that. And even when you played Duke’s music, it still doesn’t have the sound because of the intonation of the musicians. Today you have studio musicians and they all sound the same. But in that band somebody might be a little sharp and somebody might be a little flat and there’s no way to copy that sound.

You mention Ellington. He used to write for specific people in his band. Do you ever do that?

I used to. But today I’m trying to write a standard book that any musicians can play. It’s harder to leave a legacy of music that everyone can play if it’s not standardized. So I’ve written it all out and there are tapes to go with it so people can understand my approach.

How comfortable are you dealing with the business side of music? How do you balance the music with the business?

I had the studio in New York [Rivbea] and I took care of all the business there. I don’t know to explain this, but businessmen are like the lowest people on the totem pole. Anybody can be a businessman.  I have a hard time dealing with it because a businessperson is pretty much an airhead–it’s just time consuming. If you want to be a good scientist it takes years and years. If you want to be a good doctor or if you want to be a good artist or musician, it takes years and years. But then you leave all the power and the money to the grasping of the airheads. And then there are lawyers, who are bright people, and they do the real damage. The lawyers are in collusion with the airheads. So I have a problem sometimes dealing with businesspeople and respecting someone for something that anybody can do, because anybody can be a businessperson. It’s not difficult to run a business. It’s difficult to create a work of art. People like Picasso, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Charles Ives–these are people to be proud of. Just because someone makes a million dollars, anybody can do that. So I have a problem dealing with businessmen because I know they’re there because they have no talent. And they get in the way of other people who do have talent.

Do you have someone you trust to take care of your business?

I have some people who are working with me, but they’re musicians too. I don’t work too much because of this particular problem I have with businesspeople. I started my own record company because I’d get offers to do things and they want all-star groups, and somebody asked to record someone else’s music but I have all this music of my own.

In Orlando, are you working mostly with younger people?

Yes. I don’t think I know anyone there over 40.

So when people come up to you after a gig, what do they ask you? What are they curious about? Technique? Philosophy?

They ask about the sound I get. What I’m interested in is projecting emotion. I’ve been playing and studying music for 60, nearly 70 years very diligently, so I don’t want anyone coming up to me saying they understand my music unless they’re a musician. But I want them to feel the music. It’s about feeling. Music, and all art, is about emotion. It’s not about intellect.  It might take intellect to do the emotion, but you’ve got to translate it into emotion or feeling. And a lot of musicians sometimes forget what art is all about. Maybe artists too, sometimes [laughs]

You’ve worked with significant figures in music: Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Taylor and many others. What did you take away from those experiences?

I’m fortunate to be probably the only musician in the history of this music to perform with as many diverse people as I have. I left T-Bone Walker to join Miles Davis and I left Miles Davis because he wasn’t working so I went out with Andrew Hill and McCoy Tyner, then I went with Cecil Taylor. And before that I worked with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, Tony Williams, J.C. Higginbotham. Seiji Ozawa is a good friend and I’ve done work with the San Francisco Symphony. And I do a lot of work with classical musicians who are trying to free themselves. So for me, I’m not sure how it happened but I’m able to fit into any style without changing my style. I think a good jazz musician should be able to fit with any kind of music. At one point I was supposed to go with Steely Dan, but I was too busy.

You are a hero for several generations of musicians and listeners. Who are your musical heroes?

Just about anybody who came before me. Lester Young…

Did you ever meet Lester?

Yes. Charlie Parker was a good friend of mine. Whenever he came to Boston he stayed at my house. Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Taylor and his unique style. He was responsible for opening me up and being uninhibited about the performance.  I really got a lot from all the musicians I performed with. With Dizzy Gillespie it was precision, because before that I would be sloppy. If I made one mistake, he would tell me I’m not paying attention or losing my concentration.  So I’ve gained something from everyone.

You never stop learning.

That’s the part I find intriguing. Back in the ‘50s, the musicians who played traditional, who played the changes, all of them could play free. They just don’t feel it. But the free musicians cannot, I repeat, cannot play traditional.  It takes years and years to play tradition, which is why the traditional players did not respect the free players. But, on the other hand I listen to a lot of the free players and I’ve been tremendously influenced and impressed by them. They don’t know what they’re doing but I know what they’re doing. See, I have a double whammy there. They don’t have the faintest idea what they’re doing, but they’re doing it all by instinct, and of course they’re very talented musicians, too. I don’t hold anything against a musician because they don’t have traditional knowledge. Look at Ornette Coleman. He has no traditional knowledge, but look what he did. He completely changed the music, in a sense. He may have been an illiterate musician in a traditional sense but he wrote a symphony. It’s questionable about its merits, of course.

Creativity doesn’t have hard and fast rules.

That’s right. Some people have no training at all but they end up being the greatest in their profession. But I studied all the way. I didn’t leave anything to chance.

I know you have to go do your sound check, so let me ask this one last question: as a composer, as a musician and multi-instrumentalist, how do you measure success?

By the appreciation of the audiences and the respect of fellow musicians. I like that the most. And I appreciate the young people who come to listen to the music.

If we’re talking about the respect and appreciation people have for your music, you’ve got to be one of the most successful out there. Sam Rivers, continued success to you.

Thank you very much, Larry. See everyone tonight.


2 comments on “Interview with Sam Rivers

  1. Tony Hyde says:

    I remember Sam from my days as a band boy for the Herb Pomeroy 12 piece band at the famed Stables club on Huntington Ave. in Boston in the early 60’s. I was always amazed at his fluency and harmonic genius especially on the piece written for him, “River’s Edge”, by Arif Mardin (?). It was both an emotional and educational event for me. Now my students are performing “Beatrice” as a sort of tribute. Great man ,great composer, truly inspirational.
    Boston, MA

  2. I never knew Sam but from what I read he was a great person and influence. That’s an incredible interview.

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