The list of those we’ve lost this year is so long, it is impossible for me to cover them all in this one story. However, NPR’s Jazz Night in America offered this moving and comprehensive video tribute, which was posted on Dec. 17, 2020, before they learned of the recent deaths of Stanley Cowell, pianist and composer; Dianne Moser, pianist and educator; and Jeff Clayton, saxophonist and flutist.
One unique aspect of jazz is that it never stops honoring the musicians who’ve shaped its sound. In 2020, more than 40 of those voices were silenced, and Jazz Night in America felt the need to acknowledge their loss with an original artistic gesture. We chose an artist deeply attuned to the music’s legacy, Grammy-winning trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and a symbolic meeting place, the brownstone stoop. More precisely, our small video team met Harrold on a frigid December evening at Socrates Sculpture Garden in Queens, where Fontaine Capel’s Proposals for a Monument evokes the communal yet often contemplative space that a stoop can be (and the specter of an iconic image, colloquially known as A Great Day in Harlem). Playing trumpet in the cold is no small feat; the tuning of the metal instrument shifts as the temperature falls. Harrold had to adjust to these changes in real time as he performed his poignant ballad “Ethereal Souls.” But he was undaunted, buoyed by the constant encouragement of his son, Keyon, Jr. — another reminder of the lineage embodied in this music, and an unseen force behind this hauntingly beautiful performance.
And this year opened with the news of the death of jazz master Jimmy Heath.
Jimmy Heath has long been recognized as a brilliant instrumentalist and a magnificent composer and arranger. Jimmy is the middle brother of the legendary Heath Brothers (Percy Heath/bass and Tootie Heath/drums), and is the father of James ‘Mtume’, Roslyn and Jeffery. He has performed with nearly all the jazz greats of the last 50 years, from Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. In 1948 at the age of 21, he performed in the First International Jazz Festival in Paris with McGhee, sharing the stage with Coleman Hawkins, Slam Stewart, and Erroll Garner. One of Heath’s earliest big bands (1947-1948) in Philadelphia included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Specs Wright, Cal Massey, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and Nelson Boyd. Charlie Parker and Max Roach sat in on one occasion.
During his career, Jimmy Heath has performed on more than 100 record albums including seven with The Heath Brothers and twelve as a leader. Jimmy has also written more than 125 compositions, many of which have become jazz standards and have been recorded by other artists including Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie J.J Johnson and Dexter Gordon. Jimmy has also composed extended works – seven suites and two string quartets – and he premiered his first symphonic work, “Three Ears,” in 1988 at Queens College (CUNY) with Maurice Peress conducting.
Flutist Nelba Márquez-Greene, posted these photos.
Wall Street Journal music and arts contributor and founder of JazzWax tweeted:
Nicknamed “Little Bird” for his Parker-like fluidity when he played alto saxophone in the late 1940s, Jimmy didn’t start recording leadership albums until 1959, when producer Orrin Keepnews signed him to Riverside Records. In 1975, he formed the Heath Brothers, with drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and bassist Percy Heath, who played in the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Jimmy was among the jazz giants who grew up in Philadelphia, a group that included John Coltrane, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Philly Joe Jones, Reggie Workman and Shirley Scott. But unlike these musicians, Jimmy was pulled off the scene between 1954 and ’59—a critical five-year period in jazz history when jazz flourished on 12-inch albums. Jimmy’s big band compositions and arrangements on recordings are especially notable for their swing and sophisticated construction.
For a look at Heath’s legacy, the documentary Passing the Torch is a place to start.
Passing the Torch documents a ninety year old Jazz master, Jimmy Heath, mentoring teenage musicians with a thirst for knowledge and an appreciation of America’s homegrown art form, Jazz. Director Bret Primack captures Heath’s gentle, humorous sharing of life lessons and the non-threatening way he guides aspiring artists to musical excellence. An esteemed mentor, Mr. Heath reaches a much younger generation by understanding his role, to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and finely tuned to their needs. Accordingly, these teenagers recognize their unique opportunity, to learn Jazz and life from a man who walked with giants like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Mr. Heath, came to the Tucson Jazz Festival to play with the Tucson Jazz Institute’s Ellington Band, repeated winners of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition for high school groups. The collaboration was so meaningful that Doug Tidaback, the nationally recognized Jazz educator and co-founder of the Tucson Jazz Institute, brought Jimmy Heath back for a recording session. Filmmaker and teacher Bret Primack documented the interaction between the Jazz Yoda and this very talented group of teenage musicians. Passing the Torch, a forty-three minute documentary, includes performance excerpts, rehearsals, interviews and behind the scenes moments that celebrate the joy of creation individually, and as part of a group, and the intergenerational sharing of wisdom.
The month of March swept in a harsh pandemic, and also forever dimmed the lights of four musicians—McCoy Tyner, Manu Dibango, Bill Withers and Wallace Roney; Dibango and Roney died of complications from COVID-19.
The announcement for Tyner came from his nephew.
In 2002, Tyner was made an NEA Jazzmaster.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Tyner’s neighbors were jazz musicians Richie and Bud Powell, who influenced his piano playing. Studying music at the West Philadelphia Music School and later at the Granoff School of Music, Tyner began playing gigs in his teens, and first met Coltrane while performing at a local club called the Red Rooster at age 17. His first important professional gig was with the Benny Golson–Art Farmer band Jazztet in 1959, with which he made his recording debut.
Soon he began working with Coltrane, a relationship that produced some of the most influential music in jazz. From 1960 to 1965, Tyner played a major role in the success of the Coltrane quartet (which included Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass), using richly textured harmonies as rhythmic devices against Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” saxophone playing.
After leaving the quartet, Tyner demonstrated his tremendous melodic and rhythmic flair for composition on such albums as The Real McCoy, which featured “Passion Dance,” “Contemplation,” and “Blues on the Corner,” and Sahara, which featured “Ebony Queen” and the title track. Tyner has continued to experiment with his sound, pushing rhythms and tonalities to the limit, his fluttering right hand creating a cascade of notes. In particular, he has explored the trio form, recording with a series of different bassists and drummers, such as Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Art Davis, Al Foster, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. In the 1980s, he recorded with a singer for the first time, Phyllis Hyman.
Ben Ratlett closed his NYT obituary with this glimpse into Tyner’s perspective on his work.
He resisted analyzing or theorizing about his own work. He tended to talk more in terms of learning and life experience.
“To me,” he told Mr. Hentoff, “living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life.
“I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”
When Bill Withers died I posted the news here on Daily Kos, and watched the tributes pour in from around the globe. He touched so many people with his songs.
His official website details his history:
“When you have a talent you know it when you’re five years old– it’s just getting around to it.” ~B.W.
Slab Fork, West Virginia, a town of about 200 residents, was Bill’s place of birth. The youngest of six children, he was raised in nearby Beckley, in coal mining country. Withers’ father, a miner, died when Withers was 13. At 17, enlistment in the Navy was Bill’s ticket out. Withers arrived in Los Angeles in 1967. His self-financed demos on which Watts 103rd Street Band member Ray Jackson served as arranger and keyboardist, led Jackson to introduce him to Forrest Hamilton. Hamilton then introduced Withers to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records who tapped Booker T. Jones to produce Bill’s debut album. This resulted in the album Just As I Am with the Grammy-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the much-loved “Grandma’s Hands.” The pragmatic Withers — who was now able to leave his straight gig at an aircraft company — subsequently assembled the remaining members of the Watts 103rd Street Band for U.S. and international tours.
The second album, Still Bill, lauded as “a stone-soul masterpiece” by Rolling Stone magazine, delivered soon-to-be standards “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall followed. After the release of +’Justments in 1974, Withers severed ties with Sussex to sign with Columbia (who subsequently re-released his back catalog.) 1975’s Making Music, Making Friends showcased more classics, “Hello Like Before” and “Make Love to Your Mind”; 1976’s Naked & Warm, with the idyllic love song to his adopted home, “City of the Angels”; 1977’s Menagerie, with the much-covered “Lovely Day” and 1979’s ‘Bout Love, and the single “Don’t It Make It Better,” a top 30 R&B single, continued the run of top-charting releases.
“Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. was a career pinnacle, garnering four Grammy nominations with Withers accepting the award for Best R&B Song. “Soul Shadows” with The Crusaders marked an additional collaborative project of the period and “In The Name Of Love” with Ralph MacDonald received a 1984 Grammy nomination for vocal performance.
I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t heard, and loved “Lean on Me.”
The “Merry Month of May,” wasn’t joyous where the music world was concerned. On May 9, the man who many people consider to be the true king and founder of rock ‘n’ roll died. I will never forget moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from New York in 1957 and hearing Little Richard on the radio for the first time. I was only nine years old then, but instantly fell in love with not only his music, but his flamboyant persona. I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly listen to and buy the watered-down milquetoast white “covers” of his songs.
Tim Londergan discusses some of the history of Pat Boone’s sanitized covers of Little Richard’s hits.
A few early black rockers took a tolerant view of being ‘covered’ by white artists (they might say ‘The covers reached a larger audience than my records ever could, and thus more people enjoyed the music I created’), But others were infuriated that their artistic product was being ripped off. This was particularly irritating as the cover was often decidedly inferior to the original, or the cover version was simply a note-for-note copy of the original. To compound the insult, it was not unusual for race records publishers to sell the rights to the song for a pittance.
Little Richard is definitely in the “pissed off” category on this issue. He feels that he invented rock and roll — and it’s hard to argue with a guy who gave lessons in showmanship to both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they opened for his British tours. It was irritating to Little Richard that Pat Boone covered several of his songs (in addition to Tutti Frutti, Pat covered Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Rip it Up), but it was particularly galling that Boone’s cover of Tutti Frutti outsold his original! This still rankles the proud Richard Penniman; in an interview with Washington Post writer Richard Harrington, he stated:
They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way … I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out … They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.
The BBC’s Late Night Line-Up broadcast this fascinating (and outrageous) interview with Little Richard, prior to his concert performance at The London Rock and Roll Show, at Wembley Stadium, on August 5, 1972.
This is a clip from the aforementioned Wembley gig, taken from the 1973 film, The London Rock and Roll Show. Watching this it struck me, that so many musicians that followed in him, borrowed liberally from parts of the Little Richard persona—Prince and Michael Jackson, instantly came to mind.
Though like most Black teenagers who grew up during the ‘60s, I loved R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, however jazz was still my first love, especially vocals. I have talked frequently here about having had the good fortune to attend the High School of Music & Art in New York City (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) where a right of passage for new students was to sing “Cloudburst” by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Annie Ross’ “Twisted.”
Vocalese was “our thing” and a piece of my life ended when I read of her death on July 21.
Her nephew posted this notice to Twitter.
BBC News had this announcement:
Born in Mitcham, south London, Ross was the daughter of Scottish vaudevillians John and Mary Short, who took her to Los Angeles when she was four. In 1938, Ross made her film debut in Our Gang Follies, in which she sang traditional song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond. She went on to play Judy Garland’s younger sister in 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars.
Ross became one of the early practitioners of “vocalese”, a singing style in which original lyrics are set to an instrumental jazz solo. At 22 she wrote the lyrics to the vocalese song Twisted, a track that was later covered by Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell and others. That led Duke Ellington to ask her to stand in for Billie Holliday at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Ross went on record seven albums with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, including 1957’s Sing a Song of Basie.
Though many jazz fans are familiar with Ross as part of the LH&R trio, she also recorded solo albums, like “Skylark” prior to hooking up with the group.
In this interview she talks about her love for singing, and the documentary film about her life, No One But Me, premiering at the 2012 Glasgow Film Festival.
This is by no means a complete list of musicians who passed on in 2020. As I mentioned above, the list is far too long for one story. I’m hoping you will join me in the comments section and post the music of artists we lost in 2020 who you admire and treasure, as we play out the old year and enter the new.
May they never “be forgot.”