Saxophonists, pianists, vocalists and amplifier makers. The sound of jazz wouldn’t be what it is today if not for their trailblazing, fearless devotion to this art form that is so difficult to master and loved by so few. Explocity pays tribute to a few of the better-known musicians who touched our lives and made a difference. RIP. Here they are in alphabetic order.
Andy Hamilton, Saxophone (1918-2012)
As a ten-year-old, Hamilton put together a few bamboo straws to fashion a saxophone. Born in Jamaica, he trained himself by listening to American jazz music on the radio; he emigrated to the U.K., where he played regular gigs with his group, The Blue Notes. Hamilton was known for his warm, unique style of playing saxophone.
Dave Brubeck, Piano (1920-2012)
David Warren Brubeck, born in Concord, California, couldn’t read music. He faked his way through his early piano lessons with his mother, an aspiring concert pianist.
It could so easily have been different: the young Brubeck grew up on a ranch, and almost became a vet. He started studying for a degree in veterinary science. But – thankfully – a perceptive professor nudged him into studying music, and we’ve witnessed the rest of the story.
Through a career spanning over five decades, Dave Brubeck has produced jazz that delights, from the uneven, folk-influenced tunes of Time Out to the humorous jazz musical ‘The Real Ambassador.’ Brubeck, known for his style of playing chunky block chords, enjoyed phenomenal success: in 1954, he became only the second jazz musician (after Louis Armstrong) to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. Brubeck died in December 2012.
David Ware, Saxophone (1949-2012)
Adventure and experimentation were second nature to this major saxophonist, who spent 14 years as a cab driver in New York City. The David Ware Quartet, which he founded, is credited with truly groundbreaking albums, especially in the ’90s. Despite failing health, Ware kept inventing and improvising till the late nineties. He passed away in October.
Donald Byrd, Trumpet (1932-2013)
One of the leading jazz trumpeters of the ’50s, Byrd was known for his bebop, but was equally at home in funk and soul. Byrd played, among others, with musicians like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk: what’s more, he also is credited with bringing attention to another jazz great, Herbie Hancock (in a 1961 Byrd album, ‘Free Form,’ Hancock was the young pianist). Byrd died at 80 in Delware in February this year.
Etta James, Voice (1938-2012)
Associating her only with the mellow romance of ‘At Last’ – her best-known-tune – does Etta James a disservice. She might be an inductee in the Rock-and-Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, but let’s not forget the jazz-and-blues standards she brought to life with her sensuous contralto, from ‘A Sunday Kind of Love’ to ‘Stormy Weather.’
Etta – who modified her birth name, Jamesetta Hawkins – braved abusive foster parents, drug addiction and even leukaemia to produce some of the most soulful singing in the world. The Californian singer died in January 2012, at age 73.
Johnny Otis, Composer, Arranger (1921-2012)
Singer-composer-bandleader-arranger (phew) Johnny Otis was more than a pivotal figure in the big band era. The list of artists he discovered reads like a musical constellation: to name a few, Big Mama Thornton, Hank Ballard and even Etta James (they died within 48 hours of each other, incidentally).
Von Freeman, Saxophone (1923-2012)
This saxophonist played with greats such as Sun Ra, Kurt Elling and Wynton Marsalis, but largely eluded the spotlight. One story goes that despite Miles Davis reportedly seeking to play with him, Freeman, who hails from Chicago, declined because he was reluctant to leave his hometown. Freeman died on August 11. Check out a performance of him – at the tender age of nearly 90 – playing ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.’
Jim Marshall, Amplifier Maker (1923-2012)
Where would the modern guitarist be without the large, imposing box – neatly signed Marshall? While the raw sound that was the hallmark of Marshall’s amplifiers was especially favoured by rock guitarists, the London-based businessman’s death in 2012 will be felt across the musical spectrum.
Ravi Shankar, Sitar (1920-2012)
Purists might count it sacrilege to include the sitar great here, but let’s be honest: the effect Shankar had on the jazz world was huge. To name just two examples: listen to Miles Davis’s ‘The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions’ to get a peek into how the instrument influenced him. Or the album that some say started it all: ‘Improvisations,’ a sitar, bass and flute-infused jazz version of the Pather Panchali theme. It isn’t just the world of Indian classical music that’s left much poorer with the Pandit’s death at 92 in December.