In Memoriam: Nine Jazz Greats Who Passed in 2018

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In Memoriam: Nine Jazz Greats Who Passed in 2018

The jazz community mourned the passing of the following artists who left us in 2018:

Cecil Taylor

Pioneering free jazz pianist and icon of the avant garde Cecil Taylor died at his home in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York on April 5 at age 89. A force of nature whose whirlwind, percussive attack on the keyboard created a new kinetic and highly visceral language in jazz, Taylor was a maverick whose unique style redefined his instrument and opened a door to a radical new stream of jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Raised in the Corona, Queens neighborhood of New York City, he began playing piano at age six and went on to study at the (now-defunct) New York College of Music and New England Conservatory in Boston, where he majored in composition and arranging. During his time there, he also became familiar with contemporary European art music, with Bela Bartók and Karlheinz Stockhausen notably influencing his music.

Also citing Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck as early influences, Taylor went on to develop his own original language on the piano that derived from his remarkable technique and seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. In 1955, he moved back to New York City and soon formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles. His first recording, 1956’s Jazz Advance, heralded a new era in jazz that eschewed the swinging element of bebop while embracing a new freedom principle. That group played at the Five Spot Cafe in 1956 for six weeks and performed at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. There following such important albums as 1958’s Looking Ahead!, 1960’s The World of Cecil Taylor and two 1966 Blue Note releases, Unit Structures and Conquistador!, Taylor began to perform solo concerts in the latter half of the 1960s and continued setting a prolific pace through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, both in a solo setting and leading various incarnations of his Unit quintet as well as his abstract Feel Trio (with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley).

His extended residency in Berlin in 1988 was documented by the German label FMP, resulting in a box set of performances in duet and trio with a large number of European free improvisors including Oxley, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Tristan Honsinger, Louis Moholo, and Paul Lovens. Most of his later recordings have been released on European labels, with the exception of 1999’s Momentum Space (a meeting with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Elvin Jones) on Verve/Gitanes. Taylor recorded sparingly in the 2000s but continued to perform with his trio and big band. In 2010, Triple Point Records released a deluxe limited-edition double LP titled Ailanthus/Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions of Two Root Songs, documenting duo performances at the Village Vanguard in 2008 with Taylor’s longtime collaborator Tony Oxley. In 2013, Taylor was awarded Japan’s Kyoto Prize for Music and in 2014, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, he was honored at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia at a concert event, “Celebrating Cecil.” In 2015, Taylor performed at an Ornette Coleman memorial at Riverside Church in Manhattan and in 2016 he received a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor.”

Hear a performance of Cecil Taylor with his Unit Structures quintet of tenor saxophonist Bill Barron, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyon, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Andrew Cyrille at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival.

Randy Weston

Randy Weston, a pianist/composer and New York City native whose creativity was inspired by his ancestral African connection, died on September 1 at age 92. Citing Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as his main piano influences, Weston made his mark on the scene in the 1950s with compositions like “Hi-Fly” and “Little Niles,” both of which became oft-covered jazz standards. He began incorporating African rhythmic elements into his music with 1960’s Uhuru Africa, which utilized a 24-piece big band.

His first trip to Africa, as part of a U.S. cultural exchange program to Lagos, Nigeria in 1961, led to albums like 1963’s Highlife: Music from the New African Nations, 1964’s Randy! and 1969’s African Cookbook. Weston lived in Morocco from 1968 to 1973 and subsequently remained fascinated with the music and spiritual values of the continent. He received his first Grammy nomination for 1973’s Tanjah and he continued to incorporate African influences with jazz on 1974’s Blues to Africa, 1992’s The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco and The Spirits of Our Ancestors, 1993’s Volcano Blues and 1995’s Saga.

His 1997 album Earth Birth was recorded with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and featured bassist Christian McBride and drummer Billy Higgins while 2003’s Spirit! The Power of Music was a live concert reunion with the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco. Weston was 84 when he recorded the live The Storyteller in 2009 with his African Rhythms Sextet. He followed with 2013’s brilliant The Roots of the Blues, a duet recording with tenor saxophonist and longtime collaborator Billy Harper. His final two albums were 2017’s The African Nubian Suite and 20018’s Sound—Solo Piano, both on his own African Rhythms label. (Photo by Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for The Jazz Foundation of America)

Hear performances of “African Cookbook,” “Hi-Fly” and “Tanjah” by his 18-piece African Rhythms ensemble from a July 7, 1973 concert in Central Park:

Roy Hargrove

Trumpeter/composer/bandleader Roy Hargrove died in New York City on November 2 at age 49. A native of Waco, Texas, Hargrove was a bona fide virtuoso who served as a kind of bridge between old-school hard bop and a newer style of jazz incorporating R&B, funk and hip-hop elements. Born in Waco, Texas on October 16, 1969, he was a precociously gifted trumpeter who was discovered by Wynton Marsalis during his visit to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. Hargrove’s reputation preceded him when he arrived at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1988. After transferring to The New School in New York City a year later, he became an inveterate jammer on the scene, sitting in at Small’s and the late-night jams at the Blue Note.

He made his first recording session with alto saxophonist Bobby Watson in 1988 (No Question About It on Blue Note) and that same year recorded Superblue with an all-star octet featuring Watson, pianist Mulgrew Miller, trombonist Frank Lacy and drummer Kenny Washington. In 1990, at age 20, Hargrove released his first album as a leader, Diamond in the Rough, on Novus/RCA. He followed with a string of superb offerings for the label, including 1991’s Public Eye, 1992’s The Vibe and 1994’s Blues ’n Ballads. His 1994 Verve album, With the Tenors of Our Time, featured the young trumpeter in the company of sax greats Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Griffin, Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis. He experimented with a trio format on 1995’s Parker’s Mood, with bassist Christian McBride and pianist Stephen Scott, then won a Latin Grammy for his 1997 album Habana with his Afro-Cuban band Crisol. In 2001, Hargrove toured with sax titan Michael Brecker and jazz piano legend Herbie Hancock, resulting in the 2002 live recording, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. The following year, he made a radical shift, incorporating funk and soul grooves into jazz with his band RH Factor while also performing and recording on the side with neo-soul singer D’Angelo during his Voodoo tour.

Hargrove’s string of albums with RH Factor — 2003’s Hard Groove, 2004’s Strength, 2006’s Distractions—all served to bridge urban soul and jazz by incorporating hard grooves along with the contributions of D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, Karl Denson and Q-Tip. He continued to embrace acoustic post-bop with his quintet on 2008’s Earfood and with his 19-piece big band on 2009’s Emergence. Though Hargrove struggled with kidney failure and had been on dialysis for the last 14 years of his life, he continued carrying the torch for jazz, gigging and sitting in until the end.

Here is a video clip of an interview with Hargrove from the 2001 Newport Jazz Festival:

And watch Hargrove perform at the 2001 Newport Jazz Festival:

Nancy Wilson


Nancy Wilson, the soulful and dynamic jazz singer whose career spanned five decades, died in Pioneertown, Calif., on December 13 at age 81. An elegant and swinging interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Nancy Wilson recorded more than 70 albums and won three Grammy Awards for her work. Born in Chillicothe, Ohio on February 20, 1937, she was inspired as a young girl by the brilliant jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington. She won a talent contest sponsored by the local ABC television station WTVN and from age 15 to 17 began working clubs on the east side and north side of Columbus, Ohio. Wilson joined Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band in 1956 and toured with them throughout Canada and the midwest from 1956 to 1958.

After signing with Capitol Records in 1959, she released a string of successful albums including 1960’s Like in Love, 1961’s Something Wonderful, which included her signature song “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and The Swingin’s Mutual with the George Shearing Quintet. Her next Capitol album, 1962’s Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, propelled her to national prominence on the strength of the hit single, “Save Your Love For Me.” She followed with such best-selling albums as 1962’s Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues, featuring Joe Pass on guitar and Wild Bill Davis on organ, 1963’s Hollywood: My Way, featuring a bossa nova version of “Moon River,” 1964’s How Glad I Am, 1965’s live The Nancy Wilson Show!, 1966’s Tender Loving Care, arranged by Billy May, and 1968’s Welcome To My Love, arranged by Oliver Nelson. Her relationship with Capitol continued through the 1970s, then she jumped to Columbia Records in the ’80s, remaining with that major label through the ’90s.

Wilson recorded her first Christmas album in 2001 for the Telarc label then collaborated with pianist Ramsey Lewis for two albums on the Narada Jazz label, 2002’s Meant to Be and 2003’s Simple Pleasures. Her 2004 album R.S.V.P. (final album, Rare Songs, Very Personal), featuring guests George Shearing, Toots Thielemans, Gary Burton and Phil Woods, earned her a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album. She repeated that feat in 2006 with Turned to Blue—the title track is a Maya Angelou poem set to music. In 2007, Wilson celebrated her 70th birthday with an all-star event hosted by Arsenio Hall at the Hollywood Bowl. In March 2008, she was hospitalized for lung complications, recovered and claimed to be doing well. She succumbed this year after a long battle with kidney cancer. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty)

Watch Wilson’s performance at the 1987 Newport Jazz Festival:

Henry Butler


Pianist/singer and New Orleans native Henry Butler died on July 2 in New York City at age 69. A quintessential New Orleans pianist, Butler carried on the New Orleans piano legacy of Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, James Booker and Allen Toussaint in exalted, joyful fashion. Blind since birth, Butler grew up in the city’s Calliope Projects and taught himself piano by ear. He studied classical music at the Louisiana State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, where he memorized scores written in Braille, and at Southern University, where he majored in voice and minored in piano. Before graduating from college, Butler received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study with Cannonball Adderley and his group of veteran musicians, which included pianist George Duke. Clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who taught at Southern University, became an important mentor, later appearing on Butler’s 1987 post-bop album for MCA Records, The Village.

The pianist returned to R&B on 1990’s Orleans Inspiration, which included versions of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina’s” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got.” He followed with 1992’s Blues & More, 1996’s For All Seasons and 1998’s Blues After Sunset, which featured New Orleans guitar great Snooks Eaglin. Butler collaborated with roots musician Corey Hart on 2000’s Vu-Du Menz and in 2008 released his first solo album, PianNOLA Live. He joined forces with trumpeter-arranger and SexMob leader Steven Bernstein in 2011 to form the Hot 9, later releasing Viper’s Drag in 2014 on the reactivated Impulse! label.

Although diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015, Butler continued to perform worldwide with the Hot 9 and as a solo act. In June, 2017, he joined fellow New Orleans piano master Dr. John for a first-ever encounter at Town Hall in New York. Butler made his last concert appearance in June 2018. He died the following month. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty)

Here is a video clip of Butler performing a solo version of “Sick And Tired” at the 2008 Jackson Hole Music Festival:

Perry Robinson

The clarinet virtuoso and New York City native died in Jersey City, New Jersey at age 80 on December 2. One of the last remaining voices of the 1960s New Thing, Robinson was the missing link between clarinet greats Jimmy Giuffre and John Carter. Robinson debuted as a leader with 1962’s Funk Dumpling (with Kenny Barron, Henry Grimes, and Paul Motian) on the Savoy label and subsequently became an in-demand sideman on the free jazz scene, appearing on albums by the likes of saxophonist Archie Shepp, trombonist Roswell Rudd, pianist Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. He was part of the Jazz Composers Orchestra that played on Bley’s opera Escalator Over the Hill and was a charter member of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, playing on the group’s 1969 self-titled debut. From 1973, Robinson worked with Jeanne Lee and Gunter Hampel’s Galaxie Dream Band and guested with Dave Brubeck’ s Two Generations of Brubeck band. From 1975 until 1977, he was a member of the Clarinet Contrast group, which featured German clarinet players Theo Jörgensmann and Bernd Konrad. His autobiography, Perry Robinson: The Traveler, was published in 2002.

Here’s an audio clip of Robinson performing with Two Generations of Brubeck on July 2, 1975 at Carnegie Hall:

Hugh Masekela


South African trumpeter, social activist and freedom fighter Hugh Makekela died in Johannesburg on January 23 at age 78. He has been described as “the father of South African jazz.” Known for his anti-apartheid songs such as “Soweto Blues” and “Bring Him Back Home,” he also scored an instrumental pop hit in 1968 with his version of “Grazing in the Grass.” Born on April 4, 1939 and raised in the oppression of South African apartheid, Masekela became one of the most in-demand young musicians in all of South Africa during the late ’50s as a member of the Jazz Epistles, a sextet inspired by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers.

While enrolled at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in the 1960s, Masekela would go to the city’s great jazz clubs at night to catch such legends as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. He began blending American jazz with African roots music for a compelling new hybrid of sound. His appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival helped elevate his profile in the States and the following year he hit big with “Grazing In The Grass,” which shot up to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts.

In the 1980s, Masekela toured with Paul Simon in support of Simon’s album Graceland, which featured other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Ray Phiri. He was also a consultant for the 1987 Broadway play Sarafina! In 2003, he was featured in the documentary film Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony and the following year released his autobiography, Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, which detailed his struggles against apartheid in his homeland, as well as his personal struggles with alcoholism from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. Masekela performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup and tournament in Soweto’s Soccer City in 2010. That year, he was also given the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, his home nation’s highest medal of honor. In 2016, Masekela was reunited with his former Jazz Epistles bandmates for the first time in 60 years. (Photo by Kristy Sparrow/Getty)

Here is an audio clip of Masekela performing with the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Soundz at the Record Plant on Feb. 24, 1974:

Jerry Gonzalez

Trumpeter/conguero and co-leader of the Fort Apache Band, Jerry Gonzalez died in Madrid, Spain, on October 1 at age 69. The South Bronx native was born on June 5, 1949, and raised in a strong musical atmosphere where the sound of clave and Afro-Cuban music was literally heard in the street on a daily basis. He began playing trumpet and congas in junior high, jamming with local bands. After completing his formal studies at New York College of Music and New York University, he started playing professionally.

After a stint in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1970, he began fusing bebop elements with the Afro-Cuban rhythms he grew up with. González joined salsa master Eddie Palmieri’s band in 1971 and remained for three years, appearing on 1972’s Live from Sing Sing and 1974’s Unfinished Masterpiece. He subsequently played with Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre and Grupo Folklórico y Experimental before forming the Fort Apache Band in 1979 with his bass playing brother Andy. Their landmark 1988 album Rumba Para Monk was the first Afro-Cuban Thelonious Monk tribute, paving the way for subsequent cross-pollination ventures like 1989’s Obatala, 1990’s Earthdance, 1994’s Crossroads, 1995’s Pensativo and 1996’s Fire Dance.

Gonzalez also played with Tito Puente’s ensemble from 1984 to 1999, McCoy Tyner’s band from 1984 to 1990, and Jaco Pastorius’s band from 1984 to 1987. After contributing to the documentary film Calle 54, Gonzalez relocated to Madrid in 2000 and began collaborating with Spanish musicians like Chano Dominguez, Diego “El Cigala” and Paco de Lucia, pioneering a fusion between Latin jazz and flamenco with his bands Los Piratas del Flamenco and El Comando de la Clave. His most recent recordings were 2004’s Y Los Piratas del Flamenco, which included flamenco renditions of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” Monk’s “Monk’s Dream,” and 2011’s Jerry Gonzalez Y El Comando De La Clave, which put a clave spin on a set of jazz standards.

Here is a clip of Gonzalez playing with Eddie Palmieri’s group on July 7, 1974 at Carnegie Hall.

Bill Watrous

Virtuoso trombononist/composer/bandleader Bill Watrous died in Los Angeles on July 3 at age 79. Sometimes billed as “the world’s greatest trombonist,” Watrous was widely admired for his combination of speed, fluency and golden tone on the brass instrument. His impressive resume included work with such luminaries as Maynard Ferguson, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Corea, as well as brief stint with the pioneering jazz-rock band Ten Wheel Drive. A prominent figure on the L.A. studio scene since 1977, he also led his own adventurous big band, Bill Watrous & Manhattan Wildlife Refuge. He also taught for two decades at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and co-wrote a widely used textbook, “Trombonisms.”

Born on June 8, 1939 in Middletown, Connecticut, Watrous came up playing in trad jazz bands as a teenager. Following a stint in the Navy, he moved to New York City and quickly carved out a niche for himself on the jazz scene by working with trumpeter/bandleader Billy Butterfield’s orchestra and later with a multiple-trombone ensemble led by fellow trombonist Kai Winding. In 1965, he became a member of “The Merv Griffin Show” house band and two years later joined the CBS house orchestra. In 1971, he joined the jazz-rock band Ten Wheel Drive and in 1973 founded his Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Orchestra, recording the group’s self-titled debut in 1974 and following that up with The Tiger of San Pedro in 1975.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1977, Watrous performed on Quincy Jones’ score for the TV miniseries, Roots. A self-described “bop-oriented player,” he continued working in the studios, playing in local clubs and leading an occasional big band through the ’80s and ’90s. His most recent recordings were 2004’s Live in Living Comfort, 2007’s I’ll Play For You and 2014’s A Beautiful Friendship.

Here is an audio clip of Watrous leading his 19-piece Manhattan Wildlife Refuge on July 5, 1975 at Carnegie Hall.

Others who passed in 2018 include baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, singer Marlene Verplanck, alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune, singer/pianist/songwriter Bob Dorough.