I was cautioned prior to meeting with Sam Rivers at his Maitland home. His daughter and manager, Monique Williams, said that he has a tendency to talk. And talk he did. After all, at 85 years old, he has a lot to share.
Almost everyone involved in music knows his name. Rivers is a legendary jazz musician and composer who has performed with some of the best names in history including Billie Holiday, Cecil Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw Shaw, Chick Corea and Joe Cocker, to name only a few. He has also received two Grammy nominations.
Rivers wasn’t sure if he qualified as a “local musician” since most of his performances and appearances are out of town – in other states and other countries. He wants to emphasize, however, that he does perform in Central Florida. The RivBea Orchestra is a regular at the Downtown Art and Living Expo at Lake Eola, The Social, the Florida Music Festival and they also perform every second Wednesday of every month at the Plaza Theatre in Orlando.
Rivers was born into a musical family on September 25, 1923 in El Reno, Oklahoma. His mother, father and grandfather were all musicians. He first learned to play the piano at a young age then took up the saxophone while in high school. He would later serve in the U.S. Navy stationed in California where he met Jimmy Witherspoon with whom he played with on the side.
His mother was politically active. Rivers recalls her protests against the poll tax in front of City Hall in Chicago in the 1930’s. Rivers’ great grandmother was a house slave who listened and memorized songs that the slaves sang in the field while working. Her son, River’s grandfather, Marshall W. Taylor, was born after the emancipation. His great-grandmother sang the plantation songs to him, Taylor wrote them down and compiled them into a booked titled “Plantation Melodies, which he published in 1862. This first slave book can be found in the library of Congress. He later became a Bishop in the African Methodist Church.
Rivers attended the Boston Conservatory of Music with other musicians including Gigi Gryce, Cecil Taylor, Quincy Jones, Jaki Byard, and others. After completing his studies in the conservatory, Rivers remained in Boston, composing and performing in clubs in the area. While there, he performed with notable rhythm and blues artists including Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler and Maxine Brown.
Featured with the Sam Rivers Quartet was a young talented 13 year old drummer named Tony Williams. Tony left Boston with Jackie McClean to perform in New York and was later hired by Miles Davis. During Rivers’ short stints out of Boston, he was performing with T-Bone Walker. In 1964, Tony sent a telegram saying Miles wanted to hire Rivers. “Come to New York right away,” the telegram read. Rivers toured with Miles through the famous “Miles in Tokyo” recordings. After a tour with Miles Davis, Rivers joined the Andrew Hill Quartet and went to California for an extended tour. Rivers then moved to New York in September 1964 and had already composed over fifty compositions by that time.
Rivers was invited to a jam session that included Jimi Hendricks in the late 1960’s. During that period, Rivers was performing with Cecil Taylor and recalls how jamming with Hendrix was almost the same as playing with Taylor. “Jimi wanted me to join his group while he was developing new directions,” Rivers said.
Rivers opened Studio RivBea in the late 1960’s in Lower Manhattan where musicians could come andperform under the “open mike” concept. This also allowed musicians to present their own styles without the restrictions that the mainstream performances demanded. Rivers was also developing his concept at that time performing primarily with trios, which consisted of Cecil McBee and Norman Connors, then later with Dave Holland and Barry Altshul. One of the main reasons for Studio RivBea was to rehearse and perform the music that Rivers had composed for the RivBea orchestra under his direction, which ultimately resulted in many world tours and Grammy nominations.
During the 1980’s, Rivers led several bands with different artists. One of these artist, Ed Cherry, a member of the RivBea orchestra, was hired by Dizzy Gillespie and it was through this acquaintance that Gillespie hired Sam Rivers to join his group. The band toured throughout the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. It was also during this period that Rivers decided to relocate the RivBea orchestra from New York to Orlando, Florida.
Forming the RivBea Orchestra in Orlando situated Rivers comfortably in his new surrounding drawing on the talents of musicians from area colleges, universities, and theme parks. He also formed the Sam Rivers Trio with Doug Matthews and Antony Cole, who was a nephew of Nat King Cole and cousin to Natalie Cole. Rion Smith recently replaced Cole on drums.
Rivers has written over 350 compositions, every one with a single name title. “The less you say,” Rivers said, “the more that leaves to the interpretation of the listening audience.” His favorite composition is Beatrice, that he wrote in memory of his wife. There are almost 200 incomplete compositions that Rivers still works on, when time allows.
Rivers’ jazz compositions have been described as contemporary, free jazz, avante garde and experimental. He agreed with all the descriptive terms but was quick to remove “experimental” from the list saying, with a grin, that “I think I know what I am doing by now.”
“Jazz is improvisational – it is not canned” Rivers explained. “Each member of the band is allowed to offer a personal expression while the group itself remains cohesive. They keep their individuality while ‘cooperating’ with the other members of the group.”
“I am the originator of spontaneous creativity,” Rivers explained. “I create a theme and my trio takes off from there. We are tight enough that I can give subtle signals and the other members know where to take it from there.”
Rivers receives minimum airtime on local, commercial radio stations, however, the University of Central Florida station WUCF 89.9 FM, Rollins College WPRK 91.5 FM and WMFE 90.7 FM does feature his music on various segments.
“Sam has always had a core following, but with the current smooth jazz that is ‘radio popular,’ much of his music is not suited for commercial smooth jazz radio airplay,” Bob Kelley of WLOQ 103.1 said. “But his name, his career, and his love for his music, I believe, has always showed.”
The RivBea Foundation, a non-profit organization Rivers formed, is currently seeking grant money to help preserve all of the hand-written compositions, thousands of historical photographs and other documents that follow Sam Rivers and his historical journey through time and music. This project is “dedicated to the preservation, dissemination for education, entertainment and spiritual purposes for the original works of Sam Rivers.”
Several individuals and organizations have pledged their support, time and equipment to assist in this massive undertaking, but much more help is needed.
“The imitators make more money, of course, but the originals have to keep working and keep making a contribution,” Rivers said. “The great musicians are those who can reach people, who can make people feel something.”
For more information on Sam Rivers and all of his achievements, visit www.samrivers.com or www.myspace.com/samrivers.