Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sam Rivers Memorial Tribute



I heard Sam Rivers play within months of first starting this blog. He performed with his band at the Maitland Art Center at a closing party for the Florida Film Festival. For me, sketching as he played, it was a liberating experience. Lines flowed and danced on the page with abandon. The sketch became about expressive vigor not clinical accuracy. Sam's music was about the freedom of loose improvisation. He was a dynamic, creative saxophonist, flutist, bandleader and composer. He died December 26th here in Orlando Florida. He was 88 years old. Over the course of his career, Sam played with many jazz legends in smokey lofts and bars including Dizzy Gillespie.

An open call went out for any musicians who had played with Sam as part of the Rivbea Orchestra, to gather for a Tribute Memorial concert at the Social in downtown Orlando. I arrived fairly early and found a table to sketch from. As band members set up, a microphone was placed stage left and people were invited to get on stage and talk about Sam and his music. One man got up and said that he found himself always holding a beer at Sam's concerts. When it came time to clap, he would slap his bald head with his free hand. Sam saw the gesture and took to clapping his head as well when he finished a set. A band member felt honored and a bit intimidated being in Sam's orbit. In one rehearsal Sam stopped and asked him, "What's that note your playing?" He responded, "E flat." "We aren't there yet." Sam said. There was a long silence, then Sam laughed out loud. He was joking with the performer. Dina Peterson had met Mr. Rivers a few times. He tended to take an interest in what she was doing and she was pleased when he picked up the conversation right where they left off many months later. Genevieve Bernard admitted that she used to go to Rivers concerts on her own when she was single because she loved the music.

The stage became crowded with musicians. The music was driven, spontaneous, raucous and free flowing. Anything was possible. Performers danced the razors edge, taking endless chances and reaching out. Cameras flashed and someone held up an iPad above his head, like a glowing billboard to catch the scene.

Sam's wife Beatrice died in 2005. The orchestra played "Beatrice" named in her honor. The gentle music filled the room. You could feel the love. This song is now a jazz standard. After that song one of Sam's daughters got on stage. She thanked all the musicians for playing his music, keeping it alive. She said that "Sam's still playing, and he's watching you." With the funeral and memorial behind her, she had to return home in the North East. I started to well up. The room was getting smokey.

Members of the Rivbea Orchestra stood in turn launching into personal solo improvisations. The focus of my sketch switched from one performer to the next as they played. The energy in the room crackled and built. Everyone swayed to the beat. Lines flowed and splashes of color were thrown down with abandon. The whole band joined together and built to a cacophonous yet structured crescendo. The room went wild. The spirit of Sam's music still ignited the crowd. The room was on fire. "Keep perking Mr. Rivers."


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