Sam Rivers Day

September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011

A birthday tribute to Sam Rivers

Tenor and soprano-saxophonist Sam Rivers was born on September 25, 1923 in El Reno, Oklahoma.

Rivers’ father was a vocalist with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Sam took up the tenor fairly early in life although it would take him some time before he became known in the jazz world.

He worked with singer Jimmy Witherspoon in the mid-1940s, moved to Boston in 1947, and studied at the Boston Conservatory, playing locally for the next decade.

Rivers did not appear on records until 1964 when he was George Coleman’s replacement with the Miles Davis Quintet during a tour of Japan; Davis did not keep him because he felt that his adventurous style did not fit in with the group despite the saxophonist being championed by drummer Tony Williams.

However he was soon signed by Blue Note and recorded several notable albums as a leader including Fuschia Swing Song, Contours, A New Conception, and Dimensions & Extensions, also appearing on albums led by Tony Williams, Larry Young, Bobby Hutcherson, and Andrew Hill.

Rivers had his own big sound on tenor, also played soprano and flute, and his adventurous playing was featured with Cecil Taylor in 1969.

In the 1970s he became well-known as part of New York’s loft jazz scene where he ran Studio Rivbea, and for his impressive recordings for the Impulse label, often leading trios.

Sam Rivers had his highest profile in the late 1980s when he was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, fitting his advanced style into Dizzy’s group and adding his own brand of humor to the music.

In his later years, Rivers was based in Florida where he led his RivBea Orchestra while still touring Europe and the U.S.

Creative until the end, Sam Rivers passed away on Dec.26, 2011 at the age of 88.

Here is Sam Rivers in 1989 in a quartet with guitarist Darryl Thompson, bassist Rael Wesley Grant, and drummer Steve McRaven playing his best known composition, “Beatrice.”

– Scott Yanow