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How Sam Rivers and Studio Rivbea Supercharged ’70s Jazz in New York

How Sam Rivers and Studio Rivbea Supercharged ’70s Jazz in New York
  • PublishedSeptember 22, 2023

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A handful of New York venues can be credited with generating era-defining scenes. In the 1970s, CBGB, perhaps the best known, was just a stone’s throw from Studio Rivbea, a dingy and miraculous little performance space — and a key energy center for the decade’s revolutionary jazz. It was also the home of the saxophonist Sam Rivers, his wife, Bea, and their children. The family would greet you at the door, take your $4 and send you down a creaky wooden staircase to the basement, where the adventure would begin.

“It was a mecca,” said the bassist and downtown guru William Parker. “It was a time of self-determination and musicians doing for themselves. Sam wasn’t working the clubs, so he created his own space.”

Born Sept. 25, 1923 — a century ago next week — Rivers was both traditionalist and avant-gardist, a Promethean improviser and prolific composer, an entrepreneur and scene maker wherever he went. He played with Billie Holiday and Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor, T-Bone Walker and Joe Cocker, not to mention the conductor Seiji Ozawa. In the early ’70s, a time of fervent underground jazz innovation, artist-run jazz lofts, as they were known, cropped up all over Lower Manhattan. Studio Rivbea, on a forlorn block in the East Village, was formative. The music could go on all night — band after band, a maelstrom of righteous sound that defined the era.

“The copycats make money, but they’re not the ones making their own vistas,” Rivers said in a 1999 interview. “I’m into making vistas.”

Rivers died in 2011 at age 88, but his D.I.Y. jazz loft remains a model for a new generation of independently minded artists: “It’s the future of where we need to go as musicians if we want to keep evolving,” said the pianist Jason Moran, who runs his own record label and will perform inside a re-creation of Rivbea that he commissioned at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in November.

Recording and touring with Rivers in the early aughts, Moran was “ushered to the next level,” he said. He links Rivers’s early ’70s innovations at Rivbea to the hip-hop experiments of DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx. They represent two sides of “the Black freedom struggle that was happening in the city at that same moment, with musicians going off grid and getting free, making music for the people,” he said. “That’s how revolutions start and then reverberate.”

Rivers’s revolution is being celebrated anew. A year ago, Rick Lopez, a music researcher in Erie, Pa., published “The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress,” an astonishing 768-page tome. A book on Rivbea by the jazz writer Ed Hazell is in the works. And Rivers’s archives — including more than 500 handwritten scores and over 300 audio and video recordings dating from 1957 to 2007 — were acquired in February by the University of Pittsburgh Library System. Concerts of his music planned this month and next in Harlem, Orlando, Fla. and Los Angeles will commemorate Rivers’s centennial and remind listeners of his powerful accomplishments.

“It’s Sam’s time,” said the tuba player Joseph Daley, who worked with the saxophonist for close to 30 years. Daley, who used to jog miles every day to stay in shape for Rivers’s marathon performances, recalled a big band concert in Mount Morris Park in Harlem: “The rain was pouring down and the stage wasn’t covered, but Sam just kept going and going and going. Oh, it was one of the most glorious concerts — and Sam was playing the hell out of his instrument.” He likened his friend’s improvisations to “a serpent, sliding through the environment.”

Rivers was born on the road, in El Reno, Okla., while his mother (a pianist) and father (a gospel singer) toured with the Silvertone Quintet. In 1947, after a stint in the Navy, he enrolled at the Boston Conservatory. Deep into the local jazz scene, he studied composition, attended a lecture by Igor Stravinsky, and connected with the drummer Tony Williams, a child prodigy who was 13 when he joined Rivers in an experimental trio in 1959. (The renowned Williams would later instigate Rivers’s 1964 stint in Miles Davis’s quintet.)

By 1964, Rivers was recording for Blue Note Records. He moved to New York in the late ’60s, first settling in Harlem, and then establishing Rivbea in the East Village. It wasn’t long before he landed a contract with Impulse! Records, a prestigious showcase for his latest projects.

Endlessly adaptable yet utterly unique, he inspired his minions to find their own creative voices. The bassist Dave Holland, a longtime Rivers associate and Rivbea regular, likened him to Davis: “He just kept moving, growing and trying new things, and he wasn’t afraid to move away from what he’d already accomplished and leave them behind for something new.”

Rivbea was located at 24 Bond Street, in a building owned by Robert De Niro’s mother, the poet and painter Virginia Admiral. Bea Rivers (for whom Rivers composed his enduring ballad “Beatrice”) managed the place when her husband was on the road and served up platters of fragrant chicken. The loft “had a homey vibe,” said Hazell, the author. “The furniture was all secondhand; it was like being in their living room — relaxed, relatable.”

It became a nexus of the Black creative arts scene: Davis might stroll in, or Ntozake Shange, who workshopped her Broadway-bound “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” at Rivbea. Patti Smith was around, too; her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, had a studio on the building’s fourth floor. At showtime, fans would gather in the basement, where it could get as hot as a blast furnace. A large parachute — Rivers had picked it up at a military surplus store on Canal Street — hung from the ceiling.

Around 10 or 11 p.m., the musicians would wander in and the performance would begin. The entry fee could get you three or more bands per night, typically led by budding stars of the avant-garde: Parker, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake. They were all booked by Rivers, who funded Rivbea with grant money and played there regularly with his own groups: sextets, woodwind choirs, a big band.

But his trio was his calling card. Its virtuoso sets would go on for an hour or two without pause — bracing, improvised from scratch, yet sounding like a seamless conversation, encompassing breakneck swing, funk vamps and free-form blowouts. It was a visual treat, too. Rivers, in his big floppy hat and colorful dashiki, would go full tilt on tenor saxophone, then soprano sax, flute and piano, hooting and screaming as he switched instruments.

Rivbea closed in 1978: The building flooded and rents were rising. But later, during his four years on the road with Dizzy Gillespie, Rivers stopped in Orlando, where local music pros urged him to settle down. Hundreds of musicians were working at Disney World or doing corporate gigs — well-paid and bored, they were thirsty for a challenge.

He and Bea moved there in 1991, and when Rivers called his first big band rehearsal, the line of candidates was out the door. He hired a drummer named Anthony Cole, a nephew of Nat King Cole who also played saxophone and piano, and later a bassist named Doug Mathews, who doubled on bass clarinet. The trio became the heart of Rivers’s new big band, for which he composed constantly.

Moran first heard Rivers with this trio in New York, in the ’90s: “I was like, What? Who are these three magicians, jumping from instrument to instrument? It was insane. And who is this man, this bold guy screaming into the microphone with his saxophone and voice?”

Within a few years, Moran and Rivers were touring — “a life-changing experience,” Moran said. Rivers didn’t tell him what to do, but, by example, he showed him a way to be in the world. Rivers was around 80, but his energy was off the charts. He would leap three feet onto a stage. He was always “ready to make it happen — and he was ready to do it again if he didn’t like what he did the first time,” Moran said. “It set me up to play with people who are completely singular.”

Moran’s own trio, the Bandwagon, developed much of its distinct language and flow while touring with Rivers. Spending time with “this bold guy” was liberating, Moran said.

“He literally made the lane that I’m riding in.”

The New York All-Star Rivbea Orchestra performs Sept. 22 at the Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church in Harlem; harlemjazzboxx.com.

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