Arthur Blythe, Alto Saxophonist of the Avant-Garde

Arthur Blythe Quartet at the Jazzfestival Berlin (1980) – Watch on YouTube

In the opinion of critic Chris Kelsey, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe came close to bringing avant-garde jazz into the mainstream through a series of albums for “hype-heavy” Columbia Records. (From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Columbia always had great packaging; check out the album cover below for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown.)

But Blythe was still too “out there” for a mass audience, according to Kelsey, and the label turned to its more palatable young star Wynton Marsalis. (Speaking about “out there,” I liked that a tuba was part of Blythe’s quartet.)

Still Blythe managed to bring a new edge to older, more familiar jazz compositions. He did so quite literally in In The Tradition, a 1979 album that included four songs from the 30s, 40s and 50s with two original compositions. Here’s a comparison of Blythe’s versions with famous earlier recordings.

“Jitterbug Waltz” – Fats Waller  & Blythe

“Caravan” – Duke Ellington & Blythe

“In a Sentimental Mood” – Duke Ellington with John Coltrane & Blythe

“Naima” – John Coltrane  & Blythe

Arthur Blythe, July 5, 1940-March 27, 2017

“Lenox Avenue Breakdown” on Spotify


Herb Hardesty, Saxophonist for Fats Domino

“When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” Solo by Herb Hardesty–Watch on YouTube

Herb Hardesty was a tenor sax player whose most famous gig was with Fats Domino, as a member of “The Fat Man’s” sax-heavy band. Hardesty played with Domino for nearly 50 years, from the singer’s 1949 debut single “The Fat Man” through his farewell concert in 2007.

Hardesty (March 3, 1925-December 3, 2016) was admired by other musicians, as well. He’s on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” a 1952 hit by Lloyd Price and has appeared on Dr. John’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans and Tom Waits Blue Valentine. (You can hear a Hardesty solo on “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” on Waits’ 1978 album.) In his later years in Las Vegas, he was part of the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Hilton Hotel bands.

Hardesty’s first instrument was a trumpet given to his stepfather by Louis Armstrong. While in the service in WWII, he was given a sax by his commanding officer, and is said to have learned how to play it in just two days. For many years he played a gold-plated Selmer Mark VI, dubbed “the most famous horn on the planet” by The Vintage Saxophone Gallery.

“Perdido St.” on Spotify

Alfonso Ramos, Jr., Member of Two Tejano Halls of Fame

Roy Montelongo Medley–Watch on YouTube

Alfonso Ramos, Jr. was a fixture in the Austin, TX music scene for over a half century. A saxophonist, he first played with his uncle Justin Perez’s band before starting his own, Alfonso Ramos y Su Orquestra in the 1950s. Ramos played popular Austin Latin music venues, including the City Coliseum, Latin Quarter and the Chapparal.

He recorded over 100 albums and performed before audiences around the country, including at the Mexican-American Inaugural Ball for President George W. Bush. His brother started Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution, a group that won a Grammy for Best Tejano Music Album of 2009.

Ramos (October 22, 1936-October 4, 2016) is in the Tejano Music Awards Hall of Fame and the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame. If you hear similarities to polka in Tejano Music, it’s because it has its roots in the horn-driven music of the Germans, Poles and Czechs who immigrated to Texas and Mexico in the 19th century.

“La Verdad Desnuda” on Spotify


Lennie Baker, Singer of “Blue Moon,” Other Sha Na Na Hits

“Blue Moon” at Winterland, 1973

Lennie Baker was both a singer and saxophone player for Sha Na Na, the  1950s retro rock-and-roll band. He joined soon after their career-launching performance at Woodstock (only their eighth performance as a band), where they went on stage at sunrise on the last day of the festival, just before Jimi Hendrix.

“Ding-a-Ling-a-Ling Ding-Dong” on Sha Na Na TV Show

Baker (April 18, 1946-February 24, 2016) was on board during their long touring career and appeared with Sha Na Na in the movie production of Grease. In the movie, he sings “Blue Moon” as part of the fictional Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. You can also see him in the documentary Festival Express, which chronicles the cross- Canada train ride of musical festival performers, including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers–and Sha Na Na.


“Mr. Bass Man” 

Baker participated in the group’s eponymous TV show, a kind of doo wop Hee Haw, that ran from 1978-1981. He retired from the group in 2000. Before Sha Na Na, Baker played sax for another 1950s-themed group, Danny and the Juniors.


Don Rendell, British Jazz Saxophonist

Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, “Pavane”

The son of two musicians, Don Rendell began his music career at 15, when he started on alto sax. He eventually switched to tenor sax, for which he’s principally known, but also played soprano sax, clarinet and flute.

Don Rendell Talks About British Jazz

Rendell’s first professional gigs were playing at U.S.O. clubs during WWII. During the 1950s, he toured Europe with Stan Kenton and Woody Hermann, and led a band backing Billie Holliday for her UK performances. In the 1960s, he formed the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, which performed and recorded together for seven years.

Rendell on British Jazz, Part 2

Rendell (March 4, 1926-October 20, 2015) was a music educator and taught at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1984.

Wilton Felder, Saxophonist for Jazz Crusaders and Session Bass Player

“Inherit The Wind” featuring Bobby Womack

Wilton Felder was a tenor saxophonist for The Jazz Crusaders, a successful jazz group that formed in the early 1960s. He was also a prolific session bass player, appearing on recordings for The Jackson 5, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and others. The distinctive bass line for The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” is Felder’s creation.

The Crusaders Live at Montreaux, 2003

The Crusaders (they dropped “Jazz” from their name in the 70s) moved in a more pop-oriented direction in the 70s, adding electric guitar and switching to electric piano. The group went through several iterations and lineups during the next few decades.

“Keep That Same Old Feeling,” Live in LA, 1984

A 1981 New York Times interview with Felder (August 31, 1940-September 27, 2015) included his explanation of how he developed his big sound. Texas clubs in the early part of his career didn’t often have microphones, and as increasingly amplified guitars began to drown out other instruments, Felder learned to play loud. He adopted a metal mouthpiece, used hard reeds and “played strong.”

Phil Woods, Jazz Saxophonist Who Played with Dizzy, Michel Legrand, Billy Joel

Phil Woods Live in Paris, 1969

You don’t have to know jazz to recognize Phil Woods, who played on popular tracks by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Billy Joel and other familiar artists. A Juilliard-trained saxophonist, Woods (November 2, 1931-September 29, 2015) was a favorite of jazz artists, too, and he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and composer-arranger Michel Legrand. His jazz chops were such that he was sometimes called “the new Bird” after Charlie Parker.

At Yamaha New York with Capitol Quartet

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Woods went to Europe, where jazz still could draw a respectable crowd. He formed the European Rhythm Machine. Upon his return to the US, he was featured in solos for tunes by Paul Simon (“Have a Good Time”), Steely Dan (“Dr. Wu”) and Billy Joel (“Just the Way You Are”). The Joel track made it to the Top 10 and won a Grammy.

With Michel Legrand in Montreal, 2001

Woods was recognized with a Grammy for “Images,” an album he made with Legrand. A winner of four Grammy Awards in all, Woods was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received a Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center.

Ornette Coleman, Pioneer of Free Jazz

Ornette: Made in America (trailer)

Where do you start to learn of the contributions of saxophonist Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930-June 11, 2015). The All Music Guide to Jazz has so many 5-star reviews of his albums that it isn’t much help. “The Adventure” episode in “Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns” spotlights the LP “Free Jazz,” which has a single track that spans over both sides. That seemed intimidating.

So I took the advice of Tom Moon in 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die and settled on “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” Moon suggests that you “Cue this up whenever you want to be transported to a time when radicalism was on the loose in America.”

And something did seem to be in the air in 1959, when the album was released. For more on that momentous year, check out this BBC Four documentary. The whole video’s worth watching, but if you want to jump ahead to Coleman, you’ll find him at about the 28:00 mark.

1959–The Year That Changed Jazz

Coleman pushed past the restrictions that even the fairly unfettered genre of jazz still hung onto: predictable chord changes, fixed time signatures and keys. He developed his own theory, which he called “Harmolodics.” In the liner notes for “Dancing in Your Head,” Coleman explains this as “rhythms, harmonics, and tempos [that] are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.”

Ornette Coleman Trio Recording Soundtrack to “Who’s Crazy?”, 1966

In “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” Coleman’s quartet was completed by bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, a cast of musicians he would turn to for many recordings. But he would play with many others and evolve through decades, as only the father of free jazz could.

Ornette Coleman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

“Lonely Woman” at Jazz at Vienne, 2008

Bob Belden, Jazz Saxophonist, Arranger and Diplomat

“New Song No. 2,” with Animation at the Jazz Standard

Music and musicians have often played a role in soothing relationships between nations. Louis Armstrong penetrated the Iron Curtain at a concert in East Berlin in 1965. Recently, the Minnesota Orchestra contributed to the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba through a series of concerts and workshops in Havana.

Perhaps less known is a concert that took place this year, when New York saxophonist Bob Belden performed with his group Animation in Tehran, the first US group to do so since 1979.

As testimony to the diplomatic power of music, Belden (October 31, 1956-May 20, 2015) told The New York Times: “Everybody is nice to us here…a guy comes up to me, an Iranian, asks me where I’m from. I say,  ‘America!’ He says, ‘I love you!’ I tell him I’m a jazz musician. He says, ‘I love jazz!'”

Recording of “Black Dahlia” by the Bob Belden Orchestra

In addition to Animation, Belden was known as a prodigious arranger, often reinterpreting rock and jazz classics in new ways. He was well-known for an album of Sting’s music. He brought together Indian musicians to do a new take on the music of Miles Davis, using sitar and tabla. The album was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2009 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

“All Blues” on “Miles from India”

Paul Jeffrey, Saxophonist and Jazz Educator

To call Paul Jeffrey (April 8, 1933-March 20, 2015) a student of jazz is to not use a figure of speech. Jeffrey was literally a life-long student, both in the classroom and out. He had a Bachelor of Science in Music Education from Ithaca College (1955). He held positions at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia University, Jersey City State College, the University of Hartford and Rutgers University. Finally, he was artist in residence and director of jazz studies at Duke University, positions he held for 30 years until his retirement in 2003. You will find the Paul Jeffrey Papers (1969-2006) there.

But Jeffrey’s greatest lessons were likely learned on the road and in the studio with  jazz legends including Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, the Count Basie Orchestra, Clark Terry and perhaps most notably, Thelonious Monk, with whom he toured until Monk stopped performing in the late 1970s.

He mingled, played and lived with the best. Here’s Jeffrey talking about fellow saxophonist and friend Sonny Rollins:

Jeffrey had a recording career all his own, beginning with 1969’s “Electrifying Sounds.” He recorded several albums as the Paul Jeffrey Quartet, Sextet, Group, and appeared on albums with Sam Rivers (See if you can pick him out of the mix on “Exultation” on the Rivers “Crystals” album), Fulvio Albana 5et and the Torino Jazz Orchestra.


Guide to the Paul Jeffrey Papers at Duke University

Duke Today obituary

New York Times obituary