Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914 and as a child was a skilled pianist. By twelve he was writing original songs and could sight read sheet music. With Birmingham being an important stop for touring musicians, during his childhood he was able to see famed musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
By his teenage years he was producing from memory full transcriptions of big band songs he had heard and began playing semi-professional solo piano in ad hoc jazz bands. Attending Birmingham Industrial High School he took lessons the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, a demanding disciplinarian and producer of many professional musicians.
Claiming that he was of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona of “cosmic” philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of “afro-futurism” as he preached awareness and peace above all. He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun).
From the mid-1950s to his death, Sun Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and names, asserting that the ever-changing name of his ensemble reflected the ever-changing nature of his music. His mainstream success was limited, but Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer with music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians and music touching on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime, swing, bebop, free improvisation, electronic and space music.
Sun Ra had several music periods during his lifetime – late 30s creating a conservatory workshop in his family home, conscientious objector during the war years, Chicago playing blues and jazz with Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith, New York Monday night gig at Slug’s Saloon and praise from Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and Philadelphia that would be the base of operations for the Arkestra until his death.
Sun Ra known for his “cosmic philosophy, musical compositions and performances was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979. The prolific Jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher passed away on May 30, 1993, at 79.
Gerald Wiggins was born on May 12, 1922 in New York City. He started classical piano lessons when he was four but by his teenage years became interested in jazz. He doubled on bass while attending High School & Art and for a period in the 40s accompanied Stepin’ Fetchit. Following this he worked and toured with the big bands of Les Hite, Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter. Stationed in Seattle while in the military he played in the local jazz clubs.
By the mid 40s Wiggins relocated to Los Angeles and played music for television and film. He has worked with Lena Horne, Kay Starr, Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Jimmy Witherspoon Helen Humes, Joe Williams, Ernie Andrews and Eartha Kitt to name a few. He also worked at the Hollywood studios as a vocal coach and worked with Marilyn Monroe and others.
Always a highly flexible pianist, Wiggins was comfortable in swing and bop settings with a consistently witty style filled with catchy riffs became his distinctive signature. His best-known recording as an organist was Wiggin’ Out but it was Wiggins’ trio work with Andy Simpkins and Paul Humphreys that is legendary. Pianist Gerald Wiggins passed away at the age of 86 on July 13, 2008.
More Posts: piano
Jimmy Cleveland was born May 3, 1926 in Wartrace, Tennessee but didn’t start playing the trombone until he was sixteen. His first important gig didn’t happen until 1950 with Lionel Hampton and a subsequent European tour.
Leaving Hampton in 1953, Cleveland went to moved to New York and became a successful freelance musician recoding with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sarah Vaughan, Gigi Gryce, Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson, James Moody and Gerry Mulligan.
As a leader Jimmy recorded a series of albums for EmArcy/Mercury records in the ‘50s and later in the decade toured Europe once again this time with Quincy Jones and in 1967 recorded with Thelonious Monk. He moved to Los Angeles to work with the Merv Griffin show and continued recording with Quincy.
Although he moved into a season of obscurity once he moved to the West coast, he continued to play till shortly before his death on August 23, 2008 in Lynwood, California at age 82. Jimmy Cleveland remains one of the most technically skilled of the bop-based jazz trombonists.
More Posts: trombone
Richard Arnold “Groove” Holmes was born in Camden, New Jersey on May 2, 1931. A self-taught organist, he began his early career working along the East coast. It wasn’t until a recording session with Les McCann and Ben Webster in 1961 that widespread interest was piqued in his work.
Touring and recording throughout the 60s he achieved important recognition and acceptance amongst mainstream and post-bop jazz audiences. His landmark recording of “Misty” brought him critical acclaim and is considered by some a precursor of acid jazz.
He developed a solid relationship with Gene Ammons and their playing exemplified the soul-heavy organ-tenor playing that proliferated the decade. He played with big bands including one led by Gerald Wilson and recorded with Dakota Staton, Houston Person and Jimmy Witherspoon among others.
His sound was immediately recognizable in the upper register, but even more so because of his virtuosity in creating, undoubtedly, the most rapid, punctuating, and pulsating bass lines of all the jazz organists. He stands alongside the elite of jazz organists Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff for his contributions to the instrument and music.
Performing to the end of life, his last concerts in a wheelchair, organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, revered in soul-jazz circles died of a heart attack on June 29, 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri after a long struggle with prostate cancer.
More Posts: organ
Percy Heath was born on April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, N.C. but was raised in Philadelphia. The second of four children, he was the brother of saxophonist Jimmy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. With music in the house, as a child Percy started playing violin at eight but it wasn’t until after serving as a Tuskegee Airman during WWII that he took up the bass. After a stint in music school he was playing in Philly clubs, ventured to Chicago in 1948 to record a Milt Jackson session with his brother. Moving to New York he worked with Joe Morris, Johnny Griffin and Dizzy Gillespie.
Working with Dizzy were pianist John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke, vibist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown who would become the Modern Jazz Quartet. When Ray decided to leave to become a part of his wife Ella Fitzgerald’s band, Percy stepped into the position and the MJQ was officially launched in 1952, with Connie Kay replacing Clarke shortly after.
In 1975 along with brothers Jimmy and Albert and Stanley Cowell, he formed the Heath Brothers, sometimes playing cello when recording a series of albums. Over the course of his lifetime he played and recorded with such notables as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
After a second bout with bone cancer Percy Heath passed away on April 2005 in Southampton, New York. His final recording A Love Song garnered critical acclaim and was a fitting tribute to his long and illustrious career.