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.
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Hayes Alvis was born on May 1, 1907 in Chicago, Illinois. He started his career playing drums but switched to tuba and bass after playing with Jelly Roll Morton in 1927-28. He played tuba and arranged for Earl Hines from 1928 to 1930.
Moving to New York City in 1931 Hayes played with Jimmie Noone in the Mills Blue Rhythm Band from 1931-34 and 1936. A very early double-bass solo can be heard on his 1932 recording “Rhythm Spasm”. He also occasionally played baritone saxophone in this ensemble as well, and was the group’s tour manager. From 1935 to 1938 Alvis played with Duke Ellington, working with fellow bassist/tubist Billy Taylor.
After his stint with Ellington, Alvis played with Benny Carter, Joe Sullivan and Louis Armstrong, replacing Pops Foster. From 1942 to 1945 he played in the Army band led by Sy Oliver. After the war, he played with Dave Martin until 1947, and then took a longstanding run as a house musician at the Cafe Society in New York City.
In the 1950s, he played in various swing and Dixieland revival groups, including Wilbur De Paris’s New Orleans Jazz. In the early seventies he played in a trio with Jay McShann and Tiny Grimes.
Never recording as a leader, bassist, tubist and sideman Alvis Hayes died in New York City on December 30, 1972 at the age of 65.
Lionel Leo Hampton was born on April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky and was raised by his grandmother. The multi-instrumentalist spent his early childhood first in Birmingham, Alabama and then in Kenosha, Wisconsin before his family settled in Chicago by the time he was ten. During his teen years he took up the xylophone, fife and drums. It was drums that kicked started his career in music playing with the Chicago Defender Newsboy’s Band.
Towards the end of the Roaring Twenties Hampton moved to California playing with the Dixieland Blues-Blowers, the Les Hite band and recording with The Quality Serenaders. But it was in 1930 when Louis Armstrong invited Hampton to play vibes during one of his California dates that his career as a vibraphonist and the popularity of the instrument began. But it was later that his star would shine when Johnny Hammond brought Benny Goodman to see Hampton play and invited him to join his group.
Over the course of his lifetime Lionel Hampton led his own orchestras, played with Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Wes Montgomery, Illinois Jacquet, Dinah Washington Arnett Cobb, Charlie Parker, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Slam Stewart and the list of jazz luminaries is to numerous.
Hampton, a vibraphonist, pianist, percussionist, bandleader and actor was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992, received the Papal Medal from Pope Paul VI, has toured and performed around the world, had his vibraphone of 15 years placed in the National Museum of American History and the University of Idaho renamed their music school for Hampton, becoming the first university to do so for a jazz musician.
One of the first jazz pioneers of the vibes and a giant whose career spanned over six decades, Lionel Hampton passed away of heart failure at the age of 94 on August 31, 2002.
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Thomas “Tommy” Benford was born in Charleston, West Virginia on April 19, 1905 the younger brother of tuba player Bill Benford. He studied drums and music at the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina and went on tour with the school band traveling to Europe in 1914. By 1920 he was working with the Green River Minstrel Show. He returned to Europe in 1932 becoming part of the expatriate community, for the next nine years toured and played with all the great jazz musicians who came to the continent.
He returned to the United States in 1941 and throughout his long career Benford played and recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Eddie South, Coleman Hawkins Bill Coleman, Joe Turner, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Noble Sissle and Willie “The Lion” Smith. He is credited with helping Chick Webb to play drums and shaped early jazz drumming alongside Sid Catlett.
For the last several decades of his life he was a member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band and with Bob Greene’s World of Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford passed away at the age of 88 on March 24, 1994 in Mount Vernon, New York.
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