Arthur Blythe, From San Diego to Lenox Ave, 1940-2017

Mar 30, 2017

They call me a producer/host in the staff directory at NEPR, but this week, like many others, I feel more like a eulogist. Two days after writing a memorial tribute to my friend and jazz radio colleague Steve Schwartz, word came that Arthur Blythe died on Monday, at 76. The San Diego native had been sidelined with Parkinson's since 2005, but for a few decades he was one of the most potent forces in the music. I hadn't seen Blythe since the mid-'90s, but I heard him as often as possible after his arrival in New York around 1975. The Tin Palace, Village Vanguard, Studio Museum of Harlem, Sweet Basil, Hampden Theater at UMass, all were challenged to contain "Black" Arthur's keening, full-bodied alto sound.

Of the many great performances I saw by Blythe, the most memorable came on a sweltering night about thirty years ago at Charlie's Tap in Cambridge, where he and Stewart and Bobby Battle played "One Mint Julep" for the better part of twenty minutes.

I was knocked out by his early albums Bush Baby, with its lean alto/tuba/congas instrumentation, and by Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which more than doubled his ensemble size but moved nimbly through a thicket of deep blues expression and uptown grooves.

For an obituary in the San Diego Tribune this week, Blythe's former colleage Mark Dresser recalled playing with him in 1972 in a Los Angeles-based ensemble led by Stanley Crouch, Black Music Infinity. "At that time, he was going by the name 'Black Arthur.' With one note, you knew who it was. His timbre and vibrato were instantly identifiable and he had a way of phrasing that was like a blow torch. He had a good sense of humor and he could be gentle, too. He really defined a new and beautiful area of music."

Blythe's conception earned extra distinction for the prominence of Bob Stewart's tuba. His buzzing, harmonizing, and bass blowing on that mass of brass tubing restored the instrument to its early, and long-discarded function as the harmonic anchor of jazz groups. 

Blythe forged an irresistible fusion that was deeply rooted in the tradition, a concept that he embodied and used as the title of another of his Columbia albums. With his 1982 release, Light Blue, he became one of the first players to devote an entire album to Thelonious Monk's music. 

Of the many great performances I saw by Blythe, the most memorable came on a sweltering night about thirty years ago at Charlie's Tap in Cambridge, where he and Stewart and Bobby Battle played "One Mint Julep" for the better part of twenty minutes.  The Clovers classic (@8:00-18:25), George and Ira Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," (@31:35-37:50), Monk's "Light Blue," (@38:15) and two originals are heard in this beautifully filmed concert with Stewart and the elegant drums and cymbals master Ed Thigpen.