Roswell Rudd, Downhome Yankee Trombonist, 1935-2017

Dec 27, 2017

Roswell Rudd died on December 21. He was 82 and had been ill with prostate cancer. Roswell, who alluded to his centuries-old American roots in a composition entitled "Yankee No How," lived a remarkably full life of musical exploration and collaboration. In its obituary of the trombonist, The New York Times hailed him as a musician of "boundless curiosity" who was "wide open" in his stylistic range, a range he described in a 1997 interview that qualified him as a "high alchemist." For a feature in Ulster Magazine four years ago, Roswell said, “You know, when you’re an improviser, you just take in what’s around you and you put your personality into it and you develop a style...My official moniker these days is the funky high priest of Mo’ Honk. Meaning more honk.” (If you're tight for time, be sure to save at least two minutes to watch this delightful clip of the 78-year-old high priest honking on his trombone and exchanging loving glances with his longtime partner Verna Gillis.)  

Following an early immersion in Dixieland jazz that included membership in the Yale-based trad band Eli's Chosen Six, Roswell came to prominence in the early sixties as the leading trombone voice of the jazz avant-garde. He found a bonding element between these seemingly disparate forms through their common use of collective improvisation. His early associations in New York included Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, and the New York Art Quartet, a group that included John Tchicai, the Afro-Danish alto saxophonist with whom Rudd made vital music. Rudd's earthy honking was also an effective counterpart for the hurtling, full-throated blowing of saxophonist Archie Shepp. He spent a few years in Shepp's mid-sixties bands and wrote this stunning arrangement of John Coltrane's "Naima" for Archie's Impulse Records debut, Four For Trane. 

Rudd's early experience playing Dixieland jobs with Herbie Nichols inspired him to become a champion of the underground pianist's neglected work and the annotator of later reissues of Nichols' music on Blue Note and Mosaic Records.

Roz was also renowned for the highly original, non-pianistic slant that he and Steve Lacy offered on Thelonious Monk's music two decades before Monk became a repertory staple in the eighties. Here they play "Brilliant Corners" at the Phase Two Coffeehouse in New York in 1963.

In addition to Lacy, Shepp, Nichols, and the Chosen Six, Roswell engaged with an impressively diverse array of musical artists ranging from Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, Borscht Belt show bands, and Sonic Youth to Sheila Jordan, Carla Bley, Terry Adams, Dave Douglas, Sunny Kim, John Medeski, Lafayette Harris Jr, the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, and countless others.

No matter the idiom or ensemble, whether soloing or harmonizing with open horn or plunger, Roswell was consistently engaging, often exuberant, sonically unmistakable, and soulfully downhome. 

"Downhome" isn't a term we generally associate with Roswell's deep-rooted Yankee forbears, but his father played drums at home, had friends over for sessions, and played 78's by Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, which Rudd called "au courant" music that he danced to around the house as a kid. It was through this childhood experience that traditional jazz figures like trumpeter Max Kaminsky, trombonist Miff Mole, and drummer George Wettling became musical heroes. He discussed their influence in this engaging and comprehensive interview with Monk Rowe in which he described a piece he dedicated to Wettling as reflective of the "collage" like nature of his interest "in all different eras. [In this piece] you find George Wettling right up in your face, and on either side, some pretty mad bop and maybe something from New Guinea...I've been the recipient of all kinds of sounds...and there's a whole lot rattling around in me and omse of it hasn't quite fused yet...I like to bounce around and do some funny time warps. Mingus would do that, and Sun Ra...it's a way of getting people's attention."

Here's Roz at Le Poisson Rouge in New York playing "Trouble in Mind." Fay Vector sings the twenties blues classic with John Medeski at the organ. On his 2013 release, Trombone for Lovers, Roswell dedicated "Trouble in Mind" to Charlie Weiner, who had a profound love of the song. Charlie was an MIT prof and lover of jazz and classic blues who listened to Jazz à la Mode from his summer home in southern New Hampshire and was a familiar figure in Boston and New York jazz circles. It warmed my heart when I discovered that Roswell had dedicated the tune to the memory of "Dr. 2:19."

I had the pleasure of introducing Rudd's quartet at the 2007 Newport Jazz Festival where his set began with this righteous tune that he'd first recorded with Archie Shepp in 1966 at the Both/And in San Francisco. 41 years later on the Harbor Stage at Fort Adams State Park, he performed the lyricized version of "Keep Your Heart Right" with vocalist Sunny Kim, bassist Brad Jones, and pianist Lafayette Harris.

Roswell recorded “Joe Hill,” the eponymous song named for labor organizer Joe Hill, on Trombone for Lovers with the group he plays it with here at Le Poussin Rouge.  John Medeski is the organist, Dennis Nelson is the chorus's pianist, Reggie Bennett delivers the rap for labor, and with plunger mute in hand, Roswell evokes trombone shout bands and the wonderfully expressive Ellington lineage of growl masters Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Quentin "Butter" Jackson.