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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Henry Grimes (1935 - 2020)

Henry Grimes (photo by Peter Gannushkin)
By Martin Schray

Sometimes life takes mysterious paths, but death sometimes provides bitterly ironic coincidences. Yesterday Giuseppi Logan and Henry Grimes died shortly after each other, and their lives also contained further common ground. Grimes, a great bassist, violinist and poet was a legend, which is on the one hand due to the fact that he was an outstanding musician, and on the other hand due to his unusual life, which actually contains enough material for a Hollywood screenplay. In the New York of the 1960s, Grimes was one of the spearheads of the musical revolution. He was involved in many of the things that happened during that period. Trained at Juilliard, Grimes teamed up with all the major jazz musicians of that time: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Frank Wright and Roswell Rudd (and this is only a narrowed-down list). No matter what the musical context was, he played with an intensity that musicians like Dennis Charles thought “his bass was about to explode“. Grimes was famous for his voluminous tone and drive, for his energy and vitality, as well as for his ability to alternate from long Eastern-sounding bowing to hard pizzicato plucking. He was really focused on the music but when you saw him play it seemed as if he was somewhere else. His particular strength was to support and push his fellow musicians. You can still hear this well on Cecil Taylor's albums Unit Structures and Conquistador, on which he plays in a duet with Alan Silva, or on Albert Ayler’s albums Spirits and Bells.

In the second half of the 1960s, at the height of his career, Grimes left the scene almost out of the blue - this is what he has in common with Giuseppi Logan. In 1967, so the story goes, he took a job as a replacement for Jon Hendricks’ usual bass player. This job took the band to San Francisco, and an anecdote has Grimes getting out of the car that was about to take the musicians back to New York after Hendricks made derogatory remarks about Cecil Taylor’s music. Grimes himself told the story a bit differently. he said that he had financial problems so he went to California, where the sun shines. He just didn’t want to face homelessness in the cold New York winters. He played gigs in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles, where he would remain for three decades. When he wasn’t able to connect to the Hollywood scene and facing health problems, Grimes finally faded into musical oblivion and eventually sold his bass. As a result he had to start working in ordinary jobs (e.g. in the construction industry or as a janitor).

It would take thirty years before he finally got his hands on a double bass again. In 2002 Marshall Marotte, a social worker and jazz fan, tracked Grimes down in L.A. As soon as he found him, he let people know that Grimes was still alive - and the jazz world hadn’t forgotten him. He started getting calls and offers from musicians, William Parker finally donated him a bass and encouraged his idol to return to the scene. What started then was a second career, it seemed as if Grimes had never left. His sound and musical vision were still unique. Outstanding projects were Spiritual Unity, Marc Ribot’s Albert-Ayler project in 2005, his duets with drummer Rashied Ali ( Going to The Ritual and Spirits Aloft), on which he also shines as a violinist and a poet, and Same Egg, his quartet with Roberto Pettinato (sax), Dave Burrell (piano) and Tyshawn Sorry (drums). In 2016 the Vision Festival honored Grimes with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his considerable artistic contributions and Barbara Frenz published a biography on his life and his music, Music To Silence To Music (2015).

Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to see Henry Grimes play live. However, I saw him twice when he visited the Vision Festival. He sat there in the first row (he was already tied to a wheelchair) and the musicians all came to him and asked how he was doing. It was as if a king granted an audience. Now Henry Grimes, the man with the characteristic bandana, has really left us for good. Another great voice of the free jazz world has gone. He will really be missed.

Watch Henry Grimes play in a duet with Kidd Jordan on the occasion of his 75th birthday at The Stone in New York:


Nick Ostrum said...

A worthy tribute, Martin. This is truly sad news, especially coming on the heels of Konitz, Logan, and Ellis Marsalis. I was fortunate enough to live around, then in NY right after Grimes came back on the scene and caught him with Roswell Rudd (my first show at the Stone), Amiri Baraka, Roy Campbell, Andrew Bemkey, Marc Ribot, Chad Taylor and so many others. And then there were his performances at the Vision Festival. For those who were fortunate enough to hear him, especially in person, he was one of those larger-than-life figures. He had such an outsized presence in both his person and his sound.

John Coldwell said...

Is it not strange how we remember people like Henry Grimes, we use the phrase ‘lucky enough’ or ‘fortunate enough’ to have seen them in person. Well, I was lucky enough to see Henry and later speak to him (actually it was just a inarticulate thank you on my part - and a polite smile on his.) This was at the time of his second career when he played with Mark Ribot in London, the day after he attended the documentary on Albert Ayler. I am sad that he has died, but so grateful that he lived.

Stef said...

Thank you Martin!

Danny said...

When you want to catch Henry play at the best of his powers listen to The Profound Sound Trio’s Opus de life. Henry Grimes, Paul Dunmall and Andrew Cyrille : sheer magic. A reference point for free jazz, no doubt about it.

Captain Hate said...

Thanks for that mention of Opus de Life, of which I was previously unaware. Whoa that smokes and is a good showcase for Henry Grimes on bass and violin.