Guitarist Melvin Sparks Dies

Melvin Sparks
Melvin Sparks, a guitarist whose brightly sinewy style made him an in-demand session player during the soul-jazz boom of the late 1960s and early '70s, a touchstone during the acid-jazz trend of the '90s and a wise elder on the jam-band scene of the last decade, died on March 13 at his home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He was 64.

His wife, Judy Hassan, confirmed his death and said that he had diabetes and high blood pressure.

Mr. Sparks favored a clean, flinty tone, combining the brisk harmonic fluency of bebop with the bite and feeling of the blues. His early career coincided with a golden age for soul music, and he took its lessons deeply to heart. He liked to say simply that he played “jazz over a funky beat."

Melvin Sparks (he later adopted the surname Sparks-Hassan) was born in Houston on March 22, 1946, into a musical family. His mother owned a cafe that featured weekly jam sessions. Two of his brothers were professional musicians. Mr. Sparks was 11 when he got his first guitar.

He had his first important gig in rhythm and blues, working with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters while still in high school. He later dropped out of school to tour with the Upsetters, a road band formed by Little Richard, which also backed the likes of Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.

Soon after moving to New York, Mr. Sparks became a session player for Blue Note and Prestige. He often lent his talents to albums by organists, including Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Charles Earland, whose 1969 album “Black Talk!" (on which Mr. Sparks played) was a crossover hit.

Mr. Sparks kicked off his own recording career in 1970 with an auspicious soul-jazz album called “Sparks!" on Prestige. He went on to release 10 more albums as a leader, four of them within the last decade on the Savant label.

In recent years he found a new fan base on the jam-band circuit, thanks to the saxophonist , who enlisted him as an opener on the Greyboy Allstars' first tour in 1994. Mr. Sparks later appeared on Mr. Denson's album “Dance Lesson #2," and occasionally played with other groove outfits, like Galactic and Soulive. His influence can be heard in the work of modern guitarists, including Soulive's Eric Krasno, who eulogized him on Twitter as “one of the great guitarists of our time and the coolest dude I knew."

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