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Jazz icon Sam Rivers dead at 88

Published: 2011-12-27
Sam Rivers Joy was the word that resurfaced again and again when musicians and friends remembered Sam Rivers, a saxophonist, flutist and composer whose long list of credits included work with the legendary Miles Davis.

Rivers, an internationally known jazz icon and fixture on the Orlando music scene for roughly two decades, died Monday night from pneumonia, his daughter confirmed Tuesday. He was 88.

Until September, Rivers had continued his weekly open rehearsals with his powerful big band, the Rivbea Orchestra, at the Orlando musician's union hall.

“Music was his life, music is what kept him alive," said his daughter Monique Rivers Williams of Apopka, who also handled her father's concert bookings and learned from him the joy of making music. “My father, in my eyes, was on vacation all his life. He used to tell me, 'I'm working, but I'm loving every minute of it.' Retirement was not in his vocabulary. 'Why do we even have that word,' he used to ask me, 'there should be no such thing.'"

Members of Orlando's tightknit musical community also recalled the joy of Rivers' work. When news of his death surfaced on social-networking sites Monday night, a small group gathered to listen to his music at Will's Pub. On Tuesday, the morning show on independent radio station 91.5 FM (WPRK) played his music and interviewed Anthony Cole, a multi-instrumentalist and longtime member of Rivers' ensembles.

Cole talked about how he at first was intimidated to play saxophone next to such a great musician: “Suddenly, I'm onstage with him with a horn around my neck," said Cole, adding that Rivers encouraged him to explore outside of traditional musical structures.

“That's what Sam's thing was," Cole said. “It's a good thing to know the grid, but that was Sam's thing: to make a joyful noise."

The son of a church musician, Rivers was born in Oklahoma in 1923 and raised in Chicago and Little Rock, Ark. He started piano lessons as a child and later played trombone before settling on the tenor saxophone. Taking inspiration from jazz heroes such as Coleman Hawkins, among others, he moved to Boston and performed with Herb Pomeroy's big band, an ensemble that also included future music producer Quincy Jones. In 1964, he moved to New York, where he was hired by Miles Davis.

As his reputation spread, Rivers played with a diverse array of musicians ranging from jazz icons Dizzy Gillespie and Cecil Taylor to blues musicians T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker.


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