Great Jazz bassist Henry Grimes returns to the Israeli stage
Decades after disappearing from the N.Y. jazz scene, the contrabassist is back on center stage, and is appearing in Israel this week.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Henry Grimes took his contrabass, left New York and headed to the West Coast. Grimes, then in his early 30s, had been one of the best and busiest bassists in the New York jazz scene for over a decade. There was hardly a leading jazz player who did not enjoy his sensitive and intense playing − from stars like Benny Goodman and Miles Davis, to avant-garde heroes like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. Grimes played with them all.
Nevertheless, in the late 1960s, like many jazz musicians, Grimes, who had studied at Juilliard, encountered financial difficulties and hoped a move to the West Coast would improve his situation. He used an invitation to accompany singers like Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau to head out to Los Angeles − and disappeared. It was as if the earth had swallowed him up.
In the history of jazz, there have been cases of musicians going underground for months or even years and then resurfacing. But Grimes’ story is unique. For around 30 years, from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, no one in the jazz world saw Grimes or heard about him. It was not clear whether he was alive or dead. The prevailing view was that he had died.
Valerie Wilmer’s book, “As Serious as Your Life,” which was published in the late 1970s and is one of the most in-depth accounts of the free jazz scene of the 1960s, stated that Grimes − the great bass player of that period, in addition to Charlie Haden − moved to Los Angeles and disappeared. In a later edition of the book, Wilmer wrote that even though there was no verification, it was commonly believed that Grimes died in that city the 1970s. The music magazine, Cadence, was more specific and reported in 1986 that Grimes died in Los Angeles two years earlier.
Until the early 1990s, there was no reason to doubt the reports of Grimes’ death. But in 2002, almost 35 years after he disappeared, he resurfaced. This happened thanks to a social worker named Marshall Marrotte, from Georgia, who decided to search for the missing musician. Marrotte searched through death certificates in archives in Los Angeles, interviewed Grimes’ family members (who also did not know what happened to him) and eventually located him in a tiny one-room apartment in the city. He was already 67, in good health but penniless.
Naturally, the big questions jazz fans asked immediately after hearing that musician had been found were: “What happened to Grimes during the last 30 or so years?” and “Why did he disappear?” The bassist did not provide clear answers then − nor did he when Haaretz interviewed him ahead of his arrival for a concert at the Jazz Tel Aviv festival on Wednesday.
When asked he left the jazz world by choice or due to circumstances beyond his control, he responded: “I left New York and got to Los Angeles. I had to stay there. I had no contact with musicians in Los Angeles and my contrabass was broken. I wanted to get it fixed, but it was expensive and I didn’t have money. I had to sell off the bass and was left out of the picture. I wasn’t in contact with [other] musicians until 2002.”
During his long absence from the music scene, Grimes made a living by doing physical labor, both as a custodian and as a manual laborer. After his disappearance, he did not play. Did that frustrate him, we asked. Very much, he admits, adding, “but I wrote poetry to keep my mind and spirit going.”
Asked if it wasn’t tough to resume playing after some 30 years of not touching the contrabass, he says it was not − indeed, “it was natural.”
The big problem after Grimes was found was finding a contrabass for him, which is where Margaret Davis Grimes, now his wife, entered the picture. The social worker Marrotte spoke to Margaret, a jazz fan, about Grimes and decided to help him find an instrument.
“For me,” she wrote on one jazz website, “a planet where the great Henry Grimes does not have a bass is not a place I want to be. “And being unprepared for space travel, I decided to undertake a month-long, nationwide search for a bass for him.”
Margaret approached some 50 musicians who played with Grimes in the 1950s and 1960s and younger musicians who grew up listening to his recordings. She asked them to help pay for the cost of a bass. “For quite a while, nobody moved,” she writes. “Slowly a few people began to say they’d be willing to do something − make a donation, hold or play in a benefit concert, contribute a bow − kind, good offers, but not a bass for Henry Grimes to play ... Then, just when I was beginning to despair, to question my lifelong belief in the term ‘music community’ as something more than a concept of an ideal, but as an actual living entity that embraces and sustains its own − the great William Parker came home to New York City from another of his tours, got around to reading his accumulated emails, and called me up to say he would send a bass and a bow to Henry Grimes.”
Parker, an outstanding musician and a leading figure in the free contemporary jazz scene who owed a lot to the pioneers of free jazz, including Grimes, sent a bass to him which was named Olive Oil because of the green tinge of its finish.
“I really love it,” says Grimes.
Living the moment
In 2003, when The New York Times reported the discovery of Grimes, the bassist promised he “was back for good,” and said he was excited about the prospect of returning to playing professionally. But could a 67-year-old musician who had not touched his instrument in almost 35 years return to the competitive and demanding world of music? It turns out he could. And this is the second amazing thing about Grimes’ story: In the 10 years since he got back on track, he has performed a lot, released a new album almost every year, collaborated with countless musicians − and, most importantly, played wonderfully.
Local jazz fans will have an opportunity to see this at Grimes’ concert at the Jazz Tel Aviv festival tomorrow. Grimes will perform with the saxophonist Andrew Lamb and drummer Newman Taylor Baker (their trio is called Sublime Communication). Wednesday at 7 P.M. he will give a master class at the Jerusalem Hasadna Conservatory.
Today, at 77, the musician speaks slowly and his answers are laconic, but when the conversation moves from the past to the present, you feel his voice changing and becoming more excited. The past − both his “golden age” in the 1950s and ‘60s, and particularly the decades when he in essence went underground − does not interest him; attempts to extract details and to understand his history are fruitless.
The present, on the other hand, fills him with vitality. As can be expected of a musician who first and foremost improvises, Grimes lives the moment. Right at the beginning of our conversation, he declares: “For us musicians, the situation today is much better than it was in the 1960s. Artists in the present have more opportunities to make cultural statements, to try things that we couldn’t do in the 1960s.”
What you’re saying is contrary to what is commonly thought today. To us, jazz lovers who did not live in the 1960s, that time is perceived as the golden era − one of tremendous originality and the amazing joy of experimentation.
“It’s true, and those days will not come back. But what’s happening today is that musicians can take what was done in the ‘60s and carry on from that point, make things better.”
Grimes’ enthusiasm for the present and indifference to the past take on a slightly humorous tone when he’s asked about the issue of “revolution or evolution.” This is the classic question about ‘60s jazz: Was the free jazz the erupted early in that decade a radical revolution that shook all the previous conventions about jazz, or was free jazz an evolution, part of a gradual process resulting from the jazz that preceded it? Who if not Grimes, who was very active in the 1950s and the ‘60s, could better answer that question? His response: “Evolution.”
And then Grimes adds: “Like I said, there are so many good contrabassists today. Really. Thousands. I hope I’m not exaggerating. That’s how I feel anyway. Young people who play fantastically and invest their whole being in music. It’s exciting.”