The prodigal bass player returns

Back in action after a long hiatus, Henry Grimes joins the international roster at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival.

By
February 17, 2012 17:28
Henry Grimes

Henry Grimes . (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Jazz has its rich folklore. If you ever go backstage after a jazz show, you are sure to catch the musicians chewing the fat over some anecdotal event of yesteryear with some colleague or other.

Eight years ago Henry Grimes achieved a prominent slot in jazz legend when he, literally, came back in from the cold.

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The 76-year-old American bass player, who is one of the star turns at this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (February 21-24), was a sought-after performer on the global jazz circuit for about a decade from the late 1950s. He shared recording time and stage space with stellar fellow jazz cats such as clarinetist Benny Goodman, drummer Roy Haynes and fellow bassist Charles Mingus, as well as free jazz trailblazers such as saxophonist Albert Ayler and cornet player Don Cherry.

Suddenly, in the late 1960s, he went AWOL somewhere in California and completely dropped off the jazz radar.

No one knew where he was, and some presumed he had departed this life. But in fact, his double bass had been broken and, lacking the funds to repair it, Grimes simply opted to stop playing music. For some 35 years he scraped a living together doing odd jobs and channeled his creative juices into poetry.

He was rediscovered in Los Angeles in 2003 by a jazz-loving social worker.

Leading avant-garde jazz bass player William Parker got wind of Grimes’s reemergence and promptly donated one of his instruments to the veteran jazzman.

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Since then, Grimes has been making up for lost time. In the interim, he has put out more than 10 albums and has returned to the jazz circuit with gusto. He will perform here (February 21 at 10:30 p.m.) with his trio of saxophonistflutist Andrew Lamb and drummer Newman Taylor Baker on the opening evening of the festival.

Grimes has not let the unavoidable marketing hype go to his head and maintains a philosophical view of things. “Since my return to the jazz world, it’s been steady progress,” he says, “just as going back to the times that I started to play music. In other words, you have art and music all your life, but you may not get work every day.”

But Grimes has been kept gainfully engaged since his muchheralded return to the scene. He has navigated his way back to full instrumental prowess and continues to ply his nonmainstream approach to the art form at a rapid pace.

“It was moderately difficult to come back into the music world,” he observes, “and that’s just the way it is. Not because somebody was making it hard for me but because that’s just the way it is. If you’re ‘avant-garde’ and don’t just stick to the ordinary, some doors do slam instead of opening. But I’ve had some great people helping me along the way back.”

Grimes hails from Philadelphia, which had a vibrant jazz scene in the 1940s to 1960s. He not only fed off the local artists and visiting stars but also gained a solid education in music.

“Philadelphia had good bands, good groups, hard-working, gifted musicians. I didn’t get to work with all of them, but I did get some good training and inspiration from the musicians all around me,” he recalls. “And I went to a public high school called a trade school, where I received an excellent musical education, while other students there were taught to be auto mechanics or secretaries. The music students had to master five instruments in order to graduate. Many young people today have never even held a musical instrument,” he says.

Grimes subsequently maintained his quality educational continuum when he relocated to New York and attended one of the Big Apple’s most prestigious music schools. There, he says, he acquired across-the-board arts instruction.

“At Juilliard I learned the necessary things that the artist must be. Juilliard deals with that kind of a way of life with music, art, dance, culture. I had a great teacher at Juilliard, Fred Zimmermann, who was principal double bassist with the New York Philharmonic, and he took a special interest in me. He gave me private double bass lessons at his home that went beyond my training at the school.”

There were plenty of other top musicians across several generations who left their imprint on Grimes’s musical development, including preeminent pianistcomposer Duke Ellington, bebop founding fathers saxophonist Charlie Parker and drummer Max Roach, free jazz pioneer pianist Cecil Taylor, stellar trumpeter Miles Davis and double bassist Jimmy Blanton.

Having spent so long in a jazzless void, Grimes has a unique perspective on the way the discipline has evolved in the meantime.

“I didn’t follow developments in the jazz world while I was away. During that time, it wasn’t my world and I had to walk away. I followed the paths of poetry instead,” he says, adding that time and jazz have marched on. “People everywhere recognize jazz as culture now, as art. The music is all there, even more than it was before. There are developments taking place now, aesthetic, cultural ways of reckoning about jazz. The avant-garde has been with us since the 1920s and must continue to go ahead of the others into future music. And there are a lot of electronic things in the music now that didn’t exist before.”

Grimes remains committed to his free-spirited approach to jazz.

“Mainstream music seems stuck in the past, still trying to catch up with developments from 5O years ago. But that is not my way or the way of the musicians I work with.”

Elsewhere on the foreign side of the festival program, curator Barak Weiss has called on the services of baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Kirk Lightsey and septuagenarian vocalist Mary Stallings, and French saxophonist David El-Malek and compatriot pianist Baptiste Trotignon.

And the local artist roster packs plenty of punch too, with appearances by acclaimed New Yorkbased bassist Omar Avital, saxophonist Yuval Cohen and pianist Yonatan Avishai, pianist Omer Klein and trumpeter Avishai Cohen.

For more information and tickets: www.jazzfest.co.il and (03) 606- 0800

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