Orlando looks back at jazz musician Sam Rivers’ legacy

Events at the Social and the History Center mark what would have been his 100th birthday.

Sam Rivers
Sam Rivers Photo by Jim Leatherman

To say jazz titan Sam Rivers made a big impression on music is an understatement. To say that he left a bigger impression on the creative community here in Central Florida might be even more so. And in a way, it's all coming full circle when the Orange County Regional History Center presents a tribute to the fearless musician and composer, "Sam Rivers 100," to mark what would've been his 100th birthday.

Samuel Carthorne Rivers was one of the finest artists to ever lay hands to the great American art form of jazz, in a career that spanned the 1950s through to the early part of the 21st century. Rivers took jazz to dizzying new heights with prolific creative energy and a style that was distinctly his own. Be it in solo, trio or larger ensemble configurations, Rivers demonstrated a virtuosity that was both adventurous and accessible.

Although not (yet!) a household name like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie, he did play in their bands. Rivers, in fact, performed alongside a jaw-dropping coterie of masters: Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Elvin Jones, to name just a few.

Rivers recorded for blue-chip record labels like Blue Note, ECM, Tzadik and Impulse, giving him tastemaker cult-status and mystique with rare groove distinction. Rivers has been sampled and covered to the point that his ode to his wife, "Beatrice," is a standard on par with the likes of "Night and Day" and "The Girl From Ipanema."

All combined, the argument is easily made that Rivers is one of the most accomplished artists in Orlando's, if not Florida's, history. The degree of his experience and breadth of creativity brought the possibilities of what a true artist could be to our local doorstep. His legacy resonates still, serving as an example to successive generations of musicians.

Starting in the 1980s and on through the latter years of his life, Rivers resided in the City Beautiful and found steady work with live dates. From there his presence became known and buzzed about in the scene as he began to play with local musicians, many actively seeking him out.

Rivers' timing was right in step with how Central Florida was developing creatively. The fruits of this can be seen in the programming of Timucua Arts Foundation — who are planning a monthly series of Rivers' work in 2024 — the Civic Minded 5, Will's Pub, Blue Bamboo Center, the Social, Dr. Phillips Performing Arts, WPRK and the Rollins Museum of Art.

Matt Gorney, Rivers' right-hand man during his Orlando renaissance, acting as his manager back then, speaks on the importance of Rivers' Orlando shows: "Sam's multitude of concerts in Florida left a visceral impression on so many music fans and musicians. We'll celebrate his centenary alongside our fortunes in the extensive access to his music and his social interfaces around town, and also get a collective refresh of our memories. He allowed us to be a bigger part of his time here than I ever imagined would happen."

From one end of the country to the other, there's a definite Sam Rivers vibe in the air, and the History Center's "Sam Rivers 100" panel on Saturday, Oct. 7, is a key part of this zeitgeist. Talents like Rivers' bandmate Doug Mathews, jazz scholar Michael Heller from the University of Pittsburgh (which is home to Rivers' archive), writer Rick Lopez — author of the staggeringly thorough Sam Rivers Sessionography — and Rivers' daughter Monique Rivers Rencher will be on hand for a panel discussion moderated by Gorney.

Saturday evening, the Social — a stage Rivers played almost innumerable times over the years — hosts a "Sam Rivers 100" concert featuring the 16-strong Sam Rivers Rejuvenation Orchestra, featuring many of Rivers' collaborators and comrades. (Meanwhile, NYC's Harlem Jazz Boxx celebrated the centenary Sept. 22, while on the West Coast, maestros Billy Harper and Mark Masters are mounting their own "Sam Rivers 100" celebration with a live show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Oct. 13.)

click to enlarge Sam Rivers - Photo by Jim Leatherman
Photo by Jim Leatherman
Sam Rivers

In advance of this celebration, Orlando Weekly reached out respected voices in the jazz world to speak on Rivers' indelible legacy and artistry.

First up is the celebrated saxophonist Billy Harper: "He was the building blocks of jazz music. He's the stepping stone to go to the next place."

Grammy-winning author, producer and historian Ashley Kahn praises Rivers' DIY ethos: "The most amazing thing about Sam is that DIY aspect that he had. He wasn't waiting for the various institutions and the cultural systems to support him, he was taking charge. He and his wife, Beatrice, set up RivBea Studios in the West Village [in the 1970s] in a loft space as a performance center for active artists, and then when the costs and challenges of being in Manhattan became too much, he and Bea transplanted that idea to Orlando. It was such a genius idea because to keep his own music and vision alive, he needed players who were schooled and experienced, able to play a wide variety of sounds and styles. Orlando is one of those places where there's a lot of live music happening, and therefore it supports a very active, a fertile musical community."

To emphasize the loft scene's importance and what that DIY commitment brought to Central Florida, critic John Litweiler posited that "New York loft jazz meant free jazz in the '70s" and called Studio RivBea "the most famous of the lofts."

It was during that same loft scene that jazz musician and artist Oliver Lake found work and camaraderie with Rivers early in his career. "He was the first person to hire me when I came to New York. For him to hire me right away, to make that first connection and to be in that group of his loft space, was very inspiring," recalls Lake. "He was so prolific and original. Looking at his compositions, I can say when I started my big band it was because of the inspiration I got from him."

A regular at the Studio RivBea loft was Grammy-winning producer and writer Michael Cuscuna, whose credits include a comprehensive Mosaic box set of Rivers' Blue Note recordings. "He had a very special aura about him. He was tall and lanky and very quiet, very dignified, and carried himself in a self-contained way," says Cuscuna. "He was comfortable in his own skin."

The versatile, not to mention gregarious, trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein — of Sex Mob and Lounge Lizards infamy — recorded Diaspora Blues with Sam in Orlando around 2002. Before that he saw Rivers play live at the tender age of 9. Bernstein remembers, "He would wear this lime-green turtleneck, he had these incredible bell bottoms and those hats! Sam was a very visceral person; anyone who is a successful entertainer creates an impression that's beyond just the music. The music in a sense was abstract, the experience was not."

"We did a concert while we were there on Matt Gorney's roof and there was a full moon and even an eclipse! I don't know, it was some kind of wild spiritual night. It was crazy. It was really a magical experience to do."

Visceral, that recurring word, may be the choice word here to sum things up. But let's not forget spiritual, committed, unique, virtuosic and adventurous. Rivers made our corner of the world a better place.

Thank you, Sam. Here's to the next 100 years.

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