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Henry Grimes 1935-2020

Henry Grimes 2

Henry Grimes has laid down that dark green double bass for the last time. One day someone will make a feature film based on the life of a man who appeared at the end of the 1950s, appeared as a 22-year-old playing with Thelonious Monk in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, played on some pivotal recordings of the ’60s avant-garde (by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, among others), and then disappeared at the start of the 1970s and was long presumed dead before he was found in Los Angeles, having spent 30 years working as a cleaner and a construction worker, sometimes homeless and knowing nothing about about the events that had occurred in jazz in the interim. Encouraged to return to activity, he spent the best part of 20 years playing as though he had never been away. Now he has died in a Harlem hospital, aged 85, from the coronavirus.

The photograph above is of the green bass that was sent him by William Parker, shipped from New York to LA as part of his rehabilitation. This was one snowy New York night in January 2016 at the Stone, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, where Grimes was appearing during a four-night season devoted to various line-ups curated by the saxophonist Matana Roberts. She had invited the man she described as “an inspiration for ever” to join an improvising quartet with two lesser known musicians, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride. Together they produced an exceptional set, bound together by Grimes’s strength and wisdom.

Those were the qualities he’d shown at Cafe Oto a couple of years earlier, playing alongside the drummer Chad Taylor and the guitarist Marc Ribot in the latter’s wonderful trio. There was also space for him to play a solo improvisation on the violin, his first instrument in childhood, filling the room with energy while maintaining his sphinx-like countenance.

It’s worth remembering that when Charles Mingus decided he’d rather be playing piano, he entrusted Henry Grimes with his seat in the band, and with his bass. Luckily, there are plenty of recordings by which we can remember him. Some are from the first phase of his career: Taylor’s three boiling tracks on Into the Hot, followed by Unit Structures and Conquistador; Ayler’s mighty Spirits and Spirits Rejoice; Sanders’s gorgeous Tauhid; the 1963 recordings with Sonny Rollins’s quartet (including Cherry and Billy Higgins); and Cherry’s own trio of sublime Blue Note albums, Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn?.  From his renaissance there are a couple of great albums with Ribot, Spiritual Unity (an Ayler tribute) and Live at the Village Vanguard, and an album of solo bass and violin improvisations from 2014, The Tone of Wonder.

Thank you for all of it, Mr Grimes.

* Barbara Frenz’s Music to Silence to Music, an excellent biography of Henry Grimes, was published in the UK by Northway Publications in 2015, translated from the German by J. Bradford Robinson.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. David #

    and another

    >

    April 18, 2020
  2. Derek Styles #

    Michael Ullman on Facebook today said: On 6 July 1958 Grimes played different sets at Newport with Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Tony Scott and on another day there with Benny Goodman. He had it covered.

    April 18, 2020
  3. Tim Adkin #

    Sad news. I have a cassette tape of a great Jazz on 3 broadcast from 2009 recorded in Cheltenham (I think) of the Profound Sound Trio with Paul Dunmall and Andrew Cyrille. Stirring stuff. RIP Henry.

    April 18, 2020
  4. Patrick Hinely #

    Somewhere in my yet-to-be-transcribed recordings of a lengthy 2015 interview with the late Buell Neidlinger, a wonderfully encyclopedic conversation both elevated and Rabelaisian at once, he told a story, dating from the 1970s or 1980s, of playing in a basement club in Los Angeles where the ceiling had low, street-level windows giving onto the sidewalk above. One evening, in the midst of a solo, he looked up to see Henry Grimes grinning at him through one of those windows. At set’s end, Neidlinger ran up the street to greet his long-lost friend and fellow bassist, but Grimes was nowhere to be found…
    When Grimes finally decided it was time to reappear in the early 2000s, he seemed genuinely flattered that I, not a New York resident, would travel hundreds of miles to visit with him. We walked from where his lady friend lived, near Gracie Mansion, down to the promenade by the East River on a warm summer’s day and sat in the sun. He seemed at peace with himself and glad to be welcomed so heartily back into the jazz community. That evening he played at Iridium with Dave Douglas and I don’t remember who else, just that he was enjoying the cameraderie and the freedom with which the music moved.
    I last saw Grimes at JazzFest Berlin in 2008, where he performed with the Trombone Tribe, led by another of the more delightfully idiosyncratic giants of his generation, Roswell Rudd, a man who had also, more than once, stepped away from playing for a living for an extended time, finding other means of support, rather than risking the loss of that magic they knew was in the music and loved so much. It was a joy to hear.

    April 18, 2020
  5. I was late to discover him – it was his work with Marc Ribot that made me aware of the Ayler and Cherry connection. There is something very beautiful about the idea of him coming back from poverty and obscurity to perform once more in exalted company in later life. RIP Henry.

    April 18, 2020
  6. ODD BJERKE #

    Dear Richard,

    Thanks for bringing my attention to a great amount of fantastic music since I first discovered you as a writer for Melody Maker around 74.
    The story of Henry Grimes reminded me of the story of Sonny Simmons. He was a giant in the 60s, then disappeared for decades before he was recognized and rediscovered by an old fan, a dentist I think, playing on street corners of San Francisco. I think he made a solo recording in this dentist’s office. Sonny Simmons did some work in Norway early in this millenium, and I wonder if you know about his collaborations with Vidar Johansen? I would recommend two CDs : “The traveller – Sonny Simmons plays the music of Vidar Johansen” (Jazzaway JARCD 011, 2005(?)) and Crimetime Orchestra “Atomic Symphony” ft. Sonny Simmons and KORK (the Norwegian Broadcast Orchestra).(Jazzaway doubleCD JARCD043, 2009).

    All the best,
    ODD BJERKE

    April 18, 2020
  7. Mick Steels #

    The magnificent unsung Henry Grimes indeed

    April 18, 2020
  8. Howard Cramer #

    Wow, what a pioneer, a warrior, an innovator and a spiritual musician, healer and hero with a backstory that is more beautiful than any fiction, ultimately a sweet victory.

    April 18, 2020

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