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.