Roswell Rudd, 82, Trombonist With a Wide-Open Approach, Is Dead
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO DEC. 26, 2017
Roswell Rudd in 2015 at the Manhattan apartment where he lived part time. Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times
Roswell Rudd, who helped establish a place for the trombone in the jazz avant-garde, then disappeared from the national stage for almost 20 years before enjoying a late-career resurgence in which he explored a wide array of styles, died on Thursday at his home in Kerhonkson, N.Y., in the Catskills. He was 82.
His partner, Verna Gillis, said the cause was prostate cancer.
With groups like the New York Art Quartet and Archie Shepp’s bands of the mid-1960s, Mr. Rudd was at the center of the free-jazz scene. But he eventually moved on, teaching at colleges and collaborating with musicians from around the world.
After his return to commercial recording and international performances in 1999, his music became more diverse, mixing tuneful original compositions and jazz standards with R&B classics and ballads from France and Cuba.
What drew it all together was Mr. Rudd’s fluid playing, which could swiftly reroute a listener’s attention without disrupting the flow of a song. Profiling him in The New York Times in 2015, Nate Chinen wrote, “The soulful blare of Mr. Rudd’s horn, coupled with his boundless curiosity, has made him into a sort of good-will ambassador, despite the distinctly unconventional arc of his career.”
As an undergraduate at Yale University, Mr. Rudd played in a Dixieland band called Eli’s Chosen Six. (It briefly appears in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” the celebrated documentary shot at the Newport Jazz Festival.) He dropped out of college and moved to New York in 1958, bringing a sanguine, open-eared approach and a grounding in the trombone’s early-jazz history. In turn, he helped broaden the possibilities of an emerging avant-garde scene.
“What I liked about that music was the fact that the instruments sounded like people talking and laughing, vocal sounds,” he told the website All About Jazz in 2004, reflecting on jazz of the early 20th century. “The music of my contemporaries, when I was in my 20s in New York City, they were calling it avant-garde, but it leaned very heavily on collective improvisation. That’s how I was able to go from one traditional generation to another.”
In free-jazz settings, Mr. Rudd played with an ear to the arc of the group, filling open pockets of sound with descants and undercurrents. A natural-born listener, he might work as a foil to his more incendiary counterparts.
Mr. Rudd, left, with the drummer Milford Graves, the bassist William Parker and the saxophonist Charles Gayle at Roulette in Brooklyn in 2013. Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Mr. Rudd often favored performing with poets like Amiri Baraka and vocalists like Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough and Fay Victor, whom he treated as equal collaborators, warbling and gliding in a friendly pas de deux. (His final album, “Embrace,” released in November, features Ms. Victor.)
In the early 1960s he worked with Herbie Nichols, an iconoclastic pianist and composer with an off-kilter approach to bebop, and then with the pianist Cecil Taylor, an ascendant figure in the avant-garde. He also joined a group focused on the repertoire of Thelonious Monk, informally known as the School Days Quartet, featuring the saxophonist Steve Lacy, the bassist Henry Grimes, and the drummer Denis Charles.
In 1964 he was featured on “New York Eye and Ear Control,” the soundtrack to an experimental film by Michael Snow. That same year he was a founder of the New York Art Quartet, a pioneering group that collaborated with Mr. Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. Its debut album, full of darting and thrashing improvisations and Mr. Baraka’s trenchant poetry, is widely seen as a landmark of the era.
By now Mr. Rudd was in high demand, and he recorded on a number of seminal albums: “Liberation Music Orchestra” (1969), by the bassist Charlie Haden; “Escalator Over the Hill” (1971), by Carla Bley and Paul Haines; and “Four for Trane” (1964), by the saxophonist Archie Shepp, for which Mr. Rudd wrote the horn arrangements.
“In New York, a major topic of discussion was the reality of being black and playing this music, versus the reality of being white and attempting to play it from a black perspective,” the trumpeter Bill Dixon told Francis Davis for a 1993 essay on Mr. Rudd. “But Roz fit right in because of his musicianship and, I would have to say, his personality.”
In the mid-1960s Mr. Rudd began working with Alan Lomax, the song collector and anthropologist, on Lomax’s system of “cantometrics,” whereby music traditions from around the world are analyzed and categorized. Working off and on for 30 years, Mr. Rudd played an integral part in its development.
In the 1970s, Mr. Rudd began lecturing on musical anthropology at Bard College, then joined the music faculty at the University of Maine at Augusta. His attempts to integrate studies of Indian raga and other musical traditions were met with resistance from the department, and after being denied tenure in 1980 he moved to the Catskills with his wife, Moselle Galbraith.
Mr. Rudd in 2015. Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times
He had released just a few albums under his own name — including “Flexible Flyer,” from 1974, featuring some compelling original compositions and fetching interplay with Ms. Jordan — but none were widely distributed.
He spent the early 1980s playing at small establishments and taking odd jobs around the Catskills, then joined the house band at a resort in Kerhonkson. He recorded sparingly and was virtually unseen on a major stage for nearly 20 years. (He did record two albums in 1996 celebrating his former mentor, “The Unheard Herbie Nichols,” but they were minimally distributed.) Mr. Davis, writing in 1993, described Mr. Rudd as a paradox: “unforgettable but apparently forgotten.”
He returned to international touring in 1999 and made an album, “Broad Strokes,” which featured original compositions, tunes by Nichols and Monk, and a cover of an Elvis Costello song.
In the following years, Mr. Rudd released a stream of recordings, many exploring musical traditions from around the world. In 2002, with the help of Ms. Gillis, a musical anthropologist and concert producer, he recorded “Malicool,” a well-received album with Toumani Diabate, a master of the kora, a Malian stringed instrument.
In addition to Ms. Gillis, Mr. Rudd is survived by his sister, Priscilla Wolf; his brother, Benjamin Rudd; and two sons: Gregory, from his first marriage, to Marilyn Schwartz, which ended in divorce; and Christopher, from his marriage to Ms. Galbraith, who died in 2004.
Roswell Hopkins Rudd Jr. was born on Nov. 17, 1935, in Sharon, Conn., the son of two grade-school teachers, Roswell and Josephine Rudd. He played the mellophone in grammar school, then moved to the French horn. But when he failed to find any jazz records that featured that instrument, he asked his parents for a trombone.
Mr. Rudd’s earliest musical influences came from his family: his paternal grandmother, who led her Methodist church choir and had a knack for improvising; and his father, a collector of jazz records and a recreational drummer who hosted jam sessions.
Mr. Rudd recalled the simpatico spirit of those sessions to Mr. Chinen in 2015:
“Suddenly a clarinet player shows up. Then a guy’s playing piano. My father’s on the drums over there. People start dancing, you hear laughter bursting out, and all kinds of conversation. That sound is what is still in me, and it seems to be inexhaustible.”