Jazz great Arthur Blythe, who grew up in San Diego, is dead at 76
By George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune
Arthur Blythe, one of the most daring and acclaimed jazz saxophonists of the 1970s and 1980s, died Monday at the age of 76. No cause of death has been given, but the Los Angeles native — who grew up in San Diego — had been fighting Parkinson’s disease since 2005 and several benefit concerts had been held on his behalf.
Blythe’s passing was announced on his Facebook page. The Monday post reads: “Early this morning the great Arthur Blythe passed. As many of you know he was a gentle soul and a musical genius. He had been fighting Parkinson's disease for several years. His spirit will live on in his unique music, which he humbly gave to our universe.”
Blythe’s location at the time of his death was not disclosed, but he had been living in Lancaster, 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, in recent years. In 2013, he was in an induced coma for one week at USC Keck Center, after having a large benign tumor removed from his right kidney.
“Terrible news — another giant passes: Arthur Blythe, master saxophonist,” wrote guitarist Elliott Sharp, a former Blythe band mate, in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Arthur had a tone that was salty and sweet, reminiscent in the best ways of Cannonball Adderley, and played torrid lines of unending melodic invention.”
Bass innovator and UC San Diego music professor Mark Dresser began playing with Blythe in 1972 in Pomona, where they were both members of the Stanley Crouch-led band Black Music Affinity.
“At that time, he was going by the name ‘Black Arthur’,” Dresser said. “With one note, you knew who it was. His timbre and vibrato were instantly identifiable, and he had a way of phasing that was like a blow torch! He had a good sense of humor and could be gentle, too. And he really defined a new and beautiful area of music.”
Blythe’s ebullient alto-sax playing helped him stand out. So did his fearless approach to music and his ability to constantly explore new artistic terrain while paying homage to the jazz traditions that shaped him. A co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, he stood out whether leading his own bands or playing with such jazz luminaries as Gil Evans, McCoy Tyner and Horace Tapscott.
“I am not just avant-garde,” Blythe told All About Jazz in 2003, two years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “I like to play all types of music… I like music with form, not atonal or aform… Sometimes they put me into a weird bag and want me to be weird, inaccessible. I think I am accessible.”
Indeed, his best compositions, such as “Down San Diego Way,” were both inviting and adventurous, much like the man himself. His penchant for innovation was illustrated by the instrumentation of his most distinctive band, which featured tuba, cello, electric guitar and drums.
"I would love for everyone to accept my music, and I would love to make money, but only by keeping my music on the cutting edge," Blythe said in a 2000 Union-Tribune interview.
"I don't reject any music; good music is always a positive. I feel the way I feel, and this music is based on expression, and interpreting that expression. If my music comes off as esoteric, or far-out, or rebellious, it comes off that way. But I don't approach it like that."
Arthur Murray Blythe was born July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles. He moved to San Diego at the age of four with his family and, after diving into music, was mentored by San Diego jazz patriarch Daniel Jackson.
Blythe grew up in Logan Heights and Linda Vista. He played in a variety of bands here until he was 19 and returned to Los Angeles. He subsequently move to New York, where he became one of the most critically revered jazz saxophonists of the 1970s and beyond.
When Blythe performed in 1980 with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition at the Old Globe theater’s festival stage, under the auspices of the San Diego Jazz Festival, then-San Diego County Supervisor Rodger Hedgecock presented him with a proclamation declaring it “Arthur Blythe Day.”
Blythe returned back to San Diego in 1998 with his four children, Nancy, Odessa, Chalee and Arthur Jr. He lived with them and his mother in Valencia Park for several years, then moved back to the Los Angeles area.
The saxophonist’s final San Diego headlining performance was Dec 1, 2001, at the Athenaeum Art Studio in University Heights. In 2015, he was honored with a tribute concert as part of the annual Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, which he attended in a wheelchair.
Throughout his career, Blythe tirelessly sought to chart new creative territory.
“You can't ever control the music; it controls you,” he told the Union-Tribune.
“You're aggressive to an extent, but the pool of musical knowledge is so vast, and that keeps you humble. It keeps you cool to know you're good, but you're not that good!"
Below, Blythe discusses his music at length in his 2000 Union-Tribune interview.
Arthur Blythe stays true to eclectic path
March 12, 200
By George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune
Arthur Blythe may not stop traffic when he plays his alto saxophone, but pedestrians are another matter.
The internationally celebrated musician demonstrated as much on a recent weekday morning as he performed near a large sculpture in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego's downtown branch.
Transfixed by Blythe's voluptuous tone, crystal-clear articulation and stunning vibrato, passer-by Bill Strausburg stood a few feet away as a rippling series of melodies cascaded through the air.
"He really makes that horn talk," said Strausburg, a businessman visiting from San Antonio. "Is he from a San Diego jazz band?"
Strausburg nodded appreciatively when informed that Blythe, a force in jazz for several decades, grew up in San Diego and moved back here a couple of years ago from New York.
"When I get to a music store, I'm going to get one of his albums," vowed the silver-haired Strausburg as other people stopped to listen to Blythe's mini-performance. "He's great. His playing makes my skin tingle."
Sitting for an interview awhile later in a nearby park, Blythe smiled broadly when told of his new fan from Texas.
"Every little bit helps. We're all looking for gold nuggets, but we'll take gold dust," the 59-year-old saxophonist said with a chuckle.
Born in Los Angeles and raised mostly in San Diego, Arthur Murray Blythe has been creating musical gold for nearly a quarter-century. One of this city's greatest homegrown musical treasures, he has made only three local concert appearances since moving here with his children in 1998.
Blythe, who tours primarily in Europe, will perform Thursday night at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego's Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla. He will be accompanied by Los Angeles-based bassist Robert Miranda, a frequent partner.
Blythe's performance is part of the opening night of the seven-week "Artists on the Cutting Edge VIII: Cross Fertilizations" series. He will be featured Thursday along with esteemed poet Adrienne Rich and Emmy-nominated screenwriter-novelist Trey Ellis. The 8-year-old series, presented under the auspices of the Museum of Contemporary Art, is the brainchild of author and UCSD professor Quincy Troupe.
One of the most distinctive and resourceful jazz artists to emerge in the past three decades, Blythe first established himself in the mid-1970s working in the New York bands of drummer Chico Hamilton and longtime Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans.
He was also a vital member of drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition. (When that group performed a San Diego Jazz Festival-sponsored concert at the Old Globe Theatre's Festival Stage in 1980, then-San Diego County Supervisor Roger Hedgecock presented the saxophonist with an official "Arthur Blythe Day" proclamation.)
A co-founder of the pioneering World Saxophone Quartet, Blythe recorded his first solo album, "The Grip," in 1976. It showcased his rich, keening sax work, provocative compositions and penchant for utilizing such arresting instrumental combinations as cello, tuba and percussion.
The favorable response to "The Grip" and several other small-label releases earned Blythe a contract with Columbia Records, for which he made a series of vibrant albums, beginning in 1979. Standouts include that year's "Lennox Avenue Breakdown," "In the Tradition" (1980), "Illusions" (1981) and "Light Blue" (1983), which still stands as one of the most memorable and distinctive Thelonious Monk tribute albums.
Then, as now, Blythe's goal was to explore challenging, new artistic terrain while building on jazz's fertile past. He embraced adventure and daring, but without rejecting musical traditions.
"I think creativity is the main thing about being on the cutting edge," he said. "It's about trying to be a creative artist, and trying to do it as well as you can do it. And it's about the liberties one can take in being creative.
"Commercial music isn't about that. It's not on the cutting edge; it's on the subdued edge, the dull edge. The word `commercial' means something that's acceptable (to the masses), and makes money. But I love all music, including that which is called `commercial music.' As the youngsters say, `It's all good' — or can be."
Blythe let out a deep sigh.
"I would love for everyone to accept my music, and I would love to make money, but only by keeping my music on the cutting edge," he said. "I don't reject any music; good music is always a positive. I feel the way I feel, and this music is based on expression, and interpreting that expression. If my music comes off as esoteric, or far-out, or rebellious, it comes off that way. But I don't approach it like that."
Down San Diego way
Born in 1940, Blythe moved to San Diego with his family when he was 4, and started playing alto saxophone while attending third grade in Logan Heights. He soon found himself emulating the creamy tone of saxophone stars Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic, whose albums his mother often played at home.
When he was 13, Blythe started playing in a blues-rock band in Linda Vista, where his family — including his sister and four brothers — had moved.
"I thought it was a great place to grow up," said Blythe, who now lives in Valencia Park with his mother, Nancy, 11-year-old daughter Odessa and sons Chalee, 15, and Arthur Jr., 14.
"I used to play in the canyons a lot. There was a lot of space in Linda Vista for a kid to jump around and play and swim. It was a really nice place for a kid."
Eager and eclectic, Blythe also played in a rockabilly band, an R&B band and various Mexican-American music groups. But his first love was jazz, and he thrived under the guidance of such mentors as San Diego saxophonists Daniel Jackson and Kirkland Bradford, the latter a former member of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.
"I was into the musical culture of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philly Joe Jones and Ornette Coleman," Blythe recalled. "I was listening to those kinds of things, and I was looking for the cutting edge. That's what I liked and gravitated toward. There was a burning desire in me to pursue that, and I didn't even know what it was called."
Armed with his trusty 1928 Beuscher saxophone (the same one he plays today), Blythe moved to Los Angeles when he was 19. There, he began a decade-long affiliation with free-thinking pianist, bandleader and composer Horace Tapscott, who also served as a mentor to other gifted young musicians. In 1961, he and Tapscott were among the co-founders of the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension, a loose-knit group of performers who used music as a vehicle for community outreach.
"We played and practiced a lot," Blythe recalled. "Horace taught arranging and composing, and helped me understand the clarity of how the music went. Whenever we played together, there would be a musical exchange."
When he moved to New York in the late 1960s, Blythe was ready for action, musically speaking. By the end of the next decade, he was being hailed as one of the most gifted improvisers and composers of his generation, a fearless maverick who had a sound and style all his own.
In the 1980s, Blythe began working with the all-star band the Leaders, as well as continuing to lead groups of various sizes. More recently, he has been featured in Roots, a group that includes fellow saxophonists Chico Freeman, Benny Golson and Nathan Davis.
Blythe's most recent album, the enchanting "Night Song (Cancion de la Noche)," was released in 1997 by Clarity Records and seamlessly fuses elements of jazz, South American, African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern music into an ebullient, melody-rich whole. Featuring longtime cohorts Freeman on bass clarinet and Bob Stewart on tuba, the album also showcases marimba player Gust Tsillis and three percussionists.
"I was just trying to be creative and put together some different elements to make another statement, of sorts," said Blythe, who expects his next album — a live-in-Europe trio date — to be released next month.
"The different instruments I use are usually about me hearing certain combinations in my head, more than putting it together for its shock effect. And sometimes it's not the instrument as much as the player — the player who can make the music a certain way — that attracts me. They can be playing hubcaps, and it's cool, if they play it the right way."
With the exception of the 1985 album "Put Sunshine in It," which found Columbia Records forcing Blythe into a stifling pop-jazz format, none of his work has even hinted at compromising. And he has no intention of doing so now, especially since his career is largely reliant on the discriminating tastes of European audiences.
"I'm not sure why, but it is a fact that Europeans and people outside the U.S. acknowledge and revere this music's value much more than people in America," said Blythe, who next month embarks on a concert tour of Turkey, France, Finland and Holland.
"Right now they have confusion here about what jazz music is. The kind of music I play has traditionally been jazz, but jazz now is some lighter form here, and the more creative forms of the music are not acknowledged, or recognized as being valid.
"And it's not played on the radio here. But in Europe, you can hear the real thing. They revere it, they look for it. If you play too shallow in Europe, they'll let you know about it. And you won't be able to come over any more, because they won't pay for it."
Happily, it is his quest for making creative music — not money — that drives this Blythe spirit, a quiet master who regards himself as an eternal student.
"Sometimes it seems like I'm forever learning, and becoming better in the craft and getting better at understanding what's going on," he said. "I don't know exactly where I'm going, so it will be a surprise to some extent. But I'll pursue things I like.
"Different facets of music become more clear with time — interpretation, understanding the form, expression, nuance and how to put the music together in a more musical way. That's part of the learning experience. Some things I know, and then there's a lot of things I don't know. And some things that I think I know, I don't.
"Because you can't ever control the music; it controls you. You're aggressive to an extent, but the pool of musical knowledge is so vast, and that keeps you humble. It keeps you cool to know you're good, but you're not that good!"