John Corbett

Muhal Richard Abrams (left) and Misha Mengelberg (right)

This past year saw an uncommonly large number of losses in the jazz and creative music communities. Perhaps it’s a generational moment, the point at which we experience the dreaded undertow of the inevitable, the diminishment of the ranks of the elders. Of course, the culling had started earlier, and we are fortunate still now to have such major figures as Sonny Rollins, George Freeman, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders in our midst. But we thought it was time to reflect on some of the musical passings of the previous twelve months, to celebrate and mourn, to tell a few stories, and to count the blessings bestowed upon us by these great musicians – the concerts we saw, the recordings they left behind, and their enduring inspiration.


Two of the titanic figures in contemporary music, Muhal Richard Abrams and Misha Mengelberg, departed this realm last year. Both were instigators, teachers, composers, improvisors, pianists, and bandleaders, and when starting out international careers within their own communities in Chicago and Amsterdam respectively, they challenged the indigenous creative musicians to better themselves, to build infrastructures in which all species of invention could occur. With the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago and the Instant Composers’ Pool (ICP) in Amsterdam, Muhal and Misha were diligent in their critical approaches to experimental and improvised music. During a phone conversation with Muhal before the 2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle at the MCA, Chicago, I used the phrase “avant-garde” in reference to the AACM. Muhal corrected me with a gentle but firm tutorial on the origins of that terminology and why it is an imprecise way to describe creative music. Misha, too, was an irrepressible teacher. Jim Dempsey and I once enjoyed a memorable evening with him at the bar outside the Concertgebouw, where he instructed us on the pleasures – are there any, really? – of Irish Coffee. “Yes!” he said emphatically. “The coffee must be very strong, also the whiskey, quite strong, and the rest should be extremely sweet.” Over several hours drinking the sticky speedballs, Jim and I listened as Misha gave us his analysis of Thelonious Monk and why Charlie Rouse was the wrong tenor saxophonist for his quartet. Thankfully, both Muhal and Misha left behind extensive troves of recorded music, amidst it some of the essential sounds of improvised music. For starters, try Mama and Daddy, Muhal’s beautiful 1980 large ensemble recording for Black Saint, and ICP Orchestra’s Aan & Uit, featuring 15 classic Mengelberg compositions.

From top left: Kelan Phil Cohran, Sunny Murray, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Jaki Liebezeit, Ayé Aton, and Roswell Rudd.

Brother Kelan Phil Cohran died in 2017, at 90 years of age. Cohran was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the three years before Ra left Chicago, 1959-61, after which, with Muhal and others, he was a founding member of the AACM, though he left early to form the Artistic Heritage Ensemble and later to establish the multi-disciplinary venue the Affro-Arts Theatre. Cohran was active almost to the end, and he too was a magnificent pedagogue. It was a great honor to present him in concert and interview him during the Sun Ra exhibition Pathways to Unknown Worlds in 2007 at the Hyde Park Center. The band’s debut Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble is absolutely essential listening.


Percussion took a particularly hard hit this year. Sunny Murray, one of the most important new drummers to change the role of the kit in early 1960s free jazz, passed away late in the year. His roiling cymbal work on Albert Ayler’s 1964 masterpiece Spiritual Unity suggested an entirely new approach to the movement of energy in the music; indeed, on the inner label of the original ESP release, Murray is credited with cymbals, not drums. Everyone remotely interested in creative music surely knows the Ayler record, but pick up a later recording with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and bassist John Lindberg, Jump Up – What to Do About (Hat Hut). Other wonderful drummers who shuffled off this mortal coil in the previous annum include Charles “Bobo” Shaw, the powerful Black Artists Group cofounder, and Jaki Liebezeit, best known for his participation in the German group Can, but also an early associate of Peter Brötzmann. From a slightly more mainstream part of the continuum, Grady Tate and Ben Riley passed in 2017, as did the definitely not mainstream Ayé Aton, percussionist in Sun Ra’s 1972 band, who played on the classic records Space is the Place and Discipline 27-II. Ayé was also a brilliant visual artist, and Corbett vs. Dempsey was honored to publish Space: Interiors and Exteriors, 1972, which included reproductions of his incredible domestic murals, from homes in Chicago and Kentucky.


Trombonist Roswell Rudd was from the same generation as Sunny Murray, and he helped revolutionize the trombone, in part by taking it back to its gutbucket beginnings, playing the instrument with all its natural slurring, smearing, splatting gutturality. Rudd was a fantastic character, wonderful and funny. I had the pleasure of presenting him in concert with the Steve Lacy Quartet at the Empty Bottle in 2000. I went to pick up the band at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the massive pink building at Bryn Mawr and the lakeshore, where the Jack Russell Orchestra and Paul Whiteman had once played. Lacy, Jean-Jacques Avenel, and John Betsch were all there, but there was no sign of Rudd. After waiting as long as we could, pre-cellphone, we decided to leave without him. As we rounded the bend, the trombonist jumped out of the backseat of a huge American car, thanked the driver, and transferred to my vehicle. “Where were you?” asked Lacy. “No idea,” said Rudd. “I wandered on foot from the hotel, got totally lost for four hours, and finally I just stood in the middle of the street and stopped the first car that came along. I asked if they knew a big pink building, and they said of course, hop in!”

From top left: Geri Allen, Arthur Blythe, Willie Pickens, John Wright, Leo Cuypers, and Jon Hendricks. 

In New York in 2015, I attended a Cecil Taylor celebration at Harlem Stage. Mr. Taylor was supposed to perform but backed out at the last minute, so his big shoes were filled by a couple of other pianists, Jason Moran and Geri Allen. Allen, who passed away unexpectedly last year at the young age of 60, was one of the luminary pianists of her generation, a wonderful and inventive player whose work with Ornette Coleman complemented the saxophonist’s slippery tonal shifts. It was a special treat to hear Allen play with alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and we grieve her early departure. In a very different era of New York music, in 1981 I saw my first jazz gigs in the city, one of which was two nights at the Village Vanguard with the Arthur Blythe Quintet. Blythe, who died last year, was a tremendous alto saxophonist with a piercing tone and a great ear for tunes. His LP Illusions, with guitarist James Blood Ulmer, came out in 1980 and has been on my turntable regularly since then. You can get it as a two-disc set with three other great Blythe records, deal of the century.


Two more wonderful Chicago pianists passed in 2017. Willie Pickens was a mainstay of the city’s jazz scene starting in the early 1960s, and he was incredibly versatile, playing extensively with Eddie Harris and Elvin Jones. When I was working on the Empty Bottle Jazz and Improvised Music Series with Ken Vandermark in the 1990s, we presented Pickens in a duet with drummer Wilbur Campbell. “You know, we’ve played together for 30 years, but never duets,” he told me as they set up, a light snow starting to fall outside. “This is going to be fun!” Two hours later, at show time, there were nine inches fresh on the ground, and what would have been a packed house was pared down to 30 lucky listeners. Pickens was so special and such a sweet person, we will miss his wisdom and his smile. Likewise for John Wright, who died in December. Wright made a run of five super-soulful LPs for Prestige at the same time Pickens started playing in Chicago, but then he embarked on parallel two-decade stints as a heavy drinker (something he openly discussed) and as a Chicago policeman, finally kicking the habit and pulling himself back into the music by the late ‘80s. I first heard him then, out in Oak Park at Philander’s Restaurant, where I noticed that he was playing and, knowing his early records, sought him out. He had a sensitive touch and a great way with the blues. Each year for about ten running, Wright invited me to his annual Wright Gathering, a pool party and reunion that treated all friends and even acquaintances as part of an extended family. I regret always having been away when it happened, but I’ve heard from people who went that it was nothing but warm fuzzies, south side soul style. Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Wright’s tasty South Side Soul.


The Dutch pianist and composer Leo Cuypers died in September. A major figure on the Amsterdam scene, somewhat overshadowed by Mengelberg, Cuypers worked with Willem Breuker’s Kollektief and he recorded many of his own playful LPs for Breuker’s BVHaast label, including Heavy Days Are Here Again, which I reissued on the Unheard Music Series. It was one of the most surprising UMS releases and I can recommend it without hesitation, as I can Zeeland Suite, which was reissued together with the equally compelling Johnny Rep Suite. If you dig Kurt Weill and Junior Mance, may I introduce you to Mr. Cuypers?


Jon Hendricks was one of the most creative singers in jazz, both on his own and with the popular late-‘50s group Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. His approach to vocalese was nothing short of astounding. I had always loved Hendricks’ music from afar, but one afternoon when I was visiting producer Hank O’Neal, the elevator bell rang, a slim man walked in and greeted the receptionist with a debonair voice, popped his head into the office and tipped his hat. Before me was one of the most dapper dressers I’ve ever seen. I was tongue-tied, but managed to pay my respects. Hendricks died late in November. He was 96 years old.


Two top guitarists, John Abercrombie and Larry Coryell, also died in 2017. Both had unique and personal styles. Coryell’s records from the ‘60s include magnificent ones with vibraphonist Gary Burton; if you’ve never heard it, explore their peak collaboration, A Genuine Tong Funeral, featuring tunes by Carla Bley. Abercrombie made lovely records across his forty-plus year career, but I am particularly fond of his debut, Timeless, with drummer Jack DeJohnette and organist Jan Hammer. Mats Gustafsson and Jason Adasiewicz love the title track, too, and in the studio in October they waxed their own very different version for tenor sax and vibes. It will come out on CvsD in May in homage to Abercrombie.

Craig Johnson (left) and Ben Portis (right)

Finally, a remembrance of two behind-the-scenes people we lost last year. Craig Johnson was the man who started the CjR label, which issued the first four records by Joe McPhee. Indeed, Johnson began recording McPhee very early; he bought equipment expressly for the purpose, learned how to record, and gave Joe encouragement and support. It was Johnson who made sure that the legendary concert Nation Time was documented. “Without Craig, I would be nothing,” says McPhee. “Really, I mean it. He was the reason any of it got recorded. And I thought he was crazy. But I’m so thankful for his friendship and vision.” Ben Portis was a great fan of McPhee. As a grad student at University of Chicago, Portis was studying to be a painter. He and I started a radio show called Radio Dada together at WHPK. He introduced me to the Renaissance Society. He turned me on to Philip Guston and Terry Winters and the Nihilist Spasm Band. Ben and I had many adventures in Chicago, Victoriaville, and New York, all of them focused on music and art. One day, Ben lurched from his seat at Shopsin’s General Store, the legendary Village eatery, and told me to follow him. We found a payphone and he dialed the painter Martin Wong, who he’d met at a party. Twenty minutes later we were at Wong’s apartment-studio, in a crack building in Alphabet City. It was a life-changing event for me, one of many orchestrated by Portis. Although he was a professional curator, Ben went on to organize musical events in his hometown of London, Ontario, including the No Music Festival, which he ran together with members of the Nihilist Spasm Band. Terri Kapsalis, Hal Rammel, and I had the pleasure of playing one of them, a highlight of my musical career. I remember an icy night the first year Ben was in Chicago, 1987, when his beloved pet parrot died. He’d made a little tubular casket out of lead. Together we walked out to the point, through whipping wind and about two feet of crispy snow. It was difficult to see where the land ended and the lake started, but we edged as close as we could. Ben dropped his head and was silent for about three minutes in meditation. Then he cocked his arm and winged the lead coffin as far as he could. It penetrated the ice with a single gulping sound and was gone. Just like that. Ben was killed in a car accident in July.