As 2011 wound down, American music lost two octogenarians who were dramatically different except for what they had in common, insistence on getting to the heart of the matter without compromise. Sam Rivers died in Orlando, Florida on December 26 at the age of 88, Barbara Lea the same day in Raleigh, North Carolina, at 82.
Rivers was a formidable saxophonist, flutist and composer. He had a university education in harmony, theory and composition, played blues with T-Bone Walker, worked with Miles Davis for a time, and became a leading figure in the avant garde. Rivers’ 1964 Fuchsia Swing Song, now a collectors item, melded experimentation with established values. His composition “Beatrice” from the album quickly joined the standard jazz repertoire. According to Rivers’ daughter Monique, he remained active as a performer and teacher until virtually the eve of his death and recorded material for dozens of albums yet to be released. Rivers was a lifelong prober beneath the surface, unsatisfied with routine, using his intellect and daring in equal measure to discover mysteries.
Here are Rivers and his quartet at the 1989 Leverkusener Jazztage in Germany, playing “Beatrice.” Rael Wesley Grant is on bass, Darryl Thompson on guitar and Steve Mcraven on drums.
Like Sam Rivers, Barbara Lea knew music inside out; she had a degree from Wellesley in music theory. Rivers was devoted to chance taking. Ms. Lea’s integrity was based in fealty to the song. She fervently believed, and said in interviews, that a singer’s business was to sing the song, not to use the song to sell herself. If it seemed to some listeners that she was too low key to be entertaining, her masterly phrasing, intonation, sense of time and understanding of the songwriter’s intentions persuaded others that her interpretations were definitive. She was sometimes described as a cabaret singer, but like Lee Wiley, whom she admired, Ms. Lea was a favorite of jazz musicians. Dick Sudhalter, Johnny Windhurst and the members of The Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band (on this album) were among her devoted fans and colleagues. There is regrettably little of Barbara Lea on video, but here’s a fine performance of “Sweet and Slow” with the trumpet obbligato and solo by Doc Cheatham. It’s from the 1984 Manassas, Virginia, jazz festival.