Monday, July 13, 2015


Sam Rivers, Toronto, March, 1989

I DIDN'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT SAM RIVERS when he passed through town with Dizzy Gillespie's big band during the jazz festival in the summer of 1988. Friends who knew his reputation told me to keep an eye out for him while I shot Gillespie and his band at Roy Thompson Hall, the big prestige concert venue downtown.

I was mostly intent on capturing some decent frames of Dizzy - the only surviving bop giant still performing at the time - but I obviously had an eye for Rivers, because I caught this shot of him near the end of the show, at the end of my last roll of film.

Sam Rivers, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, June 1988

Somewhere between the jazz fest gig and Rivers' return to the city with Dizzy's band nine months later, I picked up a copy of Fuchsia Swing Song, Rivers' first record, and Conference of the Birds, an ECM album with bassist Dave Holland. They were very different records and I was still puzzling out Rivers' style when I shot him onstage at Berlin, an uptown supper club with a slightly dodgy reputation.

I was only vaguely familiar with the "loft jazz" scene where Rivers had recently been a key figure, but records by Rivers and the bands he performed with at Rivbea Studios were scarce and expensive even then, so I had to satisfy myself with the knowledge that Rivers had done something impossible in New York City today - renting a loft space downtown on a jobbing musician's income, where he could play for rent money and organize concerts for like-minded musicians.

Sam Rivers, Berlin nightclub, Toronto, March 1989

This time I devoted at least a third of my shots to Rivers, who was nonetheless hard to capture in the dim light of the club - a much more challenging place to shoot than the big concert venue downtown. It was a two night stand, so I must have asked Rivers at some point if he was available for a quick portrait shoot the next day; I was intent on getting a session with every reputable jazz musician who passed through town in those days.

Sam Rivers, Toronto, March 1989

The tapestry was a standby background for me, which is how I know these were shot at the (now closed) Sutton Place hotel on Bay Street. I relied on fast film, pushed to pull out the grain, and whatever available light I could get in the hallway where the tapestry was hanging.

I struggled to establish some kind of rapport with Rivers while I shot - not surprising since we'd only met the day before and I was imposing on his downtime between shows. The roll I shot showcases a variety of expressions, however, so he must have been trying to meet me more than halfway; the best, I think, is the shot at the top of this post.

Sam Rivers, Toronto, March 1989

Rivers is considered an unsung figure today - a technically accomplished player who helped create a line from bop through free jazz, and who could still play "inside" enough for a band like Dizzy Gillespie's. It took me a while to get what he did, but what helped me "click" with Rivers was his duets with with Holland, where the bassist provides a bubbling riverbed of rhythm and key notes for Rivers to create long, confident storylines on top of with his tenor.

At least one of my Rivers portraits ended up in my portfolio for a couple of years, and I'm sure I printed one of the live shots for a group show of jazz photography, though I'm not sure if it made the cut. Apart from that, these shots haven't been seen in twenty years.

Sam Rivers died on Dec. 26, 2011 in Orlando, Florida.

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