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Remembering The Jazz Greats Who Died In 2016


This is FRESH AIR. We lost some great jazz musicians this year including singers Ernestine Anderson and Kay Starr, saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Joe Temperley, pianists Connie Crothers and Sir Charles Thompson, clarinetist Pete Fountain, flutist Jeremy Steig, harmonica player Toots Thielemans. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers a few other musicians who died this year.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in 1963 with Bob Cranshaw on bass recorded by engineer Rudy Van Gelder. We lost all three of them in 2016 - Hutcherson, one of the grand masters of the vibes, Bob Cranshaw, Sonny Rollins' longtime bassist of choice and Rudy Van Gelder who over five decades recorded more classic jazz albums than anyone at his home studios in New Jersey.

Bobby Hutcherson could sound radically clanky early on with Eric Dolphy, though he spent more time exploring the vibe's fluid lyrical and bluesy side. But he never forgot vibraphone as a percussion instrument.


WHITEHEAD: Bobby Hutcherson in 2007. Another jazz musician with a deep, blues sense who died this year is Mose Allison. He grew up near but not in Mississippi's blues-drenched delta region anticipating his musical style, not pure blues but in the neighborhood. Allison had started out as an economical band pianist, but when he started singing his songs, his career took off. His label promoted him as the jazz sage.


MOSE ALLISON: (Singing) I'm not talking. Don't ask me what I'm going to do. The things I say at midnight, I might not say in daylight. I've reached the fine conclusion it only breeds confusion. So don't call me, daddy, I'll call you.

WHITEHEAD: Mose Allison's lyrics were wryly funny and well-observed. In the '60s, he influenced a few English rock bands, fellow white musicians looking to connect with black music. The Yardbirds did "I'm Not Talking." And The Who did his "Young Man Blues." Allison mined the same vein ever after with self-deprecating wit.


ALLISON: (Singing) I don't claim to be so great. I'm no pacesetter. I'm no potentate. I got some kids. I got a wife. I'm just trying to swing my way through life. So don't try to make me what I'm not. I just get by with what I've got. Live let live, that's my advice. If you've got questions, ask me nice.

WHITEHEAD: Mose Allison in 2009. Another pianist who came at the blues obliquely passed early this year, Montreal-born Paul Bley. He was playing bebop piano in Los Angeles in the '50s when he crossed paths with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Ornette wrote catchy, bluesy tunes but his band might wander off and into another key when they improvised. That was tough on pianists who were unsure what to play in support. Bley's solution was to treat piano more like a horn, improvising lines and leaving the backing chords alone. Here he is in 1962.


WHITEHEAD: Paul Bley's linear flights made his sound light and airy even when his solos got busy. He apparently made an impression on Herbie Hancock who once literally sat on one hand while recording with Miles Davis. Bley's free-floating breeziness also influenced another pianist drawn to Ornette's flexible blues, the young Keith Jarrett. This is Bley in '64.


WHITEHEAD: In 2016, we lost musicians representing Dixieland, bebop and the avant-garde, including one player who blurred those styles together, exuberant trumpeter Paul Smoker. To play this year's honor roll off a stage, hear Smoker's take on a very early stylization of the blues, W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." The greats pass away, but their music lives on. That's why they're the greats.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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