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Celebrating The Lives Of 6 Jazz Greats Who Died In 2018

Dec 27, 2018
Originally published on January 3, 2019 1:08 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As 2018 winds down, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers a few musicians who died this year who looked at jazz from a broad perspective. We start with three trumpet players.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKALA'S "U-DWI"

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: More than anyone, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died in January, brought the sound of South African township jazz to the U.S. When Masekela moved here in the '60s, he taught those inflections to American musicians. That very authentic, traditional tune we just heard was recorded in New York with a mixed band including American guitarist Eric Gale and pianist Larry Willis. Even Masekela's iconic, downhome hit "Grazing In The Grass" was cooked up at a session in Hollywood involving studio musicians. But the downhominess (ph) came through and became one more string for jazz and pop to savor.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "GRAZING IN THE GRASS")

WHITEHEAD: Jazz musicians have always crossed borders, grabbing influences from all over. Trumpeters in particular bridge cultures, like Dizzy Gillespie or Don Cherry or the New York-born, Madrid-based Jerry Gonzales, who died in October. His 1988 masterwork, "Rumba Para Monk" looked at Thelonious Monk's music from the perspective of the Latin rhythms that had influenced that composer and everyone else in jazz. That's Larry Willis again on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GONZALEZ AND THE APACHE BAND'S "BYE-YA")

WHITEHEAD: A wealth of African and Caribbean beats inform jazz musicians' springing rhythms. You could hear it in another trumpeter we lost this year at age 49, the virtuoso Roy Hargrove. Solidly in the jazz mainstream but no snob about it, Hargrove embodied the eternal verities - swing, blues feeling, a singing tone and those Afro-Cuban inflections to make the rhythm bump. Here he is in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HARGROVE'S "I'M NOT SO SURE")

WHITEHEAD: The late Buell Neidlinger was always jumping borders. Originally a symphony bass player, he broadened his horizons, playing with eccentric jazz pianists Cecil Taylor and Herbie Nichols. Then he moved to California, where he worked in Hollywood studios and butted heads with Frank Zappa. Neidlinger really came into his own in the 1980s, doing vintage Monk and Ellington tunes with a country string band twang. This is his quintet on Duke's 1931 "Rockin' In Rhythm."

(SOUNDBITE OF BUELL NEIDLINGER, ET AL'S "ROCKIN' IN RHYTHM")

WHITEHEAD: Not all bridge builders are musicians. One positive force we lost this year was Vancouver Jazz Festival programmer Ken Pickering. In the early '90s, he had a good idea worth borrowing. Since dozens of fine musicians streamed through a town during festival week, why not pluck a few compatible players out of bands around at the same time and have them improvise a set? It made for some unique music and forged some international and intergenerational connections.

And finally, we come to one of jazz's great internationalists, who died in September, the Pan-African pianist from Brooklyn, Randy Weston.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "GANAWA IN PARIS (INSTRUMENTAL)")

WHITEHEAD: Randy Weston was bursting with African pride even before he began spending time on the continent in the 1960s. For five years, he ran his own club at an international crossroads in Morocco like he was Sam and Rick in the movie "Casablanca." For Weston, North African, West African and New York rhythms were all the same language spoken with different accents. A big man with a powerful keyboard attack, he liked to combine diverse musicians and made some big orchestral statements arranged by his friend Melba Liston. One reason jazz has made inroads around the world - big-hearted ambassadors like Randy Weston and so many others.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you'd like to hear the interviews we've been featuring this week in our series of favorite interviews of the year, check out our podcast. You'll find those and plenty of other FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.