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Tribute to some jazz musicians who died in 2013

Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)

Yusef Lateef, a saxophonist and flutist who was one of the last surviving members of Dizzy Gillespie's 1949 big band and who helped pioneer spiritual jazz in the mid-1950s, soul-jazz in the 1960s with Cannonball Adderley, and metaphysical jazz starting in the 1980s, died on December 23. He was 83.

Yusef was among the first black jazz musicians to covert to Islam in 1948 through the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement and in later years eschewed the word “jazz"—viewing it as derogatory and belittling of the improvisational art form. In recent years, he created a revolutionary way of approaching music through the use of what he called “autophysiopsychic intervals."

On the tenor saxophonist, Yusef had a deep, smoky sound that was laced with African themes and thought. On the flute, Yusef adapted Eastern influences but he also enjoyed playing melodically, as if swept away by the instrument's natural charm. But ultimately, Yusef was on a mission to find his own voice. As he told me in 2008: “In 1960, when Coltrane left Miles [Davis], a Swedish interviewer said his solos sounded like he was angry. Coltrane said, 'No, no I’m not angry. I'm just trying many different things to find myself.' People like John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon—we all believed we should find our own."

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Jim Hall (1930-2013)

Jim Hall, a soft-spoken and sophisticated postmodernist jazz guitarist who recorded as a leader and with many of the most visionary artists on the East and West coasts, offering swinging rhythmic support and piercing melodic solos, died on December 10. He was 83.

Thanks to early friendships with prolific artists and a reputation for being a lyrical musical adventurer, Jim appeared on many of jazz's finest recording sessions. In the mid-1950s, his work with the Chico Hamilton Quintet blazed a new path for the jazz guitar, placing the instrument on an equal footing with the rest of the band as an improviser and musical conversationalist.

As Jim told me in a 2010 interview: “Many guitarists at the time played rhythm or supporting lines for leaders and soloists. I wanted to play so that my counterpoint and alternative melodies stood out clearly."

Among the many high points of Jim's career include recording sessions with Hampton Hawes the Jimmy Giuffre 3, John Lewis, Bob Brookmeyer, Buddy Collette, Sonny Rollins (The Bridge) and landmark duo albums with Paul Desmond, Bill Evans and Ron Carter. Amazingly, these represent just a handful of Jim's storied discography. [Pictured above: Jim Hall and Bill Evans]

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Chico Hamilton (1921-2013)

“I'm happy to say that I'm able to find people wherever I go that are not black, not white- they're just human beings. I don't dig staying in one groove. At this stage of my life, I've dedicated myself to playing what I want to play, how I want to play it, for the rest of my time. Regardless of whether one might like it or one might not like it. That's where I am, where I've been and where I intend to stay.” —Foreststorn “Chico" Hamilton

Legendary drummer and NEA Jazz Master Foreststorn “Chico" Hamilton died on Monday, November 25, 2013, in New York City at the age of 92.
Hamilton began leading his own ensembles in 1955 and recorded 60+ albums as a leader. Hamilton’s impact upon jazz included the introduction of two unique and distinct sounds: first in 1955 with his “Original Quintet” which combined the sounds of his drums, the bass of Carson Smith, the guitar of Jim Hall, the cello of Fred Katz, and the flute of Buddy Collette; and the second in 1962 with his own drums, the bass of Albert Stinson, the guitar of Gabor Szabo, the trombone of George Bohanon, and the tenor sax of Charles Lloyd. Hamilton appeared in the 1941 film “You'll Never Get Rich” staring Fred Astaire Fred Astaire, and his ensemble was prominently featured in the 1957 film noir classic “Sweet Smell of Success” starring Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster. Hamilton's mallet driven performance of “Blue Sands" was a featured moment in the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival documentary “Jazz on a Summer's Day", and Hamilton composed the soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s English- language debut, the 1965 psychological thriller “Repulsion” starring Catherine Deneuve. Hamilton moved to New York City in 1965 and formed a commercial and film music production company, scoring the television film “Portrait of Willie Mays", the popular children's series “Gerald McBoing-Boing", and working on Madison Avenue scoring hundreds of commercials for TV and radio.

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George Duke

A pioneer in the funk and R&B genres, he had been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to his label Concord Music Group, which confirmed his death.

"The outpouring of love and support that we have received from my father's friends, fans and the entire music community has been overwhelming," said his son, Rashid Duke, in a statement. "Thank you all for your concern, prayers and support."

Born in San Rafael, Calif., Duke aspired to a music career from an early age, after his mother took him to a Duke Ellington concert.

"I remember seeing this guy in a white suit, playing this big thing, which I later found out was a piano," Duke told USA TODAY in 1997. "He had all these guys around him, and he was waving his hands conducting, and he spoke very intelligently and seemed to be having a good time. And his name was Duke, and my last name was Duke. I told my mom, 'I want to be him.' That moment in time set the stage for me."

Over the course of his four-decade-plus career, the Grammy Award-winning keyboardist put out more than 40 albums and collaborated with artists such as Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Jill Scott and Michael Jackson. His music was also sampled by Kanye West, Daft Punk and Common.

"It's a wonderful thing that has happened under the banner of jazz," Duke told USA TODAY of his career longevity. "In R&B and rock, when you are over a certain age, they say goodbye to you. But in jazz, you just kind of level off and continue to gain respect, so long as you keep your integrity."

Duke's final album, DreamWeaver, was released July 16 and made its debut at No. 1 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart. It was his first new music since the death of his wife, Corine, last year.

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Donald Byrd (1932-2013)

Death is a devastating event for loved ones. The finality of loss is crushing and leaves family members feeling helpless, particularly when the deceased is notable and the media seeks information. Over the past week or so, rumors circulated about the passing of trumpeter Donald Byrd. Some blogs and radio disc jockeys decided that a  Facebook mention of Byrd's death by a distant relative was sufficient to announce the trumpeter's passing and pay tribute—even though word surfaced that there may be confusion with someone in Texas with the same name.

I never post about the death of anyone until I read about it in a major publication and there's confirmation by an immediate family member. In the Internet age, there's too much room for supposition and speculation. Many of you may recall the rumors last year about the death of a famed West Coast jazz trumpeter, only to learn days later that he was very much alive.

Nevertheless, I am now able to share thoughts about the late jazz musician and last major surviving trumpeter of Blue Note's golden hard bop era. In a decade thick with star jazz soloists—Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, to name a few—Byrd carved out a niche for himself as a somewhat gentler and less blistering version of Brown.

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Bebo Valdés


Bebo Valdés rehearses at the Latin Grammy Awards in 2004.

One of the giants of Cuban music, pianist and composer/arranger Bebo Valdés, died Friday in Sweden due to complications from pneumonia, according to his wife and manager. He was 94.

Ramón Emilio "Bebo" Valdés Amaro was born in 1918 in a village outside Havana. Trained at conservatory, and having absorbed the sounds of Afro-Cuban street music and American jazz in various ensembles, he became the house pianist and arranger at the Tropicana Nightclub in 1948. The Tropicana was the hottest venue in Havana at the time; many American entertainers performed there, and Valdés became known as the go-to arranger in town for studio dates, film scores and dance numbers. In 1952, he also participated in the first Afro-Cuban descarga, or jam session, recorded in Cuba, where a group improvisation turned into the recording "Con Poco Coco."

But as his career was booming, a revolutionary government took over in Cuba, accompanied by a crackdown on the entertainment industry. In 1960, he left Cuba to play a gig in Mexico City with his own band. He never returned, leaving behind his wife and children. Valdés eventually wound up in Sweden, where he remarried and pursued a quieter music career, often playing piano for cruise ships or in choice hotels.

"If you are a musician and you do one thing, you should enjoy what you do," Valdés told NPR's Felix Contreras in 2006. "This is my profession, and it is my hobby, and I live in love with what I do. In those years in Stockholm, even if I wasn't successful, I did it because I liked it, and I'll keep doing it until I die."

Meanwhile, one of his children had matured into a piano virtuoso himself, and had co-founded his own jazz-influenced, genre-crossing band called Irakere. When Chucho Valdes and Irakere played a date at Carnegie Hall in 1977, Bebo Valdes crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reunite with his son. It set into motion a reconciliation which resulted in several collaborations, in concert and on recordings like the Latin jazz performance film Calle 54 and the duet album Juntos Para Siempre.

Late in his career, Bebo Valdés enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. In 1994, another Irakere veteran and Cuban exile, reedman Paquito D'Rivera, convinced Valdés to record Bebo Rides Again, a disc of Cuban classics mixed with original compositions. The album led to future recordings, among them Grammy-winning efforts like El Arte de Sabor and Lagrimas Negras. He was also the inspiration and pianist for the animated film Chico and Rita, about Cuban musicians in the 1940s.

"This attention is a gift from God," he told NPR. "I did not ask for all of this. But since it was sent to me, I accept it from the heart."


CEDAR WALTON (1934-2013)

Cedar Walton, one of the top jazz pianists to emerge in the aftermath of bebop, died Monday morning at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his wife, Martha. Walton was 79.

The pianist and composer/arranger rose to eminence after an early-1960s spell in drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and continually cemented his reputation as a bluesy, graceful and commanding improviser up until his death. But Walton's legacy also rests on a body of compositions, at least one of which became a standard ("Bolivia"); his ability to orchestrate small groups also secured him work and opportunities to lead his own bands.

Born in 1934, Walton grew up in Dallas, Texas. His mother was at one time an aspiring concert pianist, and served as his first teacher. Drawn to jazz, he continued to pursue playing during college between classes and classical studies, briefly at Dillard University in New Orleans and then at the University of Denver in Colorado. He moved to the jazz hub of New York City in 1955, and — after compulsory military service, where he played in an Army band in Germany — returned in 1958.

Walton rubbed shoulders with emerging greats of the era. He toured with J.J. Johnson, the preeminent trombonist of his era. He jumped ship to Benny Golson's Jazztet, another small group with tightly crafted arrangements. Along the way, he recorded the first drafts of John Coltrane's seminal Giant Steps album. And in 1961, he joined Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Wayne Shorter (saxophone) in the Jazz Messengers, where he was one of the stars in what became one of Art Blakey's most celebrated lineups. That unit was responsible for classic albums like Mosaic, Ugetsu and Free For All — among other recordings — and Walton contributed tunes to several of them. He later described the experience "like we were a team of horses, and [Blakey] was, you know, leading from behind. You know, driving a team of horses."

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