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Hamiet Bluiett, Baritone Saxphone Trailblazer, Dies at 78

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Hamiet Bluiett, Baritone Saxphone Trailblazer, Dies at 78
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Hamiet Bluiett, Baritone Saxophone Trailblazer, Dies at 78

By Giovanni Russonello

Oct. 7, 2018

Hamiet Bluiett, a baritone saxophonist who expanded the possibilities of his instrument while connecting the jazz avant-garde with a broad view of its own history, died on Thursday at his home in Brooklyn, Ill. He was 78.

His granddaughter Anaya Bluiett said that the cause had not yet been determined but that his health had deteriorated in recent years after a series of strokes and seizures.

A central figure in jazz, primarily as a member of the renowned World Saxophone Quartet, Mr. Bluiett (whose name is pronounced HAM-ee-et BLUE-it) married a dazzling physical command of the instrument with a passion for the full scope of the blues tradition. With an astonishing five-octave range, he could leap into registers that had been thought inaccessible on the baritone.

“Most people who play the baritone don’t approach it like the awesome instrument that it is,” Mr. Bluiett said in an interview with in 2000. “They approach it as if it is something docile, like a servant-type instrument. I don’t approach it that way. I approach it as if it was a lead voice, and not necessarily here to uphold the altos, tenors and sopranos.”

He pounded out rhythmic patterns like a tuba player, or held long, gently quavering notes as if bowing a double bass. When soloing, he could slide from graceful melody playing into high, braying wails.

The World Saxophone Quartet — a saxes-only ensemble that spun through a mix of styles, from gospel to free jazz — was among the most successful jazz groups of the late 1970s and ’80s, touring constantly and eventually releasing five albums on a major label, Nonesuch, an Elektra subsidiary.

The band came together in 1976, after its four members — Mr. Bluiett, the tenor saxophonist David Murray and the alto saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, all notable young figures on New York’s so-called loft-jazz scene — were invited to New Orleans to play a few concerts in various formations.

Their performances without any other instruments drew the most rapturous response, partly because Mr. Bluiett stuffed the band’s underbelly with so much texture and power.

“The four men have made a startling conceptual breakthrough,” Robert Palmer wrote of the band in a 1979 concert review for The New York Times. “Without ignoring the advances made by musicians like Anthony Braxton and the early Art Ensemble of Chicago, they have gone back to swinging and to the tradition of the big‐band saxophone section.”

Mr. Palmer went on: “Some of the music looks to the more archaic end of the tradition, to the hocket‐style organization of wind ensembles in African tribal music, and in doing so it sounds brand new.”

Mr. Bluiett said he insisted that the group put primacy on balladry and song, even as it explored free improvisation. “I think melody is very important,” he told NPR in 2010. “When we went into the loft situation, I told the guys: ‘Man, we need to play some ballads. You all playing outside, you running people away. I don’t want to run people away.’ ”

Hamiet Ashford Bluiett Jr. was born in St. Louis on Sept. 16, 1940, to Hamiet Sr. and Deborah (Dixon) Bluiett, but moved as a child to nearby Brooklyn, Ill., the first town in the United States incorporated by African-Americans. He started to play the piano at age 4, learning the basics of music from his aunt, a choir director. At 9 he took up the clarinet and studied under George Hudson, a popular area bandleader. (Mr. Bluiett often brought a clarinet into the World Saxophone Quartet.)

He began playing the baritone saxophone, an instrument he had long admired, while attending Southern Illinois University. His major influence was Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist in Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

Mr. Bluiett left college without graduating and served in the Navy before moving to St. Louis in 1966. There he found a community of musicians, artists, poets and dancers, including Mr. Lake and Mr. Hemphill.

“His personality and his thoughts and his wit were so strong,” Mr. Lake recalled in a telephone interview. “As was his creativity. He wanted to take the music forward, and we were there trying to do the same thing.”

In 1968, the three helped found the Black Artists Group, an interdisciplinary collective dedicated to furthering the Black Arts Movement. Operating out of a building in downtown St. Louis, the organization often presented concerts and other public programs.

Mr. Bluiett led the B.A.G. big band and offered guidance to a slew of developing musicians. Even in his 20s, “he was a mentor and a natural teacher,” Mr. Lake said.

In 1969, Mr. Bluiett moved to New York, where he soon joined the saxophonist Sam Rivers’s orchestra. In 1974 he became a member of one of the final bands of the eminent bassist and composer Charles Mingus.

After leaving Mingus, he made his first albums as a leader in 1976 — including “Birthright,” a remarkable live recording on which he played the baritone saxophone alone for 40 minutes.

Between the World Saxophone Quartet and his own groups, Mr. Bluiett recorded close to 50 albums as a bandleader. Those ranged from solo affairs to duets to full-ensemble efforts. In the late 1990s he created a band with four baritone saxophonists; it released one album, “Libation for the Baritone Saxophone Nation” (1998).

Mr. Bluiett moved back to Brooklyn, Ill., in 2002 to be closer to family and took on students, giving lessons and leading youth ensembles.

He is survived by two sons, Pierre Butler and Dennis Bland; two daughters, Ayana Bluiett and Bridgett Vasquaz; a sister, Karen Ratliff; and eight grandchildren. He was married twice; one marriage ended with the death of his wife and the other in divorce.

Over the last 10 years he moved back and forth frequently between Illinois and New York, but ill health forced him to quit playing the saxophone in 2016. The World Saxophone Quartet had continued playing through a number of personnel changes over the years. But when Mr. Bluiett became too ill, the group stopped performing altogether.
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