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Call and Return

Jazz Great Henry Grimes Makes A Comeback 30 Years In The Making

STILL GOT IT: Absence didn’t tarnish Henry Grimes’ bass chops.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/2/2005

Henry Grimes and Marshall Allen play An die Musik March 4

Bassist Henry Grimes answers the phone in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment right after the first ring with a hearty “hello” that sounds penguin chill. The 69-year-old jazzman’s voice resonates with a sequoia-stolid deep timbre that jazz musicians achieve after decades of writing, recording, performing, touring, ad infinitum. Grimes’, though, betrays barely a smidgen of the world-weariness that settles in career jazz survivors, those sky-shooting rockets who gave the world their souls only to see other people profit and audiences disappear. In the course of a late-afternoon conversation this voice breezes through lively, cheery chitchat that, true to a mind whose art deals explicitly in riffing on the moment, keeps the man himself as enigmatic as the Sphinx.

Grimes answers questions like a fish darting away from a splash. (“It’s great,” he says when asked about he feels about living in New York again after a 35-year absence, then immediately, “and it’s hard. I still get lost trying to walk around the [East] Village and find out where I’m going. But other than that, pretty good.”) He characterizes himself in terms of terms. (“I try to get to where, as Art Blakey used to say, ‘Play with the young guys,’” he cracks with a deep laugh. “That’s the way I feel now.”) And he blithely admits that he’s talked to Sun Ra crony and current Arkestra leader saxophonist Marshall Allen about their upcoming tour to raise money for the Arkestra—the duo’s first appearance is Baltimore—but, well, that’s about it.

“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Grimes says. “Marshall’s a lot of fun. I’ve talked to him, as far as getting this tour together, but I’ve never played with him before. But it’s going to be great.”

Thing is, something about the way Grimes says this, you know it’s going to be great—even if you’ve never heard him play. And given his career, most jazz fans haven’t heard him play in person for some time. You see, part of the reason Grimes may sound so at ease with his recent rekindled jazz career is that for roughly 30 years he didn’t have a music career at all. He’s lived through not having what he trained for and spent his adult life doing. And if you can withstand being gone—and even presumed dead—and have the fortitude to pick up your instrument again without missing a beat, the rest is all gravy.

Everybody loves a comeback story, and Grimes can make a bid to have one of the greatest musical comebacks of all time. The Juilliard School graduate entered the late-’50s jazz world playing and recording with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, and Benny Goodman. And like many players of his generation, he gravitated toward the avant-garde in the early 1960s. By the decade’s midpoint he was one of the central figures in New York’s experimental- and free-jazz flowering. Grimes’ staccato fingering and soulful arco can be heard on some of the most vibrant and vital documents of the era: Albert Ayler’s Sprits Rejoice and Live in Greenwich Village, Frank Wright’s Trio, Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Conquistador, and that little-known masterpiece, Marzette Watts’ 1966 Marzette Watts and Company.

And then, for reasons he’s flirted with describing as both financial and emotional but keeps entirely his own, in 1968 he packed up and moved to Los Angeles. He played some in the early 1970s but eventually sold his bass and worked outside music for the next 30 years.

Grimes doesn’t demur from talking about those decades, but he’s cagily vague. He’s talked about all this already—back after a Georgia social worker by the name of Marshall Marrotte located Grimes in his downtown L.A. efficiency apartment in 2002, back after William Parker donated a bass to him, and back when he made his first NYC performances since ’68 at the 2003 Vision Festival. “It was very weird while I was away from music and away from musicians,” Grimes admits, only to elide over it with, “but as soon as I got some calls from a few people, a few musicians who knew where I was, it was over then.”

Now the man is almost as busy as he ever was, playing in a series of trios with Hamid Drake and David Murray, Marilyn Crispell and Andrew Cyrille, and Andrew Lamb and Newman Taylor Baker. And to hear Grimes talk about music, it sounds like he never left.

“What was going on in the ’60s were called the same things that they are now, except in the ’60s it was new,” he says. “Now it’s not old hat, but a lot of things go in a lot of different ways, a lot of stimulating drive occurs. My impression is that things are just as good now, maybe even better. For instance, gigs are much more liberal than they used to be. We used to have to do five sets a night. We don’t do that anymore. I find that to be very different, because it’s a lot of heavy work that musicians don’t do anymore. So that’s a great thing about it.”

Wow. Leave it to a jazzman who has endured economic and spiritual exile to whittle down the heart of jazz’s troubles since the 1960s in artful understatement. “The ideas [in jazz now] are based on a lot of the musicians like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler,” Grimes says with cheery nonchalance. “But I think performers like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman make a lot more money now than they ever did before. So that’s a good thing.”

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