Roswell Rudd, Trombonist of Agreeable Bluster and Far-Ranging Influence, Dies at 82

Dec 22, 2017

Roswell Rudd, a trombonist whose jubilant blare and yawping wit made him a singular fixture in the jazz avant-garde — as a bandleader, a member of The New York Art Quartet and a frontline partner for titans like saxophonist Albert Ayler — died on Friday morning at his home in Kerhonkson, N.Y.

He was 82. The cause was prostate cancer, said his longtime partner, Verna Gillis. Rudd had been in treatment for the last several years.

Over the course of a career that began more than 60 years ago, Rudd personified a warm and agreeable bluster as an improviser, with a sound that was unmistakable in any setting.

And those settings varied wildly, because Rudd was the sort of musician who couldn’t help but draw connections: between throwback jazz traditions and a forward-hurtling revolution; between folk customs from far-flung hemispheres; between musicians of divergent backgrounds, objectives and approaches. His unguarded instinct for collaboration was one facet of an artistic persona that never wavered, despite a long season of obscurity and many years of lean receipts.

“He was already thinking so far into what we accept now as music,” said trumpeter Steven Bernstein, a disciple and longtime champion of Rudd’s. “I think he’s someone who kind of laid the foundation for what my generation did.”

Trained as a gutbucket trombone player in the mold of Miff Mole, Rudd had his first notable gig with Eli’s Chosen Six, a Dixieland band made of students at Yale University. (The band recorded for Columbia, and appears in the opening scenes of the concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day.) But soon after Rudd graduated from Yale and moved to New York, he fell into the avant-garde — first under the guidance of Herbie Nichols, and then in association with another pianist, Cecil Taylor.

Rudd liked to point out that the on-the-spot polyphony of a trad-jazz band was perfect training for the spontaneous roil of free jazz. “In the heart of it, for all music, is playing off each other and being aware of each other,” he told me in 2015. “Having that call and response going on collectively is what makes the sound.”

The unexpected but logical confluence of “inside” and “outside” in Rudd’s musical language was intact virtually from the start. It’s already clear on Archie Shepp’s 1964 Impulse! album Four For Trane. Rudd contributed horn arrangements to the album, which he also stamped with his personal style: consider the orchestration of the melody on “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” and his plunger-muted harrumphs behind Shepp’s fiery tenor saxophone solo.

Rudd brought his sparring technique to other bands of experimental temperament, at a moment when nothing in jazz felt more urgent. He appeared on a series of landmark albums, including the self-titled debut by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra; Escalator Over the Hill, by pianist and composer Carla Bley; School Days, made with a close contemporary, the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy; and New York Eye and Ear Control, by a collective made up of trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Tchicai, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray, who died earlier this month.

The New York Art Quartet at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965
Credit Raymond Ross Archive/CTSImages

Along with Tchicai, drummer Milford Graves and a succession of bassists, Rudd was a member of The New York Art Quartet, which released an important statement on ESP-Disk in 1964. The band was influential despite being short-lived. (Sexmob, Bernstein’s longtime band, was patterned after its example, and made one album with Rudd as an honored guest.)

A New York Art Quartet reunion in the early 2000s was regarded in certain jazz circles as a major event, and yielded a new series of recordings. The vinyl boxed set Call It Art, released on Triple Point Records in 2013, further solidified the band’s stature as a visionary unit in the avant-garde.

Roswell Hopkins Rudd Jr. was born on November 17, 1935 in Sharon, Connecticut. Both of his parents taught in private schools, and his father was a jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer who had the occasional jam session in the house.

Rudd had an inquisitive mind, and he thrived in academic settings: he attended the Hotchkiss School before matriculating at Yale, and taught for years at the University of Maine. He also had a lengthy and formative association with the folklorist Alan Lomax: during the mid-1960s, even as he was stretching horizons with the pioneers of free jazz, Rudd worked by day at Columbia University, as a researcher on Lomax’s “Cantometrics” project.

“He needed people who could do what are called ‘codings’ of global music,” Rudd recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, I got some pretty good ears.’ Boy, they sure got better faster.” The idea behind Cantometrics — charting structural commonalities behind a disparate array of folkloric expressions from around the world – struck a sympathetic chord for Rudd.

It also eventually played into his bond with Gillis, an ethnomusicologist and promoter who helped expand his circle outward. At her urging (and through her considerable efforts), Rudd teamed up with the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté on a well-received 2002 album, MALIcool. Later there came analogous cultural exchanges with the Puerto Rican cuatro player Yomo Toro and the Mongolian Buryat Band, among others.

In addition to Gillis, Rudd is survived by two sons: Greg Rudd, from his first marriage to Marilyn Schwartz; and Christopher Rudd, from his second marriage to Moselle Galbraith.

The home that Rudd shared with Gillis, a rustic cabin in the Shawangunk Mountains, is located near one of the faded upstate New York resorts where he scratched out a living for years in show bands. Rudd was working at one such resort, obscure to the jazz world, when the critic Francis Davis sought him out for a profile published in 1993. (That piece, “White Anglo-Saxon Pythagorean,” has been reprinted in A Francis Davis Reader.)

In recent years Rudd enjoyed his stature as an elder while maintaining a youthful outlook. He led his own bands, like Trombone Tribe, and collaborated with other musicians in his neck of the woods, like singer Heather Masse and keyboardist Jamie Saft.

Rudd’s most recent album, Embrace, features Fay Victor on vocals, Lafayette Harris on piano and Ken Filiano on bass. It was released on the RareNoise label on his 82nd birthday, and he was able to attend an official release show — which doubled as a birthday tribute, with Shepp, Trombone Tribe, Sexmob and others — at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Trombone Tribe at a Tribute to Roswell Rudd, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Nov. 16, 2017
Credit Jazz at Lincoln Center

But Embrace doesn’t account for the final music that Rudd was able to create. In recent weeks, the producer Reggie Bennet set up recording equipment in Rudd’s living room, and they were able to make a few tracks. One of these, “Keep on Stepping,” is a smooth-groove elixir featuring Matthew Finck on guitar, Vito Dieterle on saxophone and Rudd on keyboards and trombone. Its title hints at a determination that Rudd carried with him in the late stretch of his fight, and its soothing mood is a reminder of the significance he always placed in melody.

“The more that my life goes on, the more that I realize that everything that we do in this so-called music goes back to song and dance,” he said in 2015. “Even the languages that we speak, I think, started out as songs.”