In Heaven With Henry Grimes
by Hank Cherry
The story of a jazz legend who disappeared from music for more than 30 years. And then was found again.
It was just after college, 20 years back. I was living hand to mouth to record collection, eating and breathing music in New Orleans. I managed to get by with a bunch of indistinct restaurant jobs and one unforgettable stint as a part-time record store clerk. Liner note nerd that I was, I came across an old interview with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. And Kramer was talking free jazz skronk. Albert Ayler, he kept saying. Albert Ayler. So I went out and got some Albert Ayler, and that’s where I first discovered Henry Grimes.
Thing is, by the time I discovered Grimes, he had disappeared, last heard from at the end of the 1960s. By the time Reagan was president, jazz magazines were running Henry Grimes’ obituary.
And, if not for an enterprising fan, the story might have stopped there.
Enter Marshall Marrotte, himself a bass player and part-time writer. “My marriage was falling apart, so I was able to focus my energies,” Marotte says. “In reality, I started to become obsessed with the whole process of research. I was listening to his recordings for hours on end. I would stay after work was done, brew up a pot of coffee, put on some music and search online for whatever I could find. In years past I had only been able to gather a handful of mostly wrong info about him: He had died in the 70s in San Francisco, he had died in the 1980s in Los Angeles, he became a preacher.
“I finally came up with some good data and made a call to the SRO Mr. Grimes was living at. After about 15 minutes on hold, I heard his voice. I asked if he was the same Henry Grimes who was active on the jazz scene in New York in the 1960s. He said yes. I asked if I could interview him and I booked a flight for the next weekend, which emptied what little savings I had at the time.”
Everyone who discovers Grimes becomes similarly obsessed. Next-generation musicians like guitarist Marc Ribot (the Lounge Lizards, Tom Waits) trombonist Craig Harris (Sun Ra, the Four Tops), and late punk maestro Robert Quine (the Voidoids, Lou Reed) cherished his recordings with messianic conviction. Same can be said of the influential musicians who played with him: Don Cherry, Marzette Watts, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Haynes. They all heard the same swinging genius. All the jazzers who heard Grimes set about to employ him, desperate to capture his magic. Watching him trade effortlessly between bass and violin, in mid-stride sometimes, you can’t help but hear his music shape into something larger than life, stratospheric. The terrycloth sweatband wrapped around his head an angelic halo doused with the sweat of concentration and experimentation.
• • • • •
Grimes has a copy of his resume dating from his time in LA. It lists his skills as waxing, buffing, stripping, sweeping, and mopping. Nowhere does it mention his sublime arco bass playing, his stint at Juilliard, that he gigged with Thelonious Monk at the age of 22, or that when legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus needed another bass player, Grimes got the nod. Because from 1971 until 2002, Henry Grimes played no music. He had no instrument. His sole creative outlet was the poetry he patiently set down into his notebooks.
And that’s a sin, because from 1957 to 1966, Grimes recorded more than 60 sessions. He played with Cherry, Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Sonny Rollins, and Monk. A legion of legends. The list of performers he has played with since his return is equally inspiring: saxophonist David Murray, Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, the late free jazz legend Fred Anderson, and pianist extraordinaire Marilyn Crispell.
As of September, he’s back on the road. “This is the Renaissance man tour,” wife and manager Margaret Davis Grimes tells me over the phone before they depart from home. “He’s doing poetry, he’s playing solo, he’s teaching master classes, playing with a number of excellent performers—Kidd Jordan in Chicago, Marc Ribot in Canada. The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, at the Buffalo Academy teaching a group of children, which he loves doing.”
She hands the phone to her husband. Henry tells me he’s ready to get on with the tour. These don’t seem like the words of a 75-year-old, but then Henry isn’t your average 75-year-old. Since his return, Henry has traveled the world, recorded more than 18 sessions, and played New York’s Vision Festival seven consecutive times. Certainly not the behavior of a retiree.
Asked if the lost time saddened him, if he was angry about it, Grimes doesn’t hesitate. “How can I be mad at what happened,” he says. “It’s still happening.”
And of course he’s right. It is still happening. He has a popular Facebook page and a website (www.henrygrimes.com) dedicated to his artistic pursuits. A book his of poetry is in print. A biography is in the works. So is a documentary film. Spirits Aloft, a final collaboration with late drummer Rashied Ali, is his newest disc. It is available on the tour, and will be released at the end of the month.
There can be no doubt this change late in life centers on the distance he put between himself and Los Angeles where he meagerly eked out an existence. He grabbed what jobs he could, working as a security guard at the Mission downtown, at a bowling alley in Long Beach, and finally, as a custodian for a temple in Westwood. What music he heard came from the rinky-dink AM/FM radio stowed in his room at the single room occupancy hotel where he lived. So separated from the music scene was Grimes, he had no idea his good friend Ayler, the pioneering free jazz musician, had been murdered in 1970, around the same time Grimes drifted into anonymity.
• • • • •
Grimes moved west around 1969. He had his reasons for skipping out on New York. The tail end of the 1960s was unkind to free jazz, the form named after the Ornette Coleman recording of the same name and pioneered by Coleman, Taylor, and Ayler. Looking to move the music from the rigidity of the 1940s and 1950s, free jazz took its cues from the snaky polyphonic rhythms of New Orleans. But it doesn’t end there. It spiders out into a world of bars and breaks and middle eights that have little importance. You have to listen to understand it. You have to hear where you are going. Free jazz is a way of understanding the world. It is its own language, a lexicon Henry Grimes helped create.
Had Grimes stayed in New York, Hhe would have witnessed cohorts like Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, Archie Shepp, and the late Ali retiring from clubs that had once paid handsomely and instead ply their trade in once-vacant SoHo lofts that became a haven for free jazz practitioners when the jazz clubs abandoned them. SoHo had been on the chopping block itself, but was rescued when Robert Moses’s poorly planned Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut right through the neighborhood, was thankfully abandoned, leaving most of the former warehouse space available on the cheap.
As it was, Grimes missed the entire loft scene. Rumors abounded: He freaked out. He dyed his hair green. None of this is true. His tragedy came when he sold his bass. “Henry’s bass, strapped to a car roof, got cooked by the sun while crossing the desert going west, which took several days,” Margaret Davis Grimes says. “The bass dried up and began to develop cracks, and soon could not be kept in tune. He took it to a repairman who gave him a very high price to fix it. Henry didn’t have enough money to pay for the repairs, and he ended up selling it. Even then, he apparently believed he could get the money together to pay for the repairs and buy it back, but that never came about.”
But Grimes wasn’t a bum or a junkie. As his resume acknowledges, Grimes always had a job. It was the fact that he drew benefits which first alerted Marrotte that Grimes was still alive.
Grimes doesn’t refer to being lost in Los Angeles. Nor does he refer to those years in any definite sense as different. “I wasn’t okay with not playing the bass, but I compensated,” he says, then pauses. “With poetry.”
He filled more than 90 notebooks with free verse poetry. Of particular note is a selection from his poem “Monk’s Music”:
Music functions in a pattern
Patterns function in a whiz;
the worse for patternistry
is not there
the gems of few lines
then- music functions whole,
into system patterns.
Thus do patterns
Current events mark his poetry. The Los Angeles Olympiad, the Greyhound bus drivers strike of 1983. Since money was sparse, Grimes kept his mind sharp by continuing to educate himself at the downtown Los Angeles Library. Eventually he scored a weather-beaten copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Favorites include T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, and Amiri Baraka, a friend with whom Grimes had performed before the move west.
The Los Angeles that he arrived in was hardly a friendly place. Once the home to not one but two thriving jazz communities, you can understand why he migrated there. But by the time Grimes got to LA, both the Central Avenue scene that spawned Mingus and Dolphy and the calmer West Coast jazz scene of Getz, Mulligan, and Brubeck had wound down.
Of course, Grimes would have been hard to find even if those scenes hadn’t been dead. In the late 1970s, he moved into the Huntington Hotel. The Huntington is a flophouse to this day, full of dope fiends, hustlers, and thieves. It’s hard to picture Grimes, well dressed and impeccably polite, in this milieu, yet despite his circumstances he managed to steer clear of the booze, drugs, and crime all around him. Grimes kept his jazz musician past under wraps. In doing so, he probably ensured his own disappearance. But he had his reasons. “They stole your shoes,” he says of the people he lived with, and it’s clear he’s sharing a memory and not a metaphor. I’ve seen a photo of Grimes from this time. He’s emaciated, thinner than any picture I’ve seen of him from the age of 22 onward. But he is not broken. His face offers his trademark smile, honest and true, and not beaten down.
• • • • •
It is the smile of a well trained, well educated man. Born into a working-class section of South Philly he describes as “semi-rough,” Grimes attended Mastbaum Area Vocational high school, known for a hyper-intensive music program that required students to master five instruments upon graduation. Grimes chose for his five the violin (his first instrument), the bass, the English horn, the timpani, and the tuba.
During his senior year, Juilliard invited him to audition. The conservatory was still located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, a step away from Columbia and, more importantly, adjacent to Harlem, which was on fire with creativity. Grimes auditioned for the school’s board of directors without a curtain to separate them as they do today. The board liked what they heard. He did two years at Juilliard. “I would have liked to swallow everything they taught whole,” he says.
Henry Grimes plays a solo show in Asbury Hall at Babeville on Thursday, September 16, at 8pm. Tickets are $18 general admission, $12 for members/students/seniors. For more information, visit www.hallwalls.org or call 854-1694.
Seeing him live, I’m not certain he didn’t swallow it all. Immediately noticeable is the energy in his fingers, in his whole body. He plays the bass like he never stopped practicing, and in fact he tells me about running scales on an imaginary bass while waiting for sleep in his hotel room. He plays with zeal and fire, but also with wisdom. During some sections 37-year-old drummer Chad Taylor pushes to keep up with Grimes.
It doesn’t hurt to have the Juilliard training, but what Grimes does on bass, and violin, or whichever instrument he picks up, goes well beyond training. His talent is the reason he remains very much in demand. It’s the work of genius.
Wynton Marsalis called free jazz “formless noise.” Well, Wynton Marsalis hasn’t heard Henry Grimes. Grimes himself says of the style, “it’s that natural occurrence where music is just good.” He wants to explain more, but stops. He knows better. You have to hear it, to see it, to know it, to be it.
Before his departure for California, Grimes recorded a single record as leader—1965’s The Call. It is a frenetic, adventurous, and beautiful debut that remains a seminal free jazz recording. Ayler and Grimes recorded their final date in the winter of 1966, producing the highly lauded In Greenwich Village. Ayler was dead by 1970, and Grimes would not record again for 37 years.
Once Marrotte got word out that Grimes had no bass, a flurry of email activity rounded the jazz circles. Olive Oil, so named because of the bass’s green color, sat in bassist William Parker’s apartment. Parker received one of the email flurries. He tells me via email, “For years one of the most asked questions was where was Henry Grimes. What happened to him, no one knew, just rumors about his death, or him dying his hair green, and moving to California. When I read that Henry was found, it was a great day for the music world. I didn’t respond at first, because I figured he could get a bass in California. But no one responded.”
So Parker took Olive Oil to luthier David Gage’s shop for a minor repair, then shipped the instrument out west.
Grimes said when he saw the crate for the first time, it looked “like a coffin for Dracula. They pried it open with crowbars, the bass was a big ray of hope. The best sounding bass I ever had.”
Ribot got one of the emails, too. He couldn’t believe the news and responded straight away. Grimes and Ribot have developed such a tight relationship that Grimes asked Ribot to write the foreword to his book of poetry, Signs Along the Road. “Although I’d been aware of Albert Ayler’s music since the 1980s, it was guitarist Robert Quine who pointed out to me how important Henry’s role was in it,” Ribot says. “Quine thought Henry’s playing was the most beautiful, original bass playing he’d ever heard, To prove it he played me ‘Goin’ Home,’ and I still remember this first listening. It was one of a very few occasions when a piece of music made me weep. And I wonder how many of the thousands of guitarists and millions of listeners influenced directly or indirectly by Quine’s punk style are aware of the influence of Albert Ayler and Henry Grimes in what they play.”
• • • • •
Spurred on by his lost time, Grimes kicked into overdrive, emulating his first years on the scene. He’s played in 24 countries since his comeback. “Over 380 concerts,” Margaret Davis Grimes says. In demand, never hesitating to do a gig, his touring schedule is as lively as his music. The return to Ayler’s music with Ribot and Chad Taylor is especially good. In place of Ayler’s jackpot of saxophonic delight is Ribot’s nuanced, searing guitar, backed by the inimitable sound of Grimes’s bass. Ribot, Grimes, and Taylor toured Europe this spring, dodging clouds of volcanic ash and mass airport shutdowns, in order to deliver their music. Not even an international natural disaster can stop Henry Grimes now.
Most enjoyable of the recordings he’s made during this resurgence may be his 2009 release, Solo, featuring Grimes and Grimes only. Entrancing, wild, and enveloping, he switches mid-composition from bowed double bass to violin, and lands on different eras of his musical timeline. Here a run evokes Monk’s mad pace, there a cool flutter hints at Miles Davis circa Kind of Blue. A furious blast evokes Ayler and Cherry. Best of all, the disc champions the sound of free jazz. The eloquence of his style comes through this recording most fully. In scales twisted with well spaced modal stretches blue with passion, a pure sense of beat thumps up from his core. Jazz is his voice.
Over the phone, Grimes tells me in his kind, soft-spoken voice that it is like a miracle he’s touring again. And that statement draws me back to the performance of his in January, my first live exposure to him. First impressions do mean something when you are in the presence of genius. I remember watching as the two photographers I dragged along with me became as dizzy from delight as I was. Grimes led his quartet through some exploratory renditions of old standards that saxophonist Giuseppi Logan wanted to play.
Logan has a story, too. Every misstep Grimes avoided, Logan took. He mentions jail, he mentions a woman, he mentions drugs. What he doesn’t mention is the two mind-numbingly expressive recordings he did in the 1960s before life forced him to fade from the scene altogether. When Logan and Grimes dig in, a tapestry spun from the fibers of their past covers the music with unexpected warmth. The sound is dynamic, riveting, but also friendly. When they switch into Gershwin’s “Summertime,” originally composed for the opera Porgy and Bess, Grimes steers the song up into the ether of skronk. They cook. Until at last, Logan releases the blues. Grimes adds a final run, sending the piece to a close.
No doubt Henry Grimes has returned. Some might have shrunk from the challenge, unwilling to create a future from so distant a past. Grimes didn’t. He’s teaching the world how to speak his language, a pied piper of free jazz. Experiencing him perform, led by his ears, is to know that as much as his time was then, it is much more right now.
Connie Crothers, the piano player from that January session puts it another way. “It’s like being in heaven, playing with Henry.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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