Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Friday, October 5, 2018

Remembering Hamiet Bluiett: Big Horn, Big Heart



I first met Hamiet Bluiett back in 1989, when I first moved to New York. I was fresh out of Berklee and green as the cucumber fields of Fruitland, Maryland. Back then I counted on friends and colleagues who had already moved to New York a year or two earlier to be buffers between folks and me I wanted to work with. 

On this particular day, I was hanging with guitarist Mark Whitfield, who had left Berklee a year or two earlier to play with a renowned R&B band. After we had finished playing a jam session, Mark told me that he was playing that night with this baritone saxophonist named Hamiet Bluiett, whom I had never heard of, at a spot in Greenwich Village, and that I should bring my horn--at the time would have been my vintage Mark VI tenor saxophone Back then, showing up at other people’s gigs with your instrument was how you found work. It was an informal type of audition and casting call that was never-ending. Much to my surprise, it was one of Hamiet’s large ensembles, that at the time featured Troy Davis on drums, Reginald Veal on trombone (not bass), Steve Wilson on saxophone, Bruce "Bud" Revels on saxophone and clarinet, James Genus on bass, and many others whose names are escaping me. 

The music was very eclectic, a mixture of written parts, musical cues, and free improvisation. What you’d expect from Hamiet Bluiett. In fact, this was my introduction to free improvisation. Coming straight out of the conservatory setting, I was used to following a musical map telling me the tempo, the meter, what chord changes to play on, and how many choruses to play. What Hamiet introduced me to that night was how to follow a musical compass—learning to listen to my musical instincts and not just regurgitate pre-rehearsed vocabularies. 

Long story short, I sat in and did my little thing and everyone seemed to dig it, especially Hamiet. 

Here’s the funny part.

After the first set, Hamiet, looking a little perturbed, asked the band to convene upstairs for a band meeting—including me, even though I had only played on one or two pieces.
All of the band huddled around Hamiet in this very small and cramped green room. We were all sitting, while he stood, occasionally prancing from left to right, as he began tearing the band a new one!

His tirade went something like this: “What the hell are you guys doing out there?! What the HELL are you doing?! Why the hell are you trying to swing? If you want to swing, go play with Miles Davis or Jimmy McGriff, or one of those motherfuckers! Don’t bring that shit to my bandstand. If I play in C, don’t you play in C. Play in B or Db. If I play in 4/4, don’t you play in 4/4. Do something different. Use your imaginations.”

And much to my surprise, he pointed at me and said, “Now this man. He’s going in the same direction as me.” To say that I felt more uncomfortable than flattered would be a gross understatement. During those days I was very much influenced by 1960s John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. So playing in that freer,  experimental setting felt very scary, yet, liberating—something I only learned to appreciate years later.

That night made a significant impact on me. Going to Berklee taught me to be a musician, that night with Hamiet taught me what it’s like to be an artist. A path I’m proud to say that I’m still pursuing passionately.

Mr. Bluiett’s music and generosity of spirit will be missed. He formally and informally mentored many young musicians who had the good fortune of crossing his path. Brooklyn, Illinois, would be proud to know that one of their own represented them well. He left the world in a much better place--an endeavor to which most can only aspire.  R.I.P.

Check out this 2010 performance of Hamiet playing at "Giant Steps" at a rehearsal for the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. Recorded February 4, 2010.

This trio features the Kahil El'Zabar Ritual Trio


Kahil El'Zabar -- drums

Hamiet Bluiett -- baritone saxophone

Junius Paul -- contrabass

I really like the way Hamiet opens up this tune. Not an easy task. As most know who've played it, it's difficult not to fall into a patternistic approach when playing this tune. Hamiet's performance is devoid of all cliches. 

Enjoy!



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