Henry Grimes, 3 November 1935 – 15 April 2020; tribute by Geoff Winston
The death of Henry Grimes last Friday 15 April from Covid 19 complications is sad indeed, bringing the eventful life of one of jazz’s most talented, versatile and inventive bass players to a close at the age of 84.
Grimes, born in 1935 and brought up in Philadelphia, with a burgeoning jazz community that included Archie Shepp, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan and Ted Curzon and had Coltrane as an incomer, studied music at the enlightened Mastbaum Technical High School, where the course demanded proficiency on five instruments. His were violin, drums, English horn, tuba and bass. “It was a spectacular education,” Grimes has said, “really deep in to mystical elements of music.”
This immersion helped to shape his outlook and lifelong approach to the music, taking him to the Juilliard in New York (a crippling daily commute) in 1952, where he was in demand for his classical expertise as well as for jazz, then, after an epiphany hearing the MJQ from the hallway at Birdland, to the leading edges of the 1960s avant-garde, where he was key bass player, crucially, with Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, and with a host of others which reads like a directory of the period, from Benny Goodman to Lee Konitz, Charles Lloyd, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Equally comfortable playing swing and straight-ahead, he also toured with R & B bands, notably with Arnett Cobb.
The one album in his own name from his early career was The Call, a fresh and inventive trio recording for ESP in late 1965, the groundbreaking label for which he also recorded on several albums, including for groups led by Ayler, Burton Greene and Marzette Watts. His last recording before he vanished from view for over 30 years was with Ayler at the Village Vanguard in December 1966.
An introverted and deeply thoughtful character, with some health issues – depression, he admits, which he gradually overcame in the late 1970s, he relocated to the West Coast. After his bass was damaged and irreparable at an affordable price, he sold the bass to survive and then it turns out he worked on construction sites and as a school janitor for around 30 years, always keeping his fingers exercised and nimble, anticipating an eventual return to music, and writing poetry. Untraceable, there were reports of his demise in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet, in 2002, social worker and jazz writer, Marshall Marrotte, whose own epiphany had been to hear The Call, after much sleuthing tracked down Grimes to his SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel, and then, after connecting with Margaret Davis (to become Grimes’ wife in 2007) William Parker responded to the call for a bass for Grimes and he was back in action with resolve, commitment and determination, playing hundreds of gigs, teaching, attracting awards and recognition, almost as though there had been no interim – very much in his own world, however, he hadn’t realised that Ayler had passed.
I was most fortunate to see him playing on many of his London gigs, including powerful sets with Marc Ribot and Chad Taylor at Bishopsgate (2011) and Cafe Oto (2013). Others at Cafe Oto included a wonderful date with pianist Bobby Few (they were born within weeks of each other) until his last appearances here in 2015, with Marshall Allen in small groups at Cafe Oto and the Vortex and in a wonderful orchestral setting at the Barbican. Links to all these reviews are below.
His solo CD of 2013, Tone of Wonder, carried through his incredible technical invention and steadfast vision for which he’d set a marker with his extraordinary double CD of 2009, entitled Solo.
After making initial contact with Margaret and Henry at the end of 2011, it was an incredible privilege that they both accepted the invitation to attend the opening of my wife’s exhibition of paintings in New York in spring 2015, something to add to the transportative experiences of being in the presence of Henry Grimes and hearing his magical playing, which so many others will have had the good fortune to experience, too, in his exceptionally productive late career years.