Born on November 17, 1935, in Sharon, CT. Education: Attended Yale University; graduated 1958. Education: Attended Yale University; Addresses: Record company--Knitting Factory Works, 4 Leonard Street, New York, NY 10013 Phone: (212) 219-3006 Fax: (212) 219-3401.

As a part of the growing jazz scene in New York in the 1950s, Roswell Rudd was in consort with some of the best jazz innovators the world has known. Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Carla Bley, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and others were all a part of a new direction in American music. New York's Greenwich Village was home to the Beat movement of the literary world and the avant-garde movement in jazz. To all whose image of jazz comes from those days, Rudd was a key player with a sound that blasted into dimensions unimagined--even if he has often been overlooked.

"You blow in this end of the trombone, and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos," Rudd told Willamette Week's Bill Smith who did a preview of the trombonist's show in Portland, Oregon, in January of 1999. Smith noted that "in the last 40 years, no one has taken the instrument further, from Dixieland to the outer edges of the avant-garde, often at the same time. His playing evokes city life-both Uptown and the Bowery, black tie and tails and the same suit you've slept in for days. His trombone sounds like a species all its own. Nat Hentoff has said that Rudd's sound goes `back to New Orleans and further ahead than anyone has yet reached.' His trombone is alive."

Roswell Rudd was born on November 17, 1935, in the small town of Sharon, Connecticut. As a kid he was interested in music and started playing the French horn. He studied music at Yale University, and moved to New York not long after that. From 1954, while still in college, and until 1959, he was deep into Dixieland music and toured with a group known as Eli's Chosen Six. The band appears in the 1958 Newport, Rhode Island, documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day." Until the 1970s, Newport, Rhode Island, was home to one of the world's best known festivals every summer, The Newport Jazz Festival, that eventually moved to New York City in order to accommodate the crowds that increased annually. By 1960, Rudd's direction shifted to the free jazz that Cecil Taylor was playing, and the two began playing together. He went on to play with the Steve Lacy Quartet, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and a few others included in New York's Composers Guild that assembled in 1964 and created a revolution in jazz.

Rudd counts his two major influences as Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. He told Smith that "There was a great influx of music that came into my life when I first got to New York in the late 1950s and discovered these two." While he was in Steve Lacy's group, he had the chance to meet Monk. Lacy had played with him, and they would go watch him live. Rudd had a feel for Monk's music from the first time he heard him. He was able to listen to Monk, then play exactly the same way. Herbie Nichols entered Rudd's life just as he was nearing the end of his. Nichols died of leukemia at the age of 44. He had only gotten a chance to record 30 of his 170 compositions, and died without the appreciation Rudd believed he deserved. "He needed adventurous younger guys who had the drive to learn new music, and that was definitely me," Rudd remembered. They shared another bond, too. Nichols played in a swing/Dixieland band in order to pay the rent while he worked on his own more innovative music.

Rudd fell into obscurity for several years, resurfacing once in awhile to play, mostly in New York. He taught at Bard College, up the Hudson River from New York City, as well as at the University of Maine. For several years he spent his time in the Catskills, where he got his first professional break working with the Dixieland band at resorts. In an interview with Cadence magazine in the early 1990s, Rudd said that he "had been living around there, doing landscaping and being a clerk and doing delivery work," according to Lynn Darroch in the Oregonian, talking about Rudd's West Coast tour in 1999 that took him to 13 cities in Washington, Oregon, and California.

On the tour, Rudd worked with a new quartet that included Portland saxophonist Rob Scheps, who fell in love with Rudd's trombone playing the first time he heard it. At his various stops along the way, Rudd reunited with former colleagues: John Tchicai, who joined the group in Oakland, and bassist Chuck Israels, who sat in when the tour stopped in Bellingham, Washington. Rudd told Smith that the tour was "a wonderful adventure-I can hear it in my music already."

In the fall of 1998, Bob Blumenthal of the Boston Globe welcomed Rudd to that city for his performance at the Green Street Grill. In a phone interview prior to his arrival in Boston, Rudd talked about his present and his past with Blumenthal. He mentioned that he was working on his ongoing project of getting Herbie Nichols' music heard, putting together CDs of his unpublished music. Another project, one he called "Mystery of Light," included varying sorts of singers, songs, dances, visual effects, and dialogue. Rudd said that "when it's fully realized, it will have its own band featuring `bone and African percussion." He also offered Blumenthal his perspective on the notoriety that practically passed him by, without leaving him any bitterness. "It's been a long struggle, but there are those moments--sometimes just a flash--that make you go on. There may have been five times when I was lucky enough to be in situations where the chemistry was just right. The New York Art Quartet was one, meeting Herbie Nichols was another.... You have to put your shoulders to the wheel, even when you feel you're running out of juice, and then that flash comes and you're stronger than before."

When Rudd joined with alto saxophonist John Tchicai, drummer Milford Graves and bassist Lewis Worrell to form the New York Art Quartet in 1964, he was establishing himself as a true jazz artist. The ensemble stayed together only about two years. None of them became common names even among most jazz lovers. When they played together for a jazz festival at the Seaport Atrium, they shared a bill with rock group Sonic Youth. Previewing the show in the New York Times on June 13, 1999, Francis Davis noted that this presentation was not an "act of charity by Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth's founder and guitarist, and an ardent devotee of `60s free jazz," he said. "The show might be one of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival's hottest tickets even without Sonic Youth as the opening act, such is the anticipation about the reunion of Mr. Rudd and Mr. Tchicai, who have not played together since the New York Art Quartet's breakup in February 1966 and who perform in New York individually only once in a blue moon...."

One of Rudd's earliest recordings emerged under new auspices in 1994. In March of 1963, Steve Lacy, Rudd, and the rest of the quartet recorded some Thelonius Monk tunes on a borrowed tape recorder in a New York City coffeehouse. "School Days" was the only one of those recordings that survived for this historical release. Jon Andrews reviewed it in Down Beat in September of 1994 saying that "both Lacy and Rudd impress with their ability to range far from the theme while perfectly maintaining the rhythm and feel of the composition." Andrews noted that while the sound was less than perfect, "the performances make up for it." Throughout the years, Rudd has recorded with the Carla Bley Band. Bley was also one of the originals in the Jazz Composers' Guild of the 1960s, Elton Dean, Cecil Taylor, Paul Haines and Archie Shepp. Some of the earlier recordings from the 1960s have become available in reissue since the 1990s.

Rudd is known for his "extroverted style," as Scott Yanow noted in the All Music Guide in 1996. And his music has been that, but his life has been spent in and out of the public eye. When renowned musicologist, filmmaker and painter Harry Smith died in 1991, he left a legacy that was translated into the Harry Smith Archives. At a benefit performance for the archives in November of 1999, Rudd caught the ears and eyes of Ben Ratliff, music critic for the New York Times. He noted that "one of Smith's lifelong preoccupations was the idea of alchemy, and the evening's great trick of transubstantiation was pulled off by the trombonist Roswell Rudd, who performed "Dry Bones" with Sonic Youth. Mr. Rudd placed shouting, New Orleans-funeral style trombone improvisations over a rock `n' roll drone and it worked; then he hollered fragments of the song's lyrics, stretching out words. From a former Dixieland jazz player in his mid-60s with a lumberjack shirt, swept-back white mane and beard--he looked like something between a country doctor and Moses...."

If Rudd has survived the fame he never quite had, he has "disrupted the cosmos" enough to keep himself in an obscurity that defies the status quo and lets him linger on with his music when others have burned out at much younger ages. "All who come will get an earful and are definitely going to be changed," Rudd promised Smith on that West Coast tour. That is what Rudd has been doing for more than 40 years, and music has been permanently altered because of him.

by Jane Spear

Roswell Rudd's Career

Has played with Herbie Nichols, Thelonius Monk, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy Quartet, New York Art Quartet, Carla Bley, John Tchicai, and others who composed the New York Jazz Composers Guild of the 1960s; taught music at Bard College and the University of Maine.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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