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Remembering The Jazz Legends Who Died In 2020


This is FRESH AIR. Dozens of notable jazz musicians died in 2020, many from COVID-19. We lost far too many jazz musicians this year to even mention all of them. The drummers alone we lost include Jon Christensen, Ray Mantilla, Jimmy Cobb, Charli Persip, Viola Smith and Candido Camero. Earlier in the year, FRESH AIR remembered pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Lee Konitz. Now jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers seven other musicians who died this year.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was one of those musicians you heard more than you knew, playing on TV shows and a zillion record dates, where his unobtrusive, often bluesy licks and sturdy rhythm chords quietly made a big difference. His guitar and bass playing kids carry on the tradition.

Another jazz patriarch died on the same day, April 1, Ellis Marsalis. The swinging aesthetic he imparted to his famous sons and to countless students made him one of the real tastemakers of jazz over the last 40 years. Ellis Marsalis was also New Orleans' emblematic modern jazz pianist back when his kids, Branford and Wynton, were toddlers.


WHITEHEAD: Another product of a musical family, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who died at age 93, sometimes played in the Heath Brothers band with his siblings, Percy and Albert. In Philadelphia in the 1940s, Jimmy hung with fellow up-and-coming saxophonists John Coltrane and living treasure Benny Golson. They worked hard to play fast and clean, creating a Philadelphia tenor style. Here's Jimmy Heath in 1975.


WHITEHEAD: Annie Ross, who died in July, was an actor as well as singer. She'd occasionally combine those careers, as in Robert Altman's film "Short Cuts." Acting and jazz singing have much in common. In either case, you have to sell the story and sometimes to appear totally relaxed while performing several complex actions at once. Annie Ross was at it by the early 1950s before joining the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.


ANNIE ROSS: (Singing) I wondered if I was high or if it was a mere hallucination. I turned round and found something I thought was merely my imagination. On my blouse a mouse sat there. And this is what it started to hear. If you want to hear the story of a mouse in all his glory, then I'll tell you all about the time I was kicking with a band. And all the cats thought I was really the end. They'd always stand around to hear the sound that was coming from a crazy little creature who was standing on the bandstand. That was me.

WHITEHEAD: In 1964, Gary Peacock had played some of the wildest bass then captured on record with free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Later, Peacock applied the same intense physicality and leaping lines in less extreme settings, notably in pianist Keith Jarrett's long-running trio with Jack DeJohnette on drums. Gary Peacock made the bass violin sing in its own quirky voice, and his confidence in the upper register dared other bassists to aim for high notes when they solo.


WHITEHEAD: We'll end with two trumpet players. In a music that prizes the personal voice, Wallace Roney did something profoundly tricky. He made no secret of his admiration for Miles Davis at several junctures in that trumpeter's career. But Roney absorbed Miles's values so completely, they became his own - a way to express himself, so his playing didn't sound like a stunt or gimmick. Even Miles liked it. Wallace Roney had a beautiful, sometimes melancholy tone that could touch you in its own right.


WHITEHEAD: Personally, I'll miss three departed musicians who worked at the fringes of jazz - the master of improvised and interactive electronics, Richard Teitelbaum, the Dutch pianist and instrument inventor Cor Fuhler, and finally, the resolutely untameable Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. When he was in the mood to really blow, Kondo's raw go-for-broke horn conjured the expressive power of the early jazz pioneers. That ancient, earthy cry keeps echoing down the decades, bound for jazz's future. Musicians pass. The music keeps rolling.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, for New Year's Eve, we have some wonderful music to end a not-so-wonderful year. We'll feature our concert by an interview with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright and Vince Giordano, who leads the band The Nighthawks. He plays tuba and bass. They teamed up for a new album of songs from the 1920s and '30s called "I'd Rather Lead A Band." It includes songs by Irving Berlin and Fats Waller. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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