Hamiet Bluiett – the legendary baritone saxophonist and co-founder of the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) and the World Saxophone Quartet – passed away Thursday, October 4 at age 78. His health had been in decline in recent years following a stroke, which forced him to return to his hometown of Lovejoy, Illinois from New York City, where he first moved in 1969.
His closest friends and collaborators, all with connections dating back to the 1960s, remembered Bluiett as a creative force with a keen ear and biting wit.
Oliver Lake – Bluiett’s fellow co-founder of BAG and the World Sax Quartet – first met him in the mid-1960s after Bluiett got out of the service and started playing baritone saxophone while a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). He had played in a band while in the U.S. Navy after playing clarinet at barrelhouse dances in Brooklyn, Illinois during high school. When Bluiett started coming around the jam sessions in St. Louis in 1966 and 1967 that would soon evolve into BAG, he had an immediate impact.
“We were searching,” Lake said. “It was exciting. He had such a unique voice on that baritone sax. He carried a lot of weight with other musicians because of his creativity and freshness.”
Bluiett led the BAG big band during 1968 and 1969. The collective incorporated much more than music; it also encompassed creative work in theater, visual arts, dance, film and poetry. Bluiett began what would become a lifelong collaboration with poets.
Eugene B. Redmond – the poet laureate of East St. Louis, which neighbors Bluiett’s hometown – first met him in the mid-1960s at SIUC when Bluiett was a student there and Redmond would attend rallies. Of course, black arts movements were also caught up in black political movements.
“He was one of the most conscious people I know,” Redmond said. “And, you know, we use the spelling ‘conch/us/nest,’ which jives with Bluiett. That captures his sound and his elevated understanding of our feeling about life. Sometimes that awareness came out in angry blasts, or mournful blasts, of his horn. Sometimes it came out in spoken word.”
Quite often it came out in humor, as spontaneous as his improvisations on the horn.
“He was funny as hell – hilarious,” said poet Quincy Troupe, his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, who also wrote some of his liner notes. “I loved him as a person and loved his horn playing. He was always surprising. He would say anything that came to his mind. He played music that way, too. You had to be ready for him.”
The audience had to be ready for him, too. Like Charles Mingus, whose band Bluiett played in after he moved to New York (he toured Europe with Mingus and was featured on the classic album “Mingus at Carnegie Hall”), he could be demanding of his audiences.
“He would sometimes stop and lecture an audience that was not fully awake,” Redmond said. “He could be very cutting in his comments. He had that edge. Miles had it. Mingus had it.”
But Lake, who shared stages with Bluiett hundreds of time (the last time with the World Sax Quartet was in Pittsburgh in September 2016), said his wit shone through, even when he was cutting.
“He had an edgy personality, but he was very humorous, even when he went to the edge,” Lake said. “People loved him.”
Musicians, in particular, loved him for his keen ear and perceptive comments.
“Bluiett was a master teacher,” Lake said. “He was so perceptive. He could really listen. He could hear when you needed a new reed or had changed a reed. His ear was very acute. He helped a lot of musicians.”
Many of the musicians he helped were youth. He developed a concept called the Telepathic Orchestra, where he would conduct youth in big bands using hand signals to guide their improvisations.
He taught local youth after he moved back to Lovejoy in 2002 to be closer to family and remained here for 10 years before returning to New York. During his time back home, Bluiett often facilitated classes and workshops to develop the region’s next generation of jazz players. When speaking to The American about a youth orchestra he assembled in 2008 before their debut performance, he said his goal was to teach young musicians things that they can’t learn in school.
“Schools are all right,” Bluiett said. “To go to school is one thing, but you’ve got to go out and play. It’s not like the classroom.”
Much of his teaching focused on improvisation, which was at the center of his musical practice. The World Saxophone Quartet – which evolved out of an invitation for Bluiett, Lake, David Murray and Julius Hemphill to perform together in New Orleans (after also backing Anthony Braxton in a recording session) – was defined by four saxophonists improvising around often-familiar tunes.
“We’d play melodies, but our main thrust was improvisation,” Lake said. “Bluiett was a master baritone saxophone player and a master improviser. He was always growing. He would keep changing, keep moving forward with the music.”
Troupe spoke to The American from Detroit, where he had plans that night to see his friend James Carter. The consensus among fans of creative jazz is that Carter now inherits Bluiett’s mantle as living master of the baritone sax.
“Blueitt was his mentor, but James couldn’t hardly talk about it yet,” Troupe said. “He really loved Bluiett.”
Redmond said he keeps answering the phone, and it’s always someone who needs to talk about Bluiett and listen to stories about him.
“The reach of Bluiett’s influence, his associates, friends and admirers, is truly global,” Redmond said.
Redmond broke into one of the poems he wrote about his friend. It opens with a recitation of his name, over and over again. “Hamiet … Bluiett. Hamiet … Bluiett.” It was a signature piece that Redmond performed many times.
“It’s like I’m looking for him – ‘Hamiet … Bluiett,’” Redmond said, “but I can’t find him.”
Services for Hamiet Bluiett are pending, and this story will be updated with the information when it becomes available.