From a Growl to a Cry: Hamiet Bluiett's Pioneering Voice on the Baritone Saxophone

Oct 8, 2018

Hamiet Bluiett was as much a soul singer as any broad-shouldered balladeer who recorded hit singles for the rhythm-and-blues labels of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The only difference was that he used a baritone saxophone to do the pleading, growling and shouting, in the experimental vein of progressive jazz.

Other modernist giants of the baritone sax — like Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams — injected more buoyancy, suppleness and inventive possibilities into this seemingly earthbound and unwieldy instrument. But Bluiett, who died on Oct. 4 at 78, reached beyond the postwar schools of bebop and “cool” to the example set in the swing era by Harry Carney, the blustery-but-lyrical baritone paragon who served as both solid anchor and brooding poet for the storied reed section of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

From the beginning of his career in the late 1960s, as part of a burgeoning Midwestern avant-garde jazz scene, Bluiett made no secret of his admiration for Carney’s soaring, deeply textured vocal effects on the horn. From that influence, he built an even more varied, imposing and influential legacy on the instrument.

The World Saxophone Quartet in New York City on Oct. 26, 1990. From left to right: David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett.
Credit Michel Delsol / Getty Images

Over roughly 50 albums as a leader, and as a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ), Bluiett established himself as one of the most influential baritone sax players of his generation by broadening both its expressive and tonal possibilities, “inside” and “outside” traditional settings.

“I fell in  love with the instrument on first sight, even before I knew what it sounded like” Bluiett said in a 1991 interview (later quoted in The Penguin Guide to Jazz). “But I never thought its mission was to mumble in the back row. I thought it should be a lead voice. And when I eventually saw Harry Carney in the flesh I knew I was right.”

Bluiett more that justified his ambitions to place the baritone sax front and center with his breakthrough 1977 album, Birthright (India Navigation). It’s possible to see his whole career exemplified by this early effort — an intense, profoundly adventurous 40-minute solo recital recorded live at The Kitchen in downtown Manhattan.

What’s astonishing about Birthright even now is how his range of raw emotion is so easily accommodated by loosely contained yet strongly enforced thematic contexts. Nearly 10 of those 40 minutes are taken up with “Dolly Baby,” a riveting tour de force evoking gospel music in its headlong transitions from soaring testimonial to spacious rumination, and finally tempestuous yearning.

On another track, “The Village of Brooklyn, Illinois,” Bluiett pays homage to his hometown by laying down a simple riff, then gradually bends, smears, flattens and spins its elements into near-abstractions that somehow manage to keep in step with the beat.

Bluiett could work just as creatively and productively with others — not just on baritone, but also the alto clarinet, notably on a 1984 album, The Clarinet Family (Black Saint), featuring such reed masters as Buddy Collette, John Purcell, Don Byron and Kidd Jordan. Amid such company, Bluiett may have felt obliged to recede into the background. Yet the album helped bring the clarinet into the post-bop era.

His generous spirit and flexible voice allowed him to meld with many other groups and settings. He led a quartet on three albums recorded in 1986 at the now-defunct Carlos I nightclub, featuring pianists Don Pullen and Mulgrew Miller alternating with drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist Fred Hopkins. He also led an all-baritone band — including James Carter, Alex Harding and Patience Higgins — on the 1997 album Libation for the Baritone Saxophone Nation (Justin Time).

But of course, it was as co-founder and foundation of the World Saxophone Quartet that Bluiett achieved the most colorful and dynamic ends. He could lay down a smoldering riff capable of bracing the wildest harmonic variations, as exemplified by “I Heard That,” one of his compositions included on the WSQ’s 1982 album, Revue.

At other times, his inventions could climb up from the bass line and blend seamlessly with whatever the other quartet members were doing, whether it was David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill — or, in other WSQ iterations, Arthur Blythe, Eric Person or John Purcell. Their recordings range from good to great. But to really appreciate them, you had to see them work their collective magic in person; at times, they made you wish they were always on some street corner within walking distance from your home, where they could build their harmonic variations on the fly like a homegrown doo-wop group.

At the tail end of jazz’s first century, when the music was in an era of retrenchment and retrospection, Hamiet Bluiett was pivotal in reminding both his listeners and his colleagues that singing a song was just as important as stringing together clustered mercurial phrases. As a soul singer, he never faltered in going as wide as he went deep.