Henry Grimes, Bassist of Avant-Garde Pedigree and a Storied Return, Dies of COVID-19 at 84

Apr 18, 2020

Henry Grimes met with a hero’s welcome, his first of many, when he lugged an upright bass onstage at the eighth annual Vision Festival.

This was May 24, 2003, and the feeling in the room, at Old St. Patrick's Youth Center in SoHo, was momentously charged. It had been 35 years since Grimes last played in New York, and for much of that time he’d been a ghost — an unanswerable whatever-happened-to question, as far as the jazz world was concerned. Some reference books had actually listed him as deceased.

His performance that evening, with fellow bassist William Parker and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, served notice that Grimes was not only alive but still a vital force — bowing his instrument with manic clarity, burrowing into the thorny center of the sound.

It marked the start of a legendary comeback that stretched more than 15 years, until his death on Wednesday at Northern Manhattan Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Harlem. His wife, Margaret Davis Grimes, confirmed the details to the Jazz Foundation of America, which had been assisting with his care. She said the cause was complications from the coronavirus.

Before his disappearing act — which invites comparison with saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, who also died this week, of a similar cause  — Grimes had been a bassist in high demand and even higher promise. Known both for his versatility and the stout fullness of his sound, he began to make a mark in the mid-to-late 1950s, on albums by saxophonists Lee Konitz (yet another casualty of COVID-19 this week), Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins.

Grimes played the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with Rollins, and is captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day with an ad hoc trio featuring Thelonious Monk and Roy Haynes.

In the ‘60s, Grimes began to branch into a burgeoning avant-garde: he appears on Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon and Gil Evans’ Into the Hot; he anchored the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet on School Days and the McCoy Tyner Trio (again with Haynes) on Reaching Fourth. Then came a decisive pivot to free jazz, which had become an onrushing force by 1965, the year of Grimes’ first album, The Call.

Credit Francis Wolff

By that point, Grimes had already appeared on several albums by saxophone firebrand Albert Ayler, notably Spirits and Witches & Devils. In ‘65 he played on Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice — along with a handful of other avant-garde touchstones, like Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Sunny Murray’s Sunny’s Time Now, and Frank Wright’s Frank Wright Trio.

Grimes was a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit, which appeared on half of Into the Hot. Taylor’s fluent yet spiky pianism, and his comfort with atonality, didn’t faze him in the slightest; he subsequently appeared on Conquistador! and Unit Structures. Each is an essential album in the avant-garde canon, and each represents a high-water mark for early Taylor.

In 1968, Grimes headed for California, in search of sunshine and the promise of work. Things didn’t work out that way. His bass was damaged during the cross-country trip, and he sold it. Without an instrument, gigs were hard to come by, so he did an assortment of construction and custodial work. He rented a room in a single-occupancy hotel in the most run-down part of Skid Row in Los Angeles.

Henry Grimes at the Abrons Arts Center, June 10, 2011
Credit Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net

His rediscovery came through the tenacious efforts of a social worker named Marshall Marrotte, who studied court records and other documents in order to find him in 2002. Grimes owned no instrument, so Margaret Davis, an advocate for free jazz musicians in New York City, began a campaign to get him one. This led to William Parker donating one of his own, a bass he’d stained olive green and finished with coats of polyurethane, dubbing it Olive Oil.

Grimes would go on to play hundreds of gigs with that instrument, in New York and around the world. Among them was a return to the Vision Festival in 2004, when he performed in a trio with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Andrew Cyrille. He also rekindled his musical relationships with Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon, and forged new ones with a wide range of admirers, like guitarist Marc Ribot. He could often be seen in the audience at performances in New York, typically wearing a trademark headband, with Davis by his side.

Henry Grimes was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 3, 1935. His first instrument was the violin, which he picked up again in earnest after his return to performing. He graduated from the Jules Mastbaum Vocational/Technical School in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly, and went on to Juilliard in New York, to study with Frederick Zimmermann, principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic. (There was no jazz outlet at Juilliard then, and he left after a year.)

Grimes led a prolific second act — enjoying his avant-garde eminence, performing on many more Vision Festivals, and holding the center of gravity in countless improvisational settings. One of his most fruitful collaborations was with Ribot, who had revered his work with Ayler. In 2005, Ribot released an Ayler tribute called Spiritual Unity, with Grimes, trumpeter Roy Campbell and drummer Chad Taylor.

In a  2012 interview with Brad Farberman for The Village Voice, Ribot reflected on what made Grimes such an ideal musical partner:

First of all, he’s a great improviser. Full of ideas. One of the things that you see in some beginning improvisers are that if you play a note they have to play the same note just to show, “Hey. See, I heard you.” [laughs] Henry manages to counterpoint whatever’s going on, but he doesn’t have that insecure reaction at all. He counterpoints while following his own trajectory, and it always works.

Marc Ribot, Chad Taylor and Henry Grimes at The Village Vanguard
Credit John Rogers / WBGO

Ribot, Grimes and Taylor played a week at The Village Vanguard that year. Reviewing the opening set for The New York Times, I called it “a rough astonishment, restless and altogether riveting.” (The first set of the second night was broadcast by WBGO.) Pi Recordings released an album culled from the run.


Grimes published a book of poems he’d written during his time off the scene, calling it Signs Along the Road.

In a 2012 interview with For Bass Players Only, he reflected on his period of exile.

“I never gave up on music, not for a minute,” he said. “You could say I was absent for a long time, but I always believed I would be back one day. I just couldn’t see the way to get there, but I knew it would happen.”