Henry Grimes and the Spiral of Time

by Pierre Crépon

Henry Grimes                                                                                                        ©2016 Kelly Rae Weime

Very few book-length works have been devoted to the biography of musicians primarily associated with the avant-garde current in ‘60s jazz. Barbara Frenz’s Music to Silence to Music: A Biography of Henry Grimes (London: Northway Publications, 2015) is such a work, and will stand relatively alone on library shelves, near John Szwed’s Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra or Peter Niklas Wilson’s Spirits Rejoice!: Albert Ayler und seine Botschaft (still unavailable in English). Frenz has been engaged with her topic for some time now, having written the introduction to Grimes’ collection of poetry, Signs Along the Road: Poems (Köln: Buddy’s Knife Jazzedition, 2007). Her other publications include poetry volumes and historical works on the Middle Ages. It should be noted that this book was written in German and translated – seamlessly – into English.

Henry Grimes’ life as a musician started with the violin, in Philadelphia, a milieu from which players such as Sunny Murray, Lee Morgan and Archie Shepp also emerged. Born in 1935, Grimes got his start as a professional musician as a teenager in the early 1950s, playing R&B gigs. Simultaneously, he started to study classical music at Juilliard, commuting regularly between Pennsylvania and New York. Juilliard led to an exclusive focus on the double bass, and was supplemented by private lessons with Frederick Zimmermann, principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic and teacher of David Izenzon, Barre Phillips, and other renowned bassists.

The time spent in New York City led Grimes to jazz clubs and to his first significant jazz gig, with Gerry Mulligan. In 1957, Grimes had already made enough of a name on the jazz scene to be present on several recording sessions led by well-known musicians (Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Tony Scott), and was always bumping into people wanting to use him. The 1958 Newport Festival illustrated this fact well, as Grimes played with six bands led by such disparate names as Benny Goodman and Sonny Rollins. The bassist’s first European tour was with Rollins’ piano-less trio in 1959, an experience Grimes describes as “the epitome of being under pressure.” (1)

In the early ‘60s, a distinct avant-garde scene began to take shape in New York. Along with it came the practice of organizing concerts in loft spaces, a setting that Grimes points out as important. At this time, he was playing in Cecil Taylor’s band, in a trio with Don Cherry, and in Charles Mingus’ band when Mingus played piano. Grimes’ involvement with Cecil Taylor’s music was such that he was supposed to go on the pianist’s first stay abroad in 1962, with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray. The Taylor band ended up being a bass-less trio when Grimes’ health problems, involving treatment with Thorazine, an antipsychotic, prevented him from going.

Recording sessions continued, among them Perry Robinson’s FunkDumpling, on which Grimes played a notable role as the record featured three of the bassist’s compositions. The band Sonny Rollins assembled for his high-profile 1963 European tour again featured Grimes, this time with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry as a second horn. Frenz uses the comparison between the 1959 and 1963 Rollins tours as an illustration of Grimes’ growth as a musician whose playing “underwent a fundamental change,” (2) moving from solid accompaniment to long solo excursions, often using the bow. Needing a break after his intensive Rollins work, which had also taken him to Japan, Grimes stayed in New York, continuing to play some of the most important new music emerging at the time.

As Frenz puts it, the early 60s were also a time of “politicization of thought and life.” (3) One of the most interesting quotes of the book has to do with this topic. It comes from a statement made by Grimes after the death of writer and political activist Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, in 2014:

I remember first meeting Amiri ... at Babatunde Olatunji’s loft [in Harlem]. Cecil Taylor first took me up there. Amiri started a movement right there of bringing in people with various literary talents and a lot of musicians and a lot of speakers. He organized this himself. Musicians were joining up and going up there. It was kind of an artistic and political and intellectual gathering under the banner of Amiri Baraka’s poetry. I played up there a few times with Cecil and various others. Amiri and I also played benefit concerts for the civil-rights and black-power movements ... and participated in [political] strategy meetings at Babatunde Olatunji’s loft and other secret locations in Harlem, coordinated and run by a number of organizations of that time – SNCC, CORE, the NAACP ... Malcolm X and his people, members of the Organization of [Afro-American] Unity, etc. (4)

Unfortunately, the reader gets only a glimpse at this scene, which included the famous Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School and was intertwined with the development of loft concerts and some important trends in avant-garde jazz.

Although he did not perform on Albert Ayler’s most impactful recording, Spiritual Unity, Grimes was present on several Ayler sessions and played with him occasionally between 1964 and 1966. He was in the line-up for Ayler’s first major European concerts as part of the 1966 Newport tour; but in the end the bassist was Bill Folwell. At this point, Grimes was, as Frenz puts it, “play[ing] almost entirely in a free music context.” (5)

At the end of 1965, Grimes led his first record, for ESP-Disk’. For The Call, in a sort of mirror effect, it was Grimes leading and Perry Robinson having compositions featured on the LP. Just another ESP record when it came out, the recording did not lead to particular opportunities or to the transformation of Grimes into a band leader.

When Cecil Taylor signed with Blue Note to make two LPs, in 1966, Grimes was a member of the pianist’s unit. A few months earlier, they had played an afternoon program devoted to the avant-garde at the 1965 Newport Festival. Shortly after the second Blue Note session, the Taylor band left for its first major European tour; however, Grimes failed to show up at the airport and only Alan Silva made this historic tour.

Grimes could probably be described as a go-to guy for important avant-garde jazz projects taking place in New York in the mid-60s, a strong example being the trilogy of albums made by Don Cherry for Blue Note, including the landmark Complete Communion (recorded four days before the bassist’s own leader date). For ESP, Grimes also appeared on records by Frank Wright, Burton Greene, Charles Tyler, Karl Berger and Marzette Watts.

The long, singularly mysterious chapter of Grimes’ story began after this period of intense musical activity in New York. In 1967, Grimes took a job as a replacement for Jon Hendricks’ usual bass player. The job took the band to San Francisco, and an anecdote has Grimes getting out of the car that was about to take the musicians back east after Hendricks made derogatory remarks about Cecil Taylor’s playing. During the period which followed – encompassing the “Summer of Love” – Grimes played gigs in San Francisco, including one with Sunny Murray (6) and work with pianist Kent Glenn’s little-documented “unconventional [...] big band that included two bassists and had no written arrangements.” (7)

Grimes then moved on to Los Angeles, where he would remain for three decades. It seems that, not taking part in the more lucrative Hollywood scene and facing health problems, Grimes progressively faded into musical oblivion, finally reaching point zero after selling his bass. Michael Fitzgerald’s research has shown that Grimes played with Archie Shepp during an April 1969 stint at the Both/And club in San Francisco. This information would have been worth inclusion and serious examination, since it suggests the bassist was not as radically cut from his former New York colleagues as Music to Silence to Music indicates. (8)

We do know that Grimes had some degree of contact with the local avant-garde scene, according to Donald Dean, drummer with Horace Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra; but the exact extent of his musical activities in Los Angeles remains unknown. Dean recounts last seeing Grimes around 1970, when the bassist was paying him a visit. Grimes took off his shoes for a walk on the nearby beach and never returned, leaving a pair of empty shoes behind. This story of unusual behavior echoes what Clarence Becton, drummer of the Hendricks band, told Frenz about Grimes driving on the wrong side of the road to get to a gig in Canada.

Those stories might be better leads to understanding the nature of Grimes’ LA years than the explanations offered by Frenz, as could be the pages devoted to Grimes by Perry Robinson in The Traveler. (9) Frenz unfortunately chose to ignore the first-hand account in Robinson’s book about Grimes being treated in a mental hospital and having damaging experiences with LSD. (10)

Grimes’ feeling of finally becoming “like a dead man” (11) was separately accredited in the jazz world through an obituary published in Cadencein 1986. The limbo status in which Grimes found himself in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is maybe best illustrated by the short section about him in John Gray’s authoritative Fire Music: A Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990, published in 1991, which contains a date of death (1984) followed by a question mark. (12)

Grimes’ decades away from music are obviously difficult to piece together, since the bassist does not recall events in a precise manner. Frenz tells us Grimes took a course to take a shot at becoming an actor, something which failed, and mostly worked various jobs, including porter, janitor, guard and construction worker. While always struggling financially, he did not topple into homelessness. We know that Grimes frequented a Self-Realization Fellowship center, taking up the brand of yoga taught by the organization. Visits to the Los Angeles Central Library, reading Yeats, Auden, William Carlos Williams, and studying writing also held a major place in Grimes’ life. His interest in literature expressed itself in a systematic way, through exercises done in the evening, after his day at work. This eventually led him to writing in notebooks, which have been excerpted in Signs Along the Road. Importantly, Grimes did not actively seek contact with the music or musicians, his only encounters being incidental, as was the case when Ken Burns’ Jazz aired on PBS in 2001.

Frenz sums up this extended and obscured part of the bassist’s life with a strong image: Grimes never saw the finished World Trade Center, as the construction ended in 1970 and the buildings were no more when Grimes returned to New York in 2003. Grimes’ absence was also long enough to miss the rise of bassists like Peter Kowald, who Grimes had an enthusiastic reaction to when he finally discovered him.

The story of Henry Grimes’ reappearance, here interestingly recounted in great detail, has been widely covered. Social worker Marshall Marrotte, whose interest in jazz had been triggered by a random encounter with the Grimes’ sole leader date two decades earlier, started investigating his whereabouts in 2002, researching official records and asking around for leads. He finally made contact with Grimes and flew to Los Angeles to interview him. Margaret Davis, who would become Grimes’ wife a few years later, started a campaign to get a bass to him. After an initial lack of reactions, a bass donated by William Parker got to Grimes, springing up from its “casket-like box, like Dracula’s coffin” in December 2002. (13)

Grimes quickly took up playing again, sometimes along with some of his old recordings now available on CD. He made a few local appearances and garnered coverage which helped further his cause. It is interesting to note how jazz writers became protagonists in Grimes’ story at this point. Five months after getting his bass, Grimes was in New York, appearing at the Vision Festival – “a short man surreptitiously emerged from his legend ... to retake his place on stage” (14) –, getting written about in the New York Times and being honored by a five day round-the-clock program of his music on the WKCR radio station.

He then moved permanently to New York, living with Margaret Davis, who took “charge of the business side of his ... work, including publicity” (15) in such a way that numerous international dates and collaborations with some of the biggest names in the field quickly followed. Grimes was able to acquire a stature – and his music a degree of viability – that still eluded many free jazz musicians who had never left the scene. It could be argued that Frenz’s book is itself part of the movement initiated in 2002.

To tell Grimes’ story, Frenz conducted interviews, principally with Grimes, but also with Sonny Rollins, Andrew Cyrille and Clarence Becton. Rollins remains rather superficial in his comments and Cyrille is not quoted at length. Frenz’s “many hours of conversation” (16) with Grimes, which took place between 2006 and 2010, are also not quoted at great length, because the bassist is not especially voluble. Fortunately, even if Grimes does not talk much and usually does not provide precise dates or anecdotes, he often makes valuable comments. Talking to drummer Clarence Becton was a great idea as his recollections account for some of the best primary material in the book, allowing the author to cover more precisely an otherwise quite obscure period in Grimes’ life. Of course, a more extensive campaign of interviews would likely have yielded a lot of new data.

Frenz also relies on the relatively numerous published interviews Grimes gave after his reappearance. She makes extended use of most of them, reading closely and splitting every bit of information for use in the corresponding parts of her book. Interestingly, when interviewers have asked similar questions over time, Frenz compares the different answers given by Grimes and discusses the nuances.

Reviews form the most important part of Frenz’s sources dating back to Grimes’ early career. These include concert reviews, but mostly record reviews – from magazines such as Down Beat, Coda, the German Jazz Podium and the French Jazz Hot – that seem to have been gathered more through existing bibliographical listings than through systematic perusal of the jazz press. Available bibliographical data on free jazz are still largely incomplete and, because of the nature of Grimes’ work as a sideman whose name had few chances of being featured prominently, the documentary corpus from which Frenz draws remains partial.

Once the narrative starts to involve recording sessions, Michael Fitzgerald’s extensive discographical work (17) becomes a central source and nearly a framework for the story. Frenz opts for quoting extensively from record reviews when discussing recording dates. This is a classic trait of jazz writing which leads to a classic flaw of the genre: what could be termed the discographicalbias. Even if records are obviously the main reason we might still be interested in music played several decades ago, they also do not form the whole story and cannot be considered as representative by default. All groups have not been documented by commercial recordings, and some sessions do not document much more than themselves. The abundance of available commentary provided by reviews might give the impression that enough is available to fill the blank spaces produced by the hatched nature of discographical chronology, but much caution should be exerted in this regard.

Extensive research about live music can be a way to balance this bias toward recordings, but this is not done for this book. Missing are quotes from a wider range of concert reviews, concert announcements — from the specialized and general press — or the brief news sections of jazz magazines, which often contain interesting forgotten details. This research could also have helped to establish some inconclusive dates more precisely, as the details of Grimes’ time in San Francisco illustrate. Additionally, the lining up of quotes from record reviews can produce a numbing effect, flattening the narrative and sometimes making it hard for the reader to stay focused on the main story, which is not what people have said of the music, sometimes long after the facts, but the music itself and how it came to be made. In her handling of reviews, Frenz tends to look for the parts discussing the bass playing, often finding little of interest because Grimes was mostly contributing to other people’s music or to group efforts, in a setting very different from the one he plays in today.

It’s likely most people picking up a book about a musician known primarily for playing bass on ‘60s free jazz recordings will be familiar to some degree with the era’s New York scene. Some prior knowledge will be necessary, as Music to Silence to Music does not try to outline a larger historical picture. This is understandable since a comprehensive reference work on the topic has not yet been written, but it remains problematic since assessing the importance of the events discussed is made more difficult without a clearer view of the context. The dynamic at play at this time in the music, which could be described as still being brought into existence, is mostly absent from the book. This might be explained partly because of the plan chosen to discuss Grimes’ work with musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler or Don Cherry in isolated sections dealing with those musicians’ recorded output featuring the bassist.

During Grimes’ absence from the jazz scene, the world drastically changed through the advent of the internet. Frenz makes tangible that the story of Grimes’ return is also a story taking place in a different era, through the use of web sources and email correspondence made accessible to Frenz by Margaret Davis.

Frenz admires Grimes very much, a feeling which rapidly becomes clear. The always positive and enthusiastic tone is overall detrimental to the book, and more critical distance would have been beneficial. Thankfully, music is made of highs and lows, trials and errors, and only musicians with extremely cumbersome egos would present all notes ever played as treasures to be cherished. This is particularly true when dealing with an era of emergence of a new music such as the ‘60s. The constant praising for every musical endeavor (except for those of poor Frank Smith and Frank Wright, who do get negative comments) tends to flatten the narrative once again. Are all records made for ESP-Disk’ masterpieces? Probably not, and saying this does not amount to betraying or disrespecting the musicians who made them.

Years of non-consideration for the music which emerged in the ‘60s have led to a defensive position on the part of the music’s advocates. But unconditional praise is probably not the solution to the status problem, as the music should be discussed on its own terms, not simply as a maligned twin sibling to more traditional jazz, with values mirroring exactly those found in the mainstream of the music. There was something diehard in the pursuit of a music which rapidly encountered obstacles demonstrating it would not integrate seamlessly into the music industry, a chaotic element echoed by the personal paths of some of its practitioners. Sanitizing the story of this aspect – “smooth[ing] out the turmoil of the music,” (18) as Frenz herself writes about record liner notes – is not doing the music a favor, as would be overly romanticizing its history. Ultimately, Frenz has written what could be described as an authorizedbiographyof Henry Grimes. The main contribution of Music to Silence to Music resides in its bringing together a good part of the scattered data available about Grimes and in presenting his life trajectory as an object of reflection, something important that Frenz does well.


*Heartfelt thanks to Craig A. Schiffert, Marc Chaloin and Jason Weiss for their readings of this piece. Special thanks to Kelly Rae Weime for making her photographs available and granting the permission to use them.

1. Frenz, Music to Silence to Music, 37.

2. Ibid., 55.

3. Ibid., 72.

4. Ibid., 73-74.

5. Ibid., 86.

6. This gig can be dated more precisely through a mention in “Strictly Ad Lib,” Down Beat, Sept. 21, 1967, 16, 44, 47–53. Sunny Murray’s “Acoustical Swing Quintet” included Pharoah Sanders, Carlos Ward, Alan Shorter and Grimes.

7. Marc Chaloin with Justin Scovill, Interview with Vince Wallace, May 16, 2004, Berkeley, CA, unpublished. Noal Cohen, “The Kent Glenn Discography,” NoNoal Cohen’s Jazz History Website, http://www.attictoys.com/KentGlenn/. A late 1967 weekend gig with drummer Dick Berk, Kent Glenn and Grimes is mentioned in “Strictly Ad Lib,” Down Beat, Nov. 30, 1967, 42–45. Thanks a lot to Marc Chaloin for those sources.

8. Michael Fitzgerald, “Henry Grimes: Past & Present; Part 1, A Lost Giant Found,” http://henrygrimes.com/biography/. The information is sourced from “Strictly Ad Lib,” Down Beat, May 29, 1969, 13, 33–36. Besides Shepp and Grimes, the band also included Grachan Moncur III and Beaver Harris.

9. Perry Robinson and Florence Wetzel, Perry Robinson: The Traveler (San Jose, CA et al.: Writers Club Press, 2002), 119-124.

10. The manuscript of saxophonist Sonny Simmons’ autobiography contains an account of an encounter with Grimes in San Francisco matching Robinson’s recollections. Sonny Simmons and Marc Chaloin, The Autobiography of Sonny Simmons, unpublished.

11. Frenz, Music to Silence to Music, 140.

12. John Gray, Fire Music: A Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991), 233.

13. Frenz, Music to Silence to Music, 182.

14. Marc Chaloin, “Vision 2003,” Improjazz, Oct. 2003, 17–21.

15. Frenz, Music to Silence to Music, 201.
16. Ibid., xiii.

17. Michael Fitzgerald, “Henry Grimes Discography,” JazzDiscography.com, June 26, 2011, http://www.jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Grimes/hg-disc.htm.

18. Frenz, Music to Silence to Music, 159.

© 2016 Pierre Crépon


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