Juilliard-trained and brilliant, bassist Henry Grimes started out in the sweaty mainstream of ’50s jazz with the likes of Arnett Cobb and Buddy Rich. In the ’60s he threw his lot in with the edge-pushing crowd, with Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry and the saxophonic volcano Albert Ayler. And then, in the early ’70s he sailed clear over the jazz horizon into the great unknown. He became a “whatever happened to” trivia question to jazz lovers. He was dead. No, he was alive but in a religious sect. No, he was an actor. No one connected to jazz really knew. Not for 30 years. But the reissue of each of his classic sessions started fans to wondering again.
And here he is today, one of the great comeback stories in the history of the music, playing like mad, recording as a sideman and leader, even touring as a headliner for the first time in his life.
You can thank a social worker, jazz fan and amateur sleuth who tracked Grimes down to a one-room Los Angeles apartment and — beginning with the avant-oriented mag Signal to Noise — made the Grimes saga one of the jazz yarns of recent years: psychological problems, unemployment, marginal employment. At times Grimes had been homeless, for years he’d been bass-less.
“But I never stopped playing, not in my mind,” Grimes said. And back on the scene — bassist extraordinaire William Parker gave him a new bass to get him started — he’s letting the rest of the world in on the amazing riffs he’s apparently been running in his skull. On Live at the Kerava Jazz Festival (Ayler Records) his first comeback CD as a leader, he seems to be throwing himself into the sonic fray along with drummer Hamid Drake and saxophonist David Murray. His playing is propulsive, swinging, strong; his solos send up clouds of notes before resolving and bringing the swing back to the fore.
And though he’s playing with plenty of younger cats, these days, it’s wildly appropriate that he’s touring just now alongside a contemporary, saxophonist Marshall Allen, the major surviving star from the late Sun Ra’s big-band constellation. A jazz yarn for another day.
Wednesday, March 9, at Young Soul Rebels, above CPOP Gallery (4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-2001). With Faruq Z. Bey and Warn Defever. W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]