Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Death of a Tenor Giant

Originally posted July 16, 2005

Stubblefield passes after long illness; Big George Brock on CD

John Stubblefield, a great tenor saxophone player who was born in Little Rock and worked as a jazz musician in New York with some of the most talented people in the business, died on the Fourth of July at the age of 60 after battling prostate cancer.

Stubblefield’s death has hardly been noted in Arkansas — the Little Rock paper published only a small paid obituary

announcing his passing — although former Presi-dent Bill Clinton and comedian Bill Cosby visited him a few weeks ago at the hospital. Clinton told him he hadn’t played his saxophone in three years because he’d been busy writing his autobiography, and then his heart surgery made it difficult to play. Clinton also visited other patients before he left the hospital.

Stories about Stubble-field and his music appeared on the Internet as soon as his death was announced.

The New York Times ran an article that was placed prominently on the top left-hand corner of its obituary page, and deservedly so.

Stubblefield played and composed for the Charles Mingus Big Band and also played with Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Mary Lou Williams and other stellar musicians. He was among a small group of brilliant saxophone players who grew up in the Little Rock area — the others are Pharoah Sanders and Sam Rivers (both still going strong) — and all three are admired by both fans and fellow musicians for their powerful sound and sweetness of spirit.

It figures that Arkansas would produce three first-class musicians who could play ferocious jazz and still sound lyrical when they wanted to, and be as down-to-earth once they put their instruments down.

Stubblefield appeared with Rivers a couple of years ago at UALR when Rivers returned here for the first time in more than 50 years. Sanders, who was known as “Little Rock” when he lived in New York, also made a rare appearance here last fall when he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

“Family Portrait” (Audioquest) is one of Stubblefield’s best CDs and includes Eduardo Simon on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. Stubblefield dominates the CD with his rich, full-throttle sound.

He is also heard on McCoy Tyner’s Big Band CD, “Journey” (Verve) with an all-star cast: Tyner on piano, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Steve Turre and Frank Lacy on trombones and others.

Friends and family held a celebration of Stubblefield’s life on Thursday in Little Rock. Funeral services were held Friday. He’s gone, but his music lives on.

Roger Stolle, who owns Cat Head music shop down in Clarksdale, Miss., has started a record label so the whole world can hear the Mississippi-born harp player Big George Brock, a 73-year-old bluesman with a sound as big as a freight train hurtling through the cotton fields in the Delta.

Cat Head has just released Brock’s “Club Caravan,” featuring the Houserockers for 50 raucous minutes of classic blues that will take you back to 1950s Chicago, although Brock, a former boxer who was born in Grenada, Miss., has lived in St. Louis for most of his life.

Big George composed most of the music on “Club Caravan” (named after one of the blues clubs he ran in St. Louis), with some Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy William-son and Mud-dy Waters tossed in to spice things up. But this is Brock’s show, which sounds like one of his marathon juke joint performances.

All you have to do is hit replay and keep listening to a genuine master of the Delta blues.

Big George is one of the last of the authentic Southern bluesmen. Most people don’t even know they’re still around. When they’re gone, their music will only be heard on CDs and LPs. Stolle has recorded one of the best.

“Club Caravan” is available from www.cathead.biz.


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