Hamiet Bluiett, an iconic jazz saxophonist who co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet and toured with the Charles Mingus Quintet, died Thursday in St. Louis at age 78, his daughters said Friday.
"I feel it inside, not ear alone," Bluitt said of his music in a 2011 interview with the Post-Dispatch. "It tells me a lot of things. It's taken me years to figure out, but I can tell your temperament, your attitude, all by listening."
"And it always rings true."
Bluiett, who turned 78 on Sept. 16, had been gravely ill for some time after suffering several strokes and was taken off respiratory support last week, his daughter Anaya Bluiett wrote in a Facebook post. Dozens of musicians and artists paid tribute to him on social media Friday.
Baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett left us this afternoon at St. Louis University Hospital. He recently celebrated his 78th birthday. Bluiett was a key innovator on the horn, and a major force with the World Saxophone Quartet and the Black Artists Group. A great loss for jazz! pic.twitter.com/36W1IMcuWO— Ted Gioia (@tedgioia) October 5, 2018
A native of Brooklyn, Ill., Bluiett studied the piano and clarinet before he picked up the baritone saxophone at 10 years old. He went on to develop a singular voice on the instrument, reinventing its role in jazz ensembles large and small.
Bluitt pushed the boundaries of what the lowest instrument in the saxophone family could do and advocated for music that placed the powerful, expressive voice front and center. Critics considered him the finest living performer on the instrument.
"It's recognition for the way I played, the power I played when nobody else had the kind of love for the instrument like me," Bluitt said in a 2011 interview with the Post-Dispatch. "I've been part of a revolution that has caused music to be rewritten again."
Bluitt graduated from Lovejoy High School in 1957 and studied at a branch of Southern Illinois University in Alton for a time before joining the Navy as a musician. He played his first gigs in his hometown, at a time when Brooklyn was a lively music scene featuring artists as renown as B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner.
He moved to New York City in 1962, returning often to play and teach in the St. Louis area, where he founded the multidisciplinary Black Artists' Group in the late 1960s.
The group included Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, two fellow saxophonists with whom Bluiett co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet in the mid 1970s in New York City. The fourth member was David Murray.
The innovative quartet - Hemphill on alto, Lake on soprano, Murray on tenor - made its debut in 1976 without a rhythm section and went on to embrace free jazz. Their performances often featured all four members improvising at the same time.
"Those were the "loft jazz" years," Bluiett said in a 2011 interview with the Post-Dispatch. "We played for audiences in lofts all over New York. It was wonderful. That saved my life. We played music the way we wanted to play it and people loved it. It was just great."
Bluiett performed around the world world, including stints with jazz legends Charles Mingus, Gil Evans and Max Roach. He recorded more than 50 albums and has played with a long list of artists in various genres, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.
Bluitt had also founded and led two other groups, the Bluiett Baritone Nation and The Clarinet Family. He was also known for collaborating with artists across other disciplines, including fellow St. Louis-area natives and poets Quincy Troupe and Eugene Redmond.
In 2002, he moved back to Brooklyn to recover from several health complications but continued to travel to New York to perform.
In 2007, a few days before an upcoming performance, he personally called music teachers at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City and asked if he could work with students for a few hours.
Bluitt had the students focus on a single page of music, saying he wanted to teach them to togetherness and the mathematics of music and to have them master the single sheet before moving on.
"This is a barbecue, not a microwave," Bluiett said to the class. "You have to break it all the way down before you can bring it back up."
Services for Hamiet Bluiett will take place at 9 a.m. Oct. 12 at the Lovejoy Temple Church of God in Christ at 511 Canal Street in Brooklyn.
Burial will be at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.