Ted Curson, a Montclair, N.J.-based trumpeter who gained international fame as a free jazz contributor playing with Cecil Taylor and leading his own bands, died on Nov. 4 in his Montclair home. He was 77.
The cause was heart failure, as stated by his wife Marjorie.
When Curson was not performing, he was promoting the jazz tradition: In 1983, he established a late-night jam session at Manhattan’s famed Blue Note, which he ran for about 10 years. And for the last decade he has led a jam session at Trumpets Jazz Club one night per month, in Montclair. “Ted was really wonderful,” says Trumpets owner Enrico Granafei. “He was a person who everybody loved and he always tried to help people.”
He had been scheduled to perform there as usual in recent weeks. “He never stopped practicing,” Marjorie Curson told the Newark Star Ledger. “He’d already chosen the mouthpieces he was going to use at Trumpets that week.”
As a leader, Curson recorded 16 albums and appeared on 300 albums as an in-demand sideman. He also played flugelhorn and the piccolo trumpet. At times, when he really wanted to stretch out, he would take to scatting.
Born in Philadelphia on June 3, 1935, Curson settled on the trumpet early on, although his father wanted him to play alto saxophone. He later took music lessons at Philadelphia’s prestigious Granoff School of Music. Following a few gigs in Philly, he moved to New York in 1956—at the suggestion of Miles Davis.
He recorded a few years later with Cecil Taylor, who was already known as an innovator splashing in the pool of the avant-garde movement. Curson came out of the bebop tradition and was an innovator in his own right; he was a welcome addition to Taylor’s quintet, which included saxophonist Bill Barron. Together they recorded the memorable album “Love for Sale” in 1959. He boldly blew his trumpet on some of the most challenging jazz records of the early 1960s.
Curson later joined Charles Mingus and another exciting mix of musicians that featured Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Bud Powell and Dannie Richmond. The group is most memorable for the 1960 live album “Mingus at Antibes” (Atlantic Records, 1960).
In 1961, Curson recorded his first solo album “Plenty of Horn,” with his interpretations of songs by Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers, as well as his own compositions. The saxophonist Eric Dolphy rejoined him for his next album. Curson enjoyed his friendship with Dolphy, whose music was always on the shores of new inventions.
Following Dolphy’s death in 1964, Curson paid tribute on “Tears for Dolphy” (Black Lion Records, 1964), his best-known album. The title track has been used in film soundtracks, including those for “The Brown Bunny” and “Last Date.”
Curson’s great playing ability, his hard-hitting rhythmic flow and his penchant for the avant-garde as well as ballads and blues earned him quite a reputation in the U.S., but it was in Finland where he was acknowledged as a real jazz giant.
In 1966, he played at the opening of the Pori Jazz Festival, which became one of the largest in Europe. Curson never missed a year of the festival as its guest performer. The president of Finland visited his home in Montclair during a visit to the United Nations. He was given the key to the city of Pori in 1998. Earlier this year, he played at the 2012 Festival. Marjorie noted, “Finland loved him—he was a celebrity there.”
In addition to his wife, Curson is survived by his son Ted Jr., his daughter Charlene Jackson, six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.