By Nyame-Kye Kond, Special to the AFRO
Dating back to the days of Black Broadway, When the U street corridor was an important destination for Black musicians, and later on when it became a poetry, and Go-Go hotspot in the 1990’s to the early 2000’s, Washington D.C. has always been an artistic mecca for progressive Black musicians. One such musician that cultivated important jazz relations in D.C. was the trendsetting saxophonist and bandleader, Hamiet Bluiett.
Transitioning earlier this month at the age of 78, Bluiett was a fierce contributor to the Washington, D.C. jazz world, and leaves behind a legacy worth commemorating.
Known for being a well-versed bandleader and accompanist, Bluiett played a slew of different instruments but his specialty was the baritone sax. Turning the latter into a soloist instrument, which is not very common because of its strong belching sound, Blueitt is credited for being a pioneer in jazz because of this, and also helped to revolutionize the “Downtown Loft Jazz” scene that swept the nation.
Perhaps his biggest achievement was establishing the World Saxophone Quartet. The first of its kind, the World Saxophone quartet, was originally formed during the era of “free jazz” and had little structure until Blueitt decided to take matters into his own hands – providing structure and order where there was none. When interviewed for NPR in 2010, Bluiett recollected the moment he decided to add more structure and said “’Wait, this ain’t making sense. I don’t like this. Because we play a tune, let me stick to what’s on the paper.’ I would see what’s on the paper, and make a bass line out of it — makeup some kind of line using the tunes.”
Steadily changing the ways in which saxophones worked together, as well as the way in which people listened to them, Blueitt quickly became influential in pushing the jazz boundaries into further avant-garde territories.
Referencing his admiration for the D.C. jazz style early on in his career, Bluiett cites his earliest inspirer to play baritone saxophone as Duke Ellington’s longtime player, Harry Carney. Seeing Carney play while he was still a young guy, Bluiett committed himself to being a baritone sax player as well as an eternal advocate for young musicians.
Understanding that influence and representation is everything, Bluiett got some of his earliest work being an accompanist for other great musicians. Playing with such legends as Charles Mingus, Babatunde Olatunji, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to name a few, Bluiett dug out his own niche in the arts community, even going so far as to establish his own art organization entitled Black Artist Group (B.A.G) of St. Louis early on in his career. Combining free form jazz with theater, B.A.G, helped to support and usher in a new generation of progressive musicians under Bluiett’s leadership, and innovative ways.
A revolutionary artist because of his stance and politics, Bluiett understood the power of art, and that it is the artist themselves who have the actual power. When asked about corporate power in the world of jazz interviewed, Bluiett said, “They have got a lot of corporate action going on in our music and the arts where the corporate people are making up our minds about what should be done and making the decisions and the decisions aren’t really made by people who love art. That is not happening. It is not going to keep happening because it won’t sustain itself.”
These are sage words of advice when the current state of jazz and progressive Black art in D.C. is taken into consideration. With most of the jazz spots being shut down over the years, and the demographic of the city changing, it is obvious that the lines between art, corporations and consumerism have become more and more blurred, and that Black artists are attempting to chart new territory in the midst of the chaos.