LIANE HANSEN, host:
Reset your ears now from musical comedy to modern jazz. Sam Rivers is a giant in the genre. In the mid '60s, you could hear his distinctive saxophone and flute in Boston and New York. In the 1970s, he helped create Manhattan's Loft Jazz scene. Rivers invited some of the era's most innovative musicians into his home to perform for their fans. Now, Rivers has a new venue in Orlando, creating unexpected sounds in Florida's magic kingdom.
As part of NPR's occasional series on local music scenes, Mark Simpson of member station WMFE, has this story.
MARK SIMPSON: Sam Rivers is thin. In the past year, he's gone through hip surgery and fought pneumonia. His eyes are hidden behind thick-framed glasses, but his face glows with energy, as he gets ready to take the stage at the Plaza Theater in Orlando.
Mr. SAM RIVERS (Jazz Musician and Composer): I'm ready when I come here. I warm up and everything at home, you know, like that. So, I always look forward to it because it's always a different performance - hear it differently, too. So…
SIMPSON: The audience of about 50 or so is made up of students, older jazz fans and people just curious to hear and see Sam Rivers' big band.
Mr. RIVERS: Oh, here we go. We're going to play something called "Bubbles" and it goes something this - (unintelligible). It goes like that one, two, one, two, one…
(Soundbite of music)
SIMPSON: In the audience is writer Jennifer Greenhill Taylor. She has been coming to hear Sam Rivers' for a decade.
Ms. JENNIFER GREENSILL TAYLOR (Writer): Sam's music is incredibly powerful because Sam himself is an incredibly powerful and enigmatic kind of person. And his music is like that. It's so intricate, and there's all these conversations going on up there. And the musicians are having such a good time.
SIMPSON: Valencia Community College Student D.J. Severence came out to hear Rivers tonight for the first time — because it was a requirement for his music appreciation class.
Mr. D.J. SEVERENCE (Freshman, Valencia Community College): I just wanted to check him out, really. It's pretty crazy. It's like, you know, it changed my opinion on music in general. The way he puts out jazz is - he convinces me to look more into jazz.
SIMPSON: That's what Sam Rivers wants: reactions to his music.
Mr. RIVERS: The main thing is, I mean, you want to emote. I mean, you want the audience to feel what you're doing, you know. They don't know what notes are, they did - all you do is feel. I want to reach the audience. I want them to appreciate it, you know. I don't want them just to sit there stone cold and leave. And all I want to leave there - leave there smiling and happy, you know, like they - like they do.
SIMPSON: Rivers began to make his mark on jazz in the mid-1960s. His powerful tenor saxophone playing, spark sessions by T-Bone Walker, Miles Davis, Tony Williams and many others.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMPSON: In 1970, Rivers began to foster a new scene. He opened up his loft to performances and called it Studio RivBea. It was around this time that fellow saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett met Sam Rivers.
Mr. HAMIET BLUIETT (Jazz Saxophonist; Composer): I walked in and told him my name was Bluiett and I play baritone saxophone. So he said, okay Bluiett, yeah good, good. I got a band. Tuesday night. Want you to be there. So I showed up and that was about it.
SIMPSON: Studio RivBea was one of the focal points for what came to be called the Loft Jazz scene. Bluiett says the space, and Rivers, attracted all sorts of creative people.
Mr. BLUIETT: Sam has always been like a teacher, you know. It was mainly Sam. Sam is a magnet within himself. He writes all his music and is such a tremendous character. If he puts on anything, you want to show up to be a part of it, and be in it, and see what it is going on.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMPSON: But the success of the loft scene also led to its decline, as real estate investors cashed in on developing the cheap properties that were suddenly hip. So Rivers went to school — teaching at Dartmouth and Cornish colleges, among others. He also toured with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Band, which brought him to Orlando. And he started thinking about relocating here.
Mr. RIVERS: Number one, because the musicians are available. Two, is because of the weather. I came up in Chicago and Boston and New York and I've always hated the cold weather. This is the first time — in my old age — I get a chance to enjoy a decent weather.
SIMPSON: Rivers was able to draw on some of the musicians teaching at area universities — and working at Disney World — to form the RivBea Orchestra in 1991. Saxophonist Danny Jordan was one of them. He says having Sam Rivers in Orlando transformed the area's music scene.
Mr. DANNY JORDAN (Saxophonist): It was either Dixieland, or bebop, or fusion. And each club would sort of purport itself to play either one of those styles of music. And Sam came to town and broke everyone's conception of what was acceptable and also what was commercially viable in town.
SIMPSON: For his part, Sam Rivers says living and working in Central Florida has not lessened his sense of connection with artists and musical collaborators, present or past. The room where he practices is lined with photos.
Mr. RIVERS: One up there Joan Miro and myself. (Unintelligible) on my clothes and made down up there. This is Dizzy Gillespie and me. I mean, we are playing somewhere.
SIMPSON: His house has a nice view of Park Lake. But Rivers has drawn all of the window blinds in his music room.
Mr. RIVERS: Well, this is where I do all my work, yeah. Looking at the lake and all those things, that's too distracting. And, you know, so I'd rather be in here where there's just nice plain walls, where I don't start daydreaming because of the beautiful atmosphere.
SIMPSON: The room has a computer with music software on it, but Rivers still composes most of his tunes by hand. And at 85, Rivers says that here in Central Florida, he's experiencing the most creative time in his life.
Mr. RIVERS: I'm getting more ideas now. I think I'm far more mentally inspired creatively than - than I was when I was like 50, or maybe even 40. I mean, I have so many more ideas. I have so much more knowledge, you know. And it's great. It's sort of like the universe. I mean, the more you see out there, the more there is. I don't expect to ever reach my full achievement. I don't expect to ever have that. You know, until I pass, I mean, it's going to be, like there's always more, you know?
SIMPSON: Sam Rivers is happy to spend most of his time here. But he still wants to squeeze in one last international tour. And Rivers is also looking for some institution to give a home to his life's work of more than 300 compositions before they overwhelm the shelves and filing cabinets that have begun to spread beyond his music room.
For NPR News, I'm Mark Simpson, in Orlando.
Mr. RIVERS: I want to play something that was dedicated to my lovely wife from 55 years, I think, something like that and it is entitled "Beatrice."
Unidentified Voice: One, two, three…
(Soundbite of song, "Beatrice")
HANSEN: You can hear music by Sam Rivers at nprmusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.