For more than four decades, Hamiet Bluiett has worked to redefine the role of the baritone saxophone in jazz. He also co-founded one of the most influential bands of modern jazz.

This week, Bluiett celebrates his 70th birthday. From New York, Tom Vitale has his story.

TOM VITALE: In 1976, when the World Saxophone Quartet played its first concert, it changed the sound of jazz: no bass, no drums, no piano, just four saxophones.

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VITALE: The late Julius Hemphill playing alto, with Oliver Lake on alto and soprano, David Murray tenor, and Hamiet Bluiett on clarinet and baritone sax.

Free jazz was flourishing in downtown lofts throughout New York, but Bluiett says he argued for accessibility.

Mr. HAMIET BLUIETT (Musician): I think melody is very important. We should play stuff that children like, old people, the whole works. What's wrong with all that? And I told you, I said man, look, we need to play some ballads now. Come on, you're all playing outside, and you're running people away. And I don't want to run folks away. We should play more music for women.

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VITALE: Bluiett says in the beginning, all of the musicians in the World Saxophone Quartet were improvising at the same time with no one playing a unifying melody or rhythm.

Mr. BLUIETT: I 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. So I would take what was on the paper and make a bass line out of it, make up some kind of line using the tunes.

VITALE: Thirty-one years ago, at a World Saxophone Quartet rehearsal in a Brooklyn loft, Bluiett walked the band through the tune "R&B."

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VITALE: The quartet recorded the tune for its second album.

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VITALE: Hamiet Bluiett is one of the few musicians in jazz to give the baritone saxophone a leading role. He was born on September 16th, 1940, in Lovejoy, Illinois. As a child, he studied piano, trumpet and clarinet.

Mr. BLUIETT: Let me try this and see how it works for you. I don't know.

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VITALE: At the University of Southern Illinois, Bluiett picked up the baritone. His notion of what the instrument could do was changed forever when he heard Harry Carney with Duke Ellington's band.

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Mr. BLUIETT: I was sitting not too far from Harry. He was on one side of the band. Duke Ellington was on the other side. And this man's sound was bigger than Duke's whole band, including the drums.

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Mr. BLUIETT: The sound was big, beautiful. That went deep down inside of me. And I never forgot it, and I never will.

VITALE: Today, Hamiet Bluiett is widely regarded as the most prominent baritone saxophonist of his generation.

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Mr. CRAIG HARRIS (Musician): You can know Bluiett right away, bam, you know, the texture and the density of his sound. It can't be nobody else.

VITALE: Trombonist Craig Harris has played in a variety of bands with Hamiet Bluiett over the past three decades. Harris will perform with his friend this weekend at his 70th-birthday concert in Washington, D.C.

Mr. HARRIS: Bluiett has an incredible range, but it's not about range because youve got people who play high and low. But he has incredible feel to his playing. He pushes the thought of the instrument because he's much bigger than the instrument.

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VITALE: Bluiett's spirit comes across: He's been struggling with cancer since 2002. He says he just wants to be here and to keep playing music for people.

Mr. BLUIETT: We were playing in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and this guy came, he was in a wheelchair. So he was in the wheelchair section, which was right near the band.

And he was sitting there, and he was kind of, you know, like crying. He grabbed me and pulled me down. He said: Man, I've been in this chair for so long, I got to the point I relegated myself to be into the chair. And I was satisfied. You made me want to go back up and dance. That was the biggest compliment I've ever had in my life.

VITALE: Hamiet Bluiett says he never planned his career. It all happened because he was open enough to let it keep happening.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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