Two jazz musicians, who both found themselves in the middle of revolutions within the genre, past away due to cardiac arrest almost within a week of each other. The ironies and similarities abound in both the lives and deaths of master drummer Tony Williams and guitarist Zachary Breaux.
Williams, of course, was the most well known of the two. His heart failed as he was recuperating from a gall bladder operation in a Daly City, California hospital on February 21st. He was 51.
The great drummer was born in Chicago, but grew up in musician rich Boston. But he was able to separate himself from the pack of players. After catching the ear of Beantown sax and flute legend, Sam Rivers, he joined Miles Davis at the ripe old age of 17 in 1963.
Miles was going through one of his many transitions when Williams joined the band along with Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock That group stayed together for over six years, serving as a historical bridge between Miles’ be-bop and modal periods and the fusion years. Williams anchored the rising storm of the change from acoustic to electric. As the subtitle of Miles’ classic album In A Silent Way-New Directions in Music, suggest, times were a-changing. Williams managed to work with all the space that Miles allowed and created some revolutionary rhythms for jazz’ wild ride in the 70’s.
That Williams was the main drum influence in the 60’s can’t be debated, but history seems to have slighted his contribution to the fusion era. Williams was the first of Davis’ famous sidemen to start a fusion band, Lifetime, which was also the title of his very first solo album on Blue Note years earlier. Lifetime never achieved the fusion success of other Miles’ alumni; Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report, John McLaughlin’s Mahavisnu Orchestra or Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. But, it is to Williams’ credit, that two Lifetime members, Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua, are among the very few musicians today creating challenging electronic jazz music.
Zachary Breaux didn’t have the jazz role models Williams had. In fact, his Texas hometown is famous because of the one musician from there who did make it big.
“They’ve built shrines to Janis Jopin in Port Arthur,” Breaux told this writer in a 1994 interview. “Before my career is over, I want them to build me a shrine.”
Unfortunately, his rising star was snuffed by his bravery and his huge heart. The guitarist’s heart gave out after trying to save 66 year old Eugenia Poleyeff of Brooklyn, New York from an Atlantic Ocean riptide. He was vacationing with his family on the beaches Miami on the 13th of February when he rushed to aid the woman. While on tour of Italy with vibraphonist Roy Ayers nearly ten years earlier, Breaux did successfully save a man from drowning. This time however both swimmers died. Breaux was 36.
His recording career happened almost by accident.
He was touring England as Ayers guitarist when the group played the famous Ronnie Scott Jazz House. Among the uniqueness of that club is that they have their own recording label. Towards the end of the date, Scott had to convince Breaux to try recording a live record. Using Ayers rhythm section, of drummer Dennis Davis, keyboardist Rex Rideout and bassist Donald Nicks, Breaux got together a few originals and unique modern arrangements of jazz standard.
“I was just doing my thing, man. I had no idea I would get caught up in all these movements.”
It was the revolutionary, albeit quite controversial fragments of early 90’s electric jazz that combined to push Zachary Breaux’ debut album Groovin near the top of Billboard’s jazz charts. Call it crossover within crossover, if you will, but the lovers of acid jazz, smooth jazz, ambient jazz ,steppers and quiet storm music all know who Zachary Breaux is.
The swell started in England where acid jazz began. The preferred track was the remake of Roy Ayers’ Red Black & Green with the vibraphonist joining in. But Where Is The Love was also getting airplay. That is what some visiting American, outside the business, heard and brought it back home to New York City, where he convinced the New York smooth jazz station to play it.
Someone in the business had also heard Breaux in England. This person happened upon Mike Manieri, who was producing a guitar tribute to the Beatles, and convinced him his project needed Breaux. Within days, Manieri, owner of NYC Records, found out that the guitar version of that old Roberta Flack song was the same guy.
He found Breaux, recorded a hip-hop ladened funk version of Elanor Rigby on Come Together, Guitar Tribute To The Beatles, and the guitarists acid jazz status was solidified in the states. Manieiri then licensed the Groovin’ album in the states. Smooth jazz stations everywhere started playing Coming Home Baby in heavy rotation in addition to Where Is The Love. The latter song also attracted steppers as did the track Lagos.
But what caught all observers by surprise was when the eclectic new age bunch dubbed the minimalist rhythms of Breaux version of John Coltrane Impressions ambient. Syndicated shows all over America, that played ambient music such as Frank Forest’s Musical Starstreams played the song with regularity.
Breaux’ follow up album Laidback didn’t do as well as the first, but it did crack the Billboard charts.
The new album Uptown Groove on Ricky Shultz’ resurrected Zebra label was doing phenomenal however at the time of his death. Vaulted by his killer version of Café Reggio’s from the film Shaft, it was number fourteen on the contemporary jazz charts.
That’s the final irony in the dual obituary. Williams also had a new album on a new label owned by another record biz rebel. Wilderness features Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny and an orchestra. The label, Ark 21 is owned by Stewart Copeland, co-founder of The Police and I.R.S. Records.
Laidback – (NYC) 1994 Groovin’ – (NYC) 1992
The Story Of Neptune – (Blue Note) 1992 Native Heart – (Blue Note) 1990 Angel Street – (Blue Note) 1989 Civilization – (Blue Note) 1987 Foreign Intrigue – (Blue Note) 1986 The Joy Of Flying – (Columbia) 1979 Million Dollar Legs – (Columbia) 1976 Believe It – (Columbia) 1975 The Old Bum’s Rush – (Polydor) 1972 Ego – (Polydor) 1971 Turn It Over – (Polydor) 1970 Emergency – (Polydor) 1969 Spring – (Blue Note) 1966 Lifetime – (Blue Note) 1965