Iconic bassist tells FBPO how he went from the top of the jazz world to losing everything, then back to the top!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 30, 2012
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Henry Grimes attended the Mastbaum School and Juilliard. As a young man in the ’50s and ’60s, Henry performed and/or toured with a number of R&B and soul musicians, including Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, Arnett Cobb, “Bullmoose” Jackson and “Little” Willie John. After discovering jazz, Grimes eventually performed, toured and recorded with many great jazz musicians of the time, including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, McCoy Tyner and many others.
Sadly, after a West Coast trip to work with Al Jarreau and Jon Hendricks went awry, Henry’s bass was damaged, and he was forced to sell it for a small sum, after which he faded away from the music world. For more than three decades, Henry lived a tiny rented hotel room, working as a manual laborer, custodian and maintenance man, all the while writing many volumes of hand-written poetry.
Upon being discovered by a Georgia social worker in 2002, Henry was given a bass by William Parker, whereupon a period of ferocious woodshedding ensued, leading to Henry’s reemergence into the music scene. After a period of playing concerts around the Los Angeles area, Henry made a triumphant return to New York City in 2003 to perform in the Vision Festival.
Since then, Henry has enjoyed a career resurgence, having performed and toured with many music icons, such as Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, Marc Ribot, Wadada Leo Smith, Cecil Taylor and many others. He has also held several residencies and provided workshops and master classes at Berklee College of Music, Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts, Cal Arts, Humber College, New England Conservatory of Music, University of Michigan and other major campuses throughout the world. Henry can be heard on more than eighty-five recordings on various labels, including Atlantic, Blue Note, Columbia, Impulse, Prestige, Riverside and Verve. Grimes currently lives and teaches in New York City.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
HG: Both my parents were road musicians before I was born, but they gave up music – I don’t know exactly why – and become restaurant workers before I arrived. In junior high school, I took up the violin after I attended my older sister’s high school graduation and heard the all-girl high school orchestra, which inspired me to play the violin. After that, I went to a very special high school in Philadelphia, Mastbaum Technical School, where students in the music program were required to master five instruments in order to graduate. I played bass, violin, tuba, English horn, and tympani. After I graduated from Mastbaum, I went to Juilliard for almost three years, playing double bass with the opera orchestra.
FBPO: What made you decide to settle on the bass?
HG: Of the five instruments I learned to play, I chose the bass because I fell in love with the instrument and the sound and how it made me feel while playing it. Also, I thought I had the best chance to make a living playing the bass because everyone needs a good bass player!
FBPO: Was that before or after you learned to play violin?
HG: This was after I learned to play the violin. The violin was my first instrument.
FBPO: Who were your influences as young student of bass?
HG: Probably the main ones were Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Israel Crosby, Percy Heath, Jimmy Garrison and Charles Mingus. Also, my classical bass teacher at Juilliard, the great Fred Zimmermann, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic. But I respect and admire everyone who plays music from the heart and I learn from them all.
FBPO: Philadelphia has such a rich musical heritage. How would you say growing up in Philly influenced you musically?
HG: Musicians were all around me there when I was coming up, getting together to create new music and study music from before, sharing ideas and exploring musical developments, going from club to club to listen and try to sit in. It was a very exciting time and place for a young boy who had fallen in love with music.
FBPO: You seemed to be having a successful career as a jazz bass player until it suddenly came to a screeching halt. Exactly what happened?
HG: Clarence Becton and I drove across the country and through the desert to get to San Francisco, where we had gigs lined up with Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau. Clarence had a small car and inside the car were Clarence, who was driving, my dog and I. Clarence’s drums were in the back seat and my bass was strapped to the roof. My bass got baked going through the desert for three days. After we got to California, it gradually began to develop cracks and I couldn’t keep it in tune any more. I took it to a repairman, but he said it would cost a lot of money to have it repaired and I didn’t have that much money. So I sold it to the repairman, believing I could get it back someday when I got some money together. But that never happened.
FBPO: Your life was certainly very different after that. What were you doing all those years away from music?
HG: I worked as a janitor and maintenance man and day laborer. I also spent many hours in the library, studying literature and writing poetry, short stories and metaphysical ideas. I have around ninety notebooks at home with my writings from those times. I still continue to write today.
FBPO: Thirty-five years is an awfully long time to have been out of the music world! How did you get back into it?
HG: A Georgia social worker named Marshall Marrotte found me in 2002 and William Parker sent me Olive Oil, my beautiful green bass. Several other people helped me get back to the beginnings of playing again, first in Los Angeles for a few months, then in New York, where I’ve been since early 2003. And I am very happy about that!
FBPO: Did you ever really give up on music, or did you believe, deep down, that one day you would be back?
HG: I never gave up on music, not for a minute. You could say I was absent for a long time, but I always believed I would be back one day. I just couldn’t see the way to get there, but I knew it would happen.
FBPO: Your career revitalization is nothing short of remarkable. What sort of things have you managed to accomplish since your triumphant return to the music world?
HG: I began playing the violin professionally, which I didn’t do before, though it was my first instrument as a child. I began playing as a leader, which empowers me in many new ways. I also began playing solo concerts and reading my poetry out loud, very liberating experiences every time.
I also began playing with some of the master musicians of today. I’ve held many residencies and started teaching master classes and I started teaching students in my home. I began publishing some of my poems, too. My first published book is called Signs Along the Road.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
HG: Having a family life with my wife and her children and our wonderful personal friends; doing a little yoga and jogging a bit each day, so we can stay healthy; going to as many concerts as we can; doing a lot of national and international tours; teaching students, both at home and at schools; and being involved in the thrilling and challenging life of New York City!
FBPO: What else would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
HG: I’d like to get to Africa, but haven’t made it there yet. And I want to keep on trying to make the world a better place, sparing it from the ravages of this time, doing my best to fill it with love and hope.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
HG: This question doesn’t have any meaning to me. I am a bass player and violin player and poet. If I weren’t those things, I wouldn’t be Henry Grimes. I wouldn’t be… at all.