Sam was introduced to music at an early age. Both his parents were involved with music and Sam picked up his musical education by osmosis. Sam’s father, a graduate of Fisk University in Nashville, sang with a group known as the Silvertone Quartet, a Spiritual group widely-known in the South during the twenties and thirties. The group’s accompanist was Sam’s mother, who lent her piano skill to the group’s sound.
Sam was born in El Reno, Oklahoma on September 25, 1930, but his family moved to Chicago when Sam was an infant. By the time he was five Sam had taken up both the piano and the viola but, after three years of study, he decided to concentrate on the piano. When his father died in 1937, Sam and his mother moved to Little Rock where she took a job as a teacher at Shorter College. During his days near the campus, Sam picked up the trombone, baritone horn and soprano sax and, after years of study, he decided to take up instructing for a group of younger students.
After graduating from high school at fifteen, Sam enrolled at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas. As a liberal arts major, Sam played the trombone in the marching band and the jazz combo. During his years at college Sam switched to tenor saxophone because he felt he could express himself more fluently on that instrument.
When his college days were over Sam came West to join the Navy and while stationed in California, he played many small concerts and dances. He was strongly influenced by Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, but when he heard Charlie Parker he totally reoriented his approach to harmony and improvisation.
Upon being honorably discharged from the Navy, Sam entered the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition and played viola in the Conservatory’s symphony orchestra. Later he transferred to Boston University, studying with numerous other young jazz musicians such as Quincy Jones and Jaki Byard. A stint with a rhythm and blues band followed and when the group arrived in Florida, Sam stayed for two years there composing and arranging music for various musicians and performers in the area.
Sam eventually drifted back to Boston and joined Herb Pomeroy’s band. His many playing engagements in the city led him to meet a young drummer named Tony Williams. Sam joined Williams in the Miles Davis group in 1964 and the group, composed also of Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, did a series of concerts in Japan and was part of the World Jazz Festival.
Sam then became one of the members of the Jazz Composers Guild, an organization composed of such giants as Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp. The association led to a spot with the Cecil Taylor group, a gig which once again changed many of Sam’s conceptions of music. In 1969 the Taylor band members were Artists in Residence at the Maeght Foundation in St. Paul De Vence, France, where they worked with some of the top European musicians including Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The notoriety Sam gained with the Cecil Taylor group caught the eye of Impulse and we recently signed him to a recording contract. Sam’s first album for Impulse was recorded live at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival held in Montreux, Switzerland. Sam, who currently works in a trio format, was backed up by two excellent musicians – Cecil McBee on bass and Norman Connors on drums.
The addition of Sam to the ABC/Impulse artist roster is one of the strongest made in many years. With his background in multi-instrument playing plus a strong foundation in composition and improvisation, Sam will be a vital force on our music scene for many years to come. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff sums up Sam’s talents, saying, “Rivers is very much a complete tenor man. His technique is remarkable and the depth and fullness of his tone recall the vibrant amplitude of the older tradition of jazz tenor playing. He is, moreover, a continually adventurous improviser, but while Rivers is in context in the avant-garde, he does not experiment haphazardly. His has a disciplined inventiveness with a secure sense of form. Furthermore, like all the best of the jazz explorers, he is motivated to try new approaches by a desire to deepen and expand his emotional expressivity.”[1973, ABC Records, Inc.]