Henry Grimes is one of the world’s greatest living jazz bassists. A free-jazz pioneer and relentless innovator, he has played with everyone from Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins, to Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler. In the late ’60s, at the zenith of his powers, Grimes disappeared. For nearly 35 years, the legendary musician was presumed dead — until he was discovered by a social worker in 2003, living in a tiny Los Angeles apartment with volumes of poetry and no bass.
Grimes performed a recent live date with poet and professor Amiri Baraka at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, where the unusual pairing produced a riveting conversation between music and language. In an after-show interview with Grimes and Margaret Davis Grimes, the legendary musician and his lovely wife shared aspects of his intensely emotional creative process, his incredible disappearance and return, and his personal theology.
Click here for part one in this series, featuring coverage of the event, background on the artists, and an exclusive interview with Amiri Baraka, and check below for an in-depth conversation with the brilliant and humble Henry Grimes.
Flavorwire: How did you two meet?
Margaret Davis Grimes: Well, I knew Marshall Marotte, the social worker who found Henry. I learned that he had found Henry and been to see him, and he told me that he didn’t have a bass. And I said, “What do you mean? Henry Grimes doesn’t have a bass? This is unacceptable!” [Laughter.] So I did this nationwide search for one, beginning on the West Coast where I figured it’d be easier to get it to Henry in LA. But I came up empty, so I spread out. And one of the people I reached was William Parker, who came home from a tour and called me up to say that he’d send Henry a bass the next day. We got the bass out there, and Henry began to play. He played for three whole weeks, pretty much around the clock, and finally he came out and said that he was ready to work!
So, then it became a question of bringing him to New York — there’s nothing for a man like this in LA, really. I made various arrangements and he agreed to play in the Vision Festival that year. We met for the first time on May 21st of 2003 at LaGuardia. At dawn. [Laughter.] We took one look at each other — I could never have dreamed of this — and we’ve been together ever since.
Now, I’d been involved in the music world for quite some time. I was someone who saw the need to support some of the most brilliant musicians, people who were struggling to make it without anyone working for them. What I didn’t realize is that I was in training for Henry, and when Henry came to me, I was ready.
FW: Were you listening to music during this whole period without a bass?
Henry Grimes: Oh yeah. A lot of mariachi music, actually.
MDG: He used to eat in a diner sometimes that had Mexican music in the jukebox. Other than that, he only had a radio.
FW: Was it overwhelming to begin catching up on the music world after your return?
HG: It was overwhelming, yes, but not exactly emotional. I mean, I’ve become immersed in recordings more than ever before.
MDG: It’s like information. When he first came back, he was living with me in an apartment where I had a small collection of music, maybe 100-150 CDs. And he went through them ravenously, over and over. I remember, he came running out one day, saying, “This bass player, this bass player!”
I looked, and it was Peter Kowald [German free-jazz bassist who died in 2002]. And he’d never known about him, because nearly Kowald’s whole career took place inside those 35 years.
FW: Have you bonded with your instruments?
HG: Well, they’re both tools I use and people that I know.
FW: Do they speak to you?
HG: Especially the violin or the double bass — with that wooden scheme — that wood holds emotions itself, they’re built into it by the violin maker. I mean, that’s pretty fanciful. I’m not saying “it happens” just because I think it’s real. But I do.
FW: Is it a conversation?
HG: Yeah. The instrument’s voice, in theory, makes contact as a sort of theistic thought.
FW: Amiri Baraka draws a sort of revolutionary political energy from music. Is your music as political as it is spiritual?
HG: I don’t take part directly in any political causes. That’s a whole other lesson, one that requires study — not just of the forces involved — but of the mythical, the mythic counterpart [to "history"].
FW: Does your music transcend the present?
HG: Well, the idea of transcendence is really just the place where you make contact with that emotion, musical emotion.
MDG: That’s what art does, though.
HG: It feeds… Feeds? Is that the right word? It feeds… awareness of another world.
MDG: Are you in another world when you play?
HG: No, not me. But I have brought something to the world, that’s my sense of it.
FW: When I listen to you play, it’s as though, by experiencing what you’re channeling, we get to join you… elsewhere. Does that make sense?
HG: Well, yeah! And if it doesn’t make sense, it’s still a pretty good try.
FW: Do you work differently in words than in music?
HG: No, they just happened at different times in my life. I first began writing in about 1970, but just a few lines here and there. It wasn’t until about 1980 that I really got back into it.
FW: Has your process changed over the years?
HG: No, it hasn’t — it’s just that I’ve discovered what my process is. You know, every day, just sit back and discover. [Grimes smiles]. Just discover and discover and discover. And that process is aided through music, the experience of musical emotion.
FW: So when you combine spoken word and music, as happened tonight, what is that experience like?
HG: I’m still trying to assess… [laughs]. I’m waiting for it to come through. I expect it at any moment.
MDG: Most of his writing took place when he didn’t have an instrument to play, for those thirty-five years. I don’t think he ever thought, in his wildest dreams, that one day students would get up and be begging for a turn to read his poems to him. And now, he’s beginning to play and read, both at once. It’s an uplifting of both forms, I think, which has been a long time coming.
FW: In all the time you were writing without an instrument, were your poems a way to keep playing?
HG: Yeah, because by writing I was able to express something I hadn’t experienced since I was, you know, one year old. And that is very much like being a musician.
FW: Writing keeps it alive?
HG: It keeps you alive.
FW: Is there an aspect of being an artist that you haven’t yet explored?
HG: Well, I don’t know. To answer that, you end up considering, you know, the literary fountain; the fountain of knowledge. The links between mythology and creativity. It’s hard to even approach a definition. And sometimes those moments come easier than at others — sometimes it’s the recognition of something you find true, and sometimes it’s a reaction to something you find false.
That creative force is inside you, it begins there. But then you begin to write or to play, and it emerges — a sort of emotional explosion.