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Roswell Rudd, 82, trombonist with a wide-open approach

By Giovanni Russonello New York Times  

NEW YORK — Roswell Rudd, who helped establish a place for the trombone in the jazz avant-garde, then disappeared from the national stage for almost 20 years before enjoying a late-career resurgence in which he explored a wide array of styles, died Thursday at his home in Kerhonkson, N.Y., in the Catskills. He was 82.

His partner, Verna Gillis, said the cause was prostate cancer.

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With groups like the New York Art Quartet and Archie Shepp’s bands of the mid-1960s, Mr. Rudd was at the center of the free-jazz scene. But he eventually moved on, teaching at colleges and collaborating with musicians from around the world.

After his return to commercial recording and international performances in 1999, his music became more diverse, mixing tuneful original compositions and jazz standards with R&B classics and ballads from France and Cuba.

What drew it all together was Mr. Rudd’s fluid playing, which could swiftly reroute a listener’s attention without disrupting the flow of a song. Profiling him in The New York Times in 2015, Nate Chinen wrote, “The soulful blare of Mr. Rudd’s horn, coupled with his boundless curiosity, has made him into a sort of good-will ambassador, despite the distinctly unconventional arc of his career.”

As an undergraduate at Yale University, Mr. Rudd played in a Dixieland band called Eli’s Chosen Six. (It briefly appears in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” the celebrated documentary shot at the Newport Jazz Festival.) He dropped out of college and moved to New York in 1958, bringing a sanguine, open-eared approach and a grounding in the trombone’s early-jazz history. In turn, he helped broaden the possibilities of an emerging avant-garde scene.

“What I liked about that music was the fact that the instruments sounded like people talking and laughing, vocal sounds,” he told the website All About Jazz in 2004, reflecting on jazz of the early 20th century. “The music of my contemporaries, when I was in my 20s in New York City, they were calling it avant-garde, but it leaned very heavily on collective improvisation. That’s how I was able to go from one traditional generation to another.”

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In free-jazz settings Mr. Rudd played with an ear to the arc of the group, filling open pockets of sound with descants and undercurrents. A natural-born listener, he might work as a foil to his more incendiary counterparts.

Mr. Rudd often favored performing with poets like Amiri Baraka and vocalists like Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough, and Fay Victor, whom he treated as equal collaborators, warbling and gliding in a friendly pas de deux. (His final album, “Embrace,” released in November, features Victor.)

In the early 1960s he worked with Herbie Nichols, an iconoclastic pianist and composer with an off-kilter approach to bebop, and then with pianist Cecil Taylor, an ascendant figure in the avant-garde. He also joined a group focused on the repertoire of Thelonious Monk, informally known as the School Days Quartet, featuring saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Henry Grimes, and drummer Denis Charles.

In 1964 he was featured on “New York Eye and Ear Control,” the soundtrack to an experimental film by Michael Snow. That same year he was a founder of the New York Art Quartet, a pioneering group that collaborated with Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. Its debut album, full of darting and thrashing improvisations and Baraka’s trenchant poetry, is widely seen as a landmark of the era.

By now Mr. Rudd was in high demand, and he recorded on a number of seminal albums: “Liberation Music Orchestra,” by bassist Charlie Haden; “Escalator Over the Hill,” by Carla Bley and Paul Haines; and “Four for Trane,” by saxophonist Archie Shepp, for which Mr. Rudd wrote the horn arrangements.

“In New York, a major topic of discussion was the reality of being black and playing this music, versus the reality of being white and attempting to play it from a black perspective,” trumpeter Bill Dixon told Francis Davis for a 1993 essay on Mr. Rudd. “But Roz fit right in because of his musicianship and, I would have to say, his personality.”

He spent the early 1980s playing at small establishments and taking odd jobs around the Catskills, then joined the house band at a resort in Kerhonkson. He recorded sparingly and was virtually unseen on a major stage for nearly 20 years. (He did record two albums in 1996 celebrating his former mentor, “The Unheard Herbie Nichols,” but they were minimally distributed.) Davis, writing in 1993, described Mr. Rudd as a paradox: “unforgettable but apparently forgotten.”

He returned to international touring in 1999 and made an album, “Broad Strokes,” which featured original compositions, tunes by Nichols and Monk, and a cover of an Elvis Costello song.

In the following years, Mr. Rudd released a stream of recordings, many exploring musical traditions from around the world. In 2002, with the help of Gillis, a musical anthropologist and concert producer, he recorded “Malicool,” a well-received album with Toumani Diabate, a master of the kora, a Malian stringed instrument.

Roswell Hopkins Rudd Jr. was born in Sharon, Conn., the son of two grade-school teachers, Roswell and Josephine Rudd. He played the mellophone in grammar school, then moved to the French horn. But when he failed to find any jazz records that featured that instrument, he asked his parents for a trombone. His earliest musical influences came from his family: his paternal grandmother, who led her Methodist church choir and had a knack for improvising, and his father, a collector of jazz records and a recreational drummer who hosted jam sessions.