Arthur Blythe, acclaimed Southern California saxophonist and jazz innovator, dies at 76

Jazz sax great Arthur Blythe in 2000 in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

Arthur Blythe, one of the most daring and acclaimed jazz saxophonists of the 1970s and ’80s, has died. He was 76.

No cause of death was given, but the Los Angeles native had been fighting Parkinson’s disease since 2005 and several benefit concerts had been held on his behalf. He died Monday, it was announced on his Facebook page.

Blythe had been living in Lancaster, but it was not disclosed where he died.

“He developed pneumonia recently, and that’s really what did him in,” said Los Angeles vibraphonist and marimba player Gust Tsilis, who recorded and performed with Blythe and hailed him as a one-of-a-kind musical force. “His sound was special, unique and very powerful. If we could all have a sound like that … .”


Blythe’s passing elicited an outpouring of online condolences and tributes.

“Terrible news — another giant passes: Arthur Blythe, master saxophonist,” wrote guitarist Elliott Sharp, a former Blythe bandmate, in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Arthur had a tone that was salty and sweet, reminiscent in the best ways of Cannonball Adderley, and played torrid lines of unending melodic invention.”

Bass innovator and UC San Diego music professor Mark Dresser began playing with Blythe in 1972 in Pomona, where they were both members of the Stanley Crouch-led band Black Music Infinity.

“At that time, he was going by the name ‘Black Arthur,’ ” Dresser recalled. “With one note, you knew who it was. His timbre and vibrato were instantly identifiable and he had a way of phrasing that was like a blow torch.”


Blythe’s ebullient alto-sax playing helped him stand out. So did his fearless approach to music and his ability to constantly explore new artistic terrain while paying homage to the jazz traditions that shaped him. He stood out whether leading his own bands or playing with the World Saxophone Quartet or such jazz luminaries as Gil Evans, McCoy Tyner and Horace Tapscott.

“I am not just avant-garde,” Blythe told All About Jazz in 2003. “I like to play all types of music. ... I like music with form, not atonal or aform. ... Sometimes they put me into a weird bag and want me to be weird, inaccessible. I think I am accessible.”

Indeed, his best compositions, such as “Down San Diego Way,” were both inviting and adventurous, much like the man himself. His penchant for innovation was illustrated by the instrumentation of his most distinctive band, which featured tuba, cello, electric guitar and drums.

“I would love for everyone to accept my music, and I would love to make money, but only by keeping my music on the cutting edge,” Blythe said in a 2000 San Diego Union-Tribune interview.

“I don’t reject any music; good music is always a positive. I feel the way I feel, and this music is based on expression, and interpreting that expression. If my music comes off as esoteric, or far-out, or rebellious, it comes off that way. But I don’t approach it like that.”

Arthur Murray Blythe was born July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles. He moved to San Diego with his family when he was 4 and, after diving into music, was mentored by San Diego jazz patriarch Daniel Jackson. Blythe returned to San Diego in 1998 with his three children, Odessa, Chalee and Arthur Jr., and then moved again to Los Angeles.

Throughout his career, Blythe sought to chart new creative territory, a quest he continued until Parkinson’s left him unable to perform.

“You can’t ever control the music,” Blythe told the Union-Tribune. “It controls you.”


Varga is a pop music critic with the San Diego Union-Tribune

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