Jazz is no stranger to distressingly early departures. The roll call of musicians who died before reaching their 40th birthdays stretches back to the music’s birth, including some of jazz’s most influential artists. However spiritually nourishing, it’s a profession than can take its toll physically and psychologically, and two recent losses bring those challenges home with brutal clarity. Rich Armstrong, 55, and Andrew Speight, 58, weren’t young men, but they were in their creative prime, and their sudden deaths last fall have left many friends, colleagues, and fans shaken. In a ritual dating back to jazz’s earliest origins, the community is gathering to celebrate their lives and seek comfort in music.
Keys Jazz Bistro, which is owned and run by pianist (and Speight’s fellow Aussie) Simon Rowe, is hosting a four-night (Jan. 25–28) tribute to the alto saxophonist, who died Dec. 1, 2022, when he drove his Porsche onto the tracks by Burlingame’s Broadway Station and it was struck by north- and southbound Caltrain locomotives. The series presents a generational spectrum of musicians who came into Speight’s orbit, including his former San Francisco State students, veteran peers, and older masters he admired. And Jan. 29, the Jazz Mafia collective is producing an evening celebrating Armstrong’s multifarious musical life at the SFJAZZ Center.
In many ways, the events, like the men themselves, are a study in contrasts. Speight and Armstrong embodied the aphorism from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay about different approaches to organizing one’s perspective. Speight, a bebop crusader with very specific ideas about jazz protocols and practices, was an exemplary hedgehog who knows one big thing, while Armstrong, a soul-steeped vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, was the quintessential fox who knows many things. Their paths didn’t often cross, but both players represented the Bay Area scene at its best.
“Andrew was a virtuoso, and he heard the music a certain way and had exacting standards,” said bassist Michael Zisman. “He was so strong; he wasn’t often a sideman. He knew what he wanted musically, and that’s what he went for, so he was often the leader on his gigs.”
Saxophonist Jonah Cabral, a Speight protege, has rounded up a passel of young musicians who studied with Speight for Wednesday’s show at Keys, which leads to a jam session at 11 p.m. Zisman is running Thursday’s session, which gathers many of the musicians Speight performed with around the Bay Area, including pianists Keith Saunders, Matt Clark, Dee Spencer, Ben Stolorow, and Simon Rowe; drummers Sylvia Cuenca, Austin Harris, Vince Lateano, Tony Johnson, and Akira Tana; and saxophonists Bob Kenmotsu, Noel Jewkes, and Hafez Modirzadeh.
Zisman and Speight first met on the New York scene in the mid ’90s and reconnected when the bassist moved back to the Bay Area in 2000. Speight was already ensconced at SF State, and they picked up where they left off back East “as friends and musical partners,” Zisman said. “We had the same mentors and interests and group of friends. We played at Jazz at Pearl’s, the Dogpatch, 7 Mile House, Cafe Stritch, and all the festivals. We played at each other’s weddings.”
With his regular roster of high-profile gigs, I wrote about Speight numerous times over the years, often in relationship to his performances at the Stanford Jazz Festival (concerts that flowed from his long-running faculty spot at the Stanford Jazz Workshop). We were more friendly than friends, and he never confided exactly what he was struggling with, but over the years Speight had several manic episodes that became unavoidable for those around him.
Last summer, seemingly inspired by some Facebook posts linking to articles I’d written about other artists, he started sending me angry, paranoid emails. It was clear he was in some kind of crisis. After a few months, looking to bury the hatchet on the one-sided feud, I went by his Burlingame home in August for one of his House of Bop concerts, a livestreamed Sunday series he started during the pandemic that ended up turning into an invaluable outlet for players from the Bay Area and beyond. The fact that drum legend Roy McCurdy was leading a band with trumpeter Eddie Henderson and tenor sax master Ralph Moore didn’t hurt, and we left on good terms, though he told me he knew he’d burned a lot of bridges. (McCurdy, whose credits include classic recordings with Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley, takes over the Keys celebration Friday and Saturday, co-leading a quartet with Moore featuring pianist Matt Clark and bassist Essiet Essiet.)
A bandstand pugilist who often brought the same intensity to interactions offstage, Speight always left an impression. Zisman is opening up the microphone Thursday at 11 p.m. to “let anyone who wants to tell some stories,” he said. “I want to raise awareness of this new club. People are going to play a bunch of music, tell a bunch of lies, have some drinks, and do the usual things. It’s a way for the young and the old to come together.”
If Speight was a volatile presence, Rich Armstrong brought an enviable sangfroid to just about every musical setting. Before he became the don of the Jazz Mafia, trombonist/bassist Adam Theis was a rambunctious young cat from the North Bay who arrived on the San Francisco scene looking to prove himself. Armstrong was one of the first established players he connected with, and his daunting competence put Theis and his fellow young guns on notice.
“We thought we were hot shit, and he came in and was so much more badass than all of us,” Theis recalled. “He could play all these instruments and sing his ass off. We’d have band practice all the time, and no Rich. I’d call him in a panic: ‘What about all the songs?’ ‘No problem,’ he said. He wouldn’t even come to sound check. Most people who act that way can’t pull it off. He’d show up and nail it and left the moment the show was over, heading off to another gig. At that time, I didn’t realize a musician could be that that busy. Rich would have three gigs a day.”
Armstrong, who died of a heart attack Oct. 7, could improvise in a number of jazz idioms, but he seemed capable of making himself at home in just about any musical setting (with a particular affinity for soul and R&B circa 1967). Over the years he toured and recorded with alt-folkie Michelle Shocked and bluesman Boz Scaggs, rapper Lyrics Born, and the West Coast country combo Blue Moon Gypsies (which he co-led with vocalist Carmen Milagro). He spent time with Oakland funk institution Tony! Toni! Toné!, vocalist Fred Ross’s Sly & the Family Stone cover band Everyday People, and tech rocker Thomas Dolby, “who we toured with together for about four months around 2005,” Theis said. “That’s when we really got to hang.” Most recently, Armstrong was working internationally with the North Bay roots reggae band Groundation.
Theis, Cosa Nostra Strings violinist Shaina Evoniuk, and Jazz Mafia executive producer Tom Chavez designed Sunday’s SFJAZZ celebration, “Rich Armstrong’s Life Pageant,” as an encompassing multimedia event featuring many of the musicians whose bands the late performer elevated. While Armstrong only recorded one album under his own name, 2003’s Rich’s Life Pageant, his 1000-watt charisma meant he always occupied at least some of the spotlight. Beginning promptly at 6 p.m., the evening starts with a brass procession into SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium.
The packed program features the Jazz Mafia (including Grateful Brass, Brass Mafia, and the 40-piece Choral Syndicate) and members of The Crossroads Collective (the Burning Man ensemble that Armstrong co-founded and performed with for 10 years) performing original songs composed by Armstrong. Special guests include jazz vocalist Roberta Donnay (who featured Armstrong in her Prohibition Mob Band), the storied Bay Area soul rockers Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, YouTube sensation Otis McDonald, the psychedelic jazz/funk band Collectivity, and Groundation vocalist/guitarist Harrison Stafford.
“Carmen Milagro, who had a project with Rich about 10 years ago, is also performing, and she helped organize the whole thing,” Theis said. “We want to touch on the wide-ranging universe of Rich’s musical life. It’s not a memorial. It’s music telling the story. Rich did so many different things. He was a pillar of a lot of different musical communities. That’s been the challenge for me, to connect those different worlds.”
The event is a fundraiser, and proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Richard Armstrong Memorial Fund benefiting music programs that Armstrong attended and taught at, including the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where Armstrong was on the music faculty for more than 15 years. Direct donations to the memorial fund can be made via the San Francisco Foundation’s website.
Much like Speight’s death is a klaxon reminder to reach out to friends and colleagues struggling with mental illness, Armstrong’s death speaks to the challenges of taking care of oneself as a hustling freelancer. “Rich should have lived a lot longer, and talking to people in my crew, men of a similar age, health is something everyone is talking about,” Theis said. “If anything, it’s kind of a wake-up call for musicians who don’t take care of themselves as well as we could. If you have issues, follow up. Health insurance is so important.”
If it seems like there’s been a lot of tribute concerts lately, it’s partly due the community catching up from two years of losses during the pandemic, when gathering wasn’t possible or prudent. Last year Freight & Salvage presented events celebrating bass maestro Jeff Chambers and piano great Mark Levine. Oaktown Jazz Workshops hosted an afternoon celebrating the life of pianist Muziki Roberson. It’s not surprising that Simon Rowe would step forward to make Keys Jazz Bistro available for a four-night Speight-a-palooza, but it’s another sign that the club takes its role as a potential hub of the Bay Area scene seriously.
“It’s getting harder and harder for the musical community to gather,” Zisman said. “There just aren’t many places to do it anymore. Keys is more like Pearl’s was, a community thing. When I was just coming up, we had worked with Junior Cook for a year, and when he passed, I remember going to the memorial. The drummer Joe Farnsworth was running the band. Louis Hayes was there. Phil Schaap, the WCKR DJ who knew everything, he got up and spoke. Junior was only 57 or something. The other people who came were all in their 60s, and we were the young people then.”