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A jazz mystery unravels

Henry Grimes, the Juilliard-trained bassist who quietly walked away decades ago, is slowly reemerging.

March 21, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

It started as a rumor as wild and out-there as all the others over the last 30 years. There'd been many -- some elaborate, others prosaic -- speculating on the whereabouts of revered jazz bassist Henry Grimes. The stories ran up and down the scales: that Grimes had taken up acting; that he'd assumed another identity; that he died in 1984.

But this latest one had caught a good tailwind as it was yanked about from coast to coast.

Grimes wasn't dead at all. He was right here, in downtown Los Angeles, living in an efficiency hotel on a hardscrabble stretch of Main Street. For three decades he'd been in and out of odd jobs, at times without a permanent address, for a long time without his upright bass.

Soon the hard evidence materialized. In the winter issue of Signal to Noise -- The Journal of Improvised & Experimental Music, a photo of Grimes -- same resolute stare, same down-turned mouth, hair dusted gray -- peered out from the pages. The photos were accompanied by the story of one determined fan, Marshall Marrotte, a social worker, from Athens, Ga., who sifted through all manner of legal records to solve the mystery of Henry Grimes.

Once one of the most sought-after jazz bassists of the post-bop era, Grimes was as well known for his quiet demeanor as his big sound. Classically trained at Juilliard, he had a sense of time and an intricate bowing technique that set him apart from others on the circuit. In the late '50s and well into the '60s, he played frequent club dates, toured and recorded with marquee names and new-music pioneers alike -- among them Benny Goodman and Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. It seemed the ride wouldn't stop. Until after a gig at the Both/And in San Francisco when Grimes stepped off the bandstand and into middle space.

In the years since, the story served as a knotty mystery that many have spent more time embroidering than untangling -- until now.

"It's all a little overwhelming," Grimes will tell you in a mere rasp of a voice that only underscores the understatement. "Marshall told me that a lot of people thought I was dead. I thought, 'I could really use that plot for a horror film or something like that.' "

To witness the reemergence of Henry Grimes is a bit like glimpsing the missing link. "He was just so creative," says music historian Steve Isoardi, editor of the book "Central Avenue Sounds." "He really seemed to complement the new sounds that were coming from people like Ayler. He is really kind of the connection between the bass players of the last, say, 20, 30 years and the ones in the '50s and '60s. He was one of the greatest artists of that era, and to have him just walk away ... "

Jazz has often lost its heroes early. Its players are seldom tossed a second chance, which is why this is all the more remarkable. Given the myth and rumor, "it's all been appropriately weird," says drummer Alex Cline, who has been jamming with Grimes over the last few weeks. "It's interesting playing with a ghost. One who is quite solid."

Since his "reappearance," there have been requests for lessons, gifts of a bass and CDs of his old recordings. Already he's found a new generation of ears. Even a couple of gigs have floated into view. The first, today and Saturday at the World Stage in Leimert Park, is especially significant because the venue was co-founded by one of his fellow sidemen, the late drummer Billy Higgins.

"I've never had this kind of attention," says Grimes, 68, as bewildered by it as he is amused. "But I never stopped playing. Not in my mind."

An unlikely comeback gig

Reentry, Grimes is finding, isn't as easy as stepping away.

On a cloudy, late-winter morning, he stands before an eager group of about 50 high school students and their teachers at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, his hands sunk deep in his pockets, his new bass leaning against him. It's an unlikely place for a comeback date, but this assembly will be Grimes' first semi-public performance since 1972. Next to him, also with a bass, stands Nick Rosen, a 17-year-old senior who has picked up the baton on this leg of Grimes' journey.

After warming up with a few CDs featuring Grimes in his prime, the gathering turns to take in the real thing. Grimes' eyes sweep the room. He appears a bit amused by all the fuss. Rosen trolls for questions -- gently nudging them away from the mystery and toward inquires about the music.

Grimes is alternately tentative and whimsical. To the question, "What does it feel like to have worked with all the greats?" he offers, "It kinda interferes with my sleep." He punctuates those one-liners with a teasing, slow-blooming grin.

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