In his foreword to Music to Silence to Music: A Biography of Henry Grimes, Sonny Rollins recalls his first encounter with the young bassist in Philadelphia: “He seemed to hear and immediately respond…in an unbroken circuit between muse and man.” Likewise, German historian Barbara Frenz’s lovingly penned biography wires an unbroken circuit between reader and subject.
Frenz jumps improvisationally from reportage to interview. The resulting portrait is as multifaceted as the man himself. Grimes may not be interested in the anecdotal, but his memories yield a veritable résumé of iconic associations. By the early ’60s he was swimming in the deep end of New York City’s jazz scene, where collaborations with the likes of Albert Ayler unlocked his evolutionary potential. In 1967, just two years after his first leader date, he left the East Coast for the west and wasn’t heard from for nearly four decades. Grimes was forced to sell his bass in Los Angeles, where he sustained himself through odd jobs until he was rediscovered in 2002. He has been playing ever since, much to the glee of listeners and journalists alike, playing hundreds of concerts and surpassing even his own exalted reputation in the process. During the silence, he didn’t so much as touch an instrument. And yet, as Frenz makes clear, the music was always germinating inside him, along with a literary worldview that would feed back into his reprisal endeavors. His poetry is dark yet insightful and, like his soloing, focuses its attention on human interaction.
With this biography, Frenz has undone the misconception of Grimes as reticent ghost, arguing instead for his bold expressiveness while further emphasizing his versatility, go-with-the-flow attitude, and inner growth. His past contributions are obvious, but, as Frenz is quick to point out, his importance to the future of jazz even more so. Rather than an introvert who almost faded into obscurity, she wants us to see him as someone uninterested in attachments, living as he has—and always will—in the immaterial.
(This article originally appeared in the June 2016 The New York City Jazz Record, of which a PDF of the full issue is available here.)