Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Vision Fest 21 honoree Henry Grimes
Bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes famously doesn’t talk much nowadays: at least not to journalists like myself. To be perfectly clear, it isn’t an issue of him being inaccessible or thinking he’s too good or his time is too valuable: on the contrary, he’s usually in attendance at almost any event having to do with free/avant garde jazz in New York City–usually with his wife and manager Margaret at his side–and is just there digging the music even if he isn’t on the bill or has finished his own set. It’s just that he doesn’t talk a lot, period. An affable smile and recognition is all you’re likely to get. That’s fine since his body of work fills in much of the story. Still, those of us itching to dig deeper and get some of the history he’s been involved in won’t walk away with much more than we see on the bandstand.
Personal testimony isn’t the only story, though, and what your peers say about you counts for a lot. And Grimes’s peers have a lot to say about both the man and his work, which makes focusing the 2016 Vision Fest’s spotlight on Grimes all the more valuable since you’d be hard pressed to find someone with bad things to say about the man as either a person or musician. That’s rare in any industry.
Grimes’s remarkable story of walking away from the jazz spotlight before reemerging 35 years later has been told elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. The point is that Grimes is the type of artist who’s easy to overlook if one isn’t deep into jazz — much less the free improvisation that he revels and excels in. All of that makes Vision’s choice to highlight his career this year a good one, especially since he’s been a mainstay at the festival since his return to high level performance was punctuated by a Vision appearance over a decade ago and he’s been a mainstay ever since.
Grimes stood on the bandstand throughout three sets to kick off Vision on Tuesday night as both the honoree and center–figuratively and literally, as he occupied center stage–of all of the performances.
After Vision’s traditional opening invocation, the evening started with an ensemble pairing Grimes with pianist Geri Allen (in her Vision debut), Vision veteran Andrew Cyrille (who’ll be interviewed on Suga’ in My Bowl on Sunday 6/12) on drums, and Graham Haynes on coronet. Grimes alternated between bass and violin, showing equal comfort on each instrument. Allen showed, unsurprisingly, that she can keep up with the best improvisers out there and is as adept at playing more freely as she is in more structured environments. Cyrille, meanwhile, added a solid base for the group’s explorations and punctuated their second song with a steady rhythm on the cowbell.
Grimes has also written a fair amount of poetry, which was the focus of the second set, featuring vocalist Lisa Sokolov’s songs and Grimes’s poetry. Grimes accompanied the Sokolov-led choir of Imani Uzuri, Karma Mayet Johnson, Dwight Trible, and Mixashawn.
The night’s final set featured Mixashawn on saxophone, Melanie Dyer on viola, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and cellist Tomeka Reid joining Grimes’s frequent trio collaborators guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Chad Taylor. The ensemble produced some of the night’s memorable performances. The first song of the set built to a crescendo riffing off of Mitchell’s repeated flute phrase with Ribot filling in the colors while Grimes kept a steady hand on bass. The set’s third (and last) piece started with a solid beat by Taylor, joined by Mitchell, then Ribot and Grimes. Taylor’s steady rhythms kept driving the group forward as they all set a frenetic pace.
Through it all, Grimes remained impassive, focused intently on the music at hand. While he may be a man of few words, Grimes “speaks” loudly and authoritatively on bass, violin, and written words. All of which were on display tonight.
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics, which she’ll probably discuss on our colleague Basir Mchawi’s Education at the Crossroads show on Thursday at 7 PM EST. And, remember our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.