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Lost among the media’s numerous “jazz is back” salvos during the music’s latest “retro” period were the technically and emotionally compelling instrumental and compositional contributions of saxophonist/composer Julius Hemphill, whose death on April 2 has robbed the musical landscape of an underappreciated talent.
Hemphill received some acclaim as a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, but few realize the degree to which his pen was the lifeblood of that ensemble, players like David Murray and Oliver Lake notwithstanding. Hemphill titles like “Open Air,” “One Waltz Time,” and “My First Winter” were, like the best works of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, conceived with both the player’s gifts and the composer’s intentions in mind—their results are aural wonders.
My personal memories of Hemphill take as many forms as his compositions; dancing on the 9:30 Club stage in Day-Glo sneakers during a stint as one of drummer Rashied Ali’s Funky Freeboppers during the height of the Reagan era; performing the emotionally cascading saxophone opera Long Tongues, which Washingtonians had the privilege to experience thanks to longtime Hemphill supporter Bill Warrell of District Curators; and quietly enduring the overly effusive praise from a certain fan following a WSQ set during the first Capital City Jazz Festival. I’ll keep these indelible images, along with the music, among my souvenirs.