Henry Cherry had been an addict and a ne’er do well, but the music of Henry Grimes went beyond support, beyond the bass, beyond the beyond.
Years ago, while working a series of nowhere jobs to support my record collecting habit, I came across an interview with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. Kramer was talking free jazz. Albert Ayler, he said. Albert Ayler. So, I went and got some Albert Ayler. That’s when I first heard the dynamic lamentations of Henry Grimes’s bass. I’d been an addict and a ne’er do well. I used music as a remedy, a pacifier. But that bass sound of Henry’s was something far more compelling than a fixative to my personal blues.
Grimes made The Call, an incredible solo recording, in the mid 60s. When I heard its frenetic pacing almost thirty years later I fell in love with the emotive lashing of its songs. Such was the impact, I started scouring liner notes hoping to find more Grimes. And more was to be had. He worked with Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. That’s Henry on bass in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, furious beads of concentration formed on his brow. When saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins let go his piano player, Grimes got the nod to cover the musical gap. And that’s Grimes setting the pace with Roy Haynes on the splendid, inventive Out in the Afternoon. Henry’s sound went beyond support, beyond bass, beyond the beyond. And it thrilled me.
But with each new piece added to the puzzle of his sound, I wondered what happened to him after he disappeared to California in 1969. I’d struggled with addiction, as had many jazzers. Was Grimes another drug casualty?
Turns out, I wasn’t wondering alone. Marshall Marotte, a musician/jazz fan also set out in search of Henry Grimes. But where I simply wondered, Marotte did real work. He ran across the same obituary everyone else did, but wasn’t satisfied with its casual reliance upon rumor. After an arduous couple of years searching, Marotte located a man named Henry Grimes living in an SRO hotel in Los Angeles. He called the number, asked for Henry. “Are you the Henry Grimes that played jazz back in the sixties?”
In the kind of magical occurrence you read about in books, Marotte spent his savings on a plane ticket to California and interviewed Grimes. From there, the story spread. NPR did a piece on him, as did the New York Times. Jazz bassist William Parker gave Grimes the first bass he would own since he disappeared in 1969. And with that finger snap Henry Grimes returned to music.
In 2010 I met him for an article, and Grimes allowed me to make a documentary. People popped out of the woodwork eager to explain their connection to his sound. Marc Ribot, the former Tom Waits and Lounge Lizards guitarist, started a band with Grimes and wrote the forward to Grimes’s book of poems. “Robert Quine pointed out how important Henry’s role was. To prove it he played me ‘Goin’ Home,’ and I still remember this first listening. It was one of a very few occasions when a piece of music made me weep. And I wonder how many of the thousands of guitarists and millions of listeners influenced directly or indirectly by Quine’s punk style are aware of the influence of Albert Ayler and Henry Grimes in what they play.”
Grimes explained it best when I asked him if he was mad about his life, “how can I be mad at what happened,’ he said, “it’s still happening.”