How The Flute Got Hip: Six Great Jazz Flutists

Traditionally, the flute was not used by jazz ensembles simply because it couldn’t produce enough sound. Prior to electronic amplification, any flutist would have struggled to be heard over the bellowing brass and wailing woodwind sections endemic to jazz bands.

For this reason, flutes were almost unheard of as jazz instruments prior to the 1930’s. But with the advent of good microphones and amplifiers that all started to change.

When The Flute Got Hip

Flutists started to appear in jazz bands more frequently at the beginning of the bebop era of the 1940’s. By the 1960’s the flute had become an integral part of many jazz bands and had contributed to the unique sound of that era.

A great example of this sound is the 1959 album Kelly Blue, featuring the brilliant flute playing of Bobby Jasper. Its recording date notwithstanding, in many ways this album typified the west coast jazz sound of the 60’s in which flutes played a critical role.

Today, the flute has become an accepted part of modern jazz. Let’s take a look at the flutists who pioneered the use of their instrument in the jazz world. Here are six players who made the flute hip.

James Moody

Born in 1925, James Moody first started playing music as a young man. In 1943 he joined the Army Air Force band and played for three years, gaining valuable experience. Upon discharge, he tried out for Dizzy Gillespie’s band. He failed the first audition but with perseverance was accepted on his second try-out.
Gillespie quickly shot to stardom and the stars of his band’s members rose along with him. Moody’s first major solo hit was a melody based on an improvised solo he had played with Gillespie’s band, the now famous Moody’s Mood for Love. The song’s chord changes are based on the song “I’m In the Mood For Love“. A common bebop practice at the time was writing new, exciting melodies over well-known tunes.

Moody was a multi-instrumentalist who described his strongest instruments as being the tenor and alto sax. But he was also a force to be reckoned with on the flute. He began incorporating the flute more prominently in his playing throughout the 50’s and 60’s.

Here’s a video from 1965 featuring Moody playing alongside Gillespie on One Note Samba. He has an extensive solo where he showcases the flute’s natural affinity for jazz. The performance shows how particularly well-suited the instrument is for playing complex bebop melodies in the higher registers. Mr. Moody’s agility and clarity

Mr. Moody’s agility and clarity is matched only by his ability to form cogent musical ideas at breakneck speed. Check out the video.

That’s pretty good for a man whose focus was horns and who described himself as merely “a flute holder, not a flute player”. Throughout a career which spanned nearly six decades, James Moody played with a

Throughout a career which spanned nearly six decades, James Moody played with a who’s who roster of all time jazz legends. He made many contributions to America’s greatest art form. But perhaps the greatest was his demonstration that the flute could be not just a viable but an integral part of jazz performance.

Herbie Mann

Herbie Mann may be the most famous of all jazz flutists. It seems no one could claim to have done more for the instrument’s popularity not just among jazz fans and players, but among the general public.

Herbie Mann was born in 1930 in Brooklyn. Like many other musicians of the era, he joined and played music in the army. His chosen instrument at that time was the saxophone. However, when he was discharged he perceived a glut of saxophone players. So he decided to differentiate himself by switching to the flute.
He quickly gained the attention of the New York jazz scene power players. He gigged around as a sideman until the late 50’s when he started branching off on his own forming not just new bands, but new kinds of music altogether.

He is credited as being one of the first musicians to successfully fuse the American bebop idiom with other musical forms from around the world. Mann’s sound has been aptly described as edgy and aggressive – terms not normally associate with the flute. This is no doubt a product, years in the making, of competing with gritty saxes and bombastic trumpets before smoky, half-drunk rooms.

Here’s a sample of his mid 60’s work, a bright, upbeat samba.

The above video exemplifies the Latin-centric style he favored in the 60’s. Perhaps his most famous and lasting hit from this period is the decidedly mainstream “Comin’ Home Baby”.

This seemed to foretell the direction his career would take. Throughout the 70’s he chose a more commercial-oriented path. He undertook a wide range of projects involving everything from funk to disco. This caused much uproar among the critics and fans.

By the end of the 80’s he scarcely had a following. But in the 90’s he began writing and performing jazz again which he continued until his death.
Today Herbie Mann’s music is still widely played on many jazz radio stations and he is remembered as one of the greats. Unlike many other jazz flutists, he was almost exclusively a flute player. He reached beyond jazz’s core audience and helped the flute establish its place in American music.

Bobbi Humphrey

Bobbi Humphrey was born in Texas in 1950. Raised in Dallas, she began playing flute in the high school band. While attending college at Texas Southern University a chance encounter with the great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie left the latter impressed. He convinced Humphrey to move to NY where she quickly made the scene, gigging and recording prolifically.

But it was perhaps her much-lauded appearance at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival that really marked her breakthrough. Throughout the 70’s, she churned out a prodigious number of hits including as a guest on Stevie Wonder’s Another Star.

In 1976 she was named Best Female Instrumentalist by Billboard, a remarkable feat for a jazz flutist. Exemplary pieces from this period include The Good Life and You Are The Sunshine of My Life. Take a listen.

Humphrey was never a bop player. Gone from her music is the hardscrabble bellicosity of Coltrane and Tyner. The sublime, angular incantations of Wayne Shorter or the clarion war poetry of Lee Morgan, marking nameless urban battles from which American society preferred turning both eyes and ears.

But she never sold out either. There’s still an unmistakable realness in her playing, even in her most commercial efforts. Her solos are not “difficult” in the radical hard-bop sense but they are nonetheless both emotive and uncompromising. In that way, Bobbi Humphrey is maybe the ideal practitioner of popular jazz.

Later in her career, she showed an aptitude for business well equaling her musical talents. In 1977 she formed her first business, the music publisher Bobbi Humphrey Music Company. Throughout the 80’s she ventured into music production and talent management, discovering then signing a young singer named Tevin Campbell. Campbell went on to galactic stardom, selling close to 5 million copies of his debut album, T.E.V.I.N.

With this Humphrey had gone from merely playing the flute to an industry player. In 1994 she founded another start-up, her own record label named Paradise Sounds Records and released the widely acclaimed album Passion Flute. She continues touring, recording and running her businesses.

Bobbi Humphrey managed to embrace new directions in her music while staying unmistakably rooted in the jazz and blues tradition. Her music represents the best spirit of what we now call smooth jazz – not as a strictly commercial vehicle for selling records but as a way to both expand the artist’s medium and reach otherwise unreachable audiences. For this Bobbi Humphrey makes our list.

Dave Valentin

The flute is the oldest known instrument. With some bone flutes dating to 30,000 b.c. the first instrumental melodies that enlivened war parties, rituals and post-hunt feasts were doubtless produced on some variation of flute.

What was once a primitive device carved of bone eventually became a masterpiece of European high technology, culminating in the modern Boehm flute. But in all its grandeur something intangible and profound was lost in western music’s march toward domestication.

Like the wolves that followed nomads and eventually became dogs, music was slowly culled of its most rabid passions. Lost were the thunderous drums, percussive gourds and other strange rhythmic implements that crescendo to a fevered cadence while a sharp reed-like melody channels spirits that join men, fire and shadows in a dance of immortal unity.

Dave Valentin can be credited perhaps more than anyone with reuniting this modern woodwind of ancient pedigree with its ancestral substrate, the rhythms of Afro Cuban Jazz.

Dave Valentin was born in the Bronx in 1952 to parents of Puerto Rican ancestry. He first took up percussion at the age of 12 and played professionally while in high school. He never touched a flute until the age of 18, an unusually late start for a player who would prove to be such a spectacular virtuoso. He studied under the great flutist Hubert Laws who urged him not to double on the saxophone but concentrate solely on flute. And thankfully he did

He studied under the great flutist Hubert Laws who urged him not to double on the saxophone but concentrate solely on flute. And thankfully he did.

His playing is often gritty and percussive, and he can frequently be heard humming into the flute. This gives his playing a wild quality that compliments the loosed bacchanalia of the great Latin percussion sections he often plays with.

Like other great musicians, his genius stems not from how he follows the rules but how he bends them to his will. In terms of raw creative energy and deep emotional communication with the audience, Dave Valentin is surely among the greatest flutists ever.

Hubert Laws

Hubert Laws was born in Houston in 1935 to a musical family. Most of his 7 siblings would eventually go on to a career in music.

He first started playing the flute in high school when by chance the band’s only flute player dropped out. By the age of 15, he was already gigging with a band called the Swingsters which would later morph into the world famous group led by Joe Sample, the Crusaders.
In 1960 at the age of 21 laws was accepted to Julliard. He soon discovered that the steep cost of Manhattan living exceeded his meager budget. Down to his last $50, he got a last minute gig at Sugar Ray’s lounge in Harlem and as he says he “never looked back”.

Over a career stretching decades Laws has played alongside an enviable list of jazz pioneers including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan to name merely a few. He also made an early name for himself as a talented, go-to studio musician and has played with musicians ranging from Paul McCartney to Bob James.

Here’s a nice example of his mid-career work

Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy was born in 1928 in Los Angeles. He learned the clarinet at age 6 but switched to the oboe in high school. While still in his high school years his father built him a makeshift studio in the backyard where he jammed with local kids. One of those kids was the soon-to-be famous trumpeter Clifford Brown.

During his 20’s he played around the Los Angeles area with many different bands including those of Gerald Wilson and Chico Hamilton. With the latter he finally started to gain widespread recognition as a quickly maturing great of the saxophone and flute.

In 1959 at age 31, he decided to move to New York to get closer to the heart of the US jazz scene. Shortly after arriving there he joined the band of famed bass player Charles Mingus, who he had known from Los Angeles. This marked the beginning of a period of bold creativity and expansion, taking him towards uncharted musical frontiers.

Some would argue that by this time he had officially joined the ranks of the free jazz movement. But his music still retained definite structure and could be indeed almost romantic in character. Listen for example, to the seminal “Inner Flight II”

It’s reminiscent of the late romantic composers like Scriabin, even Debussy. It certainly bears little resemblance to the premeditated aural assault of Cecil Taylor or the calamitous cacophonies of Ornette Coleman. On the contrary, it’s a profoundly hauntingly melodic – the mark of a disciplined master.
With the Mingus group Dolphy indulged in more strident departures from orthodoxy. But even there he was operating closer to the mode of Charlie Rouse – no matter how far outside the changes he strayed his lines were always incisively logical and melodic. Check this out for instance, featuring Dolphy on, of all things, bass clarinet.

He died bizarrely of what’s been described as a diabetic coma resulting from a honey overdose, aged 36. Thus was his name added to the tragic list of exceptionally talented musicians who died strangely, and far too young. But his music lives on and he lands on our list for being, if not the greatest, certainly the most adventurous flutist in jazz history.

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