Saxophonist David S. Ware Dies at 62
David S. Ware, the saxophonist and bandleader whose quartet was one of the most celebrated and longest-lived jazz ensembles of recent decades, died on Oct. 18 at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. Ware succumbed to complications from a kidney transplant he had received in 2009. He was 62.
David Spencer Ware was born on Nov. 7, 1949, in Plainfield, N.J., and grew up in nearby Scotch Plains. The first words his mother said to him were “Go see the world.” (Ware used those words as the title of his 1998 album for Columbia Records.) He first played alto and baritone saxophone in junior high school. As a teenager, Ware became strongly influenced by Sonny Rollins’ music and later befriended him.
Rollins was a strong advocate for his protégé at several key points during his career. Ware took up his mentor’s horn, and while he also made compelling music on sopranino saxophone, saxello and stritch, the tenor saxophone was his primary instrument. Rollins taught Ware the art of circular breathing in 1966, and the two saxophonists occasionally practiced together in Rollins’ Brooklyn apartment in the ’70s.
Ware’s artistry was influenced by Rollins’ virtuosity and stamina as well as the intensity and spiritual openness of late-era John Coltrane. But even in Ware’s early years as a sideman, listeners recognized his broad tone, his rippling, circular breathing-fueled altissimo runs and the clarity with which he developed material for others.
After studying music in Boston, Ware moved to Manhattan in 1973, where he participated in the burgeoning loft jazz movement. Within a year of settling in New York, he was a member of pianist Cecil Taylor’s big band; he subsequently played on Taylor’s Dark To Themselves (Enja). In the ’70s and ’80s, he played with Andrew Cyrille’s Maono, Ahmed Abdullah’s Solomonic Quartet and William Parker’s Centering Dance Music Ensemble, and also began leading his own groups. Ware eschewed promiscuous collaboration in favor of working with musicians who grasped his concepts.
Pianist Cooper-Moore, who played with Ware during the ’70s in the trio Apogee, accompanied the saxophonist at his last public performance, which was in August 2011 with the quartet Planetary Unknown.
In a statement published on his website, Ware laid out this philosophy: “Rather than freelance with different bands, you make the group an institution. Looking at jazz over the decades, I feel this is how the music grows the most. Musicians get a chance to be thorough, to know the material and be involved.”
The musicians with whom Ware is most strongly associated are the members of his namesake quartet, which he led from 1989 to 1997. The lineup included bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp. Over the course of the quartet’s existence, its drummer’s chair was occupied by Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guillermo E. Brown. The group’s sound was no less distinctive than Ware’s playing.
“There was a natural symbiosis between David’s lines and the harmonic language I use,” Shipp said. “Even though we can obviously play in a post-modal Coltrane-type way, we tried to stay away from that, so a pan-harmonic continuum was on the menu. David loved rolling carpets of harmony to be behind him, and I can offer that up by the handful.”
The quartet’s music could be quite dense, with each player sending out surges of energy that Ware could either engage with or ride over. But even at its most bracing, the music was never chaotic. Ware knew exactly what he wanted, and his band knew just how to give it to him.
In the liner notes to his 1995 recording Dao (Homestead), Ware told DownBeat contributor Peter Margasak, “There’s an underlying intelligence in the music, and that’s what structures the music, provides the sequence, everything. It’s important to be attuned to that, the intelligence that orders everything.” To access that intelligence, Ware not only practiced his instrument; he engaged in a spiritual practice that included transcendental meditation and yoga.
“David’s entire existence centered on his inner spiritual world,” Parker said. “David was involved deeply in meditation. It was like he entered into another world that was beyond music; it was the source of all sound.”
The David S. Ware Quartet’s early records were issued by the Japanese label DIW and the Swedish label Silkheart, but in 1994 Ware began an affiliation that gave him a permanent ally in his own land. That’s when he released Cryptology on Homestead, an indie-rock imprint. When Homestead manager Steven Joerg founded his own label, AUM Fidelity, his first release was the quartet’s Wisdom Of Uncertainty. During Ware’s brief stint with Columbia, Joerg remained his manager, and the majority of Ware’s recordings after that affiliation ended were released on AUM Fidelity.
Around the same time that Ware recorded for Columbia, his kidneys failed, and he began a regime of self-administered dialysis that lasted a decade. Guitarist Joe Morris, who played with the saxophonist for a couple years after the David S. Ware Quartet disbanded, recalled the travails Ware endured: “When we were on tour, he was really struggling and had a hard time walking. He had to do dialysis every night in the hotel, but when we got onstage, he was incredibly powerful.”
At the point when Ware could no longer sustain himself with daily dialysis, Joerg went public with his plight, seeking a kidney donor. Laura Mehr—the widow of an old fan of Ware’s—responded, and on May 12, 2009, one of her kidneys was successfully transplanted.
Although Ware continued to endure serious complications brought on by his immunosuppressant medication, he embarked on an astonishing late-career run of creativity. He took up totally free improvisation with Planetary Unknown, a group that included his old mates Parker and Cooper-Moore as well as veteran free-jazz drummer Muhammad Ali. He returned to the stritch and saxello—instruments he hadn’t played in public for 20 years.
Ware also picked up the sopranino saxophone, which he wielded to devastating effect on his 2011 disc Organica (Solo Saxophones, Volume 2) (AUM Fidelity). Part of that album was recorded during Ware’s November 2010 appearance at Chicago’s Umbrella Music Festival. When he had finished playing in Chicago, he spoke to the audience, alluding to his declining health with startling good humor. “This body is a vehicle,” Ware said, “and I’ll be needing a new one soon.”