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Carl Grubbs, saxophonist, teacher and community builder, dies at 79

Alto saxophonist Carl Grubbs perfro
Brian V. Jones
Alto saxophonist Carl Grubbs performing at Germano's in Baltimore.

Carl Grubbs, a powerfully searching saxophonist and music educator whose grassroots influence extends from Philadelphia, the city of his youth, to Baltimore, his home for more than 40 years, died on Jan. 5 at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 79.

The cause was pneumonia, his wife, Barbara Harrell Grubbs, tells WRTI.

Grubbs — whose main instrument was alto saxophone, though he also played soprano and tenor, as well as clarinet — carried a formative connection with John Coltrane with pride throughout his career. In one sense it was a family legacy: Grubbs was a first cousin of Juanita Grubbs, Coltrane’s first wife, known as Naima.

In 1958, when Carl was 13, he and his brother, Earl, paid an Easter weekend visit to Naima’s apartment in New York. There they not only met Coltrane but heard him practice a set of intervals that would soon form the harmonic basis for “Giant Steps.” Carl, who had recently received his first clarinet, and Earl, who was playing alto saxophone, were struck not only by the intensity of Coltrane’s discipline but also by his generosity of spirit.

“As years went on,” Carl Grubbs told Lewis Porter, the author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, “when he’d come to Philadelphia we’d go over to his house on Thirty-third Street and ask him questions and he would show us some things on the saxophone.”

The Grubbs brothers later applied these insights in their own music — notably with a Philadelphia-based quintet called The Visitors. On their debut album, Rebirth, released on the Muse label in 1974, the band featured an all-star rhythm section of Kenny Barron on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. Later editions of the group, which released a total of four albums, would include pianist Sid Simmons, drummer Victor Lewis, and a young bass phenom named Stanley Clarke.

Grubbs’ solo career deepened after his move to Baltimore. He created one of his most ambitious pieces, “The Inner Harbor Suite,” as a tribute to that city, recording it live in 1994 at the Baltimore Museum of Art; reviewing it in DownBeat, Howard Mandel hailed it as “a work of considerable color and depth.”

Grubbs returned to the piece in recent years, self-releasing Inner Harbor Suite Revisited in 2016, and performing it at Keystone Korner Baltimore, with the young siblings Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey on saxophones, in 2020. “It was one of the most important pieces of music that has been performed here in our first five years of music,” attests Todd Barkan, the club’s proprietor. “It was just an overwhelmingly beautiful and emotionally gratifying experience to hear that played, especially by a couple generations of players.”

Carl Gordon Grubbs was born on July 27, 1944. His parents both played piano, and their home in North Philadelphia was always full of musicians. Both Carl and his brother, Earl, Jr., were encouraged to pursue music as a career, and both were playing professionally by their high school years.

In addition to their work in The Visitors, the Grubbs brothers played, separately and together, in a range of for-hire musical settings. But the erosion of Philly’s club and showroom landscape in the 1970s necessitated outside work. Carl, who’d married and had four children, paid the bills as a substitute teacher, and with a job at a grocery store.

By 1980 he had divorced and remarried the former Barbara Harrell, moving to Baltimore, where she was a history teacher. She survives him along with all four children from his previous marriage — sons Gordon and Carl, and daughters Naima and Camille — as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His brother, Earl, died in 1989.

Grubbs dug into the scene in Baltimore and nearby Washington, D.C., not only as a player but also as an arts presenter, often in partnership with his wife. In 1983 he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a series of concerts under the the Arts in the Marketplace program at Harbor Place Mall in Baltimore. He received another grant for his work with a community band called the D.C. Jazz Workshop Orchestra.

Richard A Smith III

Through an organization they founded, the Maryland Center for Creative Music, Carl and Barbara Grubbs presented concerts by distinguished visiting artists like pianist Jaki Byard and saxophonist Julius Hemphill. That contact led Hemphill to take Grubbs on tour. As a member of the Julius Hemphill Saxophone Sextet, he appeared on the 1991 Black Saint album Fat Man and the Hard Blues.

He also took part in Hemphill’s self-described “saxophone opera,” first presented at Lincoln Center in New York under the title Long Tongues; and a Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company production, Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Promised Land.

All the while, Grubbs mentored younger musicians, the way he had been mentored. “He’s the kind of person that would keep in touch with you, follow you during your development,” recalls alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, who first met Grubbs at a master class in Philadelphia, when he was 12 or 13.

In 1997, Carl and Barbara co-founded Contemporary Arts, Inc., a nonprofit devoted to jazz education. Among other programs, it yielded the SAX Music and Dance Camp — “SAX” being an acronym for Summer Activity Extraordinaire — which has taken place every summer since, with the pandemic exception of 2020. The camp has received an Annie E. Casey grant every year since 2021.

“One of the most wonderful things about Carl was his warmth and effectiveness as an educator and exemplar of this music,” remembers Barkan. “He was really an inspiration to so many younger players.” Grubbs played his last concert at Keystone Korner Baltimore on Dec. 6 — fittingly, a tribute to John Coltrane, whose light he always carried.

“I didn’t get to meet John Coltrane,” offers Jaleel Shaw, “but I had a feeling that this was his demeanor too: just a very calm, gentle soul, and very generous. People like him made me understand the importance of community, and what we do — that it wasn’t just about performing and putting out albums. It was also about giving back to the community. And he did that until the day that he left us.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified "the young brothers Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey." Ebban is Ephraim's sister.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.