Sunday, May 4, 2008

R.I.P. Dennis Irwin

Dennis Irwin, jazz bassist and one of the most remarkable and humble musicians and people I have ever met died this week. I saw Dennis play so many times over the years, with such a huge variety of musicians. Once when somebody asked him how he can so easily go from playing straight-ahead music to playing free music while maintaining his incredible sound and musical identity, Dennis replied "I try to make the inside guys play more out, and the outside guys play more in."

My fondest memories of seeing him play were in Los Angeles when I was sixteen or so. He did a week playing in a quartet with Joe Lovano, and a friend of mine and I went at least three or four of the nights. At the end of each night, Dennis was there talking to us as if we were peers, hanging out and telling us stories about getting to New York and developing his career. Besides being a great musician, he was a very funny guy to be around, and extraordinarily positive.

Here is Ben Ratliff's obituary from the NY Times.

Dennis Irwin, who for more than 30 years was a much-in-demand New York jazz bassist and whose recent illness became a rallying point for jazz musicians without medical insurance, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 56.

Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos
The jazz musician Dennis Irwin performing in 2002.
The cause was liver failure as a result of cancer, said his son, Michael Irwin.

He died the same day as a benefit concert was presented in his honor, staged by Jazz at Lincoln Center and including performances by Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, Jon Hendricks, Mose Allison, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and many others. Part of the concert’s proceeds will go toward Mr. Irwin’s medical expenses. The rest, in line with his stated wishes, will go to other musicians in need, through the Jazz Foundation of America, which has helped many uninsured musicians — including Mr. Irwin — pay for healthcare.

Two New York City jazz-club benefits in February, one at Smalls and one at the Village Vanguard, also raised money for Mr. Irwin’s living expenses and for alternative cancer treatment.

Mr. Irwin’s swing was deep and dependable, and he played on more than 500 albums. Since the early 1980s, he had performed almost every Monday night with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Irwin attended North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) as a classical musician studying the clarinet, switching to jazz and the bass during college. In 1973, while still in school, he got a job as a bassist playing with the pianist Red Garland; he moved to New York in 1974 without graduating and quickly found work with Ted Curson, Betty Carter and Mr. Allison, among others. In 1977 he began a three-year stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

In more recent years, he played in bands led by Johnny Griffin, Mr. Lovano, Mr. Scofield and Matt Wilson.

His case has already brought help to uninsured musicians. Michael Pietrowicz, vice president for planning and program development at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J., said in an interview on Tuesday that the hospital, in conjunction with the Jazz Foundation of America, would create the Dennis Irwin Memorial Fund, making free cancer screenings available to veteran jazz and blues musicians who are uninsured. (Mr. Irwin was initially evaluated and treated for cancer at the hospital late last year.) And Adrian Ellis, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said Tuesday that the organization would produce an annual concert to benefit jazz musicians in need.

Besides his son, Michael, of Manhattan, Mr. Irwin is survived by his companion, Aria Hendricks; his brother, David Irwin, and his mother, Daisy Godbold, both of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and his father, David E. Irwin of Monticello, Ga.

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