This continuing feature honors the musicians taken from us by the coronavirus. Artists are (primarily) organized by the date of their passing. – Ed.
British rapper Ty, who earned a Mercury Prize nomination for his 2004 album Upwards, died at age 47. Born Ben Chijioke in London to Nigerian immigrant parents, Ty became known for his nimble flow and clever wordplay. He released his debut album, Awkward, in 2001, but found greater renown with Upwards, which placed him in a class of Mercury nominees that also included Amy Winehouse, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and The Streets. The acclaim led to collaborations with artists like De La Soul, Bahamadia, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen and Arrested Development’s Speech over the course of three additional releases, most recently A Work of Heart in 2018. While his jazz-inflected, literate style ran counter to the grittier grime trend that emerged in parallel to his career, Ty was a staunch advocate for U.K. hip-hop and a critic of its place in the culture. In 1995 he co-founded the hip-hop education program Ghetto Grammar, and continued nurturing younger MCs throughout his life. De La Soul’s Posdnuos was one of many fellow artists to pay tribute to Ty online, calling him “truly a good person” and writing, “Sad to see you ascend from this realm so soon.”
Dave Greenfield, whose keyboard work added musicianly depth to the great pub- and punk-rock band the Stranglers, died on May 3. He was 71. Greenfield (pictured in 1977) hailed from Brighton, England, and garnered inspiration from prog and early U.K. hard rock. Seemingly through happenstance, he and his bandmates fell in with the burgeoning British punk movement, though they continued to push beyond the boundaries of rock subgenres, with a twisted mischievous streak and a surplus of appreciable musical talent that invited analogies to the Doors, Television, even Zappa. Greenfield, a nimble player with a knack for applying smartly chosen timbres from a wide arsenal of keyboards, was perhaps the most integral part of the Stranglers’ reputation for technical brilliance. His contributions all but define many of the Stranglers’ best songs: his dreamlike arpeggios on “Strange Little Girl”; the potent riffing and possessed soloing of “Peaches”; the flashes of prog virtuosity he demonstrates on “No More Heroes”; the avant-prog weirdness he whips up on “Nice N’ Sleazy”; and, of course, “Golden Brown,” one of the most gripping songs of the new-wave era, where his composing and baroque harpsichord betray the Stranglers’ Kinks-ish melancholy and melodic wit.
Grammy-nominated gospel singer and producer Troy Sneed died in Jacksonville, Fla., at age 52. A native of the state, Sneed got his start in the school choir at Florida A&M University. He rose to prominence as Assistant Minister of Music for the Georgia Mass Choir, arranging music for the choir and appearing with them in the 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. Sneed also conceived the choir’s 300-voice offshoot for young members, Youth for Christ, which garnered a Grammy nomination for its 1999 debut album, Higher. That same year Sneed released his solo debut, Call Jesus, introducing his sleek combination of gospel praise and contemporary R&B. In 2005 he and his wife Emily founded their own Emtro Gospel label, releasing a string of albums that found their way onto the Billboard gospel charts. In September 2019 Emtro compiled a dozen favorites from Sneed’s catalog for the compilation All My Best.
DJ and producer Mike Huckaby, a legend on the Detroit house music scene, died at age 54 in the suburb of Royal Oak. A massively influential figure with an embracing, gentle spirit, Huckaby was a tireless advocate for electronic dance music in the Motor City. For more than 20 years he served as a manager and buyer for the dance room at Record Time in nearby Roseville, which garnered a global reputation. From that perch he became a tastemaker in Detroit and beyond, while DJing at popular clubs in the city.
Huckaby was a pioneer of “deep house,” the atmospheric subgenre that borrowed elements from soul and contemporary jazz to craft a more sensual, laidback style. He helped define the genre through his label Deep Transportation and its offshoot, S Y N T H, producing tracks and remixes for artists including DeepChord, Juan Atkins, Vladislav Delay, Loco Dice and Pacou, among many others. He left an indelible imprint on the music through his guidance of other DJs, his management of Record Time, his work as a festival programmer and his educational efforts, hosting music camps that taught courses in sound design and production. In the wake of his passing, the Ghostly International label called Huckaby, “A part of what makes electronic music special, A part of what makes Detroit music sublime.”
Fred the Godson, real name Fred Thomas, a charismatic and underrated rapper from the South Bronx who collaborated with the likes of Fat Joe and Dave East, died on April 23. The 35-year-old was included in the 2011 XXL Freshman Class, and had already released two projects in 2020.
On the first track off Armageddon, the 2010 mixtape that put his name on the hip-hop map, Fred explains what he’s all about: “What I have is a particular set of skills that make me a nightmare for rappers like you. Wittiness. Metaphors. Flows. And the best punchlines this game has ever heard.” Others agreed with his assessment, including a bevy of veteran rap stars; Busta Rhymes, Diddy and Lil’ Kim, among other giants, contributed features to his tracks.
With a thick, raspy voice that cut sharply through the middle of any beat, as well as freestyle abilities he demonstrated effectively on hip-hop radio shows, Fred certainly made good on his promise of cleverness. On the intense “Retaliation,” off 2019’s God Level, he raps, “Bullets lodged like the individual bars that’s on Kit Kat/Chop the hard, sound like I’m shakin’ a box of Tic Tacs.” And on the menacing “Steve Sax,” off this year’s Payback, he spits, “Used to beg my mother to have company/I’m in the class by myself now, fuck with me.” That last line, likely a reference to his XXL Freshman Class status, is a serious boast, considering XXL had placed him on the same level as Meek Mill and Kendrick Lamar.
And yet, Fred always knew himself and recognized his gift. He put it best on the title track from Armageddon: “God’s son, there will never be another/I’m so ahead of my time, I’m babysitting my mother.”
With the death of saxophonist Robert “Bootsie” Barnes at age 82, Philadelphia has lost one of the cornerstones of its local jazz scene. Though he came of age alongside such future greats as Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, Barnes never followed their lead, choosing instead to stay in his native Philly. The result was a husky, pugnacious tenor sound imbued with the soul of the city, tempered in the smoky corner bars and organ rooms that peppered the scene throughout his formative years. Over the decades Barnes became a mentor for generations of musicians, including such now-established names as pianist Uri Caine and trumpeter John Swana but continuing with young players just starting out at local jam sessions. Barnes began in music as a drummer before picking up the alto under the sway of Jackie McLean; he insists the switch to tenor was in pursuit of gigs (he called it the “meat and bread horn”), but the sax so perfectly captured his salty, irascible spirit that it seemed unimaginable he would play anything else. He performed with organ masters like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Don Patterson, backed marquee R&B bands at the Uptown Theater and toured the famed Southern chitlin’ circuit, honing the crowd-pleasing ability he brought to local rooms like Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus.
News of bassist Henry Grimes’ death, in New York at age 84, arrived with a slight sense of déjà vu. Before a stunning rediscovery in the early 2000s, Grimes’ whereabouts had remained a mystery for more than three decades, with many in the jazz world assuming that he’d died. Even the bio in the first CD reissue of his own 1965 album The Call concludes, “Does anybody know what happened to him?” Grimes’ comeback led to a welcome and prolific second act for one of the major figures of the ’60s jazz avant-garde, culminating in a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Vision Festival.
Born in Philadelphia, Grimes made his earliest recordings with greats like Gerry Mulligan, McCoy Tyner and Mose Allison. His robust tone graces Sonny Rollins’ summit meeting with Coleman Hawkins as well as Roy Haynes’ classic Out of the Afternoon, always laying a sturdy foundation shot through with a bristling energy. When the free-jazz movement loosened the strictures, his playing took on a strident intensity, with a tone thick and knotty as a burled tree trunk and a bracing eloquence that seemed to sing through gnashed teeth.
The measured ferocity and taut abstraction of Grimes’ bass made him an ideal collaborator for the most boundary-stretching of the era’s experimentalists. He recorded with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders; most indelibly, he’s an integral component of the prismatic ensemble on Cecil Taylor’s landmark 1966 album Unit Structures. The next year he moved to California, hocked his bass and survived on custodial work and odd jobs for the next 30 years. An encounter with a social worker in 2002 led to his miraculous reemergence; a bass donated by fellow free-jazz pioneer William Parker facilitated a return to the music, to which he brought an undiminished vigor in various collaborations, including a striking duo outing with drummer Rashied Ali.
Saxophonist Giuseppi Logan died in New York at age 84, drawing the curtain on an unexpected renaissance after a decades-long disappearance. His death came just two days after that of bassist Henry Grimes, the last in a remarkable series of parallels that ran throughout the two musicians’ lives. Both were born in Philadelphia in 1935 and made their mark through the fiery tumult of the free-jazz era, recording for the eclectic ESP-Disk’ label. Both were then lost to history for more than three decades before a surprise late-in-life comeback.
Logan left behind a far sparser recorded legacy than Grimes. His 1964 arrival in New York City coincided with trumpeter Bill Dixon’s historic October Revolution in Jazz festival, where he performed. Shortly afterwards he recorded his self-titled debut, The Giuseppi Logan Quartet. Backed by the stellar cohorts Don Pullen, Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves, the set captured Logan’s rough-hewn avidity, distinguished more by fervid passion than refinement. A year later his follow-up, More, captured a vehement concert at New York City’s Town Hall that found Logan attacking alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute and piano with serrated intensity.
Perhaps it was the erratic violence of his sound, but he recorded only rarely as a sideman, on albums by singer Patti Waters and trombonist Roswell Rudd. Over the next 30 years he battled mental illness and homelessness before trumpeter/clarinetist Matt Lavelle ushered him back into the spotlight. His struggles bleed through the music on his 2010 album The Giuseppi Logan Quintet, its most poignant moment a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that he would play for oblivious passersby in Tompkins Square Park.
Matthew Seligman, a bassist who made post-punk history as part of the hugely influential neo-psych band the Soft Boys, and who otherwise lived a rich journeyman’s life in music, died April 17 in London. He was 64. The brilliance of a great bass player is often stealthy, marked by an ability to be invaluable to a wide range of music while harboring the profile of a musician’s musician. By those standards Seligman was a hall of famer. Check the credits: With the Soft Boys, especially on their landmark Underwater Moonlight, he helped architect the hooky, noisy British Invasion update that became a template for college and alternative rock. Concurrent to collaborating with Robyn Hitchcock on the fellow Soft Boy’s early solo efforts, he underpinned Thompson Twins during their new-wave early ’80s. He worked prolifically with his friend Thomas Dolby — that’s his Moog part on “She Blinded Me With Science” — and racked up experience that reads like an especially potent issue of MOJO magazine: gigs with Alex Chilton and with Bowie, including at Live Aid, and records by Morrissey, Peter Murphy, Tori Amos, Sinéad O’Connor and more. He even helped to export the British house, acid-jazz and hip-hop scenes by way of his playing on Connected, Stereo MC’s’ biggest record.
“A joyous and funky bass player,” wrote Robyn Hitchcock on Facebook, “he made Underwater Moonlight an exuberant LP to record and listen to. His manic bass run at the end of ‘Insanely Jealous’ and his stately propeller dive into the last chorus of the title track, as well as the insistent groove he brought to ‘Kingdom of Love’ are some of the finest bass playing I have ever witnessed.”
Lee Konitz, an alto saxophonist who helped define the tranquil precision of cool jazz, died April 15 in New York. He was 92, and had suffered from pneumonia related to COVID-19. A participant in Miles Davis’ transformative Birth of the Cool sessions, he was also influenced profoundly by Charlie Parker and his own studies with pianist and educator Lennie Tristano, a stealthy force behind the development of postwar jazz. Konitz, like his trusted collaborator and fellow Tristano disciple Warne Marsh, a tenor saxophonist, sidestepped raw emotionality in favor of a rhythmically consistent, tonally even-keeled approach that never stopped sounding modern. An authentic improviser and dyed-in-the-wool bebopper, he spent an enduring, fruitful career wringing new harmonic and melodic discoveries from a familiar midcentury repertoire, in the process influencing generations of musicians.
John Prine, a songwriter’s singer-songwriter who created vivid characters in his funny, empathetic and ultimately profound music, died in Nashville on April 7. He was 73. Thriving at the fertile axis shared between folk and country, Prine’s songs were covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt. His contemporaries, including Bob Dylan, and his disciples — which tended toward roots music’s artier, more cerebral side — held him up as a great American man of letters.
The singular music producer and longtime Saturday Night Live contributor Hal Willner died on April 7 at 64. Willner produced albums for and with an eclectic roster of influential artists including Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Gavin Friday, Lucinda Williams, Laurie Anderson and William S. Burroughs. But his most indelible work came in the form of a series of wildly imaginative, defiantly strange tribute albums that thoroughly reimagined the work of their subjects. These albums delighted in incongruous combinations of musicians from disparate worlds, teasing out the material’s dark undercurrents and transfiguring already singular originals into even weirder dreamscapes.
Willner melded the distinctive voices of idiosyncratic musicians like colors on a palette, conjuring elegant madcaps from Nino Rota’s carnival scores for Fellini films, or plunging into the shadows lurking in the corners of Disney songs. On 1992’s Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, he gathered the likes of Bill Frisell, Elvis Costello, Diamanda Galás, Keith Richards and Chuck D to distort the music of Charles Mingus through a funhouse looking glass and into a Lynchian fugue state. His final tributes were a pair of Rogue’s Gallery collections, which strived to give sea shanties back their rum-soaked, piratical edge. He orchestrated similar amalgams for acclaimed tribute concerts (including one for Bill Withers) and a run of spoken-word albums that immersed readings of Burroughs or Edgar Allan Poe stories in unsettling cinematic atmospheres. He even managed to broadcast his off-kilter enthusiasms into living rooms across America, via his longtime role as music coordinator for SNL and David Sanborn’s woefully short-lived Night Music.
The encyclopedic expanse of Willner’s knowledge of and passion for music — the more arcane or anomalous the better — led to work bringing authenticity to films like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, or cataloguing neglected brilliance like the cartoon soundtracks of Carl Stalling. “I never really call them tributes,” Willner said in a 2014 interview. “That sounds like a funeral to me! It’s taking a body of work that has to be a great body of work, and seeing how far it can go.”
Vincent Lionti, a violist with the Metropolitan Opera for over three decades, died on April 4 at 60. As a contributor to pop and jazz recordings, his credits included albums by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Paul Simon, Joshua Redman, Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Charlie Haden and others.
Since 1997 Lionti had also been the conductor of the Westchester Youth Symphony, a mantle he assumed from his father, C. Victor Lionti, who had led the ensemble for 27 years. The role continued a lifelong association with the Greater Westchester Youth Orchestras Association, with which he began performing at age 12. Prior to joining the Met Orchestra, Lionti earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard; at the age of 21 he was one of several young musicians, including pianist Yefim Bronfman, invited to join violinist Isaac Stern onstage at Carnegie Hall.
Lionti spent four years as a member of the Detroit Symphony and another two with the New York Philharmonic, where he was a substitute. But he spent the bulk of his career in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera, where he played his father’s viola throughout his tenure. He was honored for his 30th anniversary with the company at the 2018 Met Service Awards ceremony.
The legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, whose career spanned seven decades in jazz, pop and TV, died in New Jersey at 94. Pizzarelli coupled virtuosic ability with impeccable taste, imbuing timeless melodies with embracing emotion and exquisite simplicity. His tone beamed with an avuncular warmth, making him an ideal accompanist for the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman and his musician sons, bassist Martin and guitarist/vocalist John, a star of mainstream jazz and traditional pop.
Born in Paterson, N.J., in 1926, Pizzarelli began his career in the 1940s with singer Vaughn Monroe’s dance band. For the next few decades he was as prolific as he was anonymous, recording on countless studio sessions and working as a staff musician for NBC, where he was a member of the Tonight Show band under both Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen. The modesty impressed upon his playing by those journeyman years comes across in the heartfelt intimacy of his own work, which insists on shining the spotlight on the song rather than the player.
That approach was undoubtedly a core reason for his long association with Benny Goodman, with whom he toured often from the mid-’60s until the bandleader’s death in 1986. An adaptable performer, Pizzarelli dabbled in the pop world throughout his career, beginning with a stint with the Three Suns and continuing with numerous recording sessions, including dates with Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney. His own music always delighted in an older style, rooted in Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Freddie Green — though never with the dogmatic insistence of many a traditionalist. Instead, his interpretations of classics always felt like a familiar story, captivatingly told with tender passion, sweet humor and well-polished timing.
The avant-garde disco singer Cristina, who laced her dance-music confections with an offbeat sensibility, died in New York at 64. At the height of the disco craze in 1978, Cristina emerged with a pointedly eccentric approach that could be interpreted as either caustic sendup or postmodern derangement.
A native Manhattanite, Cristina Monet-Palaci was born in 1956 to writer-illustrator Dorothy Monet and psychoanalyst Jacques Palaci. She briefly studied drama at Harvard before returning to New York City to write theater reviews for the Village Voice. There she met her soon-to-be-husband, Michael Zilkha, co-founder of ZE Records.
Through proximity alone she became the star of the label’s inaugural release, “Disco Clone” — a parody of the genre’s most insipid tendencies, produced by John Cale and featuring the voice of a young Kevin Kline, that nevertheless became an un-ironic hit. The single’s success led to an unintended career, and Cristina soon followed up with her self-titled debut (later reissued as Doll in the Box), produced by August Darnell, just before his rebirth as Kid Creole. She maintained the pose of air-headed detachment created for “Disco Clone,” a sardonic intellect’s version of unattainable vapidity that proved malleable enough to work for barbed satires and mutant earworms. The album included a pair of wry covers, bringing a sense of unimpressed lunacy to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and reinventing the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” as a doll-baby come-on.
Don Was produced her 1984 follow-up, Sleep It Off, which leaned more toward a serrated new-wave sound while retaining the singer’s bone-dry punk sneer. Though it boasted highlights like the seen-it-all litany of “What’s a Girl to Do,” the album was unsuccessful, essentially ending Cristina’s musical career. She moved to Texas with Zilkha and lived there until their 1990 divorce, at which point she returned to New York. Upon the news of her passing, singer-songwriter Zola Jesus praised Cristina on Twitter as “too weird for the pop world and too pop for the weird world.”
Pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., an NEA Jazz Master and patriarch of the renowned jazz dynasty, died in New Orleans at 85. A foundational figure in his native New Orleans, Marsalis’ influence was based more on his work as a guiding force than as a performer. His imprint on the modern jazz landscape would be profound if only for the generation-defining work of his two oldest sons, saxophonist Branford and trumpeter Wynton, who ushered in a bold revival of straightahead jazz at the vanguard of the Young Lions movement in the 1980s. But his work as an educator, at institutions including the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Xavier University of Louisiana and the University of New Orleans, extended his impact well beyond his own family, through the work of star pupils like Nicholas Payton, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison.
Though he had worked with such jazz giants as Nat and Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman in the ’50s and ’60s, Marsalis’ name would not become well known outside of the Crescent City until the rise to fame of his children. Four of his six sons became musicians; after Branford and Wynton came trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason. In 2011, the entire family was (not without some controversy) honored as NEA Jazz Masters, the music’s most prestigious honor.
Marsalis held down a weekly Friday night spot at the New Orleans club Snug Harbor for more than three decades before retiring early this year, becoming a tourist attraction in his own right. He represented the city’s jazz legacy with erudite sophistication but always a slight twinkle in the eye, allowing his playful spirit to shine through the elegance and occasionally erupt in a burst of raucous swing. Upon the news of his passing, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell wrote, “Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”
Kalamazoo is a special recording, not only because it features my dad, but also because it represents a certain type of honesty in musical performance. The album was the highlight of a weeklong tour, during which dad’s role as mentor, educator and all-around “cool cat” cannot be overstated. Typically, his relaxed and comforting style of playing quietly set the tone for younger musicians, as he declared from the first note to the last that he was committed to making the best possible musical decisions at all times. “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” was the evening’s encore, memorable for dad’s gentle touch, romantic style and affectionate wisdom. While, as his sons, my brethren and I often sought to prove to him that we were handling the business, he proudly showcased — in no uncertain terms — his ability to remain both supportive and in charge at all times.
Adam Schlesinger, who died at 52 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was a power-pop renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades who never turned down an opportunity to craft a soaring chorus. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, best known as a founding member of the hook-savvy indie act Fountains of Wayne, chased an unusually diverse career beyond the parameters of a rock band — including a variety of songwriting contributions for TV and film. His breakout work as a writer was the sugar-coated 1996 cut “That Thing You Do!,” the Oscar-nominated title tune to the Tom Hanks-directed comedy of the same name. The song was technically credited to the film’s stars, fictional ’60s band the Wonders — and that anonymity set a precedent for a rock star comfortable operating in the shadows. Schlesinger did quietly earn recognition at award shows over the decades, including — among others — earning a 2008 Tony nod for his work on the musical Cry-Baby, winning a Best Comedy Album Grammy in 2010 for cowriting a Stephen Colbert Christmas project and stacking up multiple Primetime Emmys.
He also found success writing for other artists, including tracks for pop-rock idols the Monkees, soft-rock duo America and stadium-packing pop superstars the Jonas Brothers. In between these eclectic projects, Schlesinger managed to fuel three indie/power-pop bands of his own: the short-lived supergroup Tinted Windows (which, during its run from 2009 to 2011, featured members of Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick and Hanson), Ivy and Fountains of Wayne. The lattermost group, defined by his songwriting collaboration with singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood, cemented Schlesinger’s sound for the mainstream. Their commercial peak came with 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, particularly the Grammy-nominated single “Stacy’s Mom,” a blissfully catchy anthem that seemed to update the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” for a millennial audience — wrapping Collingwood’s plainspoken voice around palm-muted riffs, handclaps, snaking synth leads and a roll-down-the-windows guitar solo.
Powerhouse trumpeter Wallace Roney, a protégé of Miles Davis who was a prolific voice in jazz over the last three decades, died in New Jersey at 59. Originally hailing from Philadelphia before studying at D.C.’s Howard University and the Berklee College of Music, Roney’s most enduring education came under the tutelage of Davis, who took the young trumpeter under his wing from 1985 until the jazz icon’s death in 1991. A year after meeting Davis, Roney entered the ranks of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; following that he was soon enlisted by Davis’ former drummer Tony Williams, with whom he worked closely for the next several years, beginning with the recording of the drummer’s 1986 album Civilization. Roney wielded his mentor’s horn for the recording of A Tribute to Miles (1994) with the members of Davis’ Second Great Quintet — Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter — which earned a Grammy Award.
In 1995 Roney married the pianist Geri Allen, and their musical collaboration continued after they divorced. The couple and their young children appear on the cover of 1997’s Village, a buoyant date that features Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Michael Brecker, Lenny White and Roney’s saxophonist brother, Antoine. While he struggled for a number of years to escape the shadow of Davis, Roney remained restlessly experimental, incorporating influences from hip-hop and neo-soul on early 2000s albums like No Room for Argument and Prototype. In more recent years he’d taken on the mentorship mantle from Blakey, leading next-generation bands up to his most recent album, Blue Dawn – Blue Nights, with a lineup including his 15-year-old nephew, drummer Kojo Odu Roney.
Country music splintered into distinctly competing veins in the 1990s: While artists like Garth Brooks infused their twang with the flavors of pop and stadium rock, the mustache-sporting Joe Diffie, who died in Nashville at 61, tipped his cap to decades past. The Oklahoma native quickly discovered his songwriting voice in a fickle industry. In 1986 he relocated to Music City and found work writing and singing on demos. One of those songs, Holly Dunn’s “There Goes My Heart Again,” peaked at No. 4. on Billboard’s Hot Country chart in 1989 — and within months, after signing as a solo artist with Epic Records, Diffie was singing his own hits. The singer-strummer’s debut LP, 1990’s A Thousand Winding Roads, spawned a handful of popular tunes — including the mellow chart-topper “Home” — that established his signature blend of heart-tugging sentimentality and playful storytelling.
Diffie cruised through the early decade with a string of huge singles, taking another commercial leap after he embraced a more rock-friendly side on 1993’s Honky Tonk Attitude. The album embraced the good-ol’-boy warmth that came to define his career on singles like his biggest hit, “Pickup Man,” “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” “In My Own Backyard” and “John Deere Green,” which traced the blooming romance of a couple named Billy Bob and Charlene. That approachability was an essential part of Diffie’s affable charm, but so was his voice — a versatile instrument equally capable of a butter-smooth croon and a gritty, bluesy holler. Though Diffie continued to write and record over the decades, even winning a 1998 Grammy for the all-star collaboration “Same Old Train,” he left his biggest thumbprint on the fertile ’90s — a time when honky-tonk attitudes felt both traditional and boldly new.
Pioneering Afro-funk saxophonist Manu Dibango, who played a key role in fusing African music with Western pop, died in Paris at 86. Born in Cameroon, Dibango inventively combined the traditional music of his home country with jazz and funk, leading to infectious hits like the seminal “Soul Makossa.” Released in 1972, the song became an international hit, heavily influenced the sound of disco and went on to be sampled and adapted countless times by artists from Michael Jackson to A Tribe Called Quest.
Dibango moved to Paris at the age of 15 to study classical piano but found himself drawn to jazz, much to his family’s displeasure. He began playing saxophone in the clubs of Paris during the early 1950s, and while in Brussels linked up with the foundational Congolese rumba band African Jazz. Returning with them to the Congo (modern Zaire), he stayed to open a nightclub. After two years Dibango returned to Paris to lead his own jazz bands, until the chance discovery of “Soul Makossa” (the B-side to an anthem honoring Cameroon’s national football team) by American DJ David Mancuso led to worldwide fame. The track’s overwhelming success opened the door to collaborations with superstars from around the world, including Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Sly and Robbie, Peter Gabriel, Serge Gainsbourg and others.
Dibango continued to absorb different styles and collaborators throughout his career. In 1994 he convened many of Africa’s most popular artists — Youssou N’Dour, King Sunny Adé, Angélique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Salif Keita — for his album Wakafrika. Twenty-eleven’s Past Present Future featured “Soul Makossa 2.0,” an update of his most popular song featuring vocals by Wayne Beckford, while his most recent recording, 2017’s M&M, found him updating jazz classics alongside his Mozambican counterpart Moreira Chonguica. In a 1991 interview, Dibango called music “the most spontaneous, natural form of contact between one person and another.”
Pianist, educator and label owner Mike Longo, best known for his enduring tenure as musical director for Dizzy Gillespie, died in Manhattan, three days after his 83rd birthday. A native of Cincinnati, Longo was born to musical parents and was mentored by saxophone giant Cannonball Adderley after the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In pursuit of his jazz career he relocated to New York in 1960, where he kept busy playing with the likes of Henry “Red” Allen and Roy Eldridge. After spending a year in Toronto to study with his idol, Oscar Peterson, he was discovered by Gillespie, forming the relationship that would define the pianist’s career.
Their association began in 1966 and continued in various forms for the remainder of Gillespie’s life, including a nine-year stint documented on albums like the live Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac. With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the trumpet icon performed Longo’s 1980 work “A World of Gillespie.” At the same time Longo maintained an active solo career, ranging from the straightahead bop sound of his mentors to the contemporary electric funk of the 1970s that he explored on sessions like 1972’s Matrix and The Awakening. Along with his long-running trio, Longo led his 18-piece big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, which performed at the New York City Baha’i Center less than two weeks before Longo’s death. He’d led weekly concerts there for more than a decade in honor of the faith he shared with Gillespie.
Congolese vocalist Aurlus Mabélé, who died in Paris at 66, was a leading practitioner of soukous, a whirlwind dance-music confection that blended Caribbean and African grooves, complex webs of electric guitar melody and elements of folk and pop. Born Aurélien Miatsonama, Mabele began his career in the 1970s in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo's capital city; there, he formed and found early success with his group Les Ndimbola Lokole, a platform for the robust singing that remained a hallmark throughout his career.
In the following decade, he moved to France and cofounded a crucial new band, Loketo, renowned for the fluid guitar of Diblo Dibala, along with Mabélé's melismatic vocal style and jovial stage showmanship. Soukous had exploded in Paris, and Loketo became a central part of that scene with their run of addictively danceable LPs and singles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The centerpiece of their studio catalog is 1991’s Extra Ball, a blast of kaleidoscopic soukous that varies slightly in tempo but never in the richness of its colors or the giddiness of its enthusiasm. Dibala’s dense guitar lines command most of the material, including his spidery, palm-muted textures on “Tcheke Linha” and liquid glide on “Extra Ball.” But Mabélé's spirited vocals offer a soulfulness that carries the tunes beyond the dance floor, from his rich vibrato on “Pardon” to his tender tone on “Cyndi.” Fans often describe Mabélé as “the king of soukous.” To discover why, start with Extra Ball.
Argentine saxophonist Marcelo Peralta died in Madrid, the first jazz musician lost to COVID-19. The 59-year-old had lived in the Spanish capital since 1996, where he taught music at a number of schools while exploring innovative combinations of Argentinian and Latin music with avant-garde jazz. Born in 1961 in Buenos Aires, Peralta initially studied classical piano at the city’s Antiguo Conservatorio Beethoven before picking up the baritone sax. He would later concentrate on the tenor, performing with the Cuatro Vientos saxophone quartet and cofounding the Grupo de Improvisación Tercer Mundo. While playing with pianist-composer Eduardo Lagos, Peralta began to discover the interest in fusing Latin-American folk music with jazz that would become the primary focus of his career.