A Tribute to Lew Soloff

Volume 115, No. 4April, 2015

Lew Soloff

Photo: John Abbott

Lew Soloff, 71, a member of Local 802 since 1959, died on March 8. A consummate fixture on the New York jazz scene, Mr. Soloff’s career was filled with a rich history of renowned sessions and world-class collaborations. Whether interpreting a standard or improvising on an original composition, his phrasing and note choices exemplified his unique voice. Mr. Soloff was known as a virtuoso with tremendous range and superior technical command, yet he also exuded a wisdom for quietness and melody. His instruments included trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet, and he was adept at harmon mute and plunger mute as well.

One of Mr. Soloff’s early mentors was the acclaimed Cuban bandleader Machito, and the lessons learned in that band eventually led Mr. Soloff to form his own Afro-Cuban ensemble. “This is one of the most wonderful bands I have ever played with, full of fire and beauty and capable of going in many directions,” Mr. Soloff once said. “When I was 21 and first came to New York I was very lucky to work with Machito, one of the best Afro-Cuban bands around. To top things off, the musical director was the great Cuban instrumentalist Mario Bauzá.”

Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Soloff was raised in Lakewood, New Jersey and started studying piano at an early age. He took up the trumpet when he was 10 and his interest in the instrument surged, thanks to the record collections of his grandfather and uncle. Exposed to artists such as Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong as a youngster, Mr. Soloff once recalled that “there was a high scale I remember from Armstrong’s recording ‘I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music.’ He played this run with such quiet finesse and beauty, I wanted to play like that.”

As a teenager, Mr. Soloff spent his summers playing hotels and country clubs in the Borscht Belt. He went to music school at Eastman, where he played in a practice band with fellow student Chuck Mangione. Next, he spent a year in graduate school at Juilliard. It was the mid-1960s and the fertile jazz scene in New York City ignited Mr. Soloff’s full-time career.

“When I first settled in the city it was my association with Machito, which made my reputation in the Latin jazz community,” said Mr. Soloff. “About the same time, I started playing in rehearsal bands that brought me in contact with players like Phil Woods, Eddie Gomez, Pepper Adams, Duke Pearson and Frank Foster.” Jam sessions with Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, and Elvin Jones solidified Mr. Soloff’s bebop skills.

By 1966, he was performing with Maynard Ferguson and soon became a regular in the Joe Henderson/Kenny Dorham Big Band. That year he also joined the Gil Evans Group, an affiliation he considers his most influential.

“I first met Gil Evans when I was 22 and he became my musical godfather,” Mr. Soloff recalled. It was a creative relationship that lasted until Evans’ death in 1988. In the large bands of the 1960s, Mr. Soloff received his continuing education, joining groups led by Clark Terry, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, including the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band. But it was in the popular groundbreaking group Blood, Sweat and Tears that Mr. Soloff’s trumpet solos became an indelible part of American culture. He was an integral part of the band from 1968 to 1973, racking up nine gold records, a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1969 and creating those searing horn lines in “Spinning Wheel.”

Following his time with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Mr. Soloff demonstrated his distinguished abilities in the studio, which were consistently in demand. He recorded with Roy Ayers, Bob Belden, George Benson, Benny Carter, Stanley Clarke, Paquito D’Rivera, Miles Davis/Quincy Jones (“Live At Montreux”), Mercer Ellington, Grant Green, Lionel Hampton, Bob James, Herbie Mann, Tania Maria, Carmen McRae, Laura Nyro, Jaco Pastorius, Mongo Santamaria, Little Jimmy Scott, Wayne Shorter and Stanley Turrentine.

He also participated in sessions and concerts for some of pop’s most respected figures, including Tony Bennett, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Aretha Franklin, Lou Reed, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand. Defying strict classification, Mr. Soloff was also heard on recordings by Phillip Glass and Kip Hanrahan as well as blues legends John Mayall and Dr. John. His trumpet can be heard on the soundtracks to “The Big Lebowski,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Carlito’s Way,” “The Color of Money,” “Coming To America,” “The Mambo Kings,” “Meet Joe Black,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Tender Mercies” and “Maid In Manhattan.”

Mr. Soloff was a regular in Carla Bley’s Big Band and was a founding member of the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. He also played with the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra and the classical ensemble Manhattan Brass.

Mr. Soloff considers his work with Ornette Coleman to be particularly pivotal. In addition to being a featured trumpet soloist on several occasions with Coleman, he was also asked to perform with Coleman and the Kronos Quartet on a commission for trumpet and strings.

Mr. Soloff was also the lead trumpeter of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band under the direction of Jon Faddis during its entire tenure, and spent six years as first trumpet in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Mr. Soloff served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music for nearly 20 years and was an adjunct faculty member at Juilliard and at the New School.

He is survived by his daughters Laura and Lena and grandchildren Micah and Mila. This obituary was edited from Mr. Soloff’s official biography. Check for updates about a public memorial service for Mr. Soloff.