A tribute to George Robert

Volume 123, No. 7July, 2023

Joan Yap Robert

George Robert, one of the leading alto saxophonists in jazz, died on March 14, 2016 at the age of 55. He had first joined Local 802 in 1988.

George was born on September 15, 1960 in Chambésy (Geneva), Switzerland; his father was Swiss and his mother American. It was she who brought music into the family, and all eight children grew up playing musical instruments and developing a passion for jazz. He started piano at a very early age, and at age 10 he began clarinet lessons at the Geneva Conservatory with Luc Hoffmann. In 1980 he moved to Boston and studied alto saxophone with Joe Viola at the Berklee College of Music. In 1984 he earned a Bachelor of Arts in jazz composition and arranging, and moved to New York, where he received a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music. He studied with Bob Mintzer and earned a master’s in jazz performance in 1987. He played lead alto in the Manhattan School of Music Big Band for two years, which earned him first prize in the College Big Band Category in the Downbeat Magazine jazz awards in 1985.

In July 1984 he performed on the main stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival and earned an outstanding performance award from Downbeat. In 1985 and 1986, he toured Europe extensively. In 1987, he met Tom Harrell and together they founded the George Robert-Tom Harrell Quintet (with Dado Moroni, Reggie Johnson and Bill Goodwin). The group completed 125 concerts worldwide between 1987 and 1992, and recorded five albums. He remained in New York City and freelanced for seven years, playing with Billy Hart, Buster Williams, the Lionel Hampton Big Band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra, Joe Lovano, and many others.

He met Clark Terry and started touring with him extensively, completing a 16-week, 65-concert world tour in 1991. Leonard Feather heard the band perform at Catalina’s in Los Angeles and added the musicians’ biographies to the next issue of the Jazz Encyclopedia. That same year he moved to Vancouver and lived there for four years, with his wife Joan. In 1993 he recorded with the renowned Dutch band, the Metropole Orchestra. In 1994 he performed at all the Canadian jazz festivals with Dado Moroni, Oliver Gannon, Reggie Johnson and George Ursan, and recorded an album with them.

In 1995, George was chosen to be the director of the Swiss Jazz School in Berne, the oldest independent jazz school in Europe. This brought him back to his home country. In 1997, George recorded a duo album with his longtime teammate, pianist, Dado Moroni, entitled “Youngbloods” (MONS Records). Critics of Jazz Times voted the album as one of the top five jazz albums of 1997. In 1998, he played lead alto in the Phil Woods Big Band, which performed at 18 leading European jazz festivals. In 2000, he toured Europe with Phil Woods, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Alvin Queen. In 2002, he was featured soloist with the Chick Corea Trio and the Verbier Festival Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Bobby McFerrin.

In 2003, he authored “The Music of George Robert,” published by Advance Music, and he founded the Swiss Jazz Orchestra in Berne. This orchestra was his dream, where a big band could play regularly with an exciting and new repertoire and different guest soloists every week. He managed to find the musicians, the venue, the sponsors and of course the public who love the music. His orchestra, the SJO, continues to play weekly, today in Bern. In 2006 he moved to Lausanne and founded the Jazz Department at the Lausanne Music University (HEMU). He remained the director of the HEMU Jazz Department until his passing.

George recorded more than 50 albums as a leader, with renowned musicians such as Ray Brown, Phil Collins, Kenny Barron and trumpeter Clark Terry. He also founded the George Robert Jazz Orchestra in Lausanne in 2008. He was awarded the Suisa Foundation Prize for Music in 2003 and was given the rank of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic in 2008.

During his career, George played with Toshiko Akiyoshi, Franco Ambrosetti, Jay Anderson, Victor Bailey, Jeff Ballard, Kenny Barron, Jerry Bergonzi, Randy Brecker, Ray Brown, Jeff Clayton, John Clayton, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Cobham, Francis Coletta, Phil Collins, Chick Corea, Jesse Davis, Jon Davis, Alan Dawson, Duduka DeFonseca, Joey DeFrancesco, Niels Lan Doky, Paquito D’Rivera, Billy Drummond, Ray Drummond, Bobby Durham, Isla Eckinger, Jon Faddis, Ricky Ford, Paolo Fresu, Larry Fuller, Hal Galper, Oliver Gannon, Steve Gilmore, Benny Golson, Bill Goodwin, Benny Green, Larry Grenadier, Johnny Griffin, George Gruntz, Charlie Haden, Wolfgang Haffner, Jeff Hamilton, Lionel Hampton, Slide Hampton, Tom Harrell, Billy Hart, Kevin Hayes, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Billy Higgins, Daniel Humair, Plas Johnson, Reggie Johnson, Hank Jones, Ryan Kisor, Lee Konitz, Diana Krall, Byron Landham, John Lewis, Victor Lewis, Dave Liebman, the Pepe Lienhard Big Band, Didier Lockwood, Joe Lovano, Romero Lubambo, Jesper Lundgaard, Russell Malone, Phil Markowitz, Nilson Matta, Cecil McBee, Ron McClure, Bobby McFerrin, Jim McNeely, the Metropole Orchestra, Bob Mintzer, James Moody, Dado Moroni, Mark Murphy, Lewis Nash, Phil Nimmons, Adam Nussbaum, Sandy Patton, Nicolas Payton, Andrea Pozza, Alvin Queen, Rufus Reid, Alex Riel, John Riley, Claudio Roditi, Renee Rosnes, Wallace Roney, Arturo Sandoval, Bud Shank, Peter Schmidlin, Bobby Shew, Klaus Suonsaari, the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, the Swiss Jazz School Big Band, Lew Tabackin, Clark Terry, Toots Thielemans, Mel Torme, Steve Turre, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Verbier Festival Symphony Orchestra, Kenny Washington, Peter Washington, Frank Wess, Buster Williams, Jimmy Woode, Phil Woods, among others.

As Dan Morgenstern once wrote of George: “With the recent passing of Benny Carter [in 2003], it is reassuring to know that the tradition of the alto saxophone is in such good hands.” Many considered George to be the natural follower to Phil Woods since he had such an influence on George’s style and sound. They often played together and Phil put George in the lead alto chair of his own big band.

However, shortly after Phil Wood’s passing in 2015, George left us prematurely after a long battle with leukaemia, on March 14, 2016 at the age of 55. He is survived by his wife Joan and his children Shu Mei and Matthew.

Obituary submitted by Joan Yap Robert. For more on George Robert’s career, see

George Robert with Kenny Baron

George Robert with Clark Terry (left) and Ray Brown (right)

George Robert with Phil Woods