[photo: Saxophonist Sam King, on left, in blue shirt]
On Thursday, August 31, the Baltimore Jazz Community was stunned at the news, quickly spreading on social media, of the death of alto saxophonist Sam King. In the early morning hours, he was killed in a multi-vehicle accident on Route 32 in Savage, Maryland. Not quite 38 years old, he was in the prime of his career as a phenomenal musician.
As a youngster, King started with drums, but then began playing the saxophone at the age of 12. He attended Baltimore School for the Arts and Milwaukee High School of the Arts before graduating from the Cab Calloway Music Program at Frederick Douglas High School. From there, he was accepted into the Fine and Performing Arts program of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina. While at St. Augustine’s, King played in multiple bands and choirs, including the student-run group Creative Sounds of Music. In August 2006, King transferred to Howard University, where he studied with Fred Irby. While at Howard, King traveled to Japan and recorded with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.
After graduating, King played with numerous renowned musicians from far and near, including tenor saxophonists Tedd Baker and Tim Green. He also opened for award-winning Gospel recording artist Yolanda Adams, shared the stage with Hezekiah Walker, and performed for former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. In 2010, King made a guest appearance on the longest continuously running original series on cable television, Bobby Jones Gospel.
In a 2012 interview on WEAA’s “Baltimore Blend,” King described his “debut” in Baltimore at Caton Castle in December 2011. He was introduced by saxophonist Arnold Sterling to play with the band, which included Greg Hatza and Robert Shahid. As King described it, Shahid and Hatza shook their heads in doubt, as though saying, “Oh boy, what are we expecting now…another unknown ‘prodigy’?” But after King played his first solo, their minds were changed. I recall hearing Sam King play at Caton Castle all those years ago and thinking that he was destined for greatness.
In October 2012, King was presented at Jazzway 6004, the home concert venue of Marianne Matheny-Katz and Howard Katz. As Gail Marten wrote in the November 2012 issue of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance newsletter, the 24-year-old bebop player was already “creating a huge buzz in the region, being compared to Charlie Parker and other jazz giants.” Matheny-Katz had booked King without ever hearing him – something she rarely did – because of the overwhelming number of recommendations from people whose musical taste she respected. Marten quoted Matheny-Katz as saying: “Sam’s soloing seems effortless, and his improvisational ideas appear to be endless. He is so sincere in his music, so completely comfortable and engaged with his musicians and the audience when he’s on the bandstand. It’s hard to believe he’s so young.”
Young as he was, in February 2013, King was one of four sax players featured in the BJA’s Saxophone Colossi Battle Royale at Creative Alliance. Andrew Zaleski reviewed the show on the BJA website. “The third tune of the first set, ‘Minority,’ featured King,” wrote Zaleski, “a skinny kid with a driver’s cap, glasses, and a gray blazer cut short, who started off blowing in a breezy bebop style” but who amply held his own against the more seasoned players in the group, Brad Collins and Andy Ennis. Nonetheless, he wanted to learn more.
In 2017, King returned to North Carolina to pursue an undergraduate in Jazz Studies at North Carolina Central University. There, he studied with Branford Marsalis (tenor sax) and Joey Calderazzo (piano) and played in the NCCU Jazz Ensemble, which performed at the 9th annual JEN (Jazz Educators Network) Conference in Dallas, Texas. King flourished at NCCU, where he completed a Master’s degree in Jazz Performance in 2022. He then embarked on global travel on his journey towards further mastery.
During this time, when he was in Baltimore, King became more well known playing in the jam sessions such as the one started by Clarence Ward III at a club called Sign of the Times; he continued following Ward’s session as it moved around town. I also remember him playing often at The Session at Tabor Ethiopian Restaurant (before it moved to Terra Café and then to R House). I could be walking up the street to the club and hearing a saxophone playing, and I would say to myself, that can only be Sam King. And I was usually right.
Since his death, tributes and reminiscences have poured into the Facebook feed—praise of his virtuosity as a musician and his kindness as a human being. Here is a sampling of what his friends, colleagues, and fans have written:
Saxophonist Julian Brezon wrote, “[King] captured a vivaciousness in his playing that was always reminiscent of Cannonball, and I will miss it.”
Trumpeter Scott Strother recalls King playing at a jam session that he (Strother) led some nine years ago. “He was an amazing player. I loved to hear his ideas come out of that sax. … He lit a fire on any bandstand!”
Pianist Greg Small also remembered King’s playing at some basement jam sessions in 2016 and 2017. “Holy smokes, could he play – bebop fluency in spades, total absorption and love of the language – I could have sworn it was Sonny Stitt or Charlie Parker down there.”
Saxophonist Tedd Baker writes: “The thing I love about Sam is that his path never stopped. He loved playing and kept widening his approach. He understood that the music is informed by interaction, by life, by the souls around you. And you could feel that reality every time he put the horn in his hands.”
Saxophonist Dan Wallace recalled how he planned to host a concert at An die Musik to feature the music of Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane. He invited King, thinking he would be a good fit. “When I asked him, he was so excited!” writes Wallace.
“He got a big smile on his face, thanked me for including him and asked me what he should do to prepare. I told him to transcribe as much Cannonball as he could in order to get that sound down, and MAN, did he. He transcribed the entire album of Cannonball Adderly Quintet in Chicago plus three other solos. He came to the gig more prepared than I was, and it was MY gig—ha-ha. He absolutely killed it that day. It was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had.”
Like many others, Wallace remarked on King’s kindness and humility. “Sam found the positive aspects in everyone’s playing, even if they were severely lacking in some key musical understanding or technique.” Wallace appreciated how King never fostered feelings of negative competition. “Often, when I would get some big opportunity, Sam would take the time to give me a call and congratulate me.”
I also experienced that kindness one night at a jam session at Tabor. I was singing some song or other, maybe “I Got Rhythm,” and scatting on one chorus, and trading fours with King. As undistinguished a singer as I am, King nevertheless played along with a wonderful twinkle in his eye and not a trace of condescension.
Saxophonist Eric Worthy recalls the last he saw King: “He gave me a hug and said that he apologized to me if he ever did anything to hurt me. I was never sure what he was talking about, and don’t think I want to know, but I have major respect for the gesture.”
Bassist Blake Meister wrote, “Sam King was humble, caring, and could smile brightly through anything.”
Drummer Sheritta “Love” Harris remembers many happy times with King, but in particular one time when he came to her house on her birthday with family and friends: “We laughed, drank, played music, and had a great time.”
Bernadine Dorsey expressed her gratitude to Sam King for introducing her two children, the saxophone prodigies Ebban (alto sax) and Ephraim (tenor), to the jazz community at Caton Castle eight years ago. “Thank you for being you,” she wrote, “and [for] always being the great supportive, kind, selfless, loving human being that you are! We love you forever!”
Both Eric Worthy and multi-instrumentalist Rachel (“Ray”) Winder recall King’s kind encouragement. Winder spoke of how King mentored her early in her music career: “Sam King came to visit me many days/late nights at Peabody to help me learn this music when I really wasn’t getting too much support from anyone else. I’ll never forget that Sam was going through a lot in his life at the time. He would just play with me for hours and hours and just really wanted to show me the joy that music brought him, and it truly was infectious.”
King grew up in the church. At his funeral service on September 23 at The Tabernacle in Windsor Mills, he was remembered as a true Christian, one who prayed and fasted; one who loved his young children; one whose “bright, beautiful smile lit up the world.” At the service, saxophonist Tim Green played “I’ll Remember April,” a poignant ballad that evoked memories of beautiful times in life and beautiful people like Sam King.
Sam King’s passing is an incalculable loss in countless ways. He was a great musician and a wonderful human being. I’m sure I’m not the one who is brought to tears at the thought of his life being cut short. But like so many others, I also feel gratitude for having witnessed King’s greatness and for all the contributions he made to our jazz community while he was alive.
–by Liz Fixsen