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Cecil Payne, at 84; master of jazz baritone saxophone

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Keepnews
New York Times News Service / December 10, 2007

NEW YORK - Cecil Payne, who in the 1940s was one of the first baritone saxophonists to master the intricacies of modern jazz and who for more than half a century was a leading exponent of his instrument, died Nov. 27 in Stratford, N.J. He was 84.

The cause was prostate cancer, said Wendy Oxenhorn, director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides support to musicians in need and had been helping Mr. Payne.

Mr. Payne spent nearly his entire career out of the spotlight: He never led a band of his own, recorded only a few albums as a leader, and played an instrument that rarely takes center stage in jazz. But he was highly regarded by his fellow musicians, especially those he worked for - a list that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Randy Weston, and many others - and by the critics.

The beginning of Mr. Payne's career coincided with the birth of bebop. With its complex harmonies, tricky rhythms, and blistering tempos, the new music posed challenges to all musicians, but some instruments were better suited to its demands than others. While the often cumbersome baritone saxophone was not an ideal vehicle for modern jazz, Mr. Payne's highly fluid and melodic approach effected a seamless marriage between instrument and idiom.

One of his first high-profile jobs, shortly after he was discharged from the Army in 1946, was with Gillespie's big band, an ultramodern ensemble that played a famously demanding repertoire. He remained with Gillespie's band for three years and was prominently featured on some of the band's best-known recordings. Few if any baritone saxophonists recorded as many memorable solos in the early days of bebop.

Cecil McKenzie Payne was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 14, 1922. As a teenager he studied alto saxophone, and his earliest recordings were made on that instrument. By the time he joined Gillespie, after a brief stint with Gillespie's fellow trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the baritone had become his primary horn.

After leaving Gillespie in 1949, Mr. Payne worked with various other bandleaders, notably the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. But by the mid-1950s he was essentially a freelance sideman, and he remained one for the rest of his life.

In his later years he battled glaucoma and other health problems, but he recorded several albums for the Chicago-based Delmark label. Encouraged by a group of younger musicians who worked with him, and given financial and medical help by the Jazz Foundation, he was a frequent attraction at the Upper West Side nightclub Smoke.

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