Yitzroch Loiza Groosberg was born in New York City on Aug 17, 1923, the child of Ukranian immigrants. Fascinated from an early age by the city’s jazz scene, young Yitzroch emerged as Larry Rivers, saxophonist and leader of Larry Rivers and the Mudcats, one of many configurations with which he would play.
At the age of 22, he discovered modern art and began to paint. His playful, colorful ironic pastiches instantly gained notice, and he began balancing a career as a serious artist with his love of music. One of his earliest works to gain notice was an evocative, blurry testament to American history, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, which caused a sensation in 1953. As his career as a painter thrived, he became an increasinly familiar face within the subterranean social circuits of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere, hanging out with painters like Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning and soon-to-be-legendary writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In 1959 he joined Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and David Amram to star as “Milo”, the married railroad brakeman based on Neal Cassady, in the film “Pull My Daisy”.
Rivers was considered one of the forerunners of the pop art movement in the 60s, especially in his use of humor and his light, colorful touch. In his later decades he became more and more playful and experimental, leaving behind the style-conscious seriousness of the 70s/80s/90s art scenes to express himself loudly, clearly and with much controversy in works like “History of Matzo: the Story of the Jews”, an epic series that combined the ethereal beauty of Chagall with the commonplace style of Lichtenstein or Warhol. One of his works, “Dutch Masters and Cigars II”, a takeoff on the famous cigar box, can be seen in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.
Larry Rivers died three days before his 79th birthday, on August 14, 2002. I called David Amram when I heard the news, and here’s what David told me:
“When I was in Paris after I left the army, the painter Joan Mitchell told me when I came back to New York I had to look up the sax player and painter Larry Rivers. She said I’d find him at the Cedar Tavern, so I went to the Cedar Tavern and they told me Larry was playing the Monday Night Jam Session that night at the 125 Club in Harlem. So I went up to the 125 Club, and there was Larry wailing away on his sax. We played together, and when the MC was thanking everybody for coming, Larry was still playing, all by himself. The crowd began to leave and they started putting up chairs, but Larry was still playing. Then Steve Pulliam, the trombonist, who was in charge of the jam session, turned to me as Larry continued to play alone and said ‘Man, your blue-eyed soul brother has a lot of heart.’
“Larry finally stopped playing and we rode downtown on the subway together. We talked about music, and he told me he was working on something, but that he couldn’t get it right. We played together often from that time on. One day I went into the Museum of Modern Art and saw “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, painted by Larry Rivers. I saw him at the Cedar Tavern a few nights later and said to him, ‘Larry, I’d heard you were a sax player and a painter, but you never told me that painting was really your thing.’ Larry said, ‘You never asked.’
“He was a wonderful artist in all mediums and he loved playing music. The last time we played together was at Terry Southern’s memorial service. He sang ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and played ‘Blue Monk.’
“When we made ‘Pull My Daisy’, it was three weeks of crazed fun. This movie was filmed as a silent movie, and we overdubbed music later. I had the great alto master Sahib Shihab play saxophone on the soundtrack as Larry and I appeared to play music on the screen, making it appear as if we were playing the music. When Larry heard Sahib’s fantastic solo later, he told me, ‘David, I never sounded so good.’
“He had a lot of spirit, and continued to be productive as an artist and a real individual. I’ll miss him a lot.”