By Lauren Vogel Weiss
Grammy-winning vibraphonist and PAS Hall of Fame member Dave Samuels died on April 22, 2019. Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2013, he stopped performing in public except for a few special events, including an appearance at the World Vibes Congress in 2015 and for an Alzheimer’s benefit concert in Connecticut in 2016.
Perhaps best known for his musical collaboration with David Friedman in the innovative vibraphone/marimba duo Double Image, Samuels began performing with him in 1974. Their special musical relationship lasted almost half a century, and they remained friends until the end.
“This was the Dave I knew,” Friedman wrote in a recent Facebook post, describing this photo of Double Image playing together three years ago at an Alzheimer’s benefit concert in Connecticut.
“When David and I started our journey together, I think what made the music so special and so ‘us’ was the fact that we were similar in so many ways,” explained Friedman, who was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame with Samuels in 2015. “Our background, our parents, how we grew up—he in the Midwest, me in New York. His father was a lawyer, mine also. His mother was a strong personality, mine also.
“The fact that we both started out as drummers gave us the same love and obsession for rhythmic invention, ‘locked-in’ time and, above all, a deep respect for groove,” Friedman continued. “What gave the music a certain tension and excitement was an outgrowth of our differences in temperament. David was a serious person, fighting, at times, against a darker place. This, in my opinion, is where his great wit and wry sense of humor came from. I was a bit more easygoing, and I loved convincing him to do crazy things he normally wouldn’t do. We shared a need to offset emotional stress with humor of all kinds. We spent many, many hours laughing ourselves sick. We talked constantly, sharing our dreams, fears, and understanding of the irony of simply living life. We argued, we fought, we had major disagreements, but we always found a way back to each other, and our music evolved.
“At some point, we started playing more and more spontaneously-invented music, as opposed to tunes and through-composed compositions, as we did in the beginning. We understood each other and had a language that was truly ours. We could almost read each other’s minds musically. I remember recording a piece by Tom Pierson called ‘Untitled.’ There was a moment where we were playing free, and then we played exactly the same ascending line! It was uncanny.”
They received international acclaim for the unique combination of instruments and jazz. Their eponymous first album, Double Image (Enja), was nominated for a German “Grammy” award in 1977, followed by Dawn (ECM) in 1978. The Double Image Quartet played at PASIC ’79 in New York City and as a duo at PASIC ’82 in Dallas, the first of multiple percussion convention performances.
In 1986, the duo released their third recording, In Lands I Never Saw (Celestial Harmonies). During Double Image’s third PASIC concert in 1993 in Columbus, they recorded the performance live and it became the duo’s fourth album, Open Hand (DMP). Their fifth and sixth albums—Duotones (Double Image Records, 1997) and Double Image Live in Concert – Moment to Moment (Double Image Records, 2006)—also coincided with PASIC performances in Anaheim and Austin.
“Double Image was an inspiration for an entire generation of mallet players,” said Michael Balter, founder of Mike Balter Mallets and a PAS Hall of Fame member. “Together, they raised mallet playing as an art form to a higher level. It was an honor to call Dave my friend.”
“I first met Dave in 1972 as he was moving from Boston to New York,” remembered Arthur Lipner, a performer (vibes, marimba, and steel drums), educator, and composer. “He stopped at my house in Connecticut, his gray VW Squareback packed with all his stuff, and gave me my first of many lessons. I still have the handwritten chart to ‘Blue Bossa’ from that lesson! Even as a kid, I had a feeling that something big was happening in my life that day. Together with David Friedman, Double Image changed percussion education and composition around the world forever. Their exciting, magical chemistry on stage will never be matched.”
(L–R) David Friedman, Arthur Lipner, and Dave Samuels
In addition to performing with Double Image and countless other projects, Samuels was involved in two other important ensembles that shaped his musical career: Spyro Gyra and Caribbean Jazz Project.
Following a Double Image concert in Buffalo in 1977, Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall asked Samuels to play vibes on their band’s first album, Spyro Gyra. Over the next few years, Dave began to tour and record with them on a semi-regular basis. By 1984, Samuels was a full-time member of Spyro Gyra, an association that would last for the next ten years. During that time, the five-time Grammy-nominated group was named “Top Contemporary Jazz Artist” (1988) and “Top Contemporary Jazz Group of the 1980s” (1989) by Billboard magazine. Their 1986 recording, Breakout, was one of Samuels’ favorites.
In 1995, Samuels created a new sound with a new ensemble: Caribbean Jazz Project. Along with co-leaders Paquito D’Rivera (alto saxophone and clarinet) and Andy Narell (steel pan), Samuels also included Mark Walker (drums), Pernell Saturnino (percussion), Oscar Stagnaro (bass), and Dario Eskenazi (piano).
“The creation of the Caribbean Jazz Project was a milestone in my career, offering me the opportunity of working with Andy and Dave,” recalled Paquito D’Rivera. “The unique combination of sounds was all Dave Samuels' brainstorm. In my humble opinion, Dave never received all the recognition that he deserved among the greatest mallet players in jazz history. He will live forever in our hearts.”
After five years, CJP was “reinvented” with a different front line: Dave Valentin (flute) and Steve Khan (guitar), along with Samuels. The new “back line” consisted of Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Richie Flores (congas), and Dafnis Prieto (drumset/timbales).
This ensemble made eight recordings, including the 2003 Grammy-award-winning (“Best Latin Jazz recording”) The Gathering (Concord Picante, 2002) and two more Grammy-nominated ones: Birds of a Feather (Concord Picante, 2003) and the 2-CD set Here and Now – Live in Concert (Concord Picante, 2005). Caribbean Jazz Project – Afro Bop Alliance featuring Dave Samuels (Heads Up, 2008) won the 2008 Latin Grammy for Latin Jazz Album of the Year and was also nominated in the same category for the 51st Grammy Awards.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois on October 9, 1948, Samuels was mostly self-taught on vibraphone. A year after he graduated from New Trier High School, he attended a Ludwig Symposium in 1967 where he was first exposed to a mallet keyboard. Dave’s first public performance on vibraphone was on November 4, 1968 with the Renick Ross Trio at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Samuels was also a respected music educator, teaching at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (1972–1974 and 1995–2014) as well as serving as an adjunct faculty member at New England Conservatory, New York University, and Manhattan School of Music. He has also taught master classes and gave clinics all over the world.
“Dave Samuels was not ‘just’ one of the greatest vibes players, but a great improvisor—both musically and verbally,” stated Leigh Howard Stevens, a world-renown marimbist also in the PAS Hall of Fame. “Highly literate, he was a valued commiserator, master raconteur, and long-time friend. Lastly—and perhaps least important, but not something to be overlooked—Dave Samuels, David Friedman, and Bob Becker were the original mallet designers/artist endorsers who took the plunge with me when Malletech was founded in 1982.
(L–R) David Friedman, Leigh Howard Stevens, and Dave Samuels before the PAS Hall of Fame induction in 2015. photo by Lauren Vogel Weiss
“The last time I saw him,” Stevens added, “I brought copies of Anthony Smith’s Masters of the Vibes. We sat on the sofa for a long time and just flipped through the book, looking at pictures of his old friends and vibe buddies. It seems like such a small thing, but it was a great day for both of us.”
John Wittmann is the Senior Director of Artist Relations for Yamaha Corporation of America. “Although I’ve known Dave for 25 years, and spoke to him countless times, I was always and continually challenged by his intellect, musicianship, creativity, and wit. I remember several times driving him and David Friedman to various engagements and literally having to pull over for fear of causing an accident because I could not control my laughter!
“Samuels’ passion for performance was matched by his passion to teach young musicians the importance of composition,” Wittmann added. “I really loved the fact that he actually yelled at students, ‘You have to know how to write a song, not just read it off the page!’ I have indeed lost a dear friend, and Yamaha Corporation has lost one of our most beloved and influential family members.”
“Dave was a great musician, a beautiful person, and one of the funniest people I've ever been around,” stated Steve Houghton, Professor of Music (Percussion and Jazz) at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, “especially with his dry wit and his ‘Jack Benny stare’ after a joke that didn't land. Dave's vibe and marimba solos were all memorable, in any setting, and his passion for rhythm, specifically Latin genres, changed the musical landscape for the vibes and marimba.”
Countless vibraphone players, percussionists, and musicians have been influenced by the music of Dave Samuels. He will be missed by many, especially David Friedman. “He was a true partner,” Friedman said thoughtfully. “We WERE partners. What we had I’ve never experienced since, and never will again. Is that sad? Yes, in a way, but that’s what made us special to each other and, hopefully, in our music.
“I miss you partner….”
Janet Ross was Dave Samuels’ companion for the last five years of his life. “He taught his students to be musicians, not just players,” she said. “And the only ‘gift’ that Alzheimer’s gave him was that it took away his anger, fear, and anxiety and left only his pure soul.”
Author’s note: I am honored to have known Dave Samuels for almost four decades. I first saw him perform at PASIC ’79 in New York City and was at PASIC15 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I watched him mesmerize an audience of students at a clinic in Texas when he and David Friedman played scales in a variety of styles, from baroque to Latin to jazz. If he could make scales this musical, he could do anything! Although his own memories began to fade, our memories of him will live forever.
Dave Samuels is survived by his daughter, Sarah. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, May 4 at 1:00 p.m. at the Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist (40 East 35th Street, New York, NY 10016). All are welcome to attend.
Click here to read the complete Double Image PAS Hall of Fame article.