Carl Grubbs, an influential saxophonist, revered music educator, and dedicated community builder, passed away on January 5 at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 79 years old, with pneumonia cited as the cause of death, according to his wife, Barbara Harrell Grubbs.
Grubbs, primarily recognized for his proficiency on the alto saxophone but equally adept with soprano and tenor saxophones, as well as the clarinet, leaves a lasting impact on the musical landscape. His roots extend from Philadelphia, where he spent his youth, to Baltimore, his home for over four decades.
Notably, Grubbs maintained a significant familial connection to jazz legend John Coltrane, proudly acknowledging his cousinship with Juanita Grubbs, Coltrane’s first wife, also known as Naima. The influence of Coltrane resonated deeply with Grubbs, shaping his musical journey from a young age.
In a poignant encounter in 1958, 13-year-old Carl and his brother, Earl, visited Naima’s apartment in New York. There, they not only met Coltrane but also witnessed him practicing intervals that later formed the basis for the iconic “Giant Steps.” This encounter left an indelible mark on the Grubbs brothers, not just in terms of musical discipline but also the generosity of spirit displayed by Coltrane.
As a musician, Grubbs, along with his brother, applied the insights gained from Coltrane’s mentorship to their music, notably with the Philadelphia-based quintet, The Visitors. Their debut album, “Rebirth,” released in 1974, featured a stellar lineup including Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Albert “Tootie” Heath. The ensemble, spanning four albums, showcased Grubbs’ commitment to musical exploration.
Upon relocating to Baltimore, Grubbs delved into his solo career, producing notable works such as “The Inner Harbor Suite,” a tribute to his new city. This composition garnered acclaim for its rich color and depth, marking a significant achievement in Grubbs’ oeuvre.
Beyond his contributions as a musician, Grubbs and his wife actively engaged in promoting the arts and jazz education. Through the Maryland Center for Creative Music, they organized concerts featuring esteemed artists like Jaki Byard and Julius Hemphill. Grubbs, an NEA grant recipient, also mentored younger musicians, embodying the spirit of giving back to the community.
In 1997, Carl and Barbara co-founded Contemporary Arts, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to jazz education, further solidifying their commitment to nurturing the next generation of musicians. Grubbs played a pivotal role in the SAX Music and Dance Camp, leaving an enduring legacy in jazz education.
Carl Gordon Grubbs is survived by his wife, Barbara, and four children, Gordon, Carl, Naima, and Camille, along with four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His brother, Earl, preceded him in death in 1989.
In his final concert on December 6, 2023, at Keystone Korner Baltimore, Grubbs paid homage to John Coltrane, a fitting tribute to a lifetime dedicated to the art of jazz. The music world mourns the loss of a remarkable artist, educator, and community advocate in Carl Grubbs.