Gary Bartz has been one of the best purveyors of what he calls “informal composition” (as opposed to improvisation) on alto saxophone since the 1960s, working with such luminaries as Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. He has released more than 45 solo albums and appears on more than 200 as a guest artist, as well as working with some of the up-and-coming artists in jazz today, such as Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge for their Jazz Is Dead series and the jazz-funk band Maisha.
Bartz was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to nightclub-owning parents and was exposed to many great jazz artists who played at their club. He was 6 when he was inspired by the sound of Charlie Parker, and received his first alto saxophone at the age of 11. He attended the Juilliard School in New York City in 1958. He joined the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop from 1962 to 1964, meeting jazz giants Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He also began working with the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln group in 1964.
In 1965, Bartz was recruited into Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while they played at his parents’ club, taking John Gilmore’s position in the band. He made his recording debut with Blakey on Soulfinger that same year.
In 1970, Miles Davis asked Bartz to join his band and perform at the historic Isle of Wight Festival and his subsequent tour. Bartz is featured on Davis’ Live/Evil recording. Bartz also formed his own group, NTU Troop, named for the Bantu word for “essence.” The group blended soul, funk, African folk music, hard bop, and avant-garde jazz and recorded one of Bartz’s first classics, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. His NTU Troop recordings are often sampled by hip-hop artists.
In 1997, he was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Performance for his work on Roy Hargrove’s Habana album, and, in 2005, he received a Grammy Award for his work as a sideman on McCoy Tyner's recording Illuminations. In 2015, Bartz received the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award that honors jazz musicians from the mid-Atlantic region who have achieved distinction in performance and education.
In 2019, producer Gilles Peterson invited Bartz to play the We Out Here festival with the London-based group Maisha, a move that proved so successful that Bartz played dates with them throughout Europe and cut an album with them in the Netherlands.
Since 2001, Bartz has been a professor of saxophone and jazz performance at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. Bartz focuses his teaching on finding new ways for his students to "open their ears" and presses his Oberlin students to truly hear the music they think they know so well.
Gary Bartz/NTU Troop, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies, Fantasy/Prestige, 1973
Music is My Sanctuary, Blue Note, 1977
Coltrane Rules-Tao of A Music Warrior, OYO Recordings’ 2011
Gary Bartz/Maisha, Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions, Night Dreamer, 2020
I am very honored to have been chosen to join many of my mentors and contemporaries for this award honoring this art form that was founded in the USA, which I call informal composition, not improvisation. I give thanks to my ancestors who nurtured this great art form born in the USA. Music is humbling and I am humbled by this award. This music is our gift to the universe!