By Peter Keepnews on June 22, 2013
Sam Most, a flutist who helped bring his instrument into the modern jazz mainstream, died on June 13 in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 82.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his twin sister, Ruth Labensky, said.
In 1952, when he recorded the flute feature “Undercurrent Blues,” Mr. Most was an accomplished jazz saxophonist and clarinetist who, like many reed and woodwind players, played flute only occasionally. Jazz flute was not much more than a novelty at the time, and it was virtually absent from recordings or performances in the modern style known as bebop. “Undercurrent Blues” displayed the instrument’s potential in a new way and, while not a big hit, caught the ear of many musicians.
“When I started playing jazz on flute,” Herbie Mann, the first jazz flutist to achieve widespread popularity, once said, “there was only one record out: Sam Most’s ‘Undercurrent Blues.’ ” By the early 1960s, flutes were almost as common as saxophones in jazz ensembles.
Mr. Mann and many other jazz flutists, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef and Hubert Laws, have acknowledged Mr. Most — and especially his unusual technique of humming into the flute while playing — as an early influence. Charles Mingus once called him “the world’s greatest jazz flutist.”
Samuel Most was born on Dec. 16, 1930, in Atlantic City, and grew up in the Bronx. His parents, Jacob Most and the former Dora Kaplan, were immigrants from Lithuania. His older brother, Abe, was a prominent jazz clarinetist while Sam was growing up.
Mr. Most studied at City College and the Manhattan School of Music and became a professional musician at 17. He spent time with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Don Redman and others before forming his own small group.
After recording prolifically as both a leader and a sideman and touring with Buddy Rich from 1959 to 1961, Mr. Most moved west and settled into lucrative but anonymous work in Los Angeles studios and Las Vegas showrooms. He continued to record in a jazz context on occasion and released a number of critically praised albums on the Xanadu label in the late 1970s. His later projects included an album of unaccompanied alto flute improvisations.
He was the subject of a 2001 documentary, “Sam Most, Jazz Flutist.”
In addition to Ms. Labensky, Mr. Most is survived by another sister, Frances Tutshen, and a brother, Bernard. His brother Abe died in 2002.