Michael Walter White, 86, peacefully passed away after a long struggle with COPD-Emphysema on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA. He was born on May 24, 1930 in Houston, Texas to Texanna Windle Matthew. In 1955, he married Memory Midgets, and in 1974, he re-married to Mary Washington. Both marriages ended in divorce. In 2003, he married Leisei Chen, who has been his life and music partner, Jazz vocalist and co-founder of Michael White Quintet. Together they raised dog daughter MAY.
Michael White dedicated almost his entire life to music as Jazz violinist, composer and band leader. His musical life began at age 6 with his Western classical training under maestros from Germany and Italy, and his performance as the first African American violinist in the prestigious Young People’s Symphony of Berkeley. He grew up in a house on the 7th street in Oakland in the mid 1930’s to 40’s, which was such a vibrant place, surrounded with many Jazz clubs like the Harlem Renaissance in New York. His family went to see his cousin Ivie Anderson who was Duke Ellington’s favorite singer when the Orchestra came to town. Jazz violinist Ray Nance was a member of Ellington’s band, and he became Michael’s childhood hero. Later he performed with Ray Nance on the Jazz Violin Summit at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1970’s.
Michael set aside some of his classical training in order to innovate his own techniques and cultivate a sound that he felt suited violin as a solo leading instrument in jazz and modern music. Michael also lived and worked his way through tradition to progressions of jazz. And he became a truly original and groundbreaking violinist in the realm of jazz in the modern era. As a leader Michael composed and recorded twelve major albums that included more than forty-five compositions. There are many unreleased albums yet to be released in the future.
In 1960, Michael introduced his unique violin style and distinct sound into the jazz scenes. He lived and performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra in New York. In 1962, upon his return to the Bay Area, he performed with the John Coltrane Quartet with guests Wes Montgomery and Eric Dolphy at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. As a member of the Rahsaan Roland Kirk band, they performed at the Fillmore West as the first Jazz band. In 1965, as a member of the John Handy Quintet, their live performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival was sensational and received a 21-mins standing ovation, a record which stands unbroken at the festival today. The band was featured on a cover of the Time magazine. Despite the band leader’s concern over having multi-racial band members, the band was the first to perform live at the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles one day after the riots there, and served as a symbol of peace. In 1969, Michael co-founded the very first jazz fusion band, the Fourth Way. The band performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival and toured US & Europe, and was very influential to other famed Jazz fusion bands. Michael was one of first violinists to experiment with electronics on the violin.
In 1971, Michael was asked to play as a cosmic bird on the song ‘Astral Traveling’ from Pharaoh Sanders’s Impulse! Album ‘Thembi’. That recording led Impulse! Records to sign him for five albums as a leader. Along with the band of Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Achie Shepp, John Kelmer and his own band Michael White Quartet, the five bands on the Impulse! label toured nationwide together, and appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland . His Impulse! albums such as ‘Spirit Dance’, ‘Pneuma’, and ‘The Land of Spirit and Light’ were reissued in 2004, some four decades after their original release dates, as a result of high demand from new and old fans and listeners alike. His music has been a loving, healing force for many generations around the world, who call him their ‘Spiritual Jazz Master.’
In 1977, his quartet was the only representative for the west coast band to be invited to the Festac 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos Nigeria. Sponsored by the US and Nigerian governments, it was the largest cultural event ever held on the African continent. He performed with his quartet and with Stevie Wonder in front of 108,000 people. In 1978, he was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and selling his blood to survive. At that time the A&R and executive producer Don Mizell of Elektra/Asylum Records found and signed him to a record deal. He recorded ‘The X-Factor’ album produced by George Duke and his ‘White Night’ album.
In 1990, Michael moved to Seattle. As a much-loved teacher at the Cornish College of Arts, he made a lasting impact on his students and colleagues. In 1996, he was hospitalized with triple pneumonia and had near death experiences twice as well as being diagnosed for cancer. Right after his discharge from the VA hospital, his artist friend Liz recalls that he practiced violin for 12 hours per day. The music was his vital healing force for his recovery.
In 2003, Michael miraculously reunited with Leisei Chen Jazz vocalist and Qigong artist. He had been looking for a unique sound, which would entail a female voice and romantic intimacy to complete the concept of his music and band for 40 years. He asked her to join in recording ‘Voices’. Soon they became partners in life and music, pursuing their mutual artistic visions and endeavors, staying true to their cores — the spiritual energy of Love, Healing, Inspiration, Hope. The Michael White Quintet was born, and it became their life’s vital mission.
Leisei witnessed how Michael drew the best out of all the musicians, making space for creativity and allowing uniqueness to blossom individually and collectively. He weaves in, spontaneously and organically, his blessed quietness, kindness, and peace while driven internally by a rich reservoir of passion. He lives in the now: the essence of jazz. Michael reminded her how, in jazz, synergy between musicians is of the highest importance.
In 2006, “Voices” and his composition ‘Mechanical Man’ inspired by a break dancer in Hollywood, received awards from the International Songwriting Competition and Independent Music Awards. The Mexican inspired ‘Fiesta Dominical’ from the album was featured on the PBS documentary ‘Roadtrip Nation’.
In 2009, Michael & Leisei moved to Los Angeles. They performed the DUO for the Alice Coltrane Tribute at the Royce Hall, UCLA. In 2011, Michael & Leisei produced the multi-cultural arts project and event ‘tour the ARTS.MWQ’, which the Michael White Quintet UNIT2, hosted and performed in beautiful artistic collaborations with a group of world class artists from all disciplines & cultures based on their vision: ’People Of All Colors, Cultures And Arts Coming Together For Humanity.’ In 2012, he received the COLA Individual Artist Fellowship Award in performing arts from the Department Of Culture Affairs (DCA). The DCA provided funding for his new work ‘Orbit’. In 2013, the original band members of the Michael White Quintet performed live to premiere ‘Orbit’ at the Grand Performances in front of over 1000 people on a Los Angeles day with record high temperatures.
In 2014, Michael’s composition “Reiko,” originally released on his 1974 album “Father Mother Music Dance,” was sampled for the song “Big Rich Town.” The song serves as the theme for the Starz original drama “POWER,” which features actor and executive producer Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent, and airs in over 175 countries. Michael & Leisei were both appointed as the first advisory board members from SoCal for the Museum Of Jazz And Arts in Oakland. In 2015, Eva Soltes of the Harrison House in Joshua Tree invited Michael and Leisei to be artists-in-residence. They created a new work, “Rays of Oneness,” and they premiered the first part of the work, “Sun Rays,” live. This became Michael’s and their last new work and live performance together. Their performance ended with warm full-house standing ovations.
Michael is survived by his beloved wife Leisei Chen. Supported by Dong He and Yao Hua Chen, Desheng Chen, Fusheng Chen, Minyee and Shu Hua Wu, his families in Japan. Patricia Windle Hilliard, Linda Windle McCarthy, Benjamin J. Windle, Lisa Ashley, Donna Ashley and Eddie Stallworth, his cousins in Houston. His dear friends and band members supported him in his transition; Timothy Young, Junko Yoshimura, Azeem Khan, Eryn Young, Danny Frankel and Jon Ossman. A semi-private memorial service will be held at the Lake Shrine.