Paul Horn obituary

Flautist, composer and creator of new age music who studied Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles

Jazz musicians know a lot about fine timing, but those skills do not usually extend to sensing what the next big commercial game-changer is going to be, or when and where to be spotted alongside an era's biggest celebrities. Paul Horn, the New York-born flautist and composer, who has died aged 84, achieved both, in founding that ethereal and contemplative phenomenon known as new age music (a direction that did not endear him to jazz fans), and studying with the Transcendental Meditation teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, at the same time as the Beatles.

But if Horn found himself in the right places at the right times, curiosity, concentration and musicality directed him, not opportunism. A dedicated pursuer of spiritual enlightenment and a committed internationalist as well as an artist of determined vision, he accidentally became a new age guru because he had loved the sound his flute made in big, echoing spaces built for contemplation and prayer. He was at Rishikesh with the Maharishi in 1968 because he believed in the healing power of meditation and music combined.

Horn made 50 albums over an illustrious career that began as a jazz sideman in the early 1950s, winning Grammy nominations and accolades as a player, composer and movie-soundtrack writer. He published books of musical instruction, spiritual guidance and autobiography, and he was prolific, influential and musical, although the jazz cognoscenti dismissed his later work as weightless, and his serenely ambient records began dropping out of jazz discographies after the mid-1990s.

Horn was born in New York and raised in Washington, learning the piano from the age of four. At 12, he took up the saxophone, but after high school specialised in the flute and clarinet at Oberlin College, Ohio, graduating with a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953. Three years later he was hired as a tenor saxophonist by the Eddie Sauter-Bill Finegan big band (a vehicle for superb scores by Sauter, a former arranger for Benny Goodman), and in the same year joined the unusual instrumentation of percussionist Chico Hamilton's popular and genre-stretching West Coast quintet, one of the iconic ensembles of the laid-back 1950s "cool school". Horn appeared with Hamilton in the movie Sweet Smell of Success (1957), recorded with the band's cellist Fred Katz, and also played in his fellow flautist Buddy Collette's Swinging Shepherds group, with its four-flute lineup.

By the end of the 50s, Horn's pure, glowing tone, accuracy, and adaptability had made him a first-call session player in the Hollywood studios, and, in time, a member of the NBC staff orchestra. He played a key role on Henry Mancini's More Music from Peter Gunn, and recorded with singers including Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson and June Christy. But he was too charismatic a figure and too independent an artist to remain in studio anonymity for life. He was the subject of director David Wolper's TV documentary The Story of a Jazz Musician (1962), and when he performed as principal soloist on Lalo Schifrin's Grammy-winning Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts (1964) – the album also won the best original jazz composition award – his reputation blossomed.

He began recording his own projects, as well as high-profile encounters with stars including Tony Bennett, but philosophical and spiritual considerations were increasingly pulling him away from the mainstream music business. He joined a party of aspiring TM teachers at Rishikesh that included folk-pop singer Donovan, the Beach Boys' Mike Love, and the Beatles' entourage.

On a return trip to make a documentary film (eventually unfinished) about the Maharishi, Horn took a studio-quality tape recorder into the Taj Mahal at Agra, to discover how his solo-flute improvisations would sound in a location in which the echo takes half a minute to return – an effect that critic Joachim Berendt was to describe as playing in "an acoustic hall of mirrors". This resulted in the album Inside (1968), a foundation-stone of New Age music, and a significant influence on ambient forms of culture-crossing world music generally. Released without airplay by Epic Records, it nonetheless became one of the label's bestsellers. Horn took the possibilities further by pursuing the same exercise in the Great Pyramid at Giza, and later at Kazamieras cathedral, Vilnius, and with the Native American flautist R Carlos Nakai, in Monument Valley, Colorado Springs.

The jazz magazine DownBeat headlined its story "Paul Horn Quits US: Seeks Gentler Life" when, in 1970, the flautist settled with his family on an island near Victoria, British Columbia. But if Horn was seeking peace, he did not retire from music, forming a new band, fronting a weekly TV show – and composing for the National Film Board of Canada, winning an award for the short film Island Eden (1972). He became one of the rare western musicians of his background to tour China and the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1983, and he also founded his own record label, Golden Flute.

The album Traveler (1985) launched many documentations of Horn's musical globetrotting from the 1980s to the early 21st century, with recordings celebrating the music of Brazil, Africa, and Tibet. Horn often collaborated with Christopher Hedge, a likeminded experimental musician, producer, and composer of music from chance sounds from manmade and natural environments. In 2001, Horn improvised on the flute with the sounds made by a pair of orca whales for the book and video entitled Haida and Paul Horn: The Adventures of a Killer Whale and a Jazz Musician. The title of his autobiography, Inside Paul Horn: The Spiritual Odyssey of a Universal Traveler (1990), could hardly have described his life's journey better.

Not everyone considered Horn's music to be quite so universal in its appeal. But there was no doubting his skill, his capacity for listening, and the seriousness of his intent. Horn wrote that humanity not only travels geographical space, "but ... historical time, from the present to the distant past. We are travelling inwardly as well, through the music of meditation."

Horn is survived by his wife, Ann Mortifee, his sons Robin and Marlen, stepson Devon, and four grandchildren.

• Paul Horn, jazz musician and composer, born 17 March 1930; died 29 June 2014


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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