Jay Bennett, the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist, passed away in his sleep on early Sunday morning (May 24) due to unknown causes. He was 45. Bennett was best known for his work with Wilco, the group for which he wrote and recorded on 1996's "Being There," 1999's "Summerteeth" and 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," as well as the band's Woody Guthrie themed albums with Billy Bragg, "Mermaid Avenue" and "Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2."
The Chicago Sun-Times spoke with Bennett's friend and frequent collaborator, Edward Burch, who simply stated "Jay died in his sleep and an autopsy is being performed. The family is in mourning and is unavailable for comment at this time."
Wilco is currently touring in Spain and lead vocalist/guitarist Jeff Tweedy expressed his condolences in a statement released today. "We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy. We will miss Jay as we remember him -- as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band's songs and evolution. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends in this very difficult time."
Bennett also released four albums of his own this decade, most recently 2008's "Whatever Happened I Apologized" as a free download under a Creative Commons license via rockproper.com. He was currently living in Urbana, Illinois and working on his fifth album, "Kicking at the Perfumed Air."
Bennett's contentious departure from Wilco was a well-documented situation that played out in the public eye. Earlier this month, Bennett filed suit against Tweedy for "breach of contract" for alleged non-compensation for his appearance in the 2002 Wilco documentary, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," as well as "unpaid royalties" for work throughout his tenure with the band. The suit was said to be for at least $50,000.
As seen in the film, Bennett and Tweedy's disagreed over Wilco's creative direction. After leaving the band, Bennett certainly had a tough time finding the levels of success he saw with Wilco. A recent post to his Myspace blog indicated that he was set to have hip replacement surgery but was currently uninsured and going to pay for it out of pocket.
"I began the arduous, or more accurately, extremely time consuming and endlessly frustrating, process of finding a surgeon and hospital that would perhaps 'cut me a deal,' be willing to bargain/barter a bit, or at least allow me to make installment payments," he wrote on his Myspace blog in April 2009. "As it turns out, this /is/ possible, but also difficult to arrange, if you can not come up with a sizable down payment as a show good faith, etc. I have been saving as much money as possible ever since I made this new commitment to my health, my future, and my quality of life."