Saturday, April 26, 2008
Jimmy Guiffre Dies
I'm sorry to report that I just heard from Juanita Giuffre that Jimmy
died of pneumonia and Parkinson's today (April 24) two days before what
would have been his 87th birthday. I met them (via email) because they
listened regularly to my show and we discovered that Jimmy and I shared
our birthday, April 26. We usually exchanged cards this time of year.
He was most famous for "Four Brothers" with Woody, or with Shorty
Rogers "Martians Go Home" or the Lighthouse All Stars, but fewer are
aware of the beautiful very personal music he made in the 70's, 80's
and 90s, much of it very free but in a thoughtful, non-aggressive kind
of way. He was very important as a teacher as well, notably at the New
England Conservatory. I'm spending the evening listening to some of
Jimmy's great trio music... right now the trio with Paul Bley and Steve
Swallow "Fly Away Little Bird". I just read a beautiful article on
Jimmy written about 5 years ago by Rex Butters on allaboutjazz.com .
Jimmy Giuffre, Jazz Musician, Is Dead at 86
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By BEN RATLIFF
Published: April 25, 2008
Jimmy Giuffre, the adventurous clarinetist, composer and arranger whose 50-year journey through jazz led him from writing the Woody Herman anthem “Four Brothers” through minimalist, drummerless trios to striking experimental orchestral works, died on Thursday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 86 and lived in West Stockbridge, Mass.
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W. Eugene Smith Archive
Mr. Giuffre in 1959.
The cause was pneumonia, brought about by complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife of 46 years, Juanita, who is his only survivor.
Among the half-dozen instruments he played, from bass flute to soprano saxophone, it was the clarinet that gave him a signature sound; it was a dark, velvety tone, centering in the lower register, pure but rarely forceful. But among the iconoclastic heroes of the late ’50s in jazz, he was a serene oddity, changing his ideas as fast as he could record them.
His first breakthrough album, “Tangents in Jazz” (1955), did away with chordal instruments like piano or guitar two years before Sonny Rollins famously did so; his trios from 1956 to 1961 were without a drummer, prefiguring the quieter, classical-timbred music of vangardist jazz circles in the 1980s.
Little of this impressed more traditional audiences, however. What made Mr. Giuffre important to big-band aficionados was one composition, “Four Brothers,” a big hit for Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1947. It established the characteristic Herman frontline sound of three tenor saxophones and a baritone saxophone, played fast, in harmony and without vibrato.
Mr. Giuffre was born on April 26, 1921, in Dallas. He started on clarinet at the age of 9. He attended what was then North Texas State Teachers College, where he earned a degree in music in 1942; upon graduation he joined the Army for four years, playing with a quintet in mess halls at meal times, then moved to Los Angeles. After trying graduate work in music at U.C.L.A., he gave it up to study composition privately.
In the late 1940s, he became a freelance arranger and, in some cases, saxophonist, for a number of big bands. In the early 1950s, West Coast cool jazz began, and Mr. Giuffre took part. Usually playing tenor saxophone, he was in small groups led by Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Howard Rumsey.
Meanwhile, he was growing stronger as a composer. Mr. Giuffre’s teacher from 1947 to 1952, Wesley LaViolette, stressed the virtues of contrapuntal writing, and counterpoint became the structural glue for Mr. Giuffre’s art, making some of his most outré experiments hold together. LaViolette also taught Mr. Giuffre that jazz could accommodate any amount of composition, not just for the frontline instruments, but for all of them, and in the mid-50s, he began to write specific parts for bass and drums, sometimes winnowing their roles to providing color and accent.
The late-50s versions of the Jimmy Giuffre Three — with the guitarist Jim Hall and the bassist Ralph Pea, then Mr. Hall and the trombonist Bob Brookmeyer — gained him some commercial renown. (The Giuffre-Hall-Brookmeyer trio is immortalized in the opening sequence of the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” playing its best-known tune, “The Train and the River.”)
If Mr. Giuffre was long on ideas, he was not a partisan in esthetic matters. Though he prized his even, smooth sound quality on clarinet, he did not disdain players who had a more fractured sound. He never saw an irreconcilable split between American and European influences He admitted that the instrumentation for his late-50s trios had a European inspiration, Claude Debussy’s “Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp”; at the same time, he used those trios to convey a sense of rustic, bluesy Americana.
From the mid-50s on, Mr. Giuffre taught music, initially at the Lenox School of Jazz, the late-summer educational conference in Lenox, Mass., which existed from 1957 to 1960. (A remark made the rounds at the time: when told that Mr. Giuffre would be there to teach clarinet, among other things, the writer André Hodeir quipped, “Who will be teaching the upper register?”)
It was at Lenox that Mr. Giuffre first encountered Ornette Coleman, a scholarship student at the school in 1959. Mr. Giuffre was knocked sideways by Mr. Coleman’s conviction and freedom and had a sort of ecstatic transformation.
In short order, Mr. Giuffre changed his music again. The result was the moody, overlapping improvisations with no fixed key or tempo that characterize the playing of his trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, heard on the ECM reissue “1961” and “Free Fall.” This trio lasted for less than two years, playing ever-more-uncompromising music; Mr. Swallow wrote that the group made its last stand at a Bleecker Street coffee house in New York, finally breaking up on a night when each musician earned 35 cents.
But “1961,” a pairing of trio albums reissued by ECM in 1992, was met with a sense of awe among some younger musicians and critics, as if Mr. Giuffre had had a key to the long-distance future, beyond free jazz and John Coltrane and the pastoral jazz-fusion of Jan Garbarek; it received a five-star rating in Downbeat.
A similar belated reception awaited “Free Fall,” which included some piercing, agitated solo improvisations. Though the album was a commercial failure upon its initial release in 1963, when Columbia brought it out again 25 years later, the “Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD” gave it the book’s highest rating, a crown.
After “Free Fall,” Mr. Giuffre’s momentum was broken: he made no albums for 10 years. He taught at the New School in and New York University in New York City, and in 1978 he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, teaching there until the early 1990s. He also created another version of the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which turned to sounds from Africa and Asia; in the 1980s, inspired by the electronic instruments of the band Weather Report, he made a series of quartet recordings for the Italian label Soul Note.
Also in the 1980s, he formed a productive association with the French saxophonist André Jaume, who recorded Mr. Giuffre several times on his own label, CELP; as a duo they made a live album, “Momentum” (Hatology). The 1961 edition of the Jimmy Giuffre trio, with Mr. Bley and Mr. Swallow, reunited sporadically for performances and recordings, including “The Life of a Trio” (Owl, 1990) and “Conversations with a Goose” (Soul Note, 1992).