Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remembering Jimmy Giuffre

My obit of Jimmy Giuffre is in the current issue of DownBeat (August), but due to space limitations they didn't have room for the original version. For those interested, here it is:

It’s common wisdom that an artist’s influence is directly proportional to his or her exposure. Jimmy Giuffre – who died April 24 at age 86 from complications of Parkinson’s disease – shattered that truism.

Active on the recording scene for a total of just 38 years and unable to play since 1996, the native of Dallas casts a long shadow as a composer, multi-reed player, educator and free thinker. His sphere of influence encompasses big band music, chamber jazz and the avant-garde.

A graduate of North Texas State Teachers College who served as a bandsman in World War II, Giuffre moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to pursue graduate work at UCLA. Instead, he made some important breakthroughs by studying privately for five years with Wesley LaViolette, a specialist in counterpoint and tonal music, and arranging for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman. For the latter, in 1947, he created his first significant work when he wrote and arranged “Four Brothers,” a hit that helped revolutionize harmonic writing for reeds. While clarinet had been his principal horn since the age of nine, he earned his keep in California by playing tenor and baritone saxophone in small groups led by Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Howard Rumsey. His first manifesto – the 1955 album Tangents In Jazz – eschewed chordal instruments and signaled his desire to write intricately laced chamber jazz that challenged the prevailing tenets of bop.

“Jimmy’s most radical contribution was his use of linear counterpoint and his determination to destroy the dominance of chords,” said pianist Paul Bley.

A series of albums on Atlantic from 1956-58 cemented his reputation as an imaginative composer, and his dominant use of the clarinet’s lower chalumeau register was as distinctive and resonant as Miles Davis’ raspy Harmon mute. His most-successful trio – featuring guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer – is immortalized in Bert Stern’s film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, playing the folk-influenced “The Train and the River.”

Outwardly mild-mannered, Giuffre sought to break even further away from conventions, and the spark was ignited when he encountered Ornette Coleman in 1959 at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts. Giuffre was in his third summer on the faculty and Coleman was in attendance as a special student. Many who saw it – including Gunther Schuller, Dave Brubeck, Perry Robinson and Giuffre’s future wife, Juanita – recall a particular jam session where Giuffre had a breakthrough.

“He got creative,” recalled Coleman, speaking to drummer George Schuller, the producer of the documentary film Music Inn. “He got very creative, and he realized something.”

Energized, within a year Giuffre took the dramatic step of replacing Hall with Bley – like Coleman, a radical thinker newly arrived from California – who subsequently introduced Giuffre to bassist Steve Swallow.

“He was an imposing figure,” recalled Swallow. “It was remarkable at his age to make such a drastic change in his music, to so thoroughly turn his back on what he had been doing and embrace a really challenging and harshly dissonant vocabulary. I think he had occasionally let his true spirit out of the cage before, but with our trio he never looked back.”

While Bley and Swallow agree that the trio’s music – documented on the albums 1961 and Free Fall – found some followers in Europe, audiences and club owners were generally unwilling to accept Giuffre’s conversion to free jazz. After the trio’s final gig in 1961, the three men divided their $1.05 take for the evening at a late-night restaurant called The Hip Bagel and called it quits.

“Jimmy was a very kind, polite man, but inwardly he was a little stubborn,” said pianist Ran Blake, a colleague at Lenox and the New England Conservatory, where Giuffre taught from 1978-96.

“We were all saddened by our failure,” said Swallow. “We were convinced of the historical imperative of what we were doing.”

Disillusioned, Giuffre didn’t record again until 1972, and avoided returning to free music until the trio reunited in 1989. By then, Giuffre’s music had influenced a new generation of fans, including Vancouver-based clarinetist Fran├žois Houle. “I was looking for mentors and trying to find my voice when I discovered his music,” he said. “It was mind-blowing for 30-year-old music, particularly the way it integrated solos with the overall form. It was a model of democracy at work.”

“We took up where we left off,” said Swallow of the trio’s reunion. “Jimmy’s music continued to evolve. His sense of himself was unshakeable.”

Tragically, while the trio continued to be a popular draw at European jazz festivals in the early ‘90s and recorded several times, Giuffre’s Parkinson’s was advancing.

“The symptoms were clear during our last tour,” recalled Swallow. “Sometimes, miraculously, Jimmy would be able to function well once he got onstage, but the writing was on the wall. It was heartbreaking because he was still growing.”

“He was a rare creature in this business,” said Bley, “a gentleman.”

Asked for a final thought on his friend, Bley turned uncharacteristically sentimental: “Bring him back.”