Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Nichols, Herbie (Herbert Horatio)

Composer and pianist Herbie Nichols’ inquisitive spirit lives on amongst a growing group of young followers, and in the spirit of every jazz musician who struggles to cultivate an individual sound within the din of the marketplace. An innovator equal in powers to Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk, he spent most of his career working in bands whose music was less adventurous than his own.

Had he been less self-effacing, Nichols might have achieved the acclaim he deserved during his lifetime. Yet it is only in the years since his death in 1963, at age 44 from leukemia, that he has begun to receive this recognition. He has since seduced subsequent generations of listeners and musicians with his angular melodies and rhythmically-sculpted harmonies.

The son of immigrants from Trinidad and St. Kitts, Nichols was born in New York City on Jan. 3, 1919 and lived in Manhattan's San Juan Hill, an African-American neighborhood where the Lincoln Center arts complex now stands. The neighborhood was home to many musical greats, including stride pianist James P. Johnson and later Monk.

At age 7, he moved with his family further uptown to Harlem where, two years later, he began to study piano with a teacher who stressed classical training. As a youth, Nichols was said to be introspective yet fun-loving, good at checkers and chess, and steeped in books - a favorite author, according to his friend trombonist Roswell Rudd, was the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol.

While classically trained, he was attracted enough to the popular music of his teen years to play jazz with a high school combo. His first professional gig came in 1937 when he joined the Royal Baron Orchestra, which was led by saxophonist Freddie Williams and also included bassist George Duvivier.

A year later, Nichols began working regularly at a Harlem after-hours club, Monroe’s Uptown House. Along with another Harlem venue, Minton’s Playhouse, the Uptown House was an incubator for the modernist upheaval in jazz music which came to be known as bebop.

Nichols said he was simultaneously stimulated and put off by the hothouse atmosphere amongst the intensely competitive musicians who frequented the Harlem after-hours scene. He disliked what he described as a "clique mentality" among the musicians who worked at Monroe’s and Minton’s. Pianist and critic Leonard Feather, in his liner notes written for one of Nichols’ 1955 Blue Note albums, described Nichols being literally “pushed off the piano stool” at jam sessions by less-talented players.

Nichols was drafted on 1941 and served 18 months in the infantry, with little opportunity to take part in either battle or music. When he returned to New York in 1943, he was unable to rejoin the bebop circle, and worked mostly with rhythm-and-blues or New Orleans-style bands. Among his more prominent employers from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s were Danny Barker, Hal Singer, Illinois Jacquet, Snub Mosely, Arnett Cobb, Edgar Sampson and John Kirby.

Nichols struggled to find his way as a composer, sending off musical pieces that were either neglected or rejected by publishers. In 1951, Nichols met Mary Lou Williams, a virtuoso swing pianist who had befriended Monk and was attracted to the kind of quirky, insurgent music that he and others, like Nichols, were writing at the time.

After hearing Nichols play some of his compositions, Williams recorded three of his tunes: “The Bebop Waltz,” which she re-titled “Mary’s Waltz," “Stennell,” which she dubbed “Opus 2” and “At Da Function.” Nichols’ own flair for titling his works become apparent when he later recorded as a leader. His most famous piece, however, “Lady Sings the Blues” was originally called “Serenade,” until Billie Holiday heard it and was so taken with the melody that she wrote her own lyrics and renamed the tune, which also became the title of her 1955 autobiography.

Nichols continued to work mostly in traditional jazz and swing bands throughout the northeastern United States, while he auditioned for his own club dates and recording sessions. Blue Note Records cofounder Alfred Lion recalled Nichols being especially persistent for more than a decade in asking for a chance to record his own music.

In 1955 Lion gave Nichols his shot to be a leader. In May and August, he recorded with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, in sessions which produced the memorable "Applejackin.'" These were followed by second August session with Roach and bassist Teddy Kotick. Two albums were culled from these sessions and released by Blue Note, which were hailed by critics, but somewhat neglected by the public. The same outcome greeted his only other album as a leader, the out-of-print Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, released in 1957 by Bethlehem, once again to glowing reviews and anemic sales.

Nichols went back to playing Dixieland music to make a living, even though his recordings began to acquire cult status among an emergent generation of progressive musicians, which included Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd. But Nichols’ stature as a composer and innovator remained a well-kept secret, and his frustration only seemed to deepen with every throwaway gig. “He seemed to be dying of disillusionment,” wrote A.B. Spellman, the critic and historian whose 1966 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, helped set in motion the revival of interest in Nichols' work after his death. “He knew his worth, but it seemed as if nobody else did.”

Perhaps only a sensibility as independent, contemplative, wistful and tenacious as Nichols could have forged such alluring, yet provocative music. As with his friend and rival Monk, Nichols’ plays his melodies with calculated indifference to melodic and harmonic convention. His main melodic themes, such as “Lady Sings the Blues,” are accessible, memorable and can be easily hummed. Yet his variations often spread themselves in eccentric patterns within, around and through the melody’s intervals.

Listen, for instance, to his rendition of “The Gig” on his Blue Note collection and you’ll hear phrases repeated, smashed and reshaped amidst a riotous collection of tempo shifts which stretch but never stray too far from the rhythmic core. You sometimes wonder whether the piano is bracing up the rhythm section, or vice versa. Either is plausible, given Nichols’ affinity for patterns which keep time as much as they play with it.

The title track from Love, Gloom, Cash, Love is as simultaneously romantic and acerbic as its name implies. Yet its harmonies as much to classical music as it does to Tin Pan Alley songwriting.

Nichols’ rare combination of mood, drama and narrative timing can be found in compositions such as “House Party Starting,” which has also been recorded by Mal Waldron with Steve Lacy, and Adam Birnbaum. The song trumps the sense of anticipation aroused at the start of a party with what Nichols, in liner notes he wrote for one of his Blue Note albums, called “grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a party, whether there is going to be lots of fun.” Contrasts stalk Herbie Nichols' compositions in the same way disappointment often trailed his life’s achievements.

After Nichols’ death, musicians who include John Coltrane, Rudd, and Misha Mengleberg have revived his compositions which has helped bring his music to the attention of younger players. One can hear Nichols’ influence in an eclectic assortment of younger piano talents, notably Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Frank Kimbrough, who in the 1990s helped spearhead the an ensemble dedicated to performing his compositions. The group has recorded three albums of his work, Dr. Cyclops' Dream, Love is Proximity and Strange City, all of which mine a trove of never-recorded compositions found in the archives of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Select Discography

Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1955-6), Blue Note, 3 Discs.


Spellman, A.B., Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966, reprinted by the University of Michigan Press

Davis, Francis, “The Mystery of Herbie Nichols” in Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists and Singers, 1990, Oxford University Press.

Contributor: Gene Seymour