Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Giuffre, Jimmy (James Peter)

Reedist, composer and musical visionary Jimmy Giuffre's career spanned six decades and many styles. Best known as the creator of the "Four Brothers sound" for Woody Herman's big band and for his trio with guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, he defied expectations as he explored everything from orchestral composition to his own brand of free jazz. Giuffre was often misunderstood: the scope of his talents makes it hard to place him in the jazz tradition without examining his entire body of work.

James Peter Giuffre was born on April 26, 1921, in Dallas, Texas, and he began his musical endeavors on the sopranino clarinet at age nine. During high school and college he played tenor sax in bands around Dallas, doubling on clarinet and tenor. In 1942 he received his bachelor's degree in music from the North Texas Teachers College. At Texas he was in the Stage Band and lived with Herb Ellis, Harry Babasin, and a few others. He played for dances with small groups and went to hear all the best big bands that came through town - his favorite was Jimmie Lunceford.

After Pearl Harbor Jimmy volunteered for the United States Air Force and served from 1942 to 1946; if he had waited to be drafted, he would not be given the choice to play music. He wrote and practiced a lot, developing much of the experience he would later use with Woody Herman and others. Apart from playing in a seventy-piece orchestra, Jimmy played in a small group for the officers' lunch every day with xylophone, guitar, tenor, bass, and drums with brushes.

After the war, Giuffre settled in Los Angeles and began a master's program at the University of Southern California. He did not finish the degree, as he decided rather to study composition with Dr. Wesley LaViolette, who gave him private lessons for the next 14 years. LaViolette's emphasis on linear and contrapuntal writing, allowing vertical harmonies to be dictated by the combination of melodies, became a fixture of Giuffre's composing style.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s< Jimmy established himself as a competent tenor sideman, unique arranger, and all-around workhorse on the Los Angeles music scene. In rough chronological order he recorded with Jimmy Dorsey, Red Norvo/Jesse Price, Woody Herman, Boyd Raeburn, Harry Babasin, Buddy Rich, Jerry Gray, Shorty Rogers, Howard Rumsey, Shelly Manne, John Graas, Teddy Charles Quintet, Buddy DeFranco, Leith Stevens Jazz All-Stars, Leonard Feather's Best of the West, Bob Cooper, Jack Millman, Betty Bennett, Marty Paich, Herb Ellis, Russ Garcia, Ray Brown, Maynard Ferguson and Bob Brookmeyer.

During his time in LA, Jimmy's sound can be heard as it transforms from the typical West-Coast tenor sound into an unmistakably personal tone which said more with one note than most say with a hundred.

Some of Jimmy's first recorded solos were on tenor with Red Norvo's group in 1947, featuring Dexter Gordon. These sessions are a great example of Jimmy's early playing - a Prez-influenced tenor sound with a simple style reflective of his later work. 1947 was also the year Giuffre's composition "Four Brothers" was recorded by Woody Herman. The "Four Brothers sound" was comprised of three tenors and baritone sax, an uncommon grouping at the time. On this piece, Giuffre attempted to combine Bird and Prez's sounds. There are small variations in the melodic line each time it is played, providing variety to make it sound more improvised. It was inducted into the NARAS Hall of Fame in 1984.

Giuffre was a member of Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars from 1951 to 1953, Jimmy's playing had a gutsier, playful, swinging Texas tenor sound with this group than his sound a few years earlier. Tracks like "Big Girl" and "Dynamite" from the Complete 1947-1953 Small Group Sessions are examples of this. Jimmy left the All-Stars to join Shorty Rogers and his Giants in 1953, participating in some of Shorty's most well-known dates through 1956.

Foreshadowing his later forays into free jazz, Jimmy also participated in some of the most progressive sessions recorded on the West Coast: Teddy Charles's Evolution in 1953 and Shelly Manne's The Three and the Two in 1954. The Charles album explores modal sounds while the Manne record delves into tone rows and free improvisation with unusual instrumentation - both years before these types of experiments were commonplace.

Before stepping out on his own with The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Jimmy recorded three studio records: Jimmy Giuffre in 1954, Tangents in Jazz in 1955, and The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet in 1956. Tangents was one of the first jazz records to feature a group without a pianist.

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet highlights his incredible clarinet playing and chalumeau register tone on tracks such as "My Funny Valentine," not to mention his brilliance as a writer and record producer. The record includes the first solo horn recording since Coleman Hawkins's "Picasso," and is artfully composed with sounds few of the other West Coast musicians were exploring at the time. Other tracks worth hearing are his simple duet with Jimmy Rowles on celeste, "Deep Purple," and "Sheepherders," a contemplative clarinet trio.

A few other great examples of Jimmy's abiliy to blend classical elements with jazz are his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1956 at the Lenox School for Jazz in Massachusetts. In particular, "Fugue", "Serenade" and "Fun" successfully combine Jimmy's writing with the "jazz feel." He also wrote "Blue Birdland" for Maynard Ferguson around this time, which became a popular number in the trumpeter's repertoire.

Inspired by Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, Jimmy formed one of his most popular groups, The Jimmy Giuffre 3, in 1956. The group originally had Ralph Peña on bass and Jim Hall on guitar; Peña was later replaced by Jim Atlas, Red Mitchell, Buddy Clark, Ray Brown, and Buell Neidlinger. The group's minor hit "The Train and the River" epitomized their contrapuntal, folksy, swinging sound with Jimmy playing baritone sax, clarinet, and tenor sax all on the same track.

Giuffre envisioned this group like an aural representation of an Alexander Calder mobile, with no voice ever dominating at the expense of another. Over the course of six albums, the group established a sound all its own, which Giuffre called "swamp jazz" and others called "folk jazz," and the group toured as part of producer Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1959 and 1960.

The group was notably captured on film as part of a 1957 CBS all-star broadcast, The Sound of Jazz,KABC's Stars of Jazz, and in 1958 in Bert Stern's documentary on the Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer's Day. By the time of Newport, the group's bass chair had been taken over by valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.

As if the group's instrumentation wasn't peculiar enough for the period, the addition of trombone naturally brought out the contrapuntal, interweaving lines Giuffre was looking for. On The Four Brothers Sound,alsorecorded in 1958, Brookmeyer played piano and Giuffre experimented with overdubbed saxes. The group set its own path, and didn't conform to prescribed notions of what jazz could be.

Besides working with the 3, Jimmy was busy composing – in 1957 he premiered a commission, "Suspensions" for the Brandeis University Jazz Festival of the Arts in 1957, recorded one of his most famous pieces, "Pharaoh," for brass and timpani, on the album Music for Brass, and in 1958 he recorded his unique reworking of the songs from The Music Man.

Giuffre also found time to compose and arrange a series of albums for Verve, each of which featured a soloist and Giuffre as writer. Sonny Stitt, Herb Ellis, Anita O'Day, and Lee Konitz each recorded a month apart in 1959, with Konitz's "Palo Alto" being the most notable and progressive session, which also featured saxohponist Warne Marsh and pianist Bill Evans on the date.

Jimmy's composing reached a zenith in 1960 with the little-known but magnificent and ambitious "Piece for Clarinet and String Orchestra" and "Mobiles." Both abandon the "Third Stream" approach of blending jazz and classical and focus strictly on more "classical" atonal effects. Jimmy's compositional influences included Schoenberg and Debussy as well as Stockhausen and Delius.

On these works Jimmy is featured on clarinet, playing written parts on the first piece and improvising on "Mobiles." "Mobiles" also features ad-lib cues for the conductor and the piece's eight written movements can be played multiple times in any order. Thus, there are 16 "movements" on the record. If one heard these records out of context of Jimmy's jazz endeavors, the group he formed next would not be much of a surprise.

In 1961, Giuffre formed what would be his most controversial group, a trio with Steve Swallow on acoustic bass, Paul Bley on piano, and Jimmy solely on clarinet. Giuffre formed the group after hearing saxophonist Ornette Coleman at the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959. It was not only his most ambitious effort as a leader, it essentially ended his recording career for close to a decade - the public was not ready for what they heard.

The group's three studio albums, Fusion and Thesis in 1961, and Free Fall in 1962 are full of moments angular, pointillistic, gentle, and harsh. The group's repertoire consisted of Jimmy's tunes, a few of Carla Bley's, trio improvisations, and mixed improvisations.

Some pieces had three composed lines that could be played at any speed; the group did not always keep strict meter but instead developed its own kind of pulse. Occasionally the group would keep a set tempo but many pieces were completely free of chords changes and meter. For most listeners, this music shares more with contemporary classical chamber works than with jazz.

While the group had a big impact on musicians in jazz's emergent avant-garde, who sought to step outside of conventional forms and instrumentation, these recordings were a dismal commercial failure. Interest in the trio's work has steadily grown over time, prompting the release of several CDs of additional material from this period, such as Emphasis, which captures a live performance by the group in Stuttgart, Germany in 1961, and Jimmy Giuffre 3 – 1961, an ECM album which includes the Carla Bley composition "Jesus Maria."

With no opportunities to record or perform, Giuffre turned to other activities for the next decade. He taught at NYU, Rutgers, Manhattanville College, the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, The New School and later the New England Conservatory, as well as privately and at guest lectures and workshops. He also composed for film (Leo Hurwaitz, Elie Wiesel, John Avildsen), dance (Jean Erdman, Joffrey Ballet, and commercials (Mobile Oil, Tab Cola), and received grants from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1969 Jimmy published his only book, Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation, in which he discusses his personal approach to learning and creating jazz.

Giuffre's first working jazz group after nearly a decade away from performance featured drummer Randy Kaye and bassist Kiyoshi Tokunaga (1972-1981), and Jimmy mostly on tenor and flutes. This trio recorded two albums, Music For People, Birds, Butterflies & Mosquitoes (1972) and River Chant (1975). The music features unison lines with the bass, lots of counterpoint, and as always with Giuffre, the drums used as a melodic vehicle, usually on brushes, not just support for a soloist. While there are slow meditative tracks such as "Om," there are also plenty of simple grooves, bass ostinati, and wild, freer explorations such as "Dervish."

The late 1970s also saw a brief reunion in San Francsico with Lee Konitz and Paul Bley, also featuring guitarist Bill Connors. This session is a true gem full of mixed improvisations, featuring Jimmy on reeds and flute, and magnificent nylon-string guitar playing by Connors.

In 1978 Jimmy began working at the New England Conservatory in Boston where he taught well into the mid 1990s. Around 1981, one of Jimmy's students, Marc Rossi, introduced Jimmy to Weather Report. Jimmy put together an electric quartet including Marc on keyboards and synthesizers, Bob Nieske on fretless electric bass, and Randy Kaye on drums that began working and did a tour of Europe. Pete Levin replaced Marc Rossi around 1982 and the quartet went on to record three records for the Soul Note label, Dragonfly (1983), Quasar (1985), and Liquid Dancers (1989).

Unlike many jazz artists who ventured into the electric realm and may have later regretted it, this group is held together not only by the lack of clichés, but the strong sense of melody and writing that Giuffre, Levin, and Nieske brought to compositions such as "Cool" and "Dragonfly."

Around 1985 reedman Andre Jaume contacted Jimmy to study with him. Jaume came to visit Giuffre and the two of them recorded a few albums together, Eiffel (1987) and Momentum, Willisau (1988) which include some wonderful, contemplative duets reminiscent of some of Giuffre's earlier work but updated for more contemporary times.

Just as grunge rock was taking over the radio airwaves, Giuffre reunited the forward-thinking trio which had caused his fall from grace three decades earlier. Paul Bley still played piano, but Steve Swallow had switched to electric bass and Jimmy was playing more soprano sax. Some of the best albums of Giuffre's career followed: Life of a Trio: Saturday and Sunday in 1989, Fly Away Little Bird in 1992, and Conversations With A Goose in 1996.

The music on these records explores similar territory as before, but Giuffre now plays with the confidence he had earned in the intervening years. Fly Away Little Bird has a handful of standards, including "All the Things You Are," uniquely fascinating to hear this group explore.

The reunited trio did a few tours of Europe, but around this time Giuffre began to suffer from Parkinson's disease. As Parkinson's is a degenerative disease, Jimmy slowly became less able to undertake musical activity and eventually stopped playing and writing. He continued teaching for a while and his bandmates were very helpful in aiding him through the tours.

In a sad twist of fate, almost all the reviews of trio's work around this time were glowing. The revival of interest led to a round of reissues, and more glowing reviews, for their earlier work. If only the critics and the public had been more "with it" the first time around, the world wouldn't have missed out on roughly thirty years of music from this ground-breaking ensemble.

From around 1995 until his death on April 24th, 2008, Giuffre was cared for by his wife Juanita, who still lives in their home in western Massachusetts.

Select Discography

The Complete 1947-1953 Small Group Sessions (2001)

Woody Herman: Blowin' Up A Storm: The Columbia Years 1945-1947 (2001)

Woody Herman: Woody Herman's Finest Hour (2001)

Buddy Rich: The Legendary '47-'48 Orchestra (2006)

Shorty Rogers: West Coast Sounds (2006)

Teddy Charles: Evolution (1953)

Shelly Manne's The Three and the Two (1954)

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet (1956)

Maynard Ferguson: The Birdland Dream Band (1956)

The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn (1956)

Music for Brass (1957)

Brandeis Jazz Festival (2005)

The Jimmy Giuffre 3 (1957)

The Music Man (1958)

Western Suite (1958)

The Four Brothers Sound (1958)

Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre (1959)

Piece for Clarinet and Strings (1960)

Fusion (1961)

Free Fall (1962)

Music for People, Birds, and Butterflies (1972)

IAI Festival (1978)

Momemtum, Willisau (1988)

Dragonfly (1983)

Liquid Dancers (1989)

Life of a Trio: Saturday and Sunday (1989)

Fly Away Little Bird (1992)

Contributor: Grant Gardner