The Jazz.com Blog
April 27, 2008 · 3 comments
Twenty years ago, Sheldon Meyer of Oxford University Press asked me what subject I wanted to tackle for my second jazz book. Almost without thinking, I blurted out: "West Coast jazz."
One could have hardly selected a less fashionable subject for a jazz book at the time. West Coast jazz had been tremendously popular in the 1950s, but jazz critics had always tended to dismiss it. My dear friend Grover Sales wittily called it the perfect soundtrack for the Cold War. Other jazz writers were even less kind. Many simply left it out of their books and articles, ignoring it as some strange aberration in the history of jazz. If they mentioned the name "Chet Baker," it was with a smirk, like they were uttering the punch line to some inside joke.
But I loved the great West Coast jazz records, and thought that these players had been given a raw deal in the conventional accounts of the music. Above all, I felt there was a mismatch between the critics' dismissals, which presented West Coast jazz as formulaic and contrived, and what I heard in the music, which was a sense of playfulness and experimentation, above all an openness to new sounds and fresh perspectives.
Few figures exemplified this exuberant curiosity better than Jimmy Giuffre, who passed away on Thursday, two days before his 87th birthday. He marched to the beat of his own internal metronome, always following his own path – which usually tended to be the direction everyone else would be pursuing a few years later.
When jazz was hot and swinging, Giuffre dipped into the cool, and created a new flavor of big band writing with his celebrated "Four Brothers" chart. When the jazz world went gaga over tenor players, Giuffre embraced the unfashionable clarinet with a vengeance. When cool finally took off, Giuffre shifted gears again, crafting a unique pastoral sound that anticipated later ECM and New Age stylings – as demonstrated on his remarkable piece "The Train and the River." But before long Giuffre had jumped into the avant-garde, joining forces with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow at a time when Coltrane was still playing changes. Along the way, Giuffre could be found trying his hand at solo clarinet, or a trio without piano, bass or drums or a jazz fugue, to name just a few of his non-standard deviations.
In short, Giuffre's music is the exact opposite of the conventional (albeit false) image of West Coast jazz. These are not records built on some stale marketing department recipe. They represent the exact opposite. Here is jazz that grows from the artist's personal vision and inner soulfulness. And who better to take us on a vision quest than Jimmy Giuffre, an iconoclast who was into Eastern philosophy, enlightened states of being, and holy auras when most Americans' idea of secular transcendence stopped with Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale?
Giuffre once made a remark on the instrumentation of his various bands that still strikes me as one of the most insightful comments about bandleading I have heard. Asked why he always had such strange lineups of musicians – for example, his trio of clarinet, guitar and valve trombone – Giuffre responded that the key to success on stage came from picking musicians who have a personal chemistry and joy in working together. This intangible is more important than the instruments themselves. An odd perspective, but actually a very good piece of advice for someone trying to form an ensemble. If the personal rapport between the players has the right mojo, the music will almost always sound better than with those bands who look good on paper, but don't work well together as a unit.
The jazz world can still learn a lot from Jimmy Giuffre. He would be a great role model for a younger musician. His whole career stands as an ongoing lesson that jazz cannot be reduced to memorizing licks and following trends, but must start from the eternal basics of music-making: curiosity, commitment, daring and passion. These were Giuffre's invariable calling cards, and are bedrock reasons why jazz fans will continue to come back to his music, again and again, in the coming decades.
Below are some Jimmy Giuffre tracks reviewed on jazz.com – with links to the reviews and our scores (on a 100-point scale).
Jimmy Giuffre: Jesus Maria (Score: 98)
Jimmy Giuffre: The Train and the River (Sound of Jazz, 1957) (Score 97)
Jimmy Giuffre: Propulsion (Score: 96)
Jimmy Giuffre & Lee Konitz: Palo Alto (Score: 95)
Jimmy Giuffre: Blue Monk (Score: 94)
Jimmy Giuffre: The Train and the River (live at Newport) (Score: 91)
Jimmy Giuffre: Emphasis (Score: 90)
Jimmy Giuffre: Iowa Stubborn (Score: 85)
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.