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Ol' Pals

Restless clarinettist pushed boundaries with a dulcet tone

May 12, 2008

Recently, an obituary appeared for jazz musician Jimmy Giuffre. Cisco receieved a small mention for his contributions to Guiffre's most famous composition.

OBITUARY: Jimmy Giuffre Clarinettist, saxophonist and composer. Born Dallas, Texas, April 26, 1921. Died Pittsfield, Massachusetts, April 24, aged 86.

A RESERVED, professorial figure, Jimmy Giuffre (pronounced "Joo-free") was a restless musician whose unorthodox career encompassed the big band era, lyrical folk jazz, the avant-garde and, late in life, the more tasteful end of the jazz-rock spectrum.

Although he enjoyed little commercial success after the 1950s, he commanded the unwavering respect of musicians and critics.

Jimmy Giuffre

James Peter Giuffre's first instrument was the clarinet, which he began playing in a YMCA band at the age of nine. As a teenager, Giuffre took up the tenor saxophone and later earned a bachelor's degree in music from North Texas State Teachers College. After military service he began playing professionally and made his first recording at the relatively advanced age of 26.

During a brief stint with the Jimmy Dorsey band, he found time to sit in with an unorthodox eight-piece group that featured fellow saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward. The four men were soon signed up by Woody Herman -- Giuffre purely as an arranger at first -- and the result was Giuffre's supple, reeds-based jazz standard, Four Brothers a staple of the big band repertoire.

He later worked with Buddy Rich before becoming a regular participant in the jam sessions at the Lighthouse Cafe on Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles, crucible of the so-called west coast school.

Like many of the circle that formed around trumpeter Shorty Rogers, Giuffre sought to broaden the scope of jazz with the use of classical forms. He was particularly drawn to contrapuntal techniques, and in 1956, partly inspired by the sonorities of a Debussy sonata for flute, viola and harp, he formed the first of a series of drummerless and pianoless trios, with personnel including guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.

As he had declared, his aim was to create "jazz with a non-pulsating beat". He explained: "I've come to feel increasingly inhibited and frustrated by the insistent pounding of the rhythm section. With it, it's impossible for the listener to hear the horn's true sound, I've come to believe, or fully concentrate on the solo line. The essence of jazz is in the phrasing and notes, and these needn't change when the beat is silent."

He concentrated increasingly on the clarinet in this period, developing a smouldering, dulcet tone as he explored the depths of the chalumeau register (the chalumeau is an ancestor of the clarinet).

On hearing that Giuffre would be teaching a summer school at Lenox, Massachusetts, French critic Andre Hodeir is said to have joked: "Who will be teaching the upper register?" At times Giuffre's work, like so much west coast jazz, could be self-conscious and bloodless. At its best, however, it was wholly original and beyond categorisation.

The 1956 Atlantic album, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet gave full rein to his arranging skills and his taste for unorthodox instrumentation (some of the pieces featured the bassoon, oboe, bass flute and celeste).

But the most striking piece, perhaps, was the simplest: Giuffre playing a leisurely, blues-drenched clarinet solo, accompanied only by the tapping of his foot, as if he were sitting on a moonlit porch.

Another Atlantic album, The Jimmy Giuffre 3, contained what was to remain his most striking composition, The Train and the River, a sprightly tune written after he had befriended folk singer Cisco Houston. Giuffre's performance of the piece at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival remains one of the highlights of Bert Stern's classic documentary film, Jazz on a Summer's Day. Giuffre also composed a number of large-scale orchestral works that were recorded by conductor and composer Gunther Schuller.

Another change of direction, inspired in part by the tempestuous music of Ornette Coleman, led to the formation of a trio with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on double bass. Leaning increasingly towards atonalism, the austere improvisations on the Verve albums Thesis and Fusion won some admirers in avant-garde circles, but alienated the bulk of Giuffre's mainstream audience.

As he plunged ever deeper into the arcane realm of free jazz he virtually disappeared from view. Another trio album, Free Fall, did equally badly. From this point Giuffre concentrated on teaching at institutions such as the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, New York, while playing occasional club dates.

In 1978 he took up a post at the New England Conservatory. During the next decade he re-emerged with a highly accessible electric quartet that produced superbly textured soundscapes with none of the high-volume bombast that is usually a by-product of the fusion genre. The group made several accomplished albums on the Soul Note label, among them Quasar, Liquid Dancers and Dragonfly.

Seemingly reborn and playing a multitude of reed instruments, Giuffre toured Britain on a number of occasions (although even at this late stage, many concert promoters still did not know how to spell his name on posters). In 1992 he returned on tour after being reunited with Swallow and Bley, in order to promote a reissue of Thesis and Fusion. Their subsequent recordings, Fly Away Little Bird and Conversations with a Goose won enthusiastic reviews.

Giuffre, who had been suffering from Parkinson's disease, retired from teaching in 1996. He leaves a widow, Juanita.

Review of "The Jimmy Guiffre 3/The Music Man":

Bill Adams

I first started to listen to jazz in the early '60's as I was finishing high school and trying to get into a college. I recall that Jimmy Giuffre, (who died earlier this year) was always well-respected in the jazz polls published in Hugh Hefner's magazine, but I never bought one of his LP's. Recently I found this one on Amazon and took the plunge. These two records, one from 1957 and the other done a year later, are wonderful. On the first, Jimmy plays baritone sax, tenor sax and the clarinet, sometimes all on the same track. The songs have a folk/blues feel. In fact, one track "The Train and the River" is said (although not in these liner notes) to have been inspired by Giuffre's friendship with Cisco Houston, my favorite folksinger and Woody Guthrie's best friend. I know a lot about Cisco, who died in 1961, but I never had known of his acquaintance with jazzmen.

Playing with Jimmy on this half of the CD is the great Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena on bass. The whole thing is very pleasant, but my favorite is probably their version of "The Song is You." The second record is Jimmy's jazzy meditation on the tunes from my favorite American musical, Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." This is fun all the way. Jimmy chose a medium size group for a jazz record, consisting of three trumpets, three saxes, bass, drums, and his own three horns. Highlights here include "Goodnight My Someone" and "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You" in addition to the more familiar "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Wells Fargo Wagon." If you are not familiar with Jimmy Giuffre's work, but you like jazz, folk and musicals, you can't regret buying this two-fer before it goes out of print. This is great stuff to use to soothe your ears during a 90-minute drive, or a three-hour journey if you want to play it twice.

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