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 Monday, 21 April 2014
Overlooked Innovator Jimmy Giuffre, 1921-2008 Print E-mail
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Saturday, 26 April 2008

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Jimmy Giuffre

“While Jimmy Giuffre did not create free improvisation, he was certainly part of the birthing team. His subtlety and understatement, evident goodwill and spirituality, good humor and lofty technique, soulful blues and classical influence combine to make his body of work unique. His unrelenting courage in his convictions should inspire every artist in any discipline inflamed to traverse the unknown.” – Rex Butters, All About Jazz (2003)

Once known for his bluesy sax and clarinet, Jimmy Giuffre’s evolution as a fearless experimenter was not unlike his contemporaries, Ornette Coleman John Coltrane. Yet while Coltrane managed to find posthumous legendary status, and Coleman continues to generate critical acclaim, Giuffre failed to attract widespread support and became one of the unsung heroes of modern improvisation. Best known for his hit, “Four Brothers,” with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, Giuffre died in relative obscurity on April 24th of complications from Parkinson’s Disease, 2 days before his 87th birthday.

The Dallas native took up clarinet at age nine and went on to study at North Texas State University. After a stint in the army, and playing with the Army Band, Giuffre played tenor sax and arranged for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman in the mid to late 40s. In the 50s, Jimmy found himself in Los Angeles, playing tenor, bari and clarinet, and working with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Allstars and Shorty Rogers’ Giants, while also studying with poet/composer Dr. Wesley La Violette. La Violette had a significant impact on his composition and approach to counterpoint. His wife, Juanita Giuffre, recalled in an All About Jazz interview that this “was his first introduction to free counterpoint, classical counterpoint. It was a revelation to him, freeing him up from strict chord structure…After Jimmy started stretching out, he was into more counterpoint, more linear, rather than chordal. Because of the linear approach it brought about more originality, rather than just being stuck with chord structures. It contributed greatly to his uniqueness in composition.”

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Jimmy Giuffre
In the mid 50s, Giuffre recorded for Atlantic, including a version of the Broadway hit The Music Man, and his landmark album, Clarinet. He began recording as the Jimmy Giuffre 3, a trio without drums or piano, featuring guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena, with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer taking over when Pena left the band. The JG3 performed on the KABC “Stars of Jazz” TV series, appearing alongside such stars as Billie Holiday, Shelley Manne, Oscar Peterson, Red Norvo, and Bud Shank, and in 1958 recorded for Jazz on a Summer Day, a Newport Festival documentary. Jimmy also returned to the “Four Brothers” sound of his days with Woody Herman, scoring for three tenors and baritone, but now dubbing all four parts himself.

After Brookmeyer left the JG3, Jimmy found new compatriots in pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow; the trio recorded Fusion and Thesis on Verve before moving to Columbia and releasing the controversial Free Fall in 1961, two years after Ornette Coleman’s first recording. “A lot of people hated it,” Juanita Giuffre told All About Jazz a few years ago. “As a matter of fact when we got to Europe some of the more traditional audiences were quite unhappy with some of the newer music, specifically France…Eventually, people in Europe really cared for what he was doing much more…so, he got a lot of tours out of Europe with the avant garde thing... Europe was far more accepting than this country…Jimmy was a visionary.”

With less support for his new music at home, Giuffre moved into teaching, at Rutgers University, New York University, and later at the New England Conservatory for Music. In the mid-60s, Jimmy played but apparently did not record with Don Friedman and Barre Phillips, and later with another trio of bassist Kiyoshi Tokunaga percussionist Randy Kaye (his first drummer in years). He also collaborated on projects with choreographer Jean Erdman and wrote music for Mobil Oil commercials and films. Then in the 1980s, he founded the Jimmy Giuffre Four, now exploring electronic music with Randy Kaye, Phil Levin, and Bob Nieske, ultimately recording three albums for Soul Note. He also recorded wind duets with Andre Jaume in 1988. In the early 90s, Giuffre reunited with Bley and Swallow and toured again as the JG3, and recorded Conversations with a Goose before Parkinson’s Disease curtailed his performing. He had retired from teaching and was living in rural Massachusetts at the time of his death on April 24, 2008.



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