Night Lights Classic Jazz

Herbie Nichols’ Third World

Pianist, composer and intellectual Herbie Nichols was obscure in his lifetime, rediscovered and celebrated years later. Biographer Mark Miller joins us.

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Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life, by Mark Miller

Photo: Cover art

Renaissance man: Mark Miller's recent biography places Nichols in the cultural light of his Harlem upbringing.

When Herbie Nichols died in 1963 at the age of 44, he was unknown to all but a few young jazz artists and a handful of critics and fans who’d happened to hear the LPs he recorded for Blue Note in the mid-1950s. Those who did know him nearly always spoke of a gentle, quiet, intellectually and creatively vital person. In the mid-1970s, his recordings began to circulate again, his compositions re-recorded by other jazz artists. After his death, Nichols’ music won the respect, love and acclaim that was missing during his lifetime.

Music From Many Worlds

As Nichols friend and longtime advocate Roswell Rudd has noted, his music evokes everything from Africa and the West Indies of his parents’ origin to the people and places of his mid-20th-century New York City life, and to the strange and wondrous places of his own imagination as well. It radiates a kind of goodness—perhaps why Rudd has written that those who record Nichols’ music improve the world by doing so.

What world did Nichols himself come from? In his recent book Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life, jazz writer Mark Miller makes a compelling case for the pianist as a product of the Harlem Renaissance. Miller joins us on Night Lights this week for a look at Nichols’ life and music, featuring several of the pianist’s key Blue Note recordings, as well as a side from his rarely-heard debut as a leader, and a solo from one of his few recorded Dixieland gigs that Nichols often had to take for economic survival.

The book Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life is available through both The Mercury Press and Amazon.

Unheard Herbie

Here are some outtakes from my interview with Mark Miller that didn’t make it into the program:

Listen to a previous Night Lights program about Herbie Nichols’ rediscovered, unrecorded compositions:

UPDATE: also check out Jason Crane’s great new interview with Mark Miller on The Jazz Session.

Music Heard On This Episode

Cro-Magnon Nights
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2005)
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Cro-Magnon Nights
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2005)
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S'Wonderful
Herbie Nichols — I Just Love Jazz Piano (Savoy, 2001)
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The Third World
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2006)
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The Gig
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2006)
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House Party Starting
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2006)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Blues for Baby (excerpt)
Joe Thomas — Mainstream (Koch, 1999)
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Lady Sings the Blues
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2006)
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Spinning Song
Herbie Nichols — Complete Studio Master Takes (Lonehill, 2006)
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Every Cloud
Herbie Nichols — Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem, 1994)
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Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
Herbie Nichols — Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem, 1994)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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