Jimmy Giuffre-a clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer-arranger who made significant musical contributions to late-1940s big band, 1950s West Coast and cool jazz, and the early-1960s avant-garde-has passed away at the age of 86. Giuffre was born in Dallas, Texas on April 26, 1921 and attended North Texas State, which would eventually become one of the pioneering institutions of jazz education in America. He found work as a saxophonist and arranger in the still-active big-band scene of the late 1940s; "Four Brothers," which utilized four saxophones playing in harmonic parallel, became an early signature piece for him (though, as jazz writer Francis Davis points out, Giuffre freely admitted that he borrowed the idea from former North Texas roommate Gene Roland). He went on to become involved with the Lighthouse All-Stars and worked often with several key figures of the emerging 1950s West Coast jazz scene, including Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. Anybody interested in this musician and his quiet but impressive artistic achievements should check out Rex Butters' 2003 All About Jazz article, which is especially informative about Giuffre's post-early 1960s career, a period that doesn't tend to generally garner as much discussion.
The influential progressive trios that Giuffre led in the late 1950s and early 1960s (I'd wager that Bill Evans listened to those records closely) will likely prove to be the most noted part of his jazz legacy. I was listening again last week to the two-CD Giuffre set 1961 as I worked on an upcoming show called "The Carla Bley Songbook." Giuffre was one of the early champions of Bley's music, most likely introduced to it by Bley's husband Paul, who played piano in Giuffre's early-1960s trio. Years ago records like 1961 (two Verve albums reissued by ECM-in fact label founder Manfred Eicher has said it was this music that inspired him to start ECM), Trav'lin' Light, and Tangents in Jazz opened my mind to even more of the possibilities that jazz could offer. Some critics have described much of his music as something akin to blues-based folk jazz; his use of counterpoint, atonalism, and implied sense of rhythm ultimately made it nearly a genre unto itself. "The only way to deal with Giuffre's music is on its own terms," writes Ted Gioia, citing Graham Lock's observation that "Censorship by definition-You can't do that, it's not Jazz-has been the bane of innovative musicians...but few can have suffered from its effects quite so comprehensively as Jimmy Giuffre." Giuffre's profile was relatively high in the 1950s jazz scene, but his 1962 album Free Fall, which was Giuffre's most radical Third-Stream/free-jazz statement to date, was followed by 10 years of recording silence; even European audiences found his modernistic path a difficult one to follow.
There will be an all-day broadcast tribute to Giuffre this Monday on WKCR-New York. You can hear Giuffre's 1956 recording of one of his best-known compositions, "The Train and the River," on the Night Lights program It Came From Texas, as well as some of his writing in Lee Konitz: the Verve Years. Ted Gioia has also posted a video of Giuffre performing the piece at Jazz.com (check out pg. 225-244 of Gioia's West Coast Jazz for insights into Giuffre's connection with that 1950s scene):