The quiet class of Jimmy Giuffre

It is difficult to imagine how so many fine artists who are practicing jazz musicians can labor sometimes for decades without gaining the ear of jazz fans, even after they have won the respect of cantankerous critics or other fickle commentators on the arts.

There are men and women who occupy something of a second tier in the jazz world, where their work functions as the cement that holds the entire edifice together. Joe Henderson comes most immediately to mind. His current success is hard-won and well-deserved after decades of working the stage in front of his own band or behind other frontmen. Too young to be part of the old bop guard that included Bird and Diz and Miles, Henderson also is too old to be included among such younger lions as the Marsalises, Marcus Roberts, Cyrus Chestnutt, Joshua Redman, et al.

A dedicated jazz fan who fearlessly approaches the music is apt to find scores of such musicians who have assimilated styles and attacks that range the music's gamut. These musicians have a way of exhibiting the characteristics of walking jazz encyclopedias, functioning as living monuments to the history of an art form.

I can't remember exactly when I first heard Jimmy Giuffre, but my first awareness of him came with his performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, a performance recorded in the opening sequence of Bert Stern's 1959 film, "Jazz On A Summer's Day." The selection was "The Train And The River" and he performed on alto saxophone with guitarist Jim Hall and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.

The striking quality of the performance was enhanced by the telepathic interplay among the members of the trio and, given the context of 1958 Eisenhower-led U.S.A., the tune struck me as simultaneously old and new. It has a fugue-like quality about it that appeals to my traditionalist gene, yet it is breathtakingly adventurous in its musical weavings. It is both familiar and challenging to me. The stripped-down nature of the trio brought the piece a spare beauty that remains in my memory the theme of that great film, though it featured a stylistic range of performers that included Louis Armstrong, Chico Hamilton, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry (!), Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing and Mahalia Jackson.
Giuffre has given us many examples of his playful way with fugues and rondos and, at least to my ear, always has managed to keep the music sounding fresh, even though a great deal of it is hung upon traditional architecture.

That achievement is fascinating, because now, in his 80th year, a backward glance over his career as a clarinetist, saxophonist and flautist reveals much to be admired. He started out as so many musicians do, playing in local bands and gradually gaining the bandstand experience during his study of music in a Texas teacher's college.

As his reputation as a reedman grew, he branched into a writer and arranger and did stints with the Buddy Rich Band, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, and then joined Woody Herman & His Thundering Herd, where he composed perhaps his best-known work, "Four Brothers," a certified hall-of-fame jazz classic.
But his ideas always have had a quiet intelligence about them, that gives Giuffre's work the character of the advanced creative child in nursery school who prefers the quiet corner alone so that he can construct a labyrinth with his Legos while the other kids smudge their faces with finger paint.

For example, he had a notion that he named "blues-based folk jazz" which led as early as the mid-1950s to his considerable work with pianoless and percussionless ensembles. And then quieter, freer compositions brought him associations with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, and, by that time in the early 1960s, and considering his experience with the worthy likes of Brookmeyer and Hall, he'd built the cathedral of sound he'd been pursuing for a long time.

But he didn't quit, entered the teaching profession, began tinkering with electronic instrumentation and kept composing and arranging for a variety of ensembles, dance companies and virtually any other artistic enterprise that might make use of music.

And through all this, his music remained somehow, indescribably, jazz. It never lost that swing without which it all don't mean a thing.

Here is some very select recommended listening to get you started on Giuffre's work: "Dragonfly" [Soul Note, 1983]; Quasar [Soul Note, 1985]; "Flight, Bremen 1961" [Columbia, 1961]; "The Jimmy Giuffre 3" [Atlantic, 1956]; and "Tangents in Jazz" [Capitol, 1955].

I dig Jimmy Giuffre; I hope that, after giving his music a fair listen, you will, too. He is a quiet treasure.