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
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.