Jimmy Giuffre: Jazz clarinettist and composer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The casual listener would perhaps enjoy Jimmy Giuffre's folksy, bluesy clarinet playing, but to jazz historians he was perhaps more potent as a writer and arranger. His "Four Brothers", written for the saxophone players in Woody Herman's 1947 Second Herd, including Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, became one of the everlasting jazz classics. He was perhaps best known for the trio he led on clarinet that played attractive and basic jazz like his famed "The Train and the River", which, in one of the best bits of jazz cinema ever, opened the film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), a documentary record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

One of the phrases that most irritated Humphrey Lyttelton was "at the cutting edge of jazz", often used by one of the more pompous newspapers. "I'm not aware that anyone ever found out where that nebulous place may be," said Lyttelton. If it ever existed, then Giuffre would have spent most of his life sliding down its edge, for he was one of the most constantly creative experimenters at work in the music.

On one occasion I talked to him in Liverpool when he was about to travel to Germany to work with a symphony orchestra. "I've written two bars for each instrument in the orchestra," he told me, "and I'm going to hand each man a sheet with his two bars on. Then I start them off, and each of them can play his two bars whenever he wants to."

He was eating in the hotel dining room where the Rugby League forward Dick Huddart and I had joined him. He ordered coffee for Huddart and me, but the waiter haughtily insisted that we should have a full meal. Giuffre explained that Huddart and I had just eaten. "It would set a precedent if I served your friends coffee," said the waiter. "Well, set one," insisted Giuffre. The staff acquiesced with unusually bad grace. When we were about to leave Giuffre called the head waiter over and took a sixpence out of his pocket. "Give this to the man that sets the precedents," Giuffre told the head waiter.

Beginning on clarinet when he was nine, Giuffre began playing the tenor sax whilst he was a student at North Texas State Teachers College, where he gained a degree in music in 1942. Whilst at the college he worked in local dance bands and played clarinet in classical ensembles. His fellow students included Gene Roland, another great innovating jazz composer of the future, the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist Harry Babasin. Giuffre continued his studies with the academic Dr Wesley LaViolette, himself a progressive, who furthered Giuffre's interests in counterpoint, which were to become a vital element in the young man's writing.

In 1947 he began composing for the progressive Boyd Raeburn Orchestra, but joined the more commercial Jimmy Dorsey band as a saxophone player. While based with Dorsey in Los Angeles, he also worked in a revolutionary band led by Gene Roland. This group had a four-piece tenor sax front line that included Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. When Woody Herman heard it he took on the entire front line, minus Giuffre, as his saxophone section, and it was for these men that Giuffre wrote "Four Brothers".

Working with Mexican and western bands to earn his living, Giuffre also moved firmly into the Los Angeles jazz scene, writing and playing to great effect with Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers and His Giants and the Lighthouse All-Stars. This was the music that became known as "West Coast jazz". An exquisite quintet with the trumpeter Shorty Rogers and Giuffre playing mainly his sub-toned clarinet recorded prolifically for the Atlantic label. He stayed with Shorty and the Giants from 1953 to 1956.

The otherwise commercial Capitol record company had, in 1949, recorded the experimental Miles Davis Birth of the Cool album and now, in 1954 and 1955, they also allowed Giuffre to conduct his experiments on their record label, recording more than 20 compositions with a band that included the emerging trumpeter Jack Sheldon and other West Coast musicians. The music for the 1955 album Tangents In Jazz gained freedom by leaving out instruments that played chords, like the piano and the guitar.

In 1956 Giuffre began recording under his own name for Atlantic, and again a remarkable string of experiments on record resulted, with the clarinet sometimes accompanied by oboe, cor anglais and bassoon among the more conventional jazz instruments.

Giuffre left Shorty Rogers to form his first trio with the guitarist Jim Hall and a bassist. He fronted the group playing clarinet, tenor and baritone saxes. When the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer became available to him, he dropped the bass, added Brookmeyer instead and had Jim Hall play the bass notes on his guitar. This was the trio that elaborated basic blues and achieved a folksy sound. Giuffre confined his clarinet work to the lower and middle register, rarely playing high notes. The trio gained a huge following and its records for Atlantic sold well.

Beginning at the prestigious Lenox School of Jazz in the summer of 1957, Giuffre began a parallel career as a music teacher. When told that Giuffre would be teaching clarinet there, the French critic André Hodeir asked "Who will be teaching the upper register?"

But Giuffre relinquished the folksy image for his later trios, and many in his audience were surprised to find a contradicting cooler sound, lower on emotion, and very much influenced by the European composers, including Claude Debussy. He encountered the ultimate free player Ornette Coleman at Lenox and Coleman too had a profound effect on Giuffre's music.

In 1960 Giuffre abandoned his baritone saxophone and for the next five years concentrated on the clarinet. The trio was by now made up with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass and it became one of the building blocks of the new "free jazz" movement. The trio made a classic album of the genre, Free Fall, in 1962. By now more acclaimed in Europe than he was at home, the trio toured abroad frequently. Its music became more and more impenetrable to the listening public and, after a life of two years, when the trio broke up on its last job in New York the musicians earned 35 cents each. But the albums that the three recorded received star ratings when they were re-issued in the 1990s.

Brookmeyer came back to make up Giuffre's quintet in 1968. "I wanted to play music. I wanted to be where I had been happiest in the past," said Brookmeyer, "and that sort of thinking led me back to Jimmy Giuffre."

Moving back to the East Coast in 1970 Giuffre taught at Rutgers University, New York, and the New England Conservatory. He also composed music for ballet and theatre companies and wrote for TV commercials. Because he had beautiful hands he was called on as a hand model in some commercials.

In 1978 Giuffre joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, teaching there until the early 1990s. During the 1980s he formed another trio which based its music on sounds from Asia and Africa. The 1961 trio with Bley and Swallow reunited occasionally during the 1990s and made new albums. In all Giuffre recorded more than 30 albums as a leader.

Steve Voce

James Peter Giuffre, clarinettist, saxophonist, composer and bandleader: born Dallas, Texas 26 April 1921; married; died Pittsfield, Massachusetts 24 April 2008.