Obituary: Jimmy Raney
Friday 19 May 1995
Raney became resigned to his fate early in his career. He was leading a trio in a New York club where a fire department sign on the wall said: "Occupancy of these premises by over 116 people is unlawful." Raney had written on the wall underneath, "and unlikely".
It was Raney's fault. "I can't stand to exploit myself in any way," he said. "It's unpleasant to me." His dislike of travelling didn't help, and he hated booking agents, preferring not to have anything to do with them. He was a taciturn man who only spoke when he had something worth saying. He was universally revered by the musicians he played with.
"He's one of the three most creative musicians in jazz today, along with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk," the vibist-composer Teddy Charles said. "Jimmy was one of the first to grasp the Charlie Parker lyricism and turn it into long flowing lines of his own. He's a spontaneously melodic player who always anticipated new things in jazz. The way he played foreshadowed things that John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Gil Evans came to later."
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a journalist father and a guitar- playing mother, Raney took the instrument up when he was 10. Guitarists in the United States seem to come from the south and west or a family where the instrument is traditional. After his mother had got him started he studied with the classical teacher A. J. Giancola for a couple of years. There were two ways for a guitarist to go in Kentucky if he wanted to be professional - into hillbilly music or into jazz. "When I heard Charlie Christian's `Solo Flight' with Benny Goodman I nearly fainted," Raney said
He studied with another teacher who craved jazz, Hayden Causey. During the war young musicians below the draft age were much in demand, and when Causey left the Jerry Wald Orchestra in New York in 1944, he recommended Raney as his replacement. Raney worked in the city for two months, during which time he spent his spare time in 52nd Street and in Harlem listening to Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the bebop guitarist Chuck Wayne. Al Haig was the pianist in the band and the affinity he struck up with Raney led to a long and important musical association. Haig was already the most fluent white musician in bebop, and the following year recorded with Parker and Gillespie.
Raney returned home for further study and then moved in 1945 to Chicago, where he made a living working in various local bands. In January 1948 the drummer Tiny Kahn recommended him to Woody Herman. Raney was hired. But he hated the continuous touring which it involved. Also, Herman used him to play rhythm all night and hardly gave him any solos. Raney left the band in New York some months later and worked in the city with Haig, Buddy de Franco, Artie Shaw and Terry Gibbs.
Stan Getz left Herman to form his own group in 1949 and asked Raney to make up his quintet. He used Raney's guitar as a front-line solo instrument and, with Al Haig on piano, this became one of the potent jazz groups of the time.
There is no doubt that Raney had an influence on Getz's saxophone playing. Raney's work was not strongly emotional, but his cloudy style was deeply melodic and he expressed beautiful ideas rather than passion. He played electric guitar but with the amplifier volume down. "I like pure sound, not anything twangy." This approach fitted the "cool" jazz of the time perfectly and Raney stayed with Getz until 1953. He left after Getz had turned up for a couple of jobs under the influence of narcotics.
The two men worked together again for a time in 1962. In 1986, for their final association, they made a tour of American colleges together.
After he left Getz, Raney settled happily into the Blue Angel club in New York, staying from 1953 until 1959. He took a year off in 1953-54 to tour in the United States and Europe with the Red Norvo Trio, but otherwise remained at the club. In 1959 he appeared in an on-stage jazz quintet in the Broadway musical The Nervous Set and again appeared on stage when The Thurber Carnival opened on Broadway and ran until November 1960.
At this time Raney took up the cello and studied hard for several years. He had also taken up painting for several years but stopped because it took up "too much creative energy. I tried a couple of Broadway shows after The Thurber Carnival," he said, "but I didn't enjoy the experience. The Thurber thing was special. The rest of it wasn't too musical."
Raney spent a further year in another Broadway show, High Spirits. He also taught and worked in the studios recording commercial jingles and generally moving further away from jazz. "To make jazz your life's work is difficult. You can keep it as a sideline and not expect to make money at it, but you lose touch that way," Raney said. In the years that followed alcoholism almost ended his career and he returned to Louisville but he overcame it and eventually returned to playing at his former artistic best.
Raney returned to New York in 1972 and in 1974 gave a recital at Carnegie Hall with Al Haig. The two men toured in Europe and Japan with Raney's son Doug, born in 1957, who was by now a fine guitarist. The three recorded together.
During the Eighties the two Raneys continued to record and tour together, but eventually Jimmy Raney was afflicted with profound deafness and a serious deterioration of his health ended his career some years ago.
James Elbert Raney, guitarist, born Louisville, Kentucky 20 August 1927; died Louisville, Kentucky 10 May 1995.
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