It’s Jimmy Giuffre’s birthday. An unseasonable snow covers the ground around the converted old New England stone polishing mill that he and his wife Juanita have called home for 26 years. The 82 year old multi reed player and iconoclast listens to piano works by Villa Lobos and Ravel, birthday presents from friends. A restless explorer and truly fearless improviser most of his life, Giuffre’s accomplishments and achievements have gone largely unnoticed especially since he confounded critics and fans with his 1962 release Free Fall.
Suddenly his “blues-based folk jazz” played in unusual trio formats gave way to a deeper vision where the lines between composition and performance evaporated. Such a radical artistic statement in the button-down context of the Jackie Kennedy obsessed early ‘60s dropped Giuffre from major label artist to indie obscurity. As a jazz artist driven to always reach beyond, perhaps only Coltrane’s evolution from bop to free jazz compares. But while Coltrane also kicked up a firestorm of controversy, a community of fans supported him and embraced his sounds. No such luck for Giuffre.
On this early spring day in April, artist Juanita Giuffre, the artist's wife of 42 years, graciously agreed to take time out from her role as caregiver to the ailing innovator, and chat with me about her husband’s many milestones. Parkinson’s disease has silenced and stilled the once boundless creativity and expression. Music remains his great pleasure, if only as a listener.
Born in Dallas, Texas in 1921, he began playing the clarinet at age 9. At 13, he played unaccompanied clarinet solos for night YMCA campfire meetings. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from North Texas State University and played with local bands. During his service time, he played in the official Army band. After his discharge, he played tenor and worked as an arranger for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich. With Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd in 1947, he arranged and wrote the hit “Four Brothers,” which boasted a new saxophone sound, and in 1984 he found induction into the NARAS Hall of Fame.
In the early fifties he moved to LA and added clarinet and baritone sax to his resume. He played with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Allstars,and Shorty Rogers’ Giants. During this period he studied with poet/composer Dr. Wesley La Violette. La Violette knew Arnold Schoenberg while he taught at USC and was a sought after teacher by West Coast musicians. He wrote books with titles like The Creative Light, The Song of Angels, The Bhagavad Gita, an Immortal Song, and Wings Unfolding: Thoughts of Evolution of Universal Energy As It Condenses Into Matter, Then Expands Into the Mind of Man. Mrs. Giuffre remembers it this way:
“He was out on the West Coast. He’d been out of the Army, he’d done a little UCLA studying and decided it wasn’t for him, and ended up hearing from one of the musicians, it may have been Shorty, who was studying with him mentioned it to Jimmy. Jimmy thought that sounded like a good thing to go after. And he was very impressed with counterpoint, that was his first introduction to free counterpoint, classical counterpoint. It was a revelation to him, freeing him up from strict chord structure.
“And I met him [La Violette], and he was a bit of a mystic. He said if Jimmy and I were within 25 feet of each other, we’d always be safe. Really composer-like, if you want to take the stereotype: great big shock of gray hair, nice ruddy face, very tall, very nice very sweet.
“After Jimmy started stretching out, he was into more counterpoint, more linear, rather than chordal. Because of the linear approach it brought about more originality, rather than just being stuck with chord structures. It contributed greatly to his uniqueness in composition.”
From '54 to '58, Giuffre recorded for Capitol and Atlantic. His Atlantic sides include a version of the Broadway play, The Music Man , and his landmark album Clarinet from 1956. He began sticking with a drummer-less/piano-less trio format, using Jim Hall on guitar, and Ralph Pena on bass, as the Jimmy Giuffre 3. When Pena left and Giuffre couldn’t get the bass he wanted, he hired valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, creating an unusual lineup for its time. They went on to record Trav’lin’ Light and the interesting Western Suite.