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In Memoriam: Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008)

By Published: June 15, 2008
I honestly don't know what I could add to the volumes being written about Jimmy Giuffre's genius, his commitment to his art and his great contributions to American music. But then there's the man the public didn't know, a generous, fun-loving, courteous, soft-spoken gentleman with a sharp sense of humor that could zap you if you weren't paying attention. A few years ago I was visiting Juanita and Jimmy at their West Stockbridge home. Already subdued by Parkinson's, Jimmy was confined to a wheelchair. Most of his mobility was gone and only Juanita could decipher his efforts to speak. It was heartbreaking to see him that way. We were all gathered around the kitchen table, consuming Chinese takeout and talking about music, people, old times, etc., when I felt Jimmy poking my arm. He was looking at me with great concern. He mumbled something unintelligible, then very slowly and with great effort, raised a palsied arm toward the ceiling. Following his pointing finger, I looked up and saw...the ceiling. Nothing else. I held the pose long enough to be polite, then looked back at Jimmy. Damn! Eight years on the road with the man, I should have known! While I was properly diverted, Jimmy had grabbed a large shrimp off my plate, stuffed it into his mouth and was grinning at me ear to ear. It was impossible not to love this man.

—PETE LEVIN, Keyboardist

Just being around Jimmy was wonderful because the feeling of his being was very high; he was very calm, with a burning intensity inside. He was one of the first people I knew who studied Zen, and he had a very Zen quality. He didn't speak a lot; he used no extra verbiage, just like how he played. He was a very special man, and a major influence.

—PERRY ROBINSON, Clarinetist

Jimmy Giuffre taught me patience, in music and in life. He directed my attention to the smallest details of the music we played together, and smiled benignly on as I uncovered layers I hadn't suspected. I think I learned more about how to play my instrument from him than from any bassist. I won't forget the limitless faith he had that I'd learn what he needed me to know, a quality that made him a great bandleader and a cherished friend.


Sad loss for the world of music...hopefully, a peaceful ending for one of our gifted musicians. We were friends from the late '40s on. I talked him into leaving a clothing store position, where he was working to support a large family, and joining the Buddy Rich Band as tenor player and orchestrator... creating a new sound for Buddy...and late nights after the gig to complete writing the book. Soon after we reached New York, he wrote "Four Brothers" for Woody Herman's band and the rest is history. He wrote some wonderful, innovative material for my RCA The Jazz Workshop recording and also I remember some things he wrote for the Lee Konitz sax section album. He had a unique approach and will always be remembered for his dedication and endless energy to find new ways to express himself.

—HAL MCKUSICK, Saxophonist

Jimmy Giuffre had a connection with music that bespoke great spiritual understanding. Pure, 'vibrational,' soothing, and intriguing, Jimmy made a music that defied categorization and generic branding. Was it jazz? Sort of. Was it chamber music? Kind of. I will leave it to academics and jazz scholars to surmise what exactly was happening on a technical level; I am happy with the smiles and the tears it continues to draw from me. Never one to deny the artistic impulse, Jimmy helped charter a creative path that many of us, myself included, still follow. We all have self-doubt about our choice to pursue a life of music, but all I have to do is listen to a few measures of Jimmy playing "Jesus Maria" and the feeling of my heart swelling as if it's about to break reminds me of the virtue of the struggle. Thank you Jimmy.


The main thing I got from Jimmy was a sense of purity and truth. We were beginning a rehearsal and I was tuning my bass. This was at the very beginning for me (1980-ish) since it was my upright bass, which I only played with him a year or so at the beginning and then again some at the end. Jimmy says to me, "What are you doing?" I said "I'm tuning up." Then Jimmy said, "Well it doesn't sound like music. Don't ever touch your instrument unless you intend to make music." I got his point, and I agree with him, that it is too easy to get in the habit of taking the easy way with music and just fooling around. Don't ever take music for granted. He didn't want anything to be habitual, not vibrato, not anything.

—BOB NIESKE, Bassist

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