Jack Nimitz: Baritone-in-Chief
Baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz died June 10, 2009 at his home in Studio City, California. He was 79 years old. That's hardly headline news except to a relative handful of jazz enthusiasts who were privileged to hear and appreciate his consummate artistry over the span of more than half a century when Nimitz was at the top of his game.
He was, in fact, playing remarkably well almost to his last labored breath (Nimitz had suffered from emphysema for several years), appearing with his quintet in early May and withdrawing from a performance with Med Flory's Jazz Wave Big Band later in the month only because of a brief stay in a local hospital. Nimitz was sent home early in June and died a week later, ending a singularly impressive career in which he was the baritone of choice in Hollywood studios and in a number of big bands from Woody Herman and Stan Kenton to Gerald Wilson, Terry Gibbs, Oliver Nelson, Frank Capp, Bill Perkins and many others, as well as a charter member with longtime friend Flory in Super Sax, the primarily woodwind / rhythm group that specialized in playing Charlie Parker's orchestrated solos.
Jack Nimitz and I grew up in Washington, DC, he as a rising star on baritone sax, me as a rudderless craft heading nowhere in particular. As he was five years older (and a musician), our personal contact was nil; I had to admire his artistry from afar, which was the case for many years. The first time I heard him was on a Brunswick LP (circa 1953) by THE Orchestra, an outstanding ensemble led by drummer Joe Timer and fronted by disc jockey Willis Conover who would later earn fame as host of an enormously popular nightly jazz radio program heard around the world via shortwave on the Voice of America. Nimitz' solos on the Bill Potts compositions "Pill Box" and "Willis" were textbook lessons in how to get it right, and I knew immediately that this was one local musician who'd soon be going places.
Of course I had no idea of where those places might be, and perhaps Nimitz didn't either. But after brief stints with bands led by Bob Astor, Johnny Bothwell and Daryl Harpa, he was recruited by Herman to anchor a reed section whose members included Perkins and Dick Hafer, and produced more memorable solos on the album Road Band! After a second go-round with the Kenton orchestra (1958-59), Nimitz moved to California and quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's most versatile and dependable studio musicians, meanwhile lending his impressive voice to a number of big bands and smaller groups in his "spare time."
In spite of his conspicuous talents, Nimitz was a self-effacing man, so much so that he recorded his first album as leader, Confirmation, in 1995, the same year he qualified to earn Social Security benefits. While that quartet session is splendid, a second album, Yesterday and Today, released in 2007, is even better. It consists of two studio dates recorded fifty years apart (1957, 2007), the earlier with famed trombonist Bill Harris, assorted rhythm sections and strings, the later a two-baritone collaboration between Nimitz and young Adam Schroeder backed by a solid gold rhythm section (pianist John Cambell, bassist Dave Carpenter, drummer Joe La Barbera). What is most remarkable is Nimitz' consistency, his luminous improvisational skills undimmed by the passage of time, as unfaltering in 2007 as they were in 1957.
Nimitz kept his proficiency unimpaired by playing whenever, wherever and as often as he could. So imposing was his presence that he was nicknamed "the Admiral" after the celebrated World War II Naval commander Chester A. Nimitz. He started playing clarinet at age ten, alto sax four years later, but it was the baritone that captured his heart. "It sounded so warm and nice and dark and rich," he recalled in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. "The bottom notes are the best notes in the whole orchestra because if you don't have a good bottom, nothing really works." As many a bandleader learned, when Nimitz was playing baritone everything worked, whether in a big band or in smaller groups such as Super Sax, the Lighthouse All-Stars or pianist Frank Strazzeri's Woodwinds West.