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Herb Geller: A Musician's Musician

Joan Gannij By

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I first met Herb Geller in 2002 at a concert in Amsterdam at the original Bimhuis jazz club. The band was gathering their equipment from the stage and we started chatting about being raised in Los Angeles. When I was a teenager, the tall and lanky genial gent was playing at the local clubs that my mother used to sneak me into. At 14, I was a much too young but sophisticated lady in my eye makeup and high heels, doing my best to look over 21.

The only club I got turned away from was The Pink Pussycat, a popular strip club on Santa Monica Boulevard where top jazz players earned a bit more than union scale and Geller was one of the regulars in the house band. The sharp-tongued political comedian Lenny Bruce was on the bill that week and when we got to the entrance, they just wouldn't take my mother's word without needing an official ID. Bruce got busted the same night for obscenity charges, so I guess I lucked out. Or else I could have witnessed an interesting piece of history.

Herb remembered that night as if it were yesterday and chuckled when he recalled the guys making bets over how long it would take police to pull the comedian offstage. I confided to Geller that I had always wanted to be a jazz singer, but had to concede I was more effective doing a spoken word performance with a bassist at my side, than emulating my musical heroines June Christy and Abbey Lincoln. When I told him that I wrote lyrics for jazz songs and that I was an old movie fanatic, his ears perked up. He said that he'd done a recording that paid tribute to Hollywood Leading Ladies and he wanted to put some lyrics to the tunes. We agreed to meet up the next day and discuss it further.

Over the next months we corresponded and I wrote some texts; then he composed music for some of my lyrics. But other projects intervened as they do and the timing was off. In the summer of 2003, I went to Oslo to research a travel book and looked up jazz pianist Per Husby who was performing at the Jazz Festival that week. Herb was also on the bill and he and his wife Christine joined Per and I for dinner at an unpretentious Chinese restaurant around the corner from the venue. Herb was playing like a man half his age that evening, and after the gig during an impromptu jam session, he held his own among the younger cats, that included Joe Lovano, who passed out props to him after the show.

We stayed in touch during the next decade, by phone, email and when he was in Amsterdam for a gig at the new Bimhuis along the waterfront. I was in Los Angeles when he died on December 19, 2013. I didn't hear the news until I was back in Amsterdam and got a call from a jazz musician friend in Finland. It's been a few weeks and I still can't believe it. I'm hoping that the Bimhuis or perhaps the Amsterdam Music Conservatory will host a tribute concert for him. Whether or not that happens, it felt important to create a farewell tribute to him by other musicians who have been inspired by him over the years. Jazz is about passing along tradition. It's also about honoring those who made a generous contribution to the tradition. Some people may have had the mistaken notion that Herb was an unsung jazzman, but his legacy will live on. And here are some testimonies to confirm that.

Rein De Graaff is a Dutch pianist and an active mover and shaker in the Netherlands jazz scene. "Herb was always kind of a legend for me," he said when I reached him by phone from Amsterdam. When I was 15 years old I had all his records on the EMARCY label. I first met him in the late 1990s ('97 I think) at a Jubilee Concert in Groningen, to celebrate my Stoom Cursus Bebop, a series of concerts and lectures. I invited Herb, Ronnie Cuber, Dave Pike, Benny Bailey, and Ferdinand Povel, who joined me and my trio for concerts and a jam session.


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