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Herb Geller: A Musician's Musician

Joan Gannij By

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That was the beginning of an inspiring collaboration and friendship. We appeared on radio programs and a few years later did a Gigi Gryce project which resulted in a CD. It turned out quite well, he recalls. "Herb listened to the old records and wrote all the parts down. After that, we did a CD with just piano and alto, first takes only. It was in a studio setting that couldn't afford a quintet, so we thought why not just the two of us?" There were a lot of other gigs over the next years. One that stood out for de Graaff featured three generations of alto players. "One musician was 21, the other 42, and Herb, who had just turned 80, and that worked out great. Herb had an enormous database with the notes and lyrics of standards and ballads, 1000s of them. If I asked him about a certain song, he would look it up and send it to me. Sometimes when he was here on a visit, I would let him listen to something that he had never heard, like some obscure tune from the Four Freshmen. I'd tape it on a cassette and send it to him. He was inspired, totally into the music. He was always thinking about it, talking about it. He became the music."

Charles McPherson, veteran sax shaman, reputed for his years in the Charles Mingus band, offered this brief reflection. "Sorry to say, I never got a chance to meet Herb , but I was always an admirer. When I was a kid and just discovering Bird, Herb was one of the few alto players I liked. Although influenced by Charlie Parker like the rest of us, he had his own way and style. I wish I could have met him."

Ferdinand Povel, a Dutch saxophonist who also teaches at Amsterdam's Music Conservatory recalls meeting Herb for the first time in Vienna in 1966. In 1970-71 we worked with different orchestras in Hamburg and played for Ella Fitzgerald in Cologne. The Peter Herbolzheimer's Rhythm Combination and Brass orchestra in Hamburg had only one saxophonist so I would take Herb's place when he got too busy. When they celebrated his 65th birthday he invited me to be a soloist. He helped me tremendously with all sorts of things. When I needed a soprano sax to play in the orchestra, I bought one from him. In the mid 70s we did a concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall. While walking the streets of the city he bought me an exercise book for the flute, which I really had to work my way through. I took it quite seriously since it was a gift from him. He was a real gentleman, a great jazz improviser, and also an all-around musician, who played all the instruments—alto and tenor sax, clarinet, flute, oboe—at symphony level. For a studio recording he might have to do a few takes, and it was an endless flow of ideas and different each time. For another concert, I remember that his flight was late. He got to the gig, unpacked his horn, went on stage and just played as if it were nothing. Everything he did was with great skill and taste. He was a full professional, one of the top guys."

After his wife, the pianist Lorraine Walsh died in 1958, Herb played with Benny Goodman, Louie Bellson and Shelly Manne. In 1962 on a tour in Brazil with Goodman, Geller decided to take Stan Getz's advice and come to Paris to check out the scene. He boarded a ship bound for Europe and wound up in France where he soon got a job at the radio orchestra in Paris. He then moved on to West Berlin which was "the happening place where you could eat, drink and hear music 24 hours a day," according to his old friend Ack van Rooyen, a respected Dutch trumpet player. Herb joined the SFB as new lead alto saxophonist and the two became good friends. It was van Rooyen who introduced Herb to Christine, the woman who would become his second wife, and who was Best Man at their wedding. The two musicians also set up the Blue Note Club and Jazz Gallery where Herb invited cats passing through town to come and play: Tubby Hayes, Art Farmer, and Donald Byrd. In 1965, Herb moved to Hamburg where he joined the NDR orchestra, one of Europe's leading orchestras. In addition to composing for the orchestra, he composed for TV and film. One of his favorite projects was a recording that saluted Hollywood's Leading Ladies of the 1950s. He also recorded in smaller groups with visiting Americans that included Bill Evans and Joe Pass.


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