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Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life Mark Miller Soft cover; 224 pages ISBN: 978-1-55128-146-0 The Mercury Press 2009
Although he is considerably better known and respected today than he was in his lifetime, pianist Herbie Nichols and his spectacularly original music remains relatively obscure. This is one of the conundrums of our time, for his music is infinitely more accessible than, say, the music of pianist Cecil Taylor. Therefore an event such as Mark Miller's book, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life, is more than celebratory, it is downright courageous. After all, it is a book about one of music's most self-effacing and tragic figures. Nichols' life is perhaps even more tragic than saxophonist Charlie Parker's or trumpeter Clifford Brown's. Both died young, but not only did Nichols die young, his unappreciated career spanned just 12 years between 1946 and 1958, leading just four recording datesthree for Blue Note and one for Bethlehem.
Many musicians and writers have tried to give Nichols his duefrom critics such as Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff, and more importantly musicians such as trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and pianist Misha Mengelberg. The latter four went to considerable effort to keep his unique musical legacy alive and they were perhaps only marginally more successful than Nichols himself. Mark Miller's book will certainly go a long way in righting the wrongs that have stacked up against Nichols and it succeeds in doing so on several levels.
For starters, Miller has gone to great lengths to research his subject thoroughly. Nichols is not an easy subject to research, despite the fact that he was an articulate writer who contributed a regular column in The Music Dial, Rhythm and occasionally in other publications, among them Amsterdam News. He even wrote liner notes to his first record as leader, Herbie Nichols Trio (Blue Note, 1956). There are also some liner notes and sparsely published articles about the pianist in magazines such as Metronome, Coda, Cadence and Down Beat. Miller uses these sources not only to provide a chronology of Nichols' life, but also to make sense of the apathy in musical circles towards him. The fact that Nichols was no showman and cared little for publicity emerges strongly from Miller's analysis.
In addition to its biographical content, Miller's work goes a long way in distancing Nichols from pianist Thelonious Monk musically. The men were contemporaries, and just as some have attempted to draw a straight line between Cecil Taylor and, say, Don Pullen many critics have obscured facts and called Nichols a disciple of Monk. Miller clearly establishes that Nichols emerged from a much wider pool that included African-American sources and modern European music as well. Monk's remained the tradition that swirled with the stride pianists and Duke Ellington and then shot off on a tangent all his own. Nichols' music is also a rich source of melodic and harmonic invention. And Nichols also wrote music with the most melodic and detailed bass lines. And here he was a singular musician, even compared to Monk. Miller's work recognizes all this.
Finally, there is the presentation of the music itself. Miller is an astute listener. In the second half of the book, he develops his theory and analysis of Nichols' music. The pianist apparently gave notice of his uniqueness with a re-interpretation of George Gershwin's "'S Wonderful" and from then on he was unstoppable. Miller spends considerable time examining Nichols' approach to melody and his unparalleled harmonic inventions as well. It appears that not only was Nichols well read, but he was one of those rare musicians who were open to much more than the sound of his 'hood. Miller finds that he was agape at the immensity of what could be "done with the sounds of the multiple counterpoint of Hindemith, the neo-classic polytonality of Shostakovich and Piston and the melting of the vast musical devices which Bartok loved to use at random and which makes his kaleidoscopic style come closest to jazz."