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Jack Nimitz: Baritone-in-Chief

Jack Bowers By

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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 Steve Strazzeri's Woodwinds West.

As Nimitz was firmly settled on the West Coast from the early 1960s and I was in the East or Midwest (Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Illinois), our paths seldom crossed, and I said not much more than "hello" to him whenever they did. That is until 2007, when Nimitz was alone in the lobby of the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel during a four-day Ken Poston event and I approached him again, introducing myself as always as a fellow Washingtonian. This time he wanted to talk, and we chatted amiably for more than half an hour. I can't recall what was said, but toward the end of our conversation I mentioned how much I'd admired his playing since I first heard him on THE Orchestra in DC, and how I'd worn the grooves of that LP to mush and had to replace it with a CD, courtesy of a friend in California. To my surprise, Nimitz said, "I don't have a copy of that album." Not to worry, I said. I asked for his address, and on returning home to Albuquerque, burned a copy and mailed it to him. He thanked me, and I thought that would be the end of it. And it probably would have been were it not for Nimitz's uncommon thoughtfulness.

In autumn 2008, while I was slowly recovering from an adverse reaction to some sedatives that had left me weakened and basically housebound (I'd lost about forty pounds and was dizzy much of the time), the phone rang, and when I answered, the voice at the other end said, "Hi. This is Jack Nimitz. I heard you hadn't been feeling well and wanted to see how you're doing." To say you could have floored me with a feather would be an enormous understatement. As we talked I kept thinking, "What a nice thing to do for someone you hardly know." In May, when Betty and I returned to LA for another Poston event, I looked forward to seeing Nimitz again with Med Flory's band, only to learn that he'd been hospitalized with, we were told, pneumonia. I called information, got the hospital's number and started phoning. No luck. The call couldn't be completed as dialed. Next day I called again, got a second number, and this time it worked. I believe Nimitz was surprised but happy that I was able to reach him, and we chatted for a while until I sensed he was too tired to continue. I had brought another CD for him but gave it to one of Flory's sidemen to deliver on my behalf, as I hadn't enough time to get to the hospital. I don't know if he ever received it. I hope so.

Rest in peace, Jack. You were a giant on your horn, a generous and caring man, and I wish I'd known you better.

Postscript

Jack Nimitz' funeral service was held June 20 at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood. My thanks to Steven Harris, who was there, for sending a report. About 150 people attended including Med Flory and Super Sax who played two songs, "Just Friends" and "Scrapple from the Apple," with Schroeder sitting in for Nimitz on baritone. Others in the group were alto Lanny Morgan, tenors Don Menza and Danny House, with Frank Capp on drums, Chuck Berghofer on bass, and Tom Ranier and Matt Harris alternating on piano. Selections were also played from Nimitz' last album, Yesterday and Today.

Others attending the service included Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman, Howard Rumsey, Jack Redmond, Jeff Clayton, Gary Foster, Terry Gibbs, Kenny Shroyer, Mike Barone, Polly Podewell and Marilyn King. Menza was one of the speakers, as were Bob Snyder, Robin Lindquist (from United Methodist Church in Sherman Oaks), musicians James Newton, Charles Owens and Louis Van Taylor, and Nimitz's son, Mark, who said, "Music was my father's life...It was his love of it that kept him alive. His doctor said it was amazing how Jack [in spite of his emphysema] could even play [the saxophone] at all. I too was amazed, since Jack lived a good five-seven years beyond what I expected." When I saw Nimitz about a year ago I said the same thing: "Jack, I don't know how you do it." He smiled, lifted his portable oxygen tank, and said, "Neither does my doctor."

NEA Jazz Masters

Composer / arranger / bandleader Bill Holman is one of seven recipients of the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters Award presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. The awards will be presented next January to Holman, pianist / composer / educators Muhal Richard Abrams and Kenny Barron, vibraphonist / composer Bobby Hutcherson, multi-instrumentalist / educator Yusef Lateef, vocalist Annie Ross and pianist / composer Cedar Walton. Jazz producer / manager / critic / educator George Avakian is to receive the 2010 A.B. Spellman NEA Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

Out and About

On May 30, Betty and I were at the Albuquerque Museum for an outdoor performance of the music of Dizzy Gillespie by the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra under music director Bobby Shew. The AJO was primed for the occasion, cruising steadily through two sets of Gillespie favorites from "Manteca" (two versions) and "Salt Peanuts" to "Groovin' High" and "A Night in Tunisia." Benny Golson contributed "Whisper Not" and "Stablemates," Thelonious Monk "'Round Midnight," Tadd Dameron "Good Bait," while Gillespie was represented as well with "Cubano Chant," "Cool Breeze," "Emanon," "Things to Come," "Tanga" and "Tin Tin Deo." There were a number of engaging solos, mainly by Shew, trumpeters Brad Dubbs and Bruce Dalby, alto saxophonist Glenn Kostur, tenor Lee Taylor, baritone Paul Blakey, trombonist John Sanks and pianist Stu McAskie, a last-minute replacement for Chris Ishee who suffered a heart attack the day before the concert. (Ishee had surgery, came through it well, and is recovering at home.)

On June 18, while Betty was packing her suitcase for a family reunion (her family) in Roswell, NM, I was at The Outpost Performing Space to see and hear 17 year old alto saxophone prodigy Grace Kelly and her quartet (Brian Bennett, piano; Michael Olivola, bass; John Trentacosta, drums). My over-all impression was that she's a splendid player for her age but has a way to go to establish a personal identity on the horn. That should come in time, which Kelly has plenty of. I could have done with a tad less singing (two vocals before I bailed out at 9:30, and, I'm told, two more afterward). On the other hand, she's quite personable, and the sell-out audience seemed pleased with her performance.

Betty's sister June and brother-in-law Clarke Schiller were visiting the following week, and we went to Santa Fe (Betty and June on the Rail Runner train, Clarke and I in my car) for lunch, dinner and an outdoor concert at St. Johns College by multi-reedman Arlen Asher who was celebrating his eightieth birthday. During his two sets Asher played soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet and flute, and played each one about as well as one could wish. He's been one of Santa Fe's musical treasures for more than half a century, and shows no sign of losing any ground to Father Time.

The following evening, sans Betty, I returned to The Outpost for a concert by Los Angeles-based pianist / singer John Proulx's quartet with special guest Bobby Shew. The opening act, drummer Cal Haines' trio, doubled as Proulx's rhythm section. Proulx is a fine pianist who is known as well for his Chet Baker-style vocals, which he employed on five of the group's seven selections. Yes, he sang "My Funny Valentine," "Let's Get Lost" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" among other songs associated with Baker. Proulx's voice and range are definitely Baker-like, and while he may not be the reincarnation of Chet he comes extremely close. Whether one wants to hear new renditions of Baker's vocals is another matter entirely. In any case, the concert was worth one's time if only to savor Shew's tasteful solos on trumpet and flugelhorn.

On the Horizon

August 28-30 are the dates for the ninth annual Prescott (AZ) Jazz Summit, about two hours (or less) northwest of Phoenix. On the menu are concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon, Saturday afternoon workshops / clinics for students, a Friday evening "Meet the Musicians" dinner, and two Sunday morning Jazz brunches. The 2009 Summit opens, as usual, with a free noontime concert at the Prescott Courthouse Square. Those scheduled to perform include trumpeters Mike Vax, Carl Saunders and Steve Annibale, trombonist / vocalist Scott Whitfield, tenor saxophonist Tony Vacca, guitarist Jack Petersen, pianist Reggie Thomas, drummer Gary Hobbs and vocalists Toni Tennille, Ginger Berglund and Blaise Lantana (who doubles as emcee with Sandy Moss). For more information phone 928-771-1268 or 925-872-1942.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin...'!


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