It’s Jimmy Giuffre’s birthday. An unseasonable snow covers the ground around the converted old New England stone polishing mill that he and his wife Juanita have called home for 26 years. The 82 year old multi reed player and iconoclast listens to piano works by Villa Lobos and Ravel, birthday presents from friends. A restless explorer and truly fearless improviser most of his life, Giuffre’s accomplishments and achievements have gone largely unnoticed especially since he confounded critics and fans with his 1962 release Free Fall
Suddenly his “blues-based folk jazz” played in unusual trio formats gave way to a deeper vision where the lines between composition and performance evaporated. Such a radical artistic statement in the button-down context of the Jackie Kennedy obsessed early ‘60s dropped Giuffre from major label artist to indie obscurity. As a jazz artist driven to always reach beyond, perhaps only Coltrane’s evolution from bop to free jazz compares. But while Coltrane also kicked up a firestorm of controversy, a community of fans supported him and embraced his sounds. No such luck for Giuffre.
On this early spring day in April, artist Juanita Giuffre, the artist's wife of 42 years, graciously agreed to take time out from her role as caregiver to the ailing innovator, and chat with me about her husband’s many milestones. Parkinson’s disease has silenced and stilled the once boundless creativity and expression. Music remains his great pleasure, if only as a listener.
Born in Dallas, Texas in 1921, he began playing the clarinet at age 9. At 13, he played unaccompanied clarinet solos for night YMCA campfire meetings. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from North Texas State University and played with local bands. During his service time, he played in the official Army band. After his discharge, he played tenor and worked as an arranger for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich. With Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd in 1947, he arranged and wrote the hit “Four Brothers,” which boasted a new saxophone sound, and in 1984 he found induction into the NARAS Hall of Fame.
In the early fifties he moved to LA and added clarinet and baritone sax to his resume. He played with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Allstars,and Shorty Rogers’ Giants. During this period he studied with poet/composer Dr. Wesley La Violette. La Violette knew Arnold Schoenberg while he taught at USC and was a sought after teacher by West Coast musicians. He wrote books with titles like The Creative Light, The Song of Angels, The Bhagavad Gita, an Immortal Song, and Wings Unfolding: Thoughts of Evolution of Universal Energy As It Condenses Into Matter, Then Expands Into the Mind of Man. Mrs. Giuffre remembers it this way:
“He was out on the West Coast. He’d been out of the Army, he’d done a little UCLA studying and decided it wasn’t for him, and ended up hearing from one of the musicians, it may have been Shorty, who was studying with him mentioned it to Jimmy. Jimmy thought that sounded like a good thing to go after. And he was very impressed with counterpoint, that was his first introduction to free counterpoint, classical counterpoint. It was a revelation to him, freeing him up from strict chord structure.
“And I met him [La Violette], and he was a bit of a mystic. He said if Jimmy and I were within 25 feet of each other, we’d always be safe. Really composer-like, if you want to take the stereotype: great big shock of gray hair, nice ruddy face, very tall, very nice very sweet.
“After Jimmy started stretching out, he was into more counterpoint, more linear, rather than chordal. Because of the linear approach it brought about more originality, rather than just being stuck with chord structures. It contributed greatly to his uniqueness in composition.”
From '54 to '58, Giuffre recorded for Capitol and Atlantic. His Atlantic sides include a version of the Broadway play, The Music Man , and his landmark album Clarinet from 1956. He began sticking with a drummer-less/piano-less trio format, using Jim Hall on guitar, and Ralph Pena on bass, as the Jimmy Giuffre 3. When Pena left and Giuffre couldn’t get the bass he wanted, he hired valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, creating an unusual lineup for its time. They went on to record Trav’lin’ Light and the interesting Western Suite.
Jimmy recorded “the Four Brothers Sound,” again writing for three tenors and baritone in close harmony, like the original. Except, always the innovator, Giuffre recorded all the sax parts himself, overdubbed. The Hall/Pena version of the JG3 participated in the now legendary KABC “Stars of Jazz” TV series. Besides inclusion with musicians such as Billie Holiday, Shelley Manne, Oscar Peterson, Red Norvo, and Bud Shank, his appearance on the show yielded an unexpected dividend: his first meeting with his future wife.
“He remembers it, I don’t,” she recalls. “We met at a television station with Gunther Schueller, and at the time they were doing Billie Holiday. We eventually got together and married in 1961. I never liked the clarinet as an instrument when I was younger, but when I heard him play it was a brand new thing to me, a brand new experience, because he had a richness. A clarinetist can be very brassy around the edges, and it can be harsh, depending on who’s playing, of course. But when I heard him it was so mellow and so beautiful. I heard his music long before I met him.”
His first appearance from January ’57 has the JG3 rocking on “Gotta Dance.” Jimmy plays soulful on baritone and Pena’s driving bass erases the need for a drummer to heat the beat. Even more up-tempo, the arrangement on “Four Brothers” has Jimmy and Hall playing the theme in unison, with Pena again driving the car. “Two Kinds of Blues” has Jimmy playing a sorrowful clarinet and Hall easily moving from chords to melody. Their appearance on the show from October ’58 has Brookmeyer replacing Pena joining in on “Pony Express,” from the Western Suite. Having a second horn jamming with Jimmy relegates Hall to more of a supportive role, although he enjoys a bluesy duet with Jimmy. Another slow blues featuring clarinet, “Down Home” gives Brookmeyer a chance to dust off the plunger mute.
In 1958, the JG3 were recorded for the Newport Jazz Festival documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. From that performance, “Lonely Time” is a more contemporary and pensive blues number, while “That’s the Way It Is” works a more rocking gospel riff. Brookmeyer lights up a call and response segment. Their version of “the Train and the River” featured in the film bubbles along with all three engaged in the swinging complex arrangement. Although from Texas, Giuffre’s work from this period carries a strong New Orleans flavor.
After Brookmeyer left, Jimmy tried another bassist, and ended up scrapping that lineup and hooking up with musicians more sympathetic to his restless creativity, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. Mrs. Giuffre remembers Bley this way:
“Paul Bley I can tell you was everywhere. No matter where you were, he was so involved with his listening to music we would bump into him over the years, and I think he was up at the School of Jazz.
“There’s a woman by the name of Stephanie Barber who still lives here. She’s 84 years old. She and her husband started with this concept of having jazz have a school. Instead of these retreats that you go for classical people, they would have a school of jazz up here. Her husband was in advertising so he had a lot of contacts with the corporations who subsidized the whole thing and it was really a memorable four or five years. She had a fairly sizeable estate and they invited all the masters. Now we call them masters, then they were just great musicians. Lee Konitz was there, Max Roach was there. Gerry Mulligan was there for awhile. Bobby Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Jimmy, a whole bunch of names. MJQ was there. He recorded some things with MJQ, that was done up here. A man from New York who’s a friend of Stephanie’s is about to start a documentary on it, because it was memorable time. It was quite an event and it was done so elegantly.
“They had a huge tent. They had all these various buildings where the musicians would stay. They would have concerts every night. The students would come in and then they’d have the students perform their things. It was really quite wonderful and I don’t think there’s been anything else on that level. They had a banquet chef, a wonderful place to eat, they had a bar. I mean it was top notch. Great period. Miles was there. Peewee Russell was up there. Peewee and Jimmy did a recording, Atlantic, Nesui Ertegun was there. Quite an affair. [The Lenox School of Jazz had Giuffre teach theory and composition along with William Russo, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller. MJQ’s John Lewis served as director and Dizzy Gillespie and Ornette Coleman taught there as well.]
“Paul was such an avid listener. You’d be at a nightclub, and he knew how to get into a club. Somehow he would get in without paying. Wonderful! He would just show up. He was such a talent and I think Jimmy, when he decided to do the trio had people in mind and he’d met Steve and Steve and Paul had begun a friendship, so that’s when it started.
“They all got together and toured Germany for about a month, then their recordings happened and that was the end of it. Columbia decided to shelve it after so many months. They really weren’t into it. There was one guy there who really did have a forward look. He was influential for a time and wanted Jimmy to record so it happened. But after awhile the big guys said, 'this isn’t showing enough action.' That’s when Freefall was recorded, and those people were scratching their heads and actually I had named the album Yggdrasil, the Nordic name for the Tree of the Universe. Of course, I did the cover for it, because I was painting then. They decided, the art director decided, this is way too difficult for anyone to understand, and they made the painting I did into a tiny little postage stamp and then they had Paul, Steve, and Jimmy floating through space and called it Free Fall. I think a book was out at that time called Free Fall. "