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. "
The trio recorded two albums for Verve before signing with Columbia, Fusion, and Thesis. These have been reissued by ECM under the title 1961. Neither provoked the reaction that Freefall did. Perhaps tinged with the mysticism of La Violette, Giuffre’s poetic notes frame free improvisation as a spiritual quest, an idea that would a few years later be shared by many musicians. Little surprise that the Giuffres would count Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Campbell as friends. The album opens with the first of five unaccompanied clarinet improvisations, and Giuffre terminates the perception of the clarinet as an anachronism. The aptly titled “Propulsion” cries to freedom and flies out of the cage on a mad tear across the range of the clarinet. There’s no telling where Giuffre's going, but it’s a wild ride with that beautiful tone, that becomes a braying mule, moves into classical counterpoint, then takes back off into the stratosphere.
“Threewe” introduces the first group improvisation, and after months of playing together they perform like they’ve tapped into one mind. Bley’s light touch gives him a playful roll of the hand, and at times he reaches into the piano and plays the strings manually. At different points Giuffre’s phrasing creates implied rhythm. They use silence, Swallow scrapes his strings, Giuffre uses multiple voicings to suggest chords. On "Ornothoids,” Giuffre uses a loose embouchure that gets minimal intonation, and tightens up for some very high notes. On “Dichotomy,” he seems to use circular breathing for long tones held in duet with Swallow. As critics at the time called Giuffre’s music “arid” and “austere,” how could they have been immune to the rich emotional information packed into the 2:18 of “Man Alone,” or the humor in the trio’s “Spasmodic?” This is the same guy who recorded “Martians Go Home” with Shorty Rogers, after all.
The title track features Jimmy blowing solo through scales before using a sharp intonation followed by his breathy tones. “The Five Ways” ended the original album with a ten minute suite using five themes, each played once to launch the free improvisations. Ornette Coleman released his first record in 1959. Albert Ayler’s first album was still a year away. With the majority of the country watching “Ozzie and Harriett” and listening to Bobby Rydell, you know Jimmy faced a struggle.
“A lot of people hated it,” Mrs. Giuffre explains. “As a matter of fact when we got to Europe some of the more traditional audiences were quite unhappy with some of the newer music, specifically France. If you were going to get an audience it would have been in Europe. Eventually, people in Europe really cared for what he was doing much more, and still write him and keep in touch. So, he got a lot of tours out of Europe with the avant-garde thing. They were much more receptive, but every now and then you’d run into an audience who expected to hear “Train and a River,” or “Four Brothers,” and the people who came to hear that part of his life, or that part of his music, would be very disappointed. But Europe was far more accepting than this country. As a matter of fact some jazz musician... I was listening to the radio station one night. Jimmy had just put out Free Fall right about that time, and he called it ‘non-music.’ I was rather surprised they were actually putting it down in very definite ways. Jimmy was a visionary.
“ Free Fall was something that turned heads, some good, some bad. It put him in a different place than he expected, so he kind of cooled out for awhile.” Giuffre began a long career teaching at such institutions as Rutgers New York University and finally settled in for a long tenure at the New England Conservatory. “He taught,” said Mrs. Giuffre, “as all musicians who can or who have that temperament during dry spells and of course, there are always dry spells in jazz.”
I ask her if he enjoyed teaching. “When he had good students, yes. It’s a funny thing: if you get receptive students, it’s wonderful. But when you get students who not only have an attitude, but aren’t talented it’s a bit of a struggle. Frustrating, because you don’t know why they’re there. But, he had some very good students. Some of them still keep in touch with him.”
From 1964-65, he played his “three sided music” with Don Friedman and Barre Phillips. As far as is known, no recordings exist of the trio. Later, Jimmy hired percussionist Randy Kaye for a new trio that would include bassist Kiyoshi Tokunaga. It was Giuffre’s first group with a drummer in years. In reference to his preference for drummer-less groups Mrs. Giuffre says, “My feeling was at that time some drummers were so unrelenting and they weren’t all that creative in terms of what he wanted to do. He went through that little period where he felt they were intrusive. However, the things with Shelley Manne were quite good. He always managed some very tasty things.
“There was a guy named Gerry McDonald who had his own record company, and he’d also done a lot of engineering where he had built certain tape recorders and what not. His wife writes for High Fidelity or one of those magazines. He formed this company called Choice, and he recorded Jimmy’s trio work with Randy and Kiyoshi.”
Their second album for Choice, The Train and the River, looks like Giuffre might be trying to woo back some of the audience he lost with his change of direction. Instead, Jimmy uses one of his most popular compositions to reinforce his commitment to that change. The track opens with the familiar frisky theme on clarinet, Tokunaga’s limber bass and Kaye’s light brushwork on snare. But Giuffre drops the clarinet, takes up a free flowing tenor saxophone, and plays with a dark bluesy swagger unheard on any previous version of the tune. They invoke a similar tone on “Elephant.” The rhythm section may anchor the tune, but Jimmy flies free. The exquisite “Tibetan Sun” has Guiffre mellow toned on bass flute. Kaye improvises bells and cymbals, and Tokunaga drops one tone or less per measure.
“The Listening” features Giuffre on C-flute, with Tokunaga insistent on bass. “River Chant” has Randy Kaye on drums and marimba, a great sound with Jimmy’s clarinet. Jimmy gets mournful on tenor on “The Tide is In,” with sparse evocative backing from Tokunaga and Kaye. “Tree People” opens with a finger-tangling bass riff, and Giuffre dances on flute. Back on bass flute Giuffre reverently plays and chants, “Om.” Kaye’s wind chimes fit the mood. The enthusiastic “Celebration” ends the album, and although he recorded for Improvising Artists as a band member, he wouldn’t record again as a leader until 1983’s Dragonfly on Soul Note.
During that time, Giuffre worked in different media to augment his teacher’s salary. As early as 1970, choreographer Jean Erdman approached Jimmy about a collaboration that resulted in The Castle. Giuffre earned a co-choreographer credit, and created the music on clarinet. “She loved Jimmy’s music,” says Mrs. Giuffre, “and so she commissioned him to write some things for dance and he was actually on stage with her, playing. Just playing. It was all part of the set, a very simple elegant set with falling curtains and what not. They worked together for a few concerts, and her husband (Joseph Campbell) and I sat through a number of these concerts. The two of them had a nice relationship, Jimmy and Jean.”
Other offers presented themselves: “He was contacted by someone who wanted to write a number of commercials for Mobil Oil, and it was just at the time that we were having trouble in the Middle East. What happened was, they used his commercials, he was going to do, oh, I forget how many. We were going to make a couple of series of commercials and then there were going to be five or six in this first period of time. He had gotten through five when this political issue came up, and the political debate about how Mobil was the enemy in this thing, and poor thing, they used one Jimmy’s commercials to prove their point. It had nothing to do with Jimmy. So, that little contract went down the drain. They paid us for the first series anyway, and that was that.”
In addition to theater and commercials, Giuffre also scored films. “There was a movie called Sighet, Sighet that Jimmy did for [Nobel Prize winner] Elie Wiesel, and he did just the music itself. He just played the clarinet straight through the whole thing and it was really done with very beautifully. He [Wiesel] was very pleased with the music, because you know, Jimmy can be very mournful and it depicted some things that happened in Sighet. I think it was his birthplace, and it dealt with anti-semitism and the horrors that went on.
"There was also a little movie called Smiles. I don’t know if you know the name John Avildsen. He directed Rocky. Now, John Avildsen was in New York and knew of Jimmy’s music before he ever got started big time. He borrowed money from his folks and anybody he could get money from and paid Jimmy a small amount once again to play the clarinet. The picture Smiles just showed how a friendly smiling person can be infectious and can go from one person to another. Jimmy played clarinet throughout the whole thing and it was done once again very beautifully, very sparsely. Jimmy always believed you should not have to be aware of the music, that it just should draw you into whatever the movie’s about. So, when he [Avildsen] went out west and made it big, we never heard from him again. That was the end of our fling with John Avildsen.”
In addition to composing music for commercials, Jimmy appeared in some as well. “Jimmy did some commercials with his hands. His hands were so beautiful that Tony Schwartz had him do some things with just his hands. One was for a pen and it showed him writing with the pen. Nobody bragged about the commercials. Then, they took advantage. They knew he wasn’t from the commercial world therefore he didn’t know how to charge.”
In the ‘80s Giuffre formed the Jimmy Giuffre 4, keeping Randy Kaye, adding Phil Levin on electronics, and Bob Nieske, electric bass. They recorded three albums for Soul Note, now all very hard to find. Happily, Hat Hut has released a live improvised duet album Giuffre performed with Andre Jaume in 1988, called Momentum. Jaume wrote to Giuffre requesting lessons, and when he returned to France and started touring, he invited Jimmy along.
The album of wind duets features Giuffre on the upper registered clarinet and soprano sax and Jaume on bass clarinet and tenor sax. Their intimate association as teacher and student yields the kind of telepathic musical communication Giuffre thrived on. The entwining ideas, counterpoint, and free flights show him on top of his game. The title track features him solo on soprano, his tone sonorous, his ideas luminous. If music could be compared to poetry, many musicians can be seen as similar to Whitman and Ginsberg with their endless, sometimes excessive lines and variations. Giuffre would be Basho or Li Po, distilling a few focused elegant lines into a potent statement of concentrated brevity. That windy loudmouth Charlie Parker reputedly said, “If you can’t say it in few measures, you can’t say it.” Giuffre can take two minutes of your time and give you something to think about and feel all day.
By the early ‘90s, a growing recognition and appreciation of the music created by the Giuffre/Bley/Swallow trio yielded a recording contract and tour of Europe. They originally disbanded after only 18 months when following a performance in a coffee house in New York, they passed the hat and made only thirty five cents each. Now, it seemed the world was finally catching up to these aging mavericks, thirty years after the fact. Unfortunately, Parkinsons Disease was catching up to Jimmy Giuffre.
The resulting album, Conversations with a Goose, consisted mainly of group compositions. The title track finds Jimmy in fine form, playing sweeping lines over the loping rhythm section. Swallow’s flawless articulation in the higher registers of the electric bass is present, as well as Bley’s easy facility between times and styles. Two back to back tracks, “Echo Through the Canyon” and “Three Ducks,” add up to 1:52 and give Jimmy enough solo space to create to different and memorable solo outings on clarinet.
Mrs. Giuffre remembers the tour: “It was amazing. The last tour we took in Europe, I guess it was ’95 or ’96. I had plenty of chance to just listen, either backstage or in the audience. He was suffering from Parkinsons at the time, which I thought was pretty good for him to do what he did. Really miraculous to me, because I went to make sure he was okay, and I ran interference for him, making sure everything was as easy for him as possible. The way Paul would go to him when Jimmy would kind of slump a little bit, he picked him right up and Jimmy would just get right back on there. Paul did a beautiful job, as did Steve.”
After the tour, Jimmy Giuffre quit his long tenure at the New England Conservatory and retired to the old mill with the stream for a backyard, battling Parkinsons and listening. “That’s the one thing he responds to, definitely responds to. It’s very hard with his speech because whatever brain damage Parkinsons does, which is pretty ugly, it sometimes affects your speech. And, the medication itself causes confusion and hallucinations. He’s weathered through nicely, actually. He’s not terribly depressed. I keep him going, friends keep him going, he keeps himself going. It’s harder on me than it is on him, I think, at this point. He doesn’t have the full understanding of what’s happening, which is hard to watch. To silence a voice so talented is kinda rough.
“We still get some royalties. That dwindles after a person is no longer active. You get some, but it’s definitely not peak. This guy who turned down a lot of jazz musicians but evidently like Jimmy enough and knew of his problem said we’ll collect as much as we can and try to protect whatever we can of his interests. We have some friends in the business. It’s not too often people can say that,” she laughs.
While Jimmy Giuffre did not create free improvisation, he was certainly part of the birthing team. His subtlety and understatement, evident goodwill and spirituality, good humor and lofty technique, soulful blues and classical influence combine to make his body of work unique. His unrelenting courage in his convictions should inspire every artist in any discipline inflamed to traverse the unknown. Although too much of his recorded work sleeps in record company vaults, what’s available points unequivocally to one of the most valuable recorded voices of human expression. Happy Birthday, Jimmy.