' story has been told again and again, but it never seems to stick. An idiosyncratic pianist and one of the handful of important jazz composers, he was born in 1919 and dead from leukemia by age forty-four. His best- known song"Lady Sings the Blues"is associated with Billie Holiday and I would wager many listeners assume Billie wrote it. He appears as one of the four musicians profiled in A. B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business
in the company of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Jackie McLean, all of whom are better known to the average jazz fan and far better documented.
During his short lifetime, he recorded as a leader on only three labels: a handful of unremarkable sides on Savoy, five sessions of prime material on Blue Note (some of which stayed in the vault for decades) and one album for Bethlehem. None of this material is currently in-print officially, but thanks to lapsed copyrights, all can be obtained on reissue labels or streamed.
During his lifetime (and after), Nichols suffered from constant comparisons to Thelonious Monk
- -another eccentric pianist composer with a very different career trajectory. Monk was also briefly championed by Blue Note and worked in relative obscurity for many years, but in contrast to Nichols, his innovations were gradually absorbed into the jazz mainstream and he was accepted as an important figure by the general public (see the 1964 TIME magazine cover). Nichols died in obscurity after ending his career gigging with Dixieland bands because he couldn't find work as a leader.
When asked about Nichols, fans often respond that "he's sort of like Monk"the familiar as a bridge to the unknown. But the comparison does Nichols no favors. If we approach Nichols' art as trying to approximate Monk's, it can only seem pallid and limited in comparison. We need to remember that Nichols was Monk's contemporary (they were born less than two years apart). His work took place in parallel with Monks, not in response to it.
All that said, Nichols' work is less accessible than Monk's for a couple of reasons. First, Nichols, even more so than Monk, is not a traditional "jazz" pianist in the post-Bud Powell mold. Monk emphasizes thematic improvisation but he does "blow" over the changes sometimes and, perhaps more importantly, he frequently records with horn players who do
improvise in a traditional manner over his themes. There is ample recorded evidence that Monk's compositions work as "jazz" songs that foster improvisation.
More so than Monk, Nichols paraphrases the melody rather than blowing over harmony. While he is a pleasant pianist with a sly sense of humor and a light touch (more Elmo Hope than Monk), no one is going to argue that he's a major player. Nichols never recorded with horns, so during his lifetime there were limited examples of how to improve over his tunes. Nichols never found a label to promote him as effectively as Riverside and, later, Columbia, promoted Monk. Blue Note was willing to take a chance on unusual composer/pianists (they championed Monk in the forties and Andrew Hill in the sixties) but were hardly geniuses as promoting and publicizing their artists. Also, Rudy Van Gelder's engineering does Nichols no favorssome of the reissued Blue Note sides sound as if the piano was wrapped in cotton wool. McKibbon and Kotick on bass and Roach and Blakey on drums are captured more vividlyBlue Note certainly gave Nichols blue chip rhythm sections.
Nichols didn't serve an apprenticeship as an accompanist or member of a combo, at least on record, and doesn't seem to have been part of the "network" of musicians finding each other gigs in the hotly competitive fifties. Perhaps there were too many superior pianistsin terms of improvisational chops and sheer techniqueto compete with. It is harder to understand why his compositionsmany of which are distinctive and charmingwere almost never covered by other musicians. Part of the problem was no doubt his very low commercial profile. You can't play what you've never heard.
Another factor may have been how challenging his compositions are to play. Many feature unusual bar counts and harmonies. Analysts argue, for instance, that Nichols incorporated so-called Coltrane changes into at least one of his compositions well before Coltrane used them. Nichols seems not to have written an accessible tune that caught on with the general run of jazz musicians (think "Blue Monk"and how much more often that gets covered than "Brilliant Corners" or "Jackie-ing").
While the Savoy sides are nothing special, the rest of Nichols' recordings are well-worth hearing. The Bethlehem session, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
, does not enjoy the same reputation as the Blue Note sides but is probably the best place to start. George Duvivier and Dannie Richmond are marvelously energetic and sympaticothe session threatens to break into dance at several points. Nichols covers two standards"Too Close for Comfort" and "All the Way" which helps the listener understand him as a player and arranger as opposed to a composer. The piano is also a bit more brightly recorded, though it's far from a spectacular instrument. Some listeners may find the almost parodic romanticism of "Infatuation" off-putting, but it's an important reminder of how Nichols' emotional palette differs from Monk's.
The Blue Notes are fantastic, if somewhat awkwardly packaged: you can wade through the alternate takes if you track down the oop official Complete Blue Note Recordings
or risk the dubious transfers used by continental out-of-copyright disc factories.
Nichols' music had its champions over the years, most notably Roswell Rudd, who played with Nichols and released several recordings featuring his compositions. In general, though, his profile was low, his name almost unknown even among aficionados.
Then, in the 1990s there was as burst of activity celebrating Nichols' music. The Herbie Nichols Project released three well-intentioned discs that decade devoted to Nichols' tunes. Unfortunately, the players seem more reverent than energized and overly polite engineering further dulls the impact of the music.
Two string projects fare better. Buell Neidlinger's all-string quintet released Blue Chopsticks
in 1995, which brims with humor and re-imagines the compositions in a way that reveals their strength. Finally, Duck Baker's Spinning Song
(1996) is a can't-miss excursion through the Nichols' canon on finger-style guitar. Nichols' music also makes cameo appearances on the Clusone Trio's I Am an Indian
(1995) and Charlie Haden's Etudes
(1988), among other places.
Two decades later, Nichols seems in danger of being forgotten all over again. This would be tragicnot for poor Nichols, whose struggles are long over, but for fans of mid-century jazz. His recordings are delightful, his compositions one of the few really compelling portfolios of jazz composition from the period. As obscure artists go, the learning curve required is gentle and the rewards awaiting the patient listener many. Fingers crossed his music gets another decade like the 1990s.