Yesterday I was listening to the recordings of Phineas Newborn Jr. and was struck, yet again, at how remarkable a jazz pianist he was. His strength, poetic poise and, most of all, phrasing, were stunning. Born in Whiteville, Tenn., Newborn played often in Memphis with his father and other relatives in the late 1940s in an R&B band, but he shifted to jazz in the mid-1950s after being discovered by Count Basie. He recorded steadily as a leader and sideman throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, until reviews began chastising him for turning each song into high drama. As Peter Welding write in Down Beat in 1962, "There was always the temptation to turn everything into a virtuoso showpiece."
Newborn's poker face and cavernous introversion were outward signs of his battle with mental illness, which was coupled with alcoholism. In the early 1960s, he was admitted to Camarillo State Hospital in California for a period to overcome his demons. He returned to recording and touring in 1969. Newborn died in 1989.
Whether you're familiar with Newborn or not, this clip of him on Jazz Scene USA in 1962 with host Oscar Brown Jr. should provide a cogent taste (Newborn was joined by bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Kenny Dennis)...
JazzWax note: You'll find this show and an installment with Jimmy Smith on a DVD here.