Jazz is something of a "sunken treasure" art form. There were so many brilliant musicians sailing the musical seas in the 1940s and 1950s that invariably some wound up sinking or forgotten over time. That's why I'm always thrilled when I re-discover someone I've overlooked or never had the time to explore fully.
One of those "lost" musicians is Phineas Newborn, Jr. Newborn was an amazingly talented and percussive pianist who came up in the mid-1950s, ran into mental health problems in the early 1960s just as jazz was losing ground fast to popular music, returned after his rehabilitation, but never became the star he was meant to be because popular music and jazz tastes had changed abruptly. Phinaes (pronounced "Fine-us") fell between the cracks. He died in 1989.
Newborn is truly spectacular. Stylistically, he's a cross between Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark. I kid you not. Newborn's technique is sterling, showcasing flawless dual-hand runs and feathery right-hand solos—and often combining the two.
Newborn in many ways was better than Peterson. His runs on the piano are gentle and caressing compared with Peterson, who tears across the keys much too frequently and with a careless flourish that sounds more like a backhand blow than a touch of flare.
Newborn's runs are much more delicate and seductive, as if he's running his fingers through the music's hair. In fact, his fingering is so gentle you imagine the keys are happily dropping down on their own just before Newborn's fingers reach them.
Newborn told an interviewer in 1978 after a gig at New York's Village Gate:
"One of my favorite piano players was Nat Cole. He paved the way for lots of exciting things to happen. He influenced me quite a lot. As a matter of fact, I think that’s one reason why Oscar Peterson and I sound so much alike. The same people influenced us more or less. Art Tatum and I enjoyed Bud Powell’s playing. Fats Waller, I liked him very much. He was one of my favorites. I used to do his Honeysuckle Rose."
But Newborn isn't all show and technique, which is what I like most about him. Like Sonny Clark, he has a tender, deliberate touch, always advancing his ideas with a certain urgency and impatience, and resolving them in interesting places.
Newborn's rising career was cut short in the early 1960s, when he suffered a nervous breakdown. Legend has it that leading jazz critics of the time roughed him up in print over his lighter fare for Contemporary Records, a West Coast label.
As a result of his mental collapse, Newborn spent time at Camarillo State Hospital in California's Ventura County, the same institution that played host to Charlie Parker after his drug-induced spin out and arrest during a West Coast tour in 1946.
Whether Newborn was really a victim of wilding jazz critics or simply suffered from mental illness in an age before proper treatment and meds is unknown. What is clear is his enormous talent—and that those jazz critics who piled on were dead wrong.
For film buffs, that's Newborn playing with Charles Mingus on the soundtrack of John Cassavetes' 1957 film, Shadows. If you are unfamiliar with Shadows, rent it. Cassavetes was the father of independent film, and Shadows was his courageous dramatic look at three siblings in an African-American family in New York in the 1950s. Here are Cassavetes' reflections on the score, from Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001):
"We were a little bit crazy in those days, very pure. first we were going to use Miles Davis, but then he signed with Columbia Records and I got so angry I didn't want to use him. Anyway, someone said there was this great improvisational artist down in the Village who'd cut a few records, so I listened to a couple and oh!--this guy was wonderful! Charlie Mingus...We get together to record. So, double session, three hours, double session with the projectionist sitting there, and I'm watching. He's got fourteen seconds' worth of music. Everybody's saying, 'Why don't you you just tell Charlie to improvise?' All the advice then starts. So I said, 'Come on Charlie. You guys can improvise. You're wonderful, you can do that off the themes you have.' 'No, man--can't do it. Can't do it.' We're artists. It's gotta be written.'
"They did some of the score, improvised the rest; Charlie sang 'Leaning on Jesus' and played some piano, and Phineas Newborn, Jr.. took over the bass. So I said to Charlie,' Charlie, Charlie it was great. it's perfect for the picture.' He says, 'Man, I got to work six more months. It's going to take me a long time, you know. I went to Julliard.' That first session he had about two and a half minutes of music...
"Jazz musicians are all Raskolnikovs. They have these little tin weapons--they don't shoot; they don't go anywhere. The jazz musician doesn't deal with structured life. He just wants that night, like a kid."
When Newborn returned to the jazz scene in the late 1960s, music had changed and jazz musicians were no longer intellectual and artistic stars—and they didn't have much hope of ever regaining the status they held in the 1950s. A racial attack took Newborn out of the playing circuit in 1974, when he was admitted to the hospital with a cracked jawbone, broken nose and several broken fingers.
Interestingly, the day Newborn was discharged from the hospital he went to Ardent recording studios and recorded a Grammy nominated album, Solo Piano.
Newborn deserves a fresh listen, especially his late 1950s and 1960s recordings. It's a shame he isn't a household name among jazz fans.
Wax tracks: Two wonderful Newborn albums are We Three (1958) and Harlem Blues (1969). The energy and delicate touch are most evident on both albums but especially on Ray's Idea and Tenderly from Harlem Blues.
But my all-time favorite Newborn album is A World of Piano! Everyone should own this one. All of his tricks are displayed, and his Lush Life is perhaps my all-time favorite version of this Billy Strayhorn ballad—by any jazz musician.
I know, I know, how can I say something like that. Go ahead, you listen to it and you e-mail me if I'm wrong.
Wax clip: Before you get crazy writing about which version of Lush Life rules, have a look at Newborn playing the song from A World of Piano! here. So much for that e-mail, right?
Newborn is as good as jazz piano gets. It's time he got his due.