Pianist Herbie Nichols didn't record much, but what exists from the 1950s is extremely provocative. At the time, most jazz labels weren't interested in recording Nichols. Concerned that his compositions were too long, lacking in defined melodies and too hard to absorb, record producers felt Nichols' music wouldn't click with jazz-buying listeners. And for the most part they were right.
Nichols wasn't about giving people what they wanted. He was more focused on giving them what he wanted them to hear—which is a gambit for any artist without commercial advocates. But Nichols did touch the hearts of fellow jazz musicians. His best-known song, Lady Sings the Blues, was recorded by Billie Holiday after words were added. Prior to her recording, his song was known simply as Serenade.
Interestingly, Nichols recorded only three standards: S' Wonderful, Too Close for Comfort and All the Way. The latter two appeared on Love, Gloom, Cash, Love—Nichols' final recording date as a leader in November 1957 for Bethlehem. Of these two, All the Way remains his most moving mainstream effort. The recording is unbelievably powerful and may well be the best jazz interpretation of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn standard.
Nichols' career began in 1937, and he spent much of his early years playing Dixieland to earn a living. By the mid-1940s, he drifted toward bebop, but his abstract expressionist playing style was ahead of its time—even for beboppers. Thelonious Monk was out there, but at least you could play his off-beat songs. And if you could, you were about as inside as you could get. By contrast, Nichols' enigmatic compositions could be played only by Nichols. And even if you could pull them off, the club crowd back then wasn't much interested. Nichols didn't have a dynamic public persona.
If you're unfamiliar with Nichols, his style is something of a cross between Teddy Wilson and Monk—Wilson for his pure, regal clarity, and Monk for his musical humor and audacity. Like Monk, Nichols didn't rehash or dwell on what came before or what was happening at the time. Instead, he focused on his own compositions and style—mashing a Dixieland feel with stride and gospel and blending them with dissonant modal scales. The result is fascinating. It sounds as if you're listening to three recordings of three different jazz pianists playing at once.
Unlike the accessible and familiar Wilson, Nichols' piano style never connected with most jazz listeners. Unlike Monk, Nichols didn't have a mystical, far-out personality. Nor did he have the admiration or support of jazz record producers who tended to gravitate toward charismatic artists with marketable mystiques.
For whatever reason, Nichols was never hip enough or square enough or anything enough. In 1947, he begged Blue Note to record him, but co-founder Alfred Lion [pictured left, with co-founder Francis Wolff, right] felt the label had all the abstraction it could handle with Monk. Lion finally relented in 1955, and Nichols recorded his own compositions in five sessions for Blue Note between May 1955 and April 1956.
All the Way from the Bethlehem date is staggeringly beautiful. The song was recorded only months earlier by Frank Sinatra for the film The Joker Is Wild, which was released in October 1957. So Nichols' recording came just four weeks after the movie's release. In the Bethlehem album's original liner notes by Nat Hentoff, Nichols says, "I saw The Joker Is Wild picture, and this tune seemed to me to have a sort of old-time quality, the feeling of the '20s. Sinatra, to return to him, is a very natural singer and the combination of him and the feeling of the song is the reason for its inclusion here."
My guess is that Nichols chose this song after seeing something of himself in Sinatra's portrayal of a misunderstood comic with a self-destructive streak who ultimately stages a comeback. Which is another reason why All the Way works so well. Nichols is deep inside the tune. One only wishes a producer back then had the brains and aesthetic good sense to convince Nichols to record an entire album of carefully chosen popular tunes.
A.B. Spellman—author, poet, critic and instructor—relates these observations in his book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1985):
"The next and final time Herbie was to play modern music was at a Greenwich Village loft benefit in 1962, in a pick-up group that included Archie Shepp and bassist Ahmed Abdul Malik. I spoke to him at that session, and he was amazed that there were so many people present who knew and respected his music.
"In 1962, Herbie made a tour of Scandinavia with a hodgepodge of Dixieland musicians who achieved an easy kind of success in concert halls, universities and in a few bars. Occasionally, he lectured on his own music and performed some trio selections, but for the most part he was an accompanist for conservatives. He considered that tour one of the best things that ever happened to him, even thought he brought back no money.
"He said later that the next best thing that ever happened to him was the interview with him that I was preparing for Metronome magazine. This was 1963, in the early spring: 'Do you know that I've never been written up? I read the magazines and I see write-ups on everybody. All kinds of guys have articles written on them, and I know that I must be better than some of those guys. I know some people who think I'm important, musically. Well I don't know about that, but they say I'm a nice guy but I don't carry myself right. Now what does that mean? Anyway, I've never been written up.'
"Herbie was aware of a deep physical illness when I saw him, though the doctors had not yet settled on leukemia as the source... When I saw him last in his sister's apartment in a low-income district in the Bronx, he seemed to be dying of disillusionment. He knew his worth, but it seemed that nobody else did, at least nobody that could improve his condition... It was typical of Herbie Nichols' life that Metronome, the magazine for which I was preparing the first article ever written on him, folded before the article could be published. By the time I placed it elsewhere, Herbie had died [in April 1963]."
Man, how sad is that? Nichols told writer George Moorse at the time:
"Laughter is like a religion to me. Sometimes I may seem low...so low nothing will lift me up again...but really, I'm laughing like hell inside. This music is something to live for...something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Those musicians who get up on the stand and look they're undertakers bother me. If I want to cry, I'll cry in a corner, and cry to myself. Music is joy, and living—not death."
Long live Herbie Nichols. And do yourself a favor—check out All the Way. In Nichols' hands, it's way more than a standard.
JazzWax tracks: Nichols' Blue Note sessions are legendary for their complete abandon of commercial sensibility and bull-headed determination to create something new. You can buy the three-CD set here or download selections from iTunes.
Lesser known is his last album as a leader for Bethlehem. It features George Duvivier on bass and Danny Richmond on drums. The CD has long been difficult to obtain but I see that LoneHill Jazz has released a CD of all Nichols' studio master takes, including All the Way. You'll find Love, Gloom, Cash, Love here or the LoneHill Jazz CD here.
Nichols' rendition of S' Wonderful for Savoy in 1952 is at iTunes on a compilation called I Just Love Jazz Piano. This will give you a taste of how a standard was broken down and reassembled by Nichols.
JazzWax pages: A.B. Spellman's 1985 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, has been reissued as Four Jazz Lives and is available here.