Jimmy Giuffre, a saxophonist and clarinetist whose big-band and small-group recordings and harmonic arrangements in the late 1940s and early 1950s helped crystallize the West Coast jazz sound, died on April 24. He was 86 years old.
Giuffre began his influential career recording with Jimmy Dorsey's band in 1947 and went on to play in the orchestras of Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Shorty Rogers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After deciding to remain in Los Angeles following a second stay with Woody Herman in the late 1940s, Giuffre's playing and arranging adapted a cooler, more contrapuntal, laid-back sound that was in stark contrast with the bebop of the East Coast.
Giuffre's constant experimentation with tonal scales and counterpoint starting in the mid-1950s also helped shape and influence the direction of Third Stream jazz. His pastoral, modal trio albums of the late 1950s and early 1960s set a new relaxed standard for small group innovation at a time when jazz was adapting a more spiritual, free-form motif.
Over the weekend, I caught up with several jazz legends for their first-hand memories of Jimmy Giuffre in the 1940s and 1950s:
"I played with Jimmy on his very first record date. It was with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in April 1947. Dorsey [pictured] was a virtuoso on the clarinet and the alto saxophone, and Jimmy [Giuffre] learned a great deal from him. Everyone did. Even Charlie Parker loved Jimmy Dorsey's playing. Jimmy Giuffre was a great player and writer. He really knew how to write a sax soli and how to make the reed section blend together. He had a terrific sense of loud and soft. As a writer, he loved the reed section. On some of his arrangements, he'd even have guys doubling on tenor and alto in the same chart. You'd have to put one instrument down and pick the other one up. He was a challenging writer."
"Our first recording together was in January 1948, when I was on the West Coast. It was an Armed Forces Radio Broadcast, and the group was led by Harry Babasin, the West Coast bass player. Jimmy had already arranged and recorded Four Brothers with Woody Herman in December 1947. After our live date in early 1948, Jimmy dropped out of the scene and took a job at J.C. Penney in L.A. He had to support his family and wanted stability. [pictured: Hal McKusick].
"When I joined Buddy Rich's band in California in mid-1948, Buddy [pictured] asked me to find a tenor player and arranger to rebuild his book with more bebop-type charts. I saw an opportunity to wrestle Jimmy out of L.A., since Buddy was offering him more money than J.C. Penney. Jimmy hesitated for a few days to think it over. He was already weary of the struggle in the music business and, believe it or not, saw a future as a manager at J.C. Penney!
"A little more talk and coaxing by me on the phone—Buddy's band had already started on a cross-country tour to New York—and Jimmy was en route to San Francisco to join the band. I stayed up with him nights and copied his charts for the band and the rest is history. Jimmy stayed with the band until New York. Then he rejoined Woody Herman and went back west to California. He stayed with Woody until 1950, settling in Los Angeles.
"In 1956, Jimmy composed and wrote arrangements for me when I recorded Jazz Workshop for RCA. Jimmy's writing was beautiful. I very much enjoyed his friendship and playing."
"After Jimmy left Woody Herman in Los Angeles in 1950, he joined the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Shorty Rogers. By the very early 1950s, he became the leader of the whole West Coast jazz thing, the drum majorette, so to speak. Jimmy was the first jazz musician I knew with a college degree. He also was the first to study with Wesley LaViolette, who was into tonal music and counterpoint. Then many other musicians started taking lessons with Wesley. [pictured: Bud Shank]
"I remember Jimmy had straightened the neck of his tenor so it resembled the neck of an alto. He did that to get a different sound. Jimmy was always exploring and always thinking. He was so deeply involved in whatever he was doing. I remember one night Jimmy came over to The Lighthouse [pictured] in Hermosa Beach with a pipe cleaner tied around the neck of his tenor. One of us asked him why it was there. He said, "To remind me to take a deep breath." That was Jimmy. He was so deeply into what he was doing, he needed things to remind him to come up for air."
"Jimmy was a fabulous player and writer. I first played with him at The Lighthouse in May 1953, with Bob Cooper, Russ Freeman, Howard Rumsey and Shelly Manne. Jimmy also played clarinet, tenor and baritone on my Collaboration: West album for Prestige in August 1953. [pictured: Teddy Charles]
"Jimmy was very different than everyone else. He was a Texas gentleman, and a little shy, which was unusual for a jazz musician back them. When I put my Tentet together in late 1955, I wanted to showcase the many different modal arrangers emerging then. Jimmy [pictured, center] immediately came to mind. When I asked him to write a chart, I was in New York and he was in L.A. He wrote The Quiet Time and mailed it to me. I thought he was going to bring it to New York. So I called him and said, 'Jimmy, how are we supposed to play this without you here to explain how you want it done?' Jimmy said, 'Just play it down, Teddy. It should be fine.'
"So I put The Quiet Time up on the stands and we played it down. Man, if he wasn't spot-on. I was blown away. The chart was absolutely perfect. No fine-tuning needed. Jimmy really was a master writer."
Von Babasin (son of the late West Coast bassist Harry "the Bear" Babasin)
"My father and Jimmy went to North Texas State together and were members of the One O'Clock Jazz Band on campus. [pictured: Jimmy on tenor sax, Harry Babasin on bass]
"I have a copy of a promotional publication from Capitol Records called Capitol News, dated January 1948, Vol. 6, No. 1. At the time, Dad had just left Benny Goodman and had joined Capitol Records, so the company was promoting his group. There's was an article in the publication with the headline, New Babasin Ork Hailed In L.A. There's a picture of the whole band [pictured: Harry on cello, doubling on bass; from left, Arnold Ross on piano; Blinky Garner on drums; Dale Pearce on trumpet; Hal McKusick on alto; Herbie Harper on trombone; and Jimmy Giuffre on tenor]
"I also have the recordings—one I found recently on an Italian album that was recorded live from the McCormack Hospital in Pasadena in January 1948, the very month of the Capitol article. The article states, 'Babasin, a graduate of North Texas State College in Denton (where Annie Sheridan grew up), brought his college pal Jimmy Giuffre to Hollywood from the Lone Star State to help him get started.'
"Later in the article, it goes on about Jimmy [pictured]: 'Giuffre is equally adept on alto as tenor sax, and his inventive, [Eddie] Sauter-inspired arrangements are so gone that Red Norvo, preparing to make jazz discs for Capitol last month, rushed out and asked Giuffre to handle the arranging for the session."
Be sure to catch Doug Ramsey's tribute to Jimmy Giuffre here, complete with two video clips of Four Brothers that will put a wide smile on your face.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my tribute to Jimmy, I will feature my Top 10 Giuffre recordings from the 1940s and 1950s.