For years, the events surrounding pianist Lorraine Geller's sudden death at age 30 in October 1958 have been shrouded in mystery. Depending on what you've read or who you've listened to, rumored causes have ranged from a weak heart to a drug overdose, with plenty of other reasons in between. For the sake of setting the record straight, Herb Geller relived those terrible days in the late 1950s when we spoke. Herb also talked about what happened after the death of his wife, the depression that seized him and how he wound up in Germany starting a new life and family. [Photo above courtesy of Sam Geller]
Herb also told me he plans to come to New York in September to perform and appear at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.In Part 5 of my five-part interview with Herb, the legendary saxophonist talks candidly about the worst days of his life and how he battled through them:
JazzWax: What happened to Lorraine?
Herb Geller: Lorraine had very bad asthma. She had come down with it in 1957. Then when our daughter Lisa was born that year, there were medical troubles. It was a difficult birth.
JW: What was the problem?
HG: Lisa's skin didn’t form on one of her legs and there was trouble with her foot. She had to stay in the hospital for six weeks until the skin grew.
JW: That must have been very hard.
HG: It got worse. I was assured that Lisa's treatment would be covered by our health insurance plan. But the insurance company refused to cover her extended stay and treatments. Lorraine and I couldn’t afford the huge bill. This happened right when we were buying a new house and car. The hospital bill broke us and took every cent we had, including a life insurance policy I resigned to come up with the cash for the hospital payments.
JW: How was Lorraine faring?
HG: With her asthma, she had a slow recovery after Lisa's birth. The doctors advised her not to work for about a year and to just take care of our daughter.
JW: As a musician, that must have been hard on her.
HG: She rested for about six months after Lisa came home. But with the massive hospital bill, money was tight. Then Lorraine got a call to accompany singer Kay Starr [pictured] for $500 a week. She said to me, “I have to do it Herb, we need the money.” Lorraine had rested for months and Lisa was already 1 year old. So Lorraine went to work. Meanwhile I got a call to go with Benny Goodman. I flew to New York to rehearse with the band. And of course, everything got worse.
JW: What happened?
HG: In mid-October 1958, my mother called from L.A. I could hear in her voice that something was wrong. She said, “Herb, Lorraine died.” The cause was pulmonary edema, which is what happens when the lungs fill with fluid, leading to a shortness of breath. Add a terrible asthma attack on top of that and you have a disaster.
JW: My God. How did you feel when your mother gave you that news?
HG: I was in a daze. It was a horrible feeling. I don’t even want to think about it.
JW: What did you do?
HG: After the funeral in L.A., I was devastated and had no idea what to do. Lorraine had been my entire life. But I had to go back to work to make ends meet. I called Benny Goodman’s office and said I’d like to come back with the band. Benny called me and was as nice as can be. He said, “Herb, you left a big hole in the band. Please come back.” [Photo of Benny Goodman by Herb Snitzer]
JW: What did you do?
HG: I re-joined Benny and finished the tour. Then I wasn’t sure what to do. I played a show with Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson. They offered me a steady job with good money to play with them at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Pearl was booked into the main ballroom for two months and Louie was her musical director. But I faced a dilemma. I had already arranged two Mondays at Birdland with trumpeter Booker Little, bassist Scott LaFaro, pianist Barry Harris and drummer Dannie Richmond—followed by the group playing two weeks at the Half Note. But the Half Note gig was for the exact same time as my job with Pearl and Louie.
JW: Which did you choose?
HG: I went with Louie and Pearl [pictured]. I was the featured soloist and needed the money. But I'm not sure that was the right decision in hindsight. The quintet I put together played those two Mondays at Birdland, and we sounded great together.
JW: So between 1959 and early 1961 you were in Las Vegas?
HG: Yes. Or working at L.A. strip clubs for extra cash. At one point I was playing at this club in West Hollywood called the Pink Pussycat. One night, a girl I knew said to me that a dear friend wanted to see me. I was in the middle of playing Night Train. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. It was Stan Getz.
JW: What did Getz want?
HG: At intermission Stan said, “Why don’t you go to Europe. You shouldn’t be playing strip clubs. I know a guy at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen who will give you a gig there.
JW: What did you do?
HG: I sold our house and car and bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen. But then Benny Goodman called.
JW: What did he want?
HG: He wanted me to join the band for its tour through South America. So I cashed in my ticket and went with Benny to Brazil.
JW: How was it there?
HG: Great. We performed in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago and Sao Paulo. After the tour, I decided to remain behind to jam at clubs. In Sao Paulo, I started playing regularly at a place called the Stardust Club. There was a lot of bossa nova there, and it was my first experience playing it. What’s nice about the bossa nova is that the rhythm is an even eighth-note pattern but it sounds good to play 12/8 against the rhythm. I stayed at the Stardust for six weeks, until New Year’s of 1961.
JW: How were you feeling?
HG: Terrible. I was slipping further and further into a depression. All of the events that had happened were piling up, and by moving away, the weight was even heavier. Then I met an agent for a comic who was going to open at a theater in Lisbon [pictured]. He suggested I take a boat over and make some money. So I sailed for Lisbon.
JW: Then what?
HG: When I arrived in Portugal I had to wait for two days until the rest of the company got there. It was January, it was freezing cold, and I didn't know a soul. After the first performance, I picked up a Herald Tribune and read that old friends pianist Kenny Drew and drummer Kenny Clarke [pictured] were playing in Paris. So I booked the first flight there.
JW: Was it good to see them?
HG: It was. As soon as I arrived I went to the Blue Note and we played together that night. I also started a musical variety show in Paris. One of the gigs was in West Berlin. We played a concert there, with Germany's SFB Orchestra. They asked me to join the band in September 1962.
JW: Did you like Germany?
HG: Very much. By then I had been living in Paris but gave up my apartment to move to West Berlin. In Germany, the level of musicianship and the care for music was great. Two weeks after I moved to Germany I met Christine, my future wife, on a tennis court. Her father was a music professor and a close associate of Paul Hindemith. It was love at first sight, and we were married two months later. I was so broken up after the death of Lorraine. Christine and her love saved me in many ways. [Photo of Herb and Christine Geller with their children Olivia and Sam in the early 1970s, courtesy of Sam Geller]
JW: What did you do in Germany for all these years?
HG: Almost immediately I started getting calls from kids who wanted to take lessons. The local conservatory in Hamburg also started a jazz program in the 1980s and asked me to teach.
JW: Did you feel better in Germany?
HG: Yes, very much so. I had a steady job, a family and I earned good money. In Germany you get paid for 13 months but only work 9 months of the year. All of my health benefits are covered. I’ve had pneumonia five different times and didn’t go broke seeking care.
JW: Are you still an American citizen?
HG: Yes. Relocating to Germany and starting a new family was rehabilitating. When I was in the NDR Orchestra there, I was able to practice and study the flute. I also started learning the English horn and bass clarinet. I became so proficient on the flute that I started to get first flute parts in classical orchestras.
JW: Do you speak German?
HG: A little. I taught myself to speak the language, but gave up. For the first two years I had a book written by a Frenchman on how to teach English people to speak German [laughs]. It just didn't work for me. [Photo courtesy of Sam Geller]
JW: How many times have you returned to the U.S.?
HG: Once or twice a year in the last three or four years.
JW: Do you wish you had visited the States more often?
HG: Not really. I’ve stayed in touch with all my old L.A. friends. It was a little lonely at first in Germany, of course, since there were hardly any great saxophonists here and jazz was new.
JW: Looking back at your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
HG: I think I would have gone with Booker Little and the jazz group we put together in 1960 rather than Pearl and Louie. I think I would have broken new ground there if we stayed together. But I’ve always been lucky to be in the right place at right time and was never out of work.
JW: Any regrets?
HG: I wish I had been able to stay in the States to make a bigger name for myself today. But I was very, very depressed at the time and there was little work for me. Besides, who knows how that all would have played out. And if I hadn't left, I wouldn't have met Christine or had my children Olivia and Sam.
JW: One last question that's been tugging at me: What happened to Lisa?
HG: My sister and her husband offered to take care of Lisa while I was gone and then decided to adopt her. Lisa thought I was her uncle until her 16th birthday.
JW: What does Lisa do now?
HG: Lisa and her husband are lawyers. They are updating the state law books where they live.
JW: Do you stay in touch with her?
HG: Lisa, her husband and their daughter will be coming to Hamburg for a week in June. The last time I saw her was four years ago. However we talk on the phone and write emails all the time. I'm looking forward to seeing them.
JazzWax tracks: Rather than get into a long post here on the many great albums Herb has recorded since relocating to Germany (pianist Roberto Magris' Il Bello del Jazz a superb example), I'm going to tell you about just one. It's Moon Mist, which was released a month ago. It features only Herb and pianist Wolfgang Kohler. To get a sense of how great this album is, sample Forgetful. You'll find Moon Mist at iTunes or here.
As for Lorraine Geller, she recorded one album as a leader, Lorraine Geller at the Piano (1954) for Dot with Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Bruz Freeman and Larance Marable on drums. The album provides you with a clear sense of Lorraine's command of the instrument and her artistic promise. It's available as an import here.