Monday, April 28, 2008

Jimmy and the Clarinet

It wasn't a surprise when I received the news Saturday that Jimmy Giuffre had died. He'd been ill with Parkinson's Disease since the '90s, and it was a testimony to his inner strength that he'd survived for so long.

And equal testimony to the loving care provided by Juanita, his artist wife of 47 years. A mutual friend emailed me the next day, saying that Juanita had told her a few years ago that "there was no way she was going to take him away from their home and allow others to care for him." And she didn't.

The last time I saw (and heard) Giuffre was in 1994, when he performed in a duo setting with pianist Paul Bley. In the review I wrote for the LA Times, I described it as a courageous effort. But his playing clearly had been affected by the disease.

The obituary I wrote for the paper on Monday included all the applicable biographical information, an overview of his creative progression and a few applicable quotes from the files. What it couldn't include was my personal reaction to the passing of an individual who still hasn't been properly acknowledged for the significance of his creative breakthroughs. It's hard to think of many artists who traveled a journey as far ranging as Giuffre's trip from "Four Brothers" and the Woody Herman big band to the limitless improvisational spontaneity of his trio with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.

The saxophone instrumentation he used in "Four Brothers" -- three tenors and a baritone -- had been tried earlier, by Gene Roland in his mid-'40s band and by Ralph Burns in "Summer Sequence" and "Early Autumn" for the Herman band. But Giuffre's high spirited bebop line was the perfect vehicle for the instrumentation's warm-toned timbres. No wonder it became the trademark sound of all the Herman Herds that followed.

Giuffre's move from that kind of big band scoring to the folk jazz intimacy of his '50s trios -- first with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena, then with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and Hall -- was an extraordinary musical transition. And, like "Four Brothers," it was driven by a different timbre -- in this case, the sound of his clarinet. Prior to Giuffre, most clarinetists had enthusiastically explored the instrument's nearly four octaves of range, roving freely across its three distinct registers. Giuffre focused instead on the chalumeau register-- the lowest octave and a half, with its intimate, airy sounding, woody qualities. He may have been influenced by Lester Young's recordings on clarinet, which also emphasized the warm, lower register sounds. But, as always with Giuffre, he made the style his own.

A few years later, when the jazz world was buzzing with the adventurous forays of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charle Mingus, John Coltrane, George Russell and others, his trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow took free improvisation concepts into areas in which the dividing lines between jazz and concert music disappeared. Sadly, that remarkable trio was largely ignored at the time, and it wasn't until their recordings were reissued in the '90s that their work slowly began to receive the recognition it deserved.

Giuffre was always receptive to new ideas. When I was playing with composer and mentor John Benson Brooks in the '60s, searching for improvisational possibilities in twelve note rows, he and Brooks went back and forth on whether such improvisation could be viable without losing touch with the essential qualities of jazz. And, when I was producing the jazz events in the annual New York Avant-Garde Jazz Festivals, Giuffre agreed to play on a couple of occasions, never receiving any more recompense than the minimal (or non-existent) payments that the other jazz players received. (One of those performances, by the way, was an intriguing Giuffre trio that included bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers. And a professional recording of that performance, produced by engineer George Klabin, exists.)

Giuffre left the planet slowly, largely silenced musically for the last decade of his life. But the recordings remain, and -- if there's any justice in this world -- his achievements will eventually find their way into the consciousness of new, young players, guiding them toward the adventurous creative territories he worked so hard to reveal.