Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Fine As [Phineas] Can Be”: Phineas Newborn, Jr.


“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to Jazz – the greatest pianist playing today.  In every respect, he’s tremendous. He is just beautiful. A wonderful Jazz musician,”
- Jazz pianist, Gene Harris

“Technically, he was sometimes claimed to run a close second to Art Tatum. In reality, Newborn was a more effective player at slower tempos and with fewer notes; but he could be dazzling when he chose,…. A sensitive and troubled soul, even the lightest of his performances point to hidden depths of emotion.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”
- Leonard Feather

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Legendary bassist Ray Brown, along with Les Koenig of Contemporary Records and Norman Granz at Pablo Records, were largely responsible for insuring that one of the greatest Jazz pianists of all-time – Phineas Newborn, Jr. [1931-1989] - didn’t slip into total obscurity following his initial acclaim.

Although Phineas was not a celebrity, he was highly regarded by knowledgeable Jazz fans, especially in the 1950's and 60's. ''In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum,'' said the late Leonard Feather, who for many years served as a Jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and The Los Angeles Times.

There was a time when Phineas looked set for stardom, but mental problems forced him to return to Memphis in the '60s, where he spent his remaining years struggling against the alcohol and drug problems that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state.

Whenever Phineas [who prefers to pronounce his name - “Fine as, ” with the accent of the first syllable, hence the title of Ray’s tribute tune] could pull himself together, Ray Brown brought him into the studio and recorded him in a trio setting along with Ray on bass and such drummers as Jimmy Smith or Elvin Jones on drums.

I got to know Phineas a little during the early 1960s when he played one of the week nights at The Manne Hole, drummer Shelly Manne’s venerable club in Hollywood. He usually worked with bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Milt Turner, but drummer Frank Butler often performed with him, as well.

One night he told me “his [my] Count Basie story.  It seems that Bill Basie was a friend of his Dad, a drummer who led a Rhythm and Blues band on Memphis’ famous Beale Street during the late 1930s.  Basie nicknamed Phineas, Jr. “Bright Eyes” because ‘as a boy his eyes would light-up as soon as he heard the music!’”

It was staggering to try and take-in all that Phineas had to offer. His technique was phenomenal and he tossed off so many ideas while improvising that if you stopped concentrating even for a second you were lost.  Listening to him in such an informal and personal setting was an exhilarating experience. Sadly, it was often not much of a shared experience as he hardly drew an audience.

The legendary Jazz pianist George Shearing once said that the “trick” to this music is getting it from the head and into the hands. Based on my first-hand observation of Phineas, I had the feeling that he had invented the “trick!”

With his technique, harmonic mastery, rhythmic displacement, and brilliant tone, Phineas Newborn, Jr. was nothing short of a Jazz piano phenomena.


But prodigious technique is frequently more of a curse than a blessing in Jazz circles and is often heavily criticized.

As the late Jazz writer, Leonard Feather, pointed out in his liner notes to Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano [Contemporary LP S-7600; OJCCD 175-2]:

“There has always been a tendency among music experts, and by no means only in jazz, to harbor misgivings about technical perfection. The automatic-reflex reaction is: yes, all the notes are there and all the fingers are flying, but what is he really saying? How about the emotional communication?

Art Tatum at the apex of his creative powers suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of a not inconsiderable pro­portion of the critics. Buddy De Franco, of course, has been a consistent victim. Phineas has been in similar trouble, and not because of any lack in his ability to transmit emotion but possibly, I suspect, because of the listeners' reluctance or in­ability to receive it. Nat Hentoff, in the notes for Maggie's Back in Town, pointed out that Phineas has "harnessed his prodigious technique during the past couple of years into more emotionally meaningful directions!" True, though conservative; I would lengthen the harness to four or five years. During that time, too, the technique has taken on even more astonish­ing means to accomplish even more incredible ends — witness one ploy that is uniquely remarkable: the ad lib use of galvanic lines played by both hands two octaves apart. Today, bearing in mind that Bernard Peiffer is French and Oscar Peterson Canadian, it would not be extravagant to claim that Phineas has no equal among American jazz pianists, from any standpoint, technical or esthetic. He is a moving, swinging, pianistically perfect gas.”

George Wein, the impresario who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, wrote these thoughts about Phineas and his music in 1956 as the liner notes to Phineas’ first album for Atlantic Records Here is Phineas [#1235; reissued on CD as Koch 8505].

For years now I've listened to people scream at me about unknown pianists they have discovered. "He’s greater than Bud . "He cuts Oscar . "He leaves Tatum standing still". As many times as I have heard these cries, that is how often I have been disappointed. In­variably, these unknowns are, at their best, simply minor talents, and, at their worst, pale copies of great pianists.

About a year ago I began to hear stories about a fan­tastic pianist in Memphis, Tenn. with the almost quaint sounding name of Phineas Newborn. Jr. Men I re­spected, such as John Hammond, Willard Alexander and, of course. Count Basic, among many others, insisted that I must hear this guy. Due to my previous sad experiences, I could not get excited. However, when I got a chance to really hear Phineas in Storyville [a nightclub in Boston which Wein owned], for the first time I was not disappointed. The unknown had lived up to his press notices.

Phineas Newborn, Jr. was born December 14. 1932 in Memphis. Tenn. I believe this makes him all of 23 years old at the recording of this album. In all my years of listening to music I have never encountered a music­ian of such tender years who had such a fantastic com­mand of his instrument. Perhaps my reaction to Phineas can be traced to my personal concern with the piano. If this was my only reason for liking him, then I say it would be sufficient, for to my knowledge the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.


Phineas is a two handed pianist, as opposed to the tendency of modern pianists to dwell on the single finger, right hand style. The only time he can be ac­cused of being a one-handed pianist is when he puts his right hand in his pocket and plays two choruses of a ballad, such as Embraceable You. exclusively with his left hand. Unfortunately, he does not do this in this album, but when you see him in person, ask him to play a left-handed solo for you. His left hand is de­veloped to such an extent that he can and does execute any passage or chord with his left hand that he would do with his right. When you realize that he has the fattest right hand of anyone since Tatum (he might even exceed Tatum for sheer speed) then you get an
idea of just what happens.

However, technique is only one facet of music. What of Phineas' basic musical style? From whence does he come and where is he going?

First, let me warn the reader of what not to do upon first hearing Phineas. Do not be so overpowered by his technique that you neglect to listen to the music he plays. Through all his technical intricacies I hear a wonderful musical mind, a mind that without copying has absorbed the music of the jazz masters. I get a funny feeling when I hear Phineas. I concentrate on his fan­tastically-"Bird'-influenced ideas and then I can't help but get the feeling that at any moment he is going to swing right into a Waller-James P. Johnson stride piano effect. He never quite does and I sometimes wish he would.

Phineas says his first jazz idols were Bird, Dizzy and Bud Powell. Later on, after he had begun to develop his own style, he heard Tatum. There is no doubt of the influence that these men left on Phineas. There is also evidence that he has listened to Erroll Garner.

However, there is never a question that Phineas has a unique approach to music. (In this album I believe Daahoud comes the closest to defining the Phineas Newborn style).


The only real criticism I have of his playing can be traced to his immaturity, both musically and in years. He tends to want to play everything in the same tempo. To be more explicit, he feels so relaxed at up-tempos that even in ballads he resorts to double-timing in order to utilize his technique. Also, he has a few figures of which he is fond. These appear a little too often in his playing. As soon as Phineas gets over the idea that he must create an impression the first time around the nightclub circuit, I am sure these minor faults will disappear.

Biographically, Phineas' history is not startling. The son of Phineas Newborn, Sr., a fine drummer and band leader in Memphis, he and his brother, Calvin, one year his junior, had an early musical beginning (Calvin plays guitar in the Phineas Newborn Quartet and is heard on some of the sides in this album). Phineas started the study of piano at the age of six with the pianist in his fathers band. He continued right through high (trumpet, tuba, baritone horn, French horn). Later on, he learned the vibes, and in college and the Arm/ he acquired the baritone, tenor and alto saxophones. Those who have heard him say he is nearly as fantastic on these various instruments as he is on the piano. For­tunately, Phineas has concentrated on piano and does not try to impress us with his versatility.

His formal education, in addition to graduating from the Memphis School System, consists of two years as a music major at Tenn. A and I. Later on he spent a year at Lemoyne College in Memphis, before he was drafted into the Army in August 1953. He was discharged in June 1955, and played with his father's band until last month when he made the break after the Willard Alex­ander agency convinced him he should come North and let the world hear his talent. I am sure that Count Basic, who is Phineas' greatest booster, had much influence on his decision.

As in any record, the music in this album speaks for itself. My personal favorites are the Clifford Brown Daahoud, and a very Tatumesque Newport Blues. I also like his treatment of the Ellington standard I’m Beginning to See the Light. He is accompanied very ably by two jazz greats, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, in addition to his brother Calvin on guitar.                                             

- GEORGE WEIN”

Leonard Feather, who, as noted, became an early and frequent champion of Phineas’ music, offered these cogent observations about him and comparisons with other Jazz pianists in the liner notes to Phineas’ 1969 Contemporary album, Please Send Me Someone to Love [S-7622; OJCCD 947-2:

“For a more than a half century, there was a series of evolutions in keyboard jazz, which originated in ragtime, then was marked by the successive advent of stride, with its volleying left hand; horn-style piano, characterized mainly by a fusillade of octaves or long runs of single notes in the right hand; bebop piano, with its central concern for harmonic experiments and relatively limited left-hand punctua­tions; and a 1950s trend marked by a concern for rich, full chords and a more expansive left-hand concept.

The only pianist who succeeded in absorbing many character­istics of each of these phases, in fact the first authentic and com­plete virtuoso of jazz piano, was Art Tatum. His death in 1956 seemed to close the book; there was no room for development, no area to examine that he had not already explored.

Time has shown that there were indeed other directions. The atonal improvisations of Cecil Taylor were acclaimed by many observers as taking jazz forward into a freer, more abstract music. Bill Evans launched what I once characterized, in an essay on jazz piano for Show magazine (July 1963), as the Serenity School, cre­ating new harmonic avenues, new voicings, swinging without hammering, asserting tersely yet subtly, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. McCoy Tyner, armed with exceptional technical facili­ty, moved along still another route with extensive use of modes as a departure from the traditional chordal basis.

All these changes during the late 1950s and throughout the '60s did nothing to demolish the theory that Art Tatum represent­ed the ultimate. Coincidentally, it was during the year of Tatum's death that Phineas Newborn, Jr. first came to New York and emerged from Memphis obscurity (he was born Dec. 14,1931 in Whiteville, Tenn.) to establish himself as the new pianistic pianist, in the Tatum tradition.

In the abovementioned Show article, I wrote: "Most astonish­ing of the dexterous modernists is Phineas Newborn, Jr. As small, timid, and frail as Peterson is big and burly, Newborn belies his meek manner with a relentlessly aggressive style. His technique can handle any mechanical problem and he has, moreover, a quick, sensitive response to the interaction of melody and harmo­ny." Commenting that most critics tended to be skeptical of tech­nical perfection, I wrote of Newborn's A World of Piano! album (Contemporary S-7600) that it was "the most stunning piano set since Tatum's salad days in the 1930s."


A year later, in 1964, I went out on a rare limb to declare unequivocally, in Down Beat, "Newborn is the greatest living jazz pianist."

Five years later, while perfectly content to let that categorical statement remain on the record, I reflected on what esthetic, what ratiocination led me to this conclusion. Under the spell of a set by Peterson in top form I might have made a similar remark. In either case, my reaction would have been primarily emotional, but the emotions in evaluating a work of art are often guided, per­haps subliminally, by a consciousness of the craftsmanship required for its creation.

Despite the chattering of the anti-intellectuals, I cannot see how any possible advantage can be found in technical limitation. Clearly technique can be abused, or used without imagination; I can think of a dozen popular pianists, some of them well-known via network television, who have made this point painfully clear. But a man like Newborn, who reached his present command of the instrument by practicing perhaps six or seven hours a day, automatically has an advantage over the simplistic artist, who resorts to simple figures and clich├ęs only because that is as far as his fingers and mind will take him.

Phineas demonstrates all the virtues and none of the handi­caps (if there are any) inherent in knowing how to use the piano. Taking him on his own terms, he's an involved, committed artist, for whom the instrument is virtually an extension of the man. This would not be possible if he were in any way hamstrung by not being able to execute whatever idea may cross his mind.

I won't deny that when he uses a personal device, such as the parallel lines in unison an octave apart, I am impressed by the ease with which he dashes off such passages; but even more meaningful to me is the originality and artistry of the melodic structure he has been able to build.

When Phineas plays the blues, as he does on at least three tracks in this album, it is not down-home, backwoods blues, but it's just as deep a shade of blue, and comes just as straight from the heart, as if he were a primitive trying to make something meaningful out of three chord changes and a couple of riffs. I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

If you spend some time listening to the music of Phineas Newborn, Jr., I think that it would be safe to say that you, too will “… hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

After all, if Leonard Feather is indeed correct, there have only been two other Jazz pianists comparable to Phineas in the history of Jazz: - Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

Not bad company, eh?