Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jimmy Giuffre - The Quiet Man

Saddened by the recent passing of Jimmy Giuffre, the editorial staff of Jazzprofiles thought it appropriate to pause in its preparation of other articles for the site and to offer a celebration of his memory by making available to its readers these exquisite insert notes that Mr. Davis created for the Mosaic series [Jimmy Giuffre - The Complete Capitol and Atlantic Recordings MD6-176]. It has taken some liberties with the paragraphing.

These notes form a discourse on just how much thought Jimmy Giuffre put into his music, as well as, an indication of Mr. Davis’ thoughtful insights about Giuffre and how he created this music.

Given a long history of animosity between musicians and those who write about music (or merely write about it, as some musicians would say), I hope that Jimmy Giuffre won’t take my suggestion that he would have made an excellent jazz critic the wrong way.

I simply mean that during his most prolific period as a recording artist, beginning with the release of his first 10” LP for Capitol in 1954, Giuffre in interviews and liner notes provided his listeners with a running commentary on his motives and methods, revealing in the process a great deal of knowledge of such other disciplines as philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Reading Giuffre on Giuffre, a critic might despair, because this is one of the rare instances in which a performer has already been as fair and impartial a judge of his own successes and failures as anyone could hope to be.

(Especially for an artist as committed to public trial and error as Giuffre was during the period in which he recorded most frequently. There is also a sense in which a new piece of music can be heard as a critique of the work that came before it – yet another way in which Giuffre beat after-the-fact commentators like myself to the punch).

Best of all, despite seeming to rebuke the jazz rank-in-file of the 1950s for their conformist tendencies, Giuffre never lapsed into what I call the existential fallacy, that leap of hubris by which an artist (or for that matter, any individual) presumes that his new direction is one that everybody should follow.

In one of his earliest pronouncement – a Down Beat [November 30, 1955] article published under his byline in 1955, in which he explained his decision to limit the bass and drums on his controversial new album Tangents in Jazz [Capitol T-634] – he was careful to point out in his lead that he wasn’t trying to “preach a sermon” in order to bring the rest of Jazz into line. “It’s just one way,” he reiterated at the end, “and every man must go his own way.”

Giuffre gave the fullest explanation of his “way” of that time in the liner notes to Tangents in Jazz, answering a series of “leading questions” put to him by an unidentified interviewer (if not annotator Will MacFarland, then possibly Giuffre serving as his own devil’s advocate, a` la Edmund Wilson or Norman Mailer).

“What is this music?” Giuffre was asked.

His reply – “jazz, with a non-pulsating beat” – accurately describes not only Tangents in Jazz, but also the more experimental of his Capitol recordings of a year earlier and some of his atonal work of the same period with Shorty Rogers, Teddy Charles and Shelly Manne. It also applies to most of Giuffre’s subsequent recordings, including even so deceptively “conventional” an effort as his 1957 “cover” of Meredith Wilson’s score for The Music Man.

“The beat is implicit, Giuffre went on to explain, [I]n other words, acknowledged but unsounded. The two horns [in this case, Jack Sheldon on trumpet and Giuffre on clarinet, tenor or baritone] are the dominant but not domineering voices. [Ralph Pena’s] bass usually functions somewhat like a baritone sax. [Artie Anton’s] drums play an important but non-conflicting role ….

I’ve come to feel increasingly inhibited and frustrated by the insistent pounding of the rhythm section. With it, it’s impossible for the listener or the soloist to hear the horn’s true sound. I’ve come to believe, or [to] fully concentrate on the solo line. An imbalance of advances has moved the rhythm from a supportive to a competitive role ….

[T]o the degree that the beat was there to guide dancers, it is, of course, no longer necessary to concert jazz ….

Several of today’s writers have dropped sounded beat for contrast, but never for an entire work. I’ve written works completely lacking sounded beat, but the difference between this music and all previous work is the use of drums. My previous attempts at this approach, while achieving some of the clarity I sought, were always vaguely unsatisfactory to me until I realized the trouble: the drums, by their nature, cannot carry a simultaneous or overlapping line; when the drums is struck any other note is obliterated, and attention is torn away from any other line. In this music, the drum lines are integrated but isolated.”

That may be fine during written passages, Giuffre’s interlocutor challenged, but how can such “isolation” be guaranteed during improvised solos, where a drummer’s responses are impossible to predict?

“By writing rests in the ad lib parts [and] allowing the drums to fill,” Giuffre answered, in effect arguing that composition and improvisation could overlap - a notion that may have struck some listeners of 1955 as far more treasonous than dispensing with the beat, even though it summarizes a lot of Duke Ellington and is practically a truism for today’s jazz avant-garde. “Classical music, once the rhythm is stated, [assumes] the freedom to move unaccompanied, and if jazz is going to continue to grow, it needs this same freedom,” Giuffre insisted, acknowledging that by taking such a giant leap, he risked sacrificing a “large segment of the usual jazz audience.”

Giuffre ultimately did pay a price for his boldness, once going ten years between new releases (after Free Fall in 1963) and being omitted from most contemporary roll calls of the 1950s. Luckily, Giuffre underestimated the progressivism of ‘50s jazz buffs. Although never a force in mainstream culture like Stan Kenton or Dave Brubeck, and never a cause celebre like Lennie Tristano or Ornette Coleman, Giuffre appealed to many of the same listeners, for similar reasons.

Having been acclimated to revolution by bebop in the late 1940s, modern jazz devotees of the 1950s kept their ears peeled for another uprising, and Giuffre was clearly up to something new.

The crux of the controversy that surrounded Giuffre following the release of Tangents in Jazz , reaching a crescendo with the introduction of the first of his several drummer-less trios a year later, was his aversion to the sort of drum thunder then coming to be identified by many as the very heartbeat of jazz.

But in complaining of “an imbalance of advances” in modern jazz, Giuffre was also questioning what he felt was an over-emphasis on harmonic movement at the expense of linear development and subtler aspects of timbre (he later characterized chord changes as “vertical prison” [Loren Stephens, “The Passionate Conviction,” Jazz Review, February, 1960], and in the liner notes to Tangents in Jazz, he identified being “fed a steady stream of chords” by a pianist or a bassist and “fighting a steady beat” as twin evils. Another way of putting it might have been to say that the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had followed too quickly on the heels of those of Lester Young, with the result that Young’s still hadn’t been fully absorbed).

Giuffre’s displeasure with the chordal underpinnings of bop gave him something in common with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, in addition to anticipating Ornette Coleman. His solution was to substitute melodic counterpoint – which he called “slow motion counterpoint” – for harmonic structure, as well as pronounced beat.

Giuffre told Nat Hentoff in 1957 [“Jimmy Giuffre: Blues in Counterpoint” Saturday Review, July 13,1957]:

“The result is a certain feeling of suspension, of dissonance, if it’s handled right. In slow-motion counterpoint, for example, if one melody is an eight-note pattern that is changing notes often, the other melody changes notes much less often, perhaps every four bars. And for rhythmic interest, the slow-changing line can be broken up by repeated notes and rests. A third line and possibly a fourth could be proceeding at other varying rates of speed simultaneously."

Perhaps in response to a question from Hentoff about where this left the listener, Giuffre went on to explain:

“the contrast between lines made possible by this approach provides the clarity that is necessary to follow all the lines. [A]nd to a certain extent, the listener will have more time to absorb each harmonic feeling, because in my writing, the harmonies are the results of lines, rather than lines being fitted to the harmonies."

Were he less theoretically inclined, or less articulate, the native Texan could just have said that the folk-like material he was then writing for his trio allowed even the most casual listener an easy way in. But in outlining the principles of slow-motion counterpoint in such detail, he was paying tribute to his mentor and the theory’s father, Dr. Wesley La Violette, a Los Angeles-based classical composer and proto-guru whose other followers included Shorty Rogers and John Graas. “He had a great influence on my life,” Giuffre years later told Ted Gioia [West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960, New York: Oxford University Press , 1992]. “His scope of music is limitless …. It has given me the staff of life.”

Giuffre in the 1950’s was a man on a quest, much like Coltrane was a decade later. The difference was that Giuffre’s quest, like his music, was more muted, and that it manifested itself intellectually rather than spiritually. All jazz musicians seek their own sound, or at least pay lip service to that concept. The next step for those who find an individualistic means of expression is to attempt to broaden it into a group sound. For Giuffre, sound was a key to finding out who he was as a person, not just as a musician.

A former sideman with a variety of big bands, including those of Buddy Rich and Woody Herman, Giuffre was 33 when he began recording as a leader – a ripe age for a jazzman, by that day’s standard. He already enjoyed a reputation as a composer and arranger based on the success of his Four Brothers for Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1947.

(Giuffre has always been quick to point out that he borrowed the idea of four tenor saxophonists – or in the case his anthem for Herman, three tenors and a baritone – playing in harmonic parallel and without a vibrato from Gene Rowland, his former roommate at North Texas State University).

He was in steady demand for gigs and recording sessions around Los Angeles in reward for a versatility that wasn’t limited to his being equally adept on three horns. On Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All-Stars’ 1952 recording Big Girl, Giuffre honked like a rock ‘n roller; at the opposite extreme, on Chant of the Cosmos, with Shorty Rogers three years later, he blew unpitched air through his horn without striking a note.

Such versatility is usually thought of as commendable in a musician, but Giuffre soon talked as though it was an elaborate mask for his insecurities, not as an improviser, but as a man.

“I began to see that I … had been changing my personally all the time he told Hentoff [op.cit.]. If I was playing with a Basie-type group, I’d sound more like them, and the same with a bop unit. I was a little bit of Stan Getz and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and a thousand different things, depending on who I was with."

In a subsequent interview with Dom Cerulli [“Jimmy Giuffre: I’m a Trio Now, he Says, But I Used to Just be a Boor,” Down Beat, September 19, 1957], Giuffre expanded on this theme in a way that his identity crisis wasn’t just musical:

“With the group [the original Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena on bass], I’ve found that since the background follows the soloist, I’ve been shaking off all schools. Before, when I felt I was playing in an original manner, I was actually playing like a whole bunch of guys ....

[Dr. La Violette] helped me break down a lot of the inhibitions I’ve had. He made me realize I could do things my own way. The clarinet helped, too. There was only one way I could play it, in the middle and low registers. My lip’s just not ready to play in the high register. I don’t know if I can do it. I think I can, but we’ll see.

As I began to play the way I felt, it became comfortable. I could hear these voices saying I must play the other way. But it felt so good, I said, “The hell with it.” It has reached the point where a lot of the musical ideas I have might be considered old-fashioned or bluesy. I used to wonder, “What will the cats think? What will Miles think? What will Getz think? And Stan is miles ahead of me in technique. But something strange happened. I began to hear it in the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Horace Silver, in Gerry Mulligan, in the Getz group with Bobby Brookmeyer.

They were playing with this mood of the old-fashioned blues. It has a fresh new way about it. It sounds like a modern man playing with the old blues feel.”

Revealing that his first wife accused him of being a boor as a human being while a Lighthouse All-Star – a blinkered individual who demonstrated no interest in the solos of his fellow band members and who would go to his room to practice between sets – Giuffre explained to Cerulli that upon forming the 3, he had “developed an interest in [things other than music] and other human beings.”

Said Jim Hall in the same article: “Jimmy has a theory: Through finding yourself and getting a grip on yourself personally, you can do the same thing musically. There is a direct connection between personal and musical directness.”

Still later, in 1959, Giuffre responded to Lorin Stephens’s question “Why was sound so important to you?” by admitting that “perhaps it comes from childhood/”
“It was sort of like not wanting to go out unless I was dressed properly. I couldn’t release the music inside of me unless it sounded perfect – that was the first consideration – to have beautiful sound quality.”

“But why so important?” Stephens persisted.

“Well, it goes with my personality, I’m sure. I won’t accept the thing that I am an introverted personality, which some have tried to make me out. I have gone through periods, and I won’t say that I have shaken them off completely, but I have gone through periods where I was quiet: I like the pastoral, the country; I like Debussy and Delius – I like peaceful moods.”


  1. Insightful, thanks, loved it

  2. Este hombre era un genio musical. Sus grabaciones de los aƱos cincuenta no tienen el reconocimiento que merecen.

  3. Wonderful article. Thank you so much for sharing this information.


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