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Remembering Jimmy Giuffre, 1921-2008

By David Greenberger


High on my list of places I’d travel to if a time machine were available is a recording studio on the West Coast in the year 1955, where Jimmy Giuffre was playing a short original composition called “So Low.” Already in his mid-30s, he played a clarinet, accompanied only by his own tapping foot. That three-minute recording serves as a perfect entry point into his music, for it is at once both modern and infused with a folklike timelessness. Giuffre’s work invites a listener in with its small, quiet bearing, but once inside, it’s a complete and remarkable world of its own.

On what would have been Giuffre’s 87th birthday, the news reported that the jazz pioneer had died two days earlier, on April 24, in Pittsfield, Mass.

Jimmy Giuffre was born in Dallas in 1921 and took up the clarinet when he was 9, followed by the tenor saxophone in his teens. During a four-year stint in the Army, he played in a quintet entertaining troops in mess halls, after which he moved to Los Angeles. During the 1940s and ’50s he found work as a writer and arranger with Buddy Rich, Jimmy Dorsey, and Woody Herman. His best-known composition, “Four Brothers,” was written for Herman’s band. With the formation of his trio, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (he always used the digit rather than the word) in the late ’50s, he pioneered a chamber-scaled approach to jazz. The drummerless trio boasted Jim Hall on guitar and, for a time, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, though that spot was also occupied by one of several different bass players. Following his artistic inclinations, by the early ’60s he was moving further away from traditional song forms. However, the intimate scale and neighborly volume continued apace, making his endeavors markedly different than those of such contemporaries as the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the Sun Ra Arkestra.

My introduction to Giuffre’s music came in 1973 when I was living in Philadelphia. Hitchhiking out of the city one day, I received a ride from a guy who was a jazz fan. I learned that he had a brief flurry of notoriety in the 1960s when he perfected using Parker pen caps as a means of making music. By the time I was riding in his car he’d pretty much set that aside for a more traditional career and family path, though he would sit in with local bands from time to time. He was knowledgeable about both jazz traditions and more contemporary experimentation, and invited me to call him sometime. He invited me over and played me a range of different recordings, but one in particular spun me around. It was Jimmy Giuffre’s Free Fall. I was 19, and a fan of such albums as Soft Machine’s Third and King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic; having neither the repetitive patterns of the former or the more foreboding architecture of the latter, Free Fall was new territory to me, and I was completely mesmerized. Giuffre’s clarinet was like a bird; along with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, the trio seemed to have harnessed the natural rhythms and organically elliptical cadences of the earth itself.

I started from that point and worked my way backward, discovering such marvels as his arrangements of songs from The Music Man, scored for nine pieces (Giuffre along with three trumpets, three saxes, bass and drums), and the four-movement Western Suite, recorded with his trio. Moving forward with him through the ’70s, I discovered he’d put together a harder-edged trio. Still utilizing clarinet, he built this more around the sound of his tenor saxophone. Throughout his career he’d also proven to be a singularly expressive player on the baritone saxophone and various-sized flutes. I regret never seeing Giuffre perform back then, as he was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where I was living. (He also taught at a number of other institutions, including the prestigious Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass.)

Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Jimmy Giuffre had not performed since the mid-’90s, staying at his home in West Stockbridge, Mass. While never much of a commercial success, he followed his own creative path over the course of a 50-year career. Happily for the world at large, the CD era has brought forth a worthy array of his recordings. His influence can also be heard in the music of players and composers who have followed in his wake, including much of the ECM label roster and Bill Frisell’s blend of jazz, folk and classical idioms.

Maybe because of its human scale, I’ve always related Giuffre’s music to moments in my own life. On the day he died I was at a radio station in Milwaukee. Standing by their wall of jazz CDs, I wondered how in-depth the collection was. I knelt down to check out the “G” area. Jimmy Giuffre? None. When two days later, I learned he had died, I immediately recalled that moment. I’m not assigning cosmic connectedness; given how often I think of the man’s music, it was bound to line up with outside events.

Jimmy Giuffre is gone, but I can’t imagine not having his music in my life for the past 35 years. It even feels as if I’ve been listening to him as long as I’ve been alive.


CHECK THIS OUT The main branch of the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Ave. will again this summer be the site of some righteous rocking, local style. The 2008 Garage Bands in the Garage concert series will take place monthly through September, with two local bands bringing the music to each event. Performances take place Fridays at 6 PM in the library’s garage, naturally, which is accessible via the rear entrance, adjacent to the parking lot on Elk Street.

The 2008 schedule is as follows: Alta Mira and the Sense Offenders kick it off May 30; on June 27, it’s the smart-rock of Ben Karis-Nix and Scientific Maps; Palatypus and the Blisterz make for an odd pair on July 25; Ashley Pond and Charmboy celebrate the power of three on Aug. 22; and the finale on Sept. 19 features Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned and Swamp Baby (pictured). All events are free and open to the public.

Granted, this is all an effort to get folks inside the library, and the APL is doing its best to make sure local tunes are available there, too. They’re actively expanding their already ample local-music library. Local musicians are urged to stop by the main branch and pick up an invoice and cataloging form; when you return your CD with the completed forms, the library will cut you a check. Your music will be accessible by tens of thousands of library cardholders—they’re like MySpace friends, but without the annoying Ron Paul propaganda (for the most part). Contact Sarah Clark in Readers Services at 427-4313 for more info.

TV EYE Here’s another way for local musicians to get their music out there: Call Ralph Renna. DJ-promoter-musician Renna has been doing his part to spread the good word via his Sunday-night show on The Edge 104.9 FM for a few years now, and his empire is growing. Peel yourself away from The Colbert Report for a few minutes and switch over to Time Warner Digital Cable channel 1005, and catch the debut episode of Capital Underground TV. Shot last fall, the show features music from Venomentality and Gunther Weezul among others, mixed with studio and live footage, plus “Joe Keyser’s Stage Dive Cam,” which could only be what it claims to be, and is probably worth tuning in for all by itself.

In other Renna-related news, his free, Thursday-night local-music series has relocated. With the closing of downtown Albany venue the Skyline, all Capital Underground Live shows have been moved upriver to Troy, where they’ll now take place at Positively 4th Street. Tonight (Thursday), catch Necrosis and the Endless Nightmare; the remainder of the schedule is available at ralphrenna All of the Thursday shows are free, and run from 8 to 10 PM.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metro or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.

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