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Jimmy Giuffre Dies at 86

Jimmy Giuffre Jimmy Giuffre
Clarinetist, saxophonist, occasional flutist, composer, and bandleader Jimmy Giuffre has died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, two days before his 87th birthday. A victim of Parkinson's disease, he had been inactive as a performer for several years. Giuffre is survived by his wife of 47 years, Juanita.

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Giuffre received a Bachelor of Music degree from North Texas State University before joining the Army, where he played in the official Army band. After his discharge, he played tenor and worked as an arranger for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman. It was with Herman's 1947 "Thundering Herd" that Giuffre gained more widespread attention with his famous "Four Brothers" arrangement that featured a saxophone section of three tenors, of which he was one, and baritone. Having created a unique sound for Herman, Guiffre moved to Los Angeles where he continued to branch out into unusual soundscapes in his own playing and writing, working with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse Allstars, Shorty Rogers and his Giants, and then his own groups. His understated, somewhat cerebral approach contributed to the burgeoning West Coast school of the 1950s.

While Giuffre's tenor work won him plaudits from critics, including comparisons with Lester Young, his later work concentrated more on the clarinet, a severely neglected instrument in jazz during the bulk of Giuffre's career. He also experimented with instrumentation in his groups; an early trio with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena -- later Jim Atlas -- morphed into something much more unusual when he replaced Atlas with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer to form the first pianoless, bassless, drumless jazz group. The trio earned some notoriety with a minor hit, "Train And The River," in 1957, and an appearance on the classic movie Jazz on a Summer's Day which documented the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Even though other West Coast groups, such as the Chico Hamilton Quintet, were exploring a cooler, understated approach, Giuffre's music, which he referred to as "blues-based folk jazz," was quite different from anything from that era of American music.

Giuffre's experimentation continued with another ground-breaking trio that he formed in 1961 with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. The group lasted less than two years, a victim of indifference from writers and public; they finally broke up after a New York gig which paid each member of the trio 35 cents. In retrospect, the trio's work is now hailed as revolutionary, a precursor to the whole free jazz movement, and their recordings, now available on ECM reissues 1961 and Free Fall, are viewed as classics, the former receiving a five star rating in a Down Beat review. Unlike much free jazz, Giuffre and the trio produced music that, while abstract, is restrained and low-key, reflecting their interest in European art music as much as in the African roots of jazz.

Subsequent years found Giuffre involved with music education, teaching at New York's New School and New York University. From 1978 until the early 1990s, he was on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music. He continued to record, if sporadically, always producing music of a highly individual nature, reflecting his broad interests in world music, fusion, and the avant-garde. He also wrote music for films and commercials. Along with the ECM reissues of his classic trio, some of his notable recordings include: Tangents in Jazz [Capitol, 1955]; The Jimmy Giuffre 3 [Atlantic, 1956]; Flight, Bremen 1961 [Columbia, 1961]; Dragonfly [Soul Note, 1983]; and Quasar [Soul Note, 1985].

An excellent 2003 article, "Jimmy Giuffre Cry Freedom," by Rex Butters can be seen at: http://www.jazzhouse.org/library/index.php3?read=butters1

An obituary from the New York Times is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/25/arts/music/25cnd-giuffre.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

A performance of Train And The River can be seen on You Tube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5B9f5GEZYA

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jimmy Giuffre
  • Subtitle: Career Extended Over a Half-Century
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