Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Herbie Nichols: A Forgotten Poet Of Piano

This is an extended version of a piece, I’ve written recently about Herbie Nichols in Farsi. I get warm hearted with appreciations of some jazz fans in Iran, so I add a session discography and also comments from the other jazz scholars to make it more percise; this time in English.

Ehsan Khoshbakht

Herbie Nichols is one of my favorite jazz pianists. I know it sounds strange. It’s like someone declaring H. C. Potter as one of his precious directors, but let me tell you that if someone appears with such a statement, I’ll shake his or her hand for being a Potter fan. Today, these independent preferences and tastes have more appeal than conventional ideas about art. So let’s not be afraid if Herbie Nichol’s name is not mentioned in this or that pantheon.

One step further, if we forget about these common standpoints and endless arguments about who is a great pianist and who is not, we’ll find Herbie Nichols a splendid pianist with an attractive sound and needless to say a unique composer.

Now that we started with a paragon from movies (And please don’t take it only as an example, because I really do believe in H. C.,) we’ll continue it with another comparison with the world of motion pictures.

For me, Nichols is like Mervin LeRoy (Sam Fuller’s favorite director!). LeRoy has directed almost all kind of films and in each kind, some of the best. Magnificent gangster picture like Little Caesar, a thrilling documentation of great depression in I am a fugitive from a chain gang, confronting the “code” with scandalous Three on a Match, one of the most adult melodramas in film history with Random Harvest, Musical with Gypsy, Noir in color with F. B. I. Story, Biblical epic with Qua Vadis?, Horror in The Bad Seed and a well-liked romance with Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge. And he was a prolific director; only in 1930 he made 9 features (and in 1932, six!).

Despite this abundant career his name barley appears in any intellectual “all time favorite” lists. He hasn’t recognized as an auteur; so is Herbie. Both LeRoy and Nichols should be celebrated for their continuity and pure professionalism in a long career.

The other resemblance between these two gentlemen is the openness in their approach toward their art. Although some call it “lack of style”, gathering a variety of styles under a carefully structured roof which resembles a unique oeuvre and a pleasant integrity.

* * *

Herbie Nichols was born in Jan 3, 1919, New York. He died there 44 years later, from leukemia (Apr 12, 1963).

Listening to his music is like hearing Red Garland and Oscar Peterson’s joyous swing, passages from Bud Powell and Monk’s stirring avant-gardism (he was a friend of Monk since Minton’s days), all in one sound, one piano and one man. His roots in European classical music and complex harmonies, under the influence of Erik Satie and Bela Bartók, along with unorthodox structures -- was too hard to take for 1950s audiences. He was an original piano stylist and a composer of tremendous imagination and eclecticism. Just listen to “House party started” to know what I mean.

“He was capable not only of dark lyricism but also of writing melodies so harmonically adventurous that they can make the listener laugh out loud over their audacity. Furthermore, his music was in a rhythmic league of its own,” says Nic Jones in “all about jazz”.

When Nichols died, he had been working professionally for quarter a century, ever since joining the Royal Baron Orchestra in 1937. Yet in all those 26 years, By A. B. Spellman’s reckoning there was not one during which he was able to earn a living making the music he loved. Herbie began playing piano at age nine. After serving in second World War, played with a number of different groups and was attached to the bebop scene. Meanwhile for paying the bills he had a flirtation with more popular Dixieland music. Nichols made his way ‘playing grease’, as he put it himself, in R&B bands like Horsecollar William’s backing singers (Sheila Jordan being the most creative) and even providing accompaniments for lesbian shows. Lady of jazz piano, Mary Lou Williams, was the first to record a Nichols composition -- "Stennell" (later retitled "Opus Z,") in 1951. His most famous composition is "Lady Sings the Blues," (originally titled "Serenade”) which Billie Holiday set lyrics to and adopted for the title of her autobiography.

“Perhaps making the best of necessity, he claimed to prefer bar-room uprights, liking the percussive attack and the way the sound came back to him so quickly. One can certainly hear something of that in his compositions, which typically begins with a call-and-response between piano and percussion, before moving off into often quite unexpected harmonic and rhythmic territory. Nichols was rooted in blues but regularly name-checked Bartok and Shostakovich among his influences, as well as Villa-Lobos, though the Latin inflexion in tunes like the delightful ‘Terpsichore’ probably came more directly from his West Indian ancestry; his parents had emigrated from Trinidad and St Kitts,” say Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their jazz on CD guide.

Nichols scuffled as a recording artist, doing R&B sides here and there, until Alfred Lion of Blue Note decided to sign him up and gave him generous rehearsal time. Two 10-inch LPs were issued from May 1955 sessions, both called The Prophetic Herbie Nichols. How forward-looking he was be as a composer must be judged by his use in ‘The Third World’, a chord progression that would still sound radical when John Coltrane experimented with it more than a decade later.
Two great drummers of jazz, Max Roach and Art Blakey, are the main forces of these records, and the bassists are Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick. The rhythm section incredibly abides with Nichols’ unfamiliar materials and even adds a new depth to them.

But My Herbie Nichols’ discography doesn’t begin with these sessions and there is odd session from 1952, too. The LP I own from this session is a bizarre compilation made from Thelonious Monk – Gigi Gryce 1955 New Jersey set (the most famous official issue is “Nica’s Tempo”) and Herbie Nichols quartet at the time. The LP is called Thelonious Monk- Herbie Nichols (RCA/Savoy jazz records WL-70829 – total time 39:20.) These rare quartet cuts - including a fine piece of vocal blues – are reissued in Complete Studio Master Takes, but unfortunately, not complete.

The next session is probably his best work, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love recorded for Bethlehem in 1957. There are 10 short tracks, hence there is no space for improvisations, but the sense of swing and timing is perfect, and there are luminous moments in his music. He’s performance is as brushed as a dance hall floor in a Fred Astaire movie and the rhythm section is the best for its kind. Danny Richmond is on drums (Charles Mingus’ drummer of choice in 1970s) and the bassist is George Duvivier that the Bud Powellian mood of this session could be the magic of his presence.

And that’s it. Tragically that’s the whole Nichols recorded career.

Find reissues in a new box, “Complete Blue Note recordings” packed in 3 CDs and accompanied with unreleased tracks and alternative takes. It’s a reissue of the 48 Herbie Nichols recordings. “The 3-CD complete is his testament. No one interested in the development of bebop, or indeed of jazz piano, should be without it,” Say Cook and Morton.

In the years after his death, Nichols became a favorite composer in avant-garde circles, with tributes to his sorely neglected legacy coming from artists like Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, and Roswell Rudd (who worked with Nichols in the early 1960s.) He also inspired a repertory group, called “the Herbie Nichols Project.”

“As a player he utilizes the entire span of his instrument and anchors a quick, flowery right hand with a heavy, bomb dropping left that is reminiscent of Horace Silver at times. He swings hard! His emotional range is broad. He can move from dark, heavy themes to an unabashed, kitschy brilliance in the space of a single phrase. Angular, complex lines at one moment, followed by gentle cocktail piano tickling, block chording, stride piano- he runs the whole stylistic gamut with a flair and aggressive confidence that is infectious,” says James Mahone is his analyze of Nichols compositions.

Pianists like Herbie Nichols, in context of this music called Jazz, are the soundtrack of the whole universe; A floating and complex sound that is an Interpreter of the obscure moments of modern life with such depth and grace.

--Ehsan Khoshbakht


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.