Thursday, February 9, 2012

Remembering Jef Gilson (1926-2012)

February 11, update: Dr Lloyd Miller generously has just furnished me with a few better quality photos of himself with the late Jef Gilson. Lloyd wrote today: "Had to choak back the tears when I read about his passing. But after realizing that he was in a better place with cooler jams, I felt peaceful." Jef was a huge fan of jams! Rest in piece brother!

Jef Gilson, the French jazz musician died four days ago. He was "a visionary pioneer who still has not achieved the status he deserves," (Francis Gooding), and listening to his recordings from 1960s and 1970s reveal what a great innovator he was.

Gilson started playing clarinet in 1941, and later switched to the piano. Under the influence of Dizzy Gillespie he envisioned himself as a composer, arranger and band leader, and soon he became one. Writer Francis Gooding examines Gilson's Monk-Coltrane oriented recordings as pieces of work "with tempo changes, bitonal layers and chromatic threads."  

Last week I wrote about Lloyd Miller and briefly mentioned his association with Parisian avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s. Lloyd was Jef Gilson's right hand in his early recordings. They both were "hip" innovators and fearless musicians with sky as their musical limit. 

In the following text you'll get a picture of these two men's musical journey form their accidental encounter to conquering the Parisian jazz scene for a short period, and finally the eventual break up of their band. The information, presented in the from oLloyd Miller's biography book, Sufi, Saint and Swinger.

Lloyd felt it was time to make an LP of his piano solos; but he was not sure how to do such a thing. One day he was wandering up Rue Dauphene past Saint André where Dauphene becomes Rue Grégoire-de-Tours. He walked a ways then noticed on the right a shop at no. 7 called Kiosque d’Orphée, a recording studio. A feeling of excitement came over him as he timidly entered the shop to be greeted by a man named Jef Gilson who seemed to be predestined as a colleague and friend. Lloyd felt he knew this person and was predetermined to work with him musically. As they chatted about music and Lloyd’s plan for cutting an LP of his piano solos, they both felt that their lives and careers would merge. They both liked some of the same jazzmen and both had a desire to bring something new to jazz. Lloyd’s dedication to Eastern music was understood by Jef who was interested in learning more about Persian, Indian and Far Eastern concepts. They set up a time for the recordings; but Lloyd was hesitant about it because of the potential costs. Jef assured him that this was a project he was invested in and promised Lloyd that it would go forth at whatever fee Lloyd could afford. Jef also offered assistance in Lloyd’s wild project of recording some pieces in which he would play piano, bass and drums by re-recording. Jef noted that as, well as a nice grand piano, he had a bass and drum set in the studio and it would be easy to do.

Lloyd accepted Jef as a type of advisor while he also became a guru for Jef when it came to Eastern music. During the following days, Lloyd visited Jef’s studio to practice bass and drums for the upcoming recording session while he continued working at the Rue Monge piano store to keep up his piano virtuosity.

Little did Lloyd know that his ticket to fame (but not fortune) in the jazz world would be in the hands of his new found friend. Lloyd would keep dropping by the Kiosque d’Orphée to chat with Jef who was planning the debut of a new jazz combo. He explained to Lloyd that he decided to have both upright and electric basses that could play lines in harmony sometimes or trade off playing bass lines and melodic passages or just play in unison or octave when appropriate. He also envisioned both tenor and soprano sax; this was before anyone used soprano in jazz except New Orleans master Sidney Bechet. Of course there would be a drummer and Jef would be on piano with his Thelonious Monk style. Finally, he was looking for someone who was a genius on any instrument and a solid soloist. When Lloyd asked who that was, Jef blandly looked him in the eye and stated “c’est vous.” Lloyd thought “me?” then stuttered “mais, moi...c’est à dire...suis rien...bah, alors... comment . . . (me, I’m nothing, how?)” Jef interrupted Lloyd’s hesitance with “non, mais, vous êtes parfait. Vous jouez n’importe quoi avec confiance; alors à mon avis vous êtes notre soloiste. (no, but you are perfect. You play no matter what with confidence, it’s my opinion that you are our soloist)” As Lloyd sat stunned, Jef invited him to a gathering at his place a few days later where they were having fondue and where the other musicians would be present. Jef told Lloyd to think about it and they would talk more at dinner.

Jef picked Lloyd up at the hotel in his rattley funny looking little Deux Chevaux and they cheerfully chatted all the way up to Jef’s place. There Lloyd met his new band buddies: quiet shy tenorman Pierre Caron, tall thin and playful electric bassist Alain Melet and a drummer.

A time was set for the first rehearsal and Jef once again asked Lloyd if he was ready for the commitment. About the potential band he stated “le bateau part si vous voulez être là d’dans.” Lloyd, sipping on a fancy liqueur and picking at a creamy cake, hesitantly agreed “d’accord, on va voir; mais savez, de temps en temps j’ai du boulot ‘ci’ là.” Jef promised that Lloyd would be free to play around town on his own at the Mars Club or the Caméléon or wherever, adding that there wouldn’t be any money playing in his band “il aura pas du fric, savez.” Lloyd muttered “fais rien, suis pas là pour le fric.”

Lloyd with Jef in the background

So during the next weeks, there were rehearsals sometimes twice a week or more where Jef would tediously teach everyone in the band what he was looking for, note by note. Jef found a funny little electric piano that was more like an accordion in tone and gave it to Lloyd to play it in the band. Then he sent Lloyd to check out and approve an African balaphone at an antique store in the Quarter near the hotel. Lloyd was to play solos on those odd instruments on certain pieces which he could easily do but was going crazy sitting through the long and lugubrious rehearsals.

Finally, Jef found a baritone horn to add to Lloyd’s solo instruments.On the balaphone, Lloyd found a way to get more than just the notes provided by the dozen long thin wooden bars with long thin resonance gourds under them. He would hold one mallet on the bar at a certain point where it would raise the pitch a half step providing notes that weren’t on the instrument.

Jef Gilson, Lloyd Miller, Hal singer playing Mother Africa

On the micro organ, he would try to find ways to fit in to the unusual arrangements about half of which were weird and crazy Monk type creations. Lloyd began to understand what Jef meant by French jazz. Some of his compositions had the flavor of old chansons that one would affiliate with accordion music
in small colorful bistros in Montmartre including charming French type waltzes.

The Gilson band began to play concerts around Paris and was attracting the attention of jazz writers and the R.T.F. (Radio Télévision Français). One of the favorite tunes in the Gilson repertoire was called Le Grand Bidou. It was a one-chord piece with a bluesy bass line and a great opportunity for modal improvisation. Lloyd immediately saw an opportunity to insert the East Indian tonic drone using a low note on the micro-organ, which he kept humming, by using a folded up piece of manuscript paper wedged in front of the key to keep it down. Then, since the instrument sounded like the ancestral Lao khen or bundle of bamboo pipes with free reeds in them, for his solo he couldn’t resist rendering the khene music he had been listening to from the UNESCO series of LP records of world music.

Jef had been working on public relations in the jazz scene and had added three instrumentalists who were more technically skilled. One was dark curly-headed North African soprano saxist Alain Tabar-nouval, short upright bassist Henri Texier and serious drummer Pierre-Alain Dahan.

The band played at youth clubs and in concerts almost nightly until they were ready for the big time. Jef continued with his exacting intensive rehearsals which included a retreat at a country cottage that he had access to in Vallais, a one store town about 220 kilometers outside of Paris on a country road.

Suite Pour San Remo Ouverture

One day when Lloyd walked into the door of the Saint André, Claude informed him that Jef had called and said that he was to join Jef and the band at the cottage and left directions. Claude handed Lloyd the car keys and wished him luck finding the place. Lloyd took off and got lost a couple of times before finding the ‘town’ and the cottage. When he arrived, all Jef’s friends and musicians were there, including the three new members. It was a wild weekend rehearsing, jamming and partying with a liberal supply of all types of alcoholic beverages and wonderful tasty food not to mention a few joints of pot.

Le Grand Bidou

One of the evenings, Jef decided to invite the whole village, maybe a dozen or so people, to join in a huge Swiss fondue party. Jef’s wife melted up a monstrous batch of cheese and everyone stuck pieces of bread on forks into the hot cheese until the bread was sort of toasted and saturated with cheese. Then Jef and the band played their full repertoire that they had been rehearsing for the locals who strangely liked it all. They all joined in for the goofy “un bidou et un bidou égalent . . .” bit working up to 6 replaced by ‘shoobidoo’ as Lloyd and all the villagers chanted along.

Back in Paris, Jef decided that Lloyd was ready to graduate from the baritone horn that he occasionally played to a tuba to join the two basses on a couple of numbers. So off they went to the marché a puces or flea market. After wandering through the maze of makeshift stalls, Jef came to an instrument dealer acquaintance where they found a big old tuba that Lloyd was able to get a few notes on; so Jef bargained it down and bought it. He had a plan for his big concerts, like the impending one at École Normale de Musique, to use the tuba as well as a real organ rather than the silly little micro organ Lloyd had been playing.

For the February 22 landmark concert at École Normale de Musique, Jef added the soloists from the Chamber Orchestra of Monaco including flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, etc. and members of the Robert Seto Orchestra including trumpet and bary sax. The large ensemble performed Jef’s same tunes which had become popular around Paris but with a much bigger sound.

After the huge success at Jef’s high-profile debut at the École Normale, his next prominent concert was at the famed Téâtre de l’Étoile, reported Combat on Monday March 5 by one of Jef’s strong supporters in the media, Jean Tronchot.

Jef (right) and Lloyd. © Lloyd Miller

It was about the time of the big debut at the École Normale that the famous Gilson 10 LP took Paris by storm. The recordings had been done at Jef’s Kiosque d-Orphée studio on Rue Grégoire-de Tours and featured some of the top hits of the Gilson band: Le Grand Bidou, Fable de Gutenburg and Bizz-are. Unfortunately, the LP didn’t have room for a few of the interesting later recordings of pieces like Chant Inca where Lloyd did a nice balaphone solo borrowing the initial notes of La Marseillaise, or Anamorphose where he wailed out a crazy micro-organ solo or St. Louis Blues with Lloyd’s amazing and honkin’ piano playing which included an esoteric intro then ending with a whole tone run on major seventh chord before rabidly ripping into a rolicky barreling blues. The other side of the 10-inch featured some of Jef’s earlier compositions performed by jazz names like Bobby Jaspar, Walter Davis Junior, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor. All the jazz media went wild over the LP which was soon selling like mad.

Fable of Gutenberg

But the fame gained by the Gilson band was not to last forever. Somehow a disagreement broke out between Jef and the three musicians who had most recently joined the band. They quit or were let go by Jef. After the breakup of the band, gigs became sparser and Lloyd was back to mostly working clubs.

Gilson went to Madagascar in 1968 and stayed away from French jazz scene for three years. Lloyd left Paris, too, and almost at the same time that Gilson headed for Africa, Lloyd returned to Iran for his longest stay in a foreign land - 7 years!

That part of the text which illustrates Lloyd Miller and Jef Gilson's collaboration is copyrighted © Lloyd Clifton Miller.


  1. Met Jef at his place with Lloyd in about 1994. When they were reunited they were like old lovers, looking into one anothers eyes steadfastly as they shared their newest music creations. You could tell that they had had great musical experiences together in the 60s. We will miss him. He was brilliant. Rest in peace Jef....loved one of his newer pieces titled "Happiness Market"...may you reside there now.

  2. We actually visited Jef again in 1999 and had a wonderful time with him again, staying at his home, meeting his neighbor and collaborator Willy Baird.

    1. Thanks for sharing these beautiful stories with us, Katherine.

  3. Thank you for this article on Gilson. He was my teacher in 1980's in Paris and I have many good souvenirs of its courses and passion for music.