The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life

by Mark Miller
(The Mercury Press; Toronto)

Chapter Four
Brass Rings: 1955 - 1957

“Herbie Nichols is one of those musicians
who has been played dirty by Dame Fortune.”
Bill Coss
Metronome, September 19551

“1955 has been a lucky year for me.”
Herbie Nichols
Metronome, February 19562

Herbie Nichols had his champions, not least Alfred Lion, Charles Mingus and Bill Coss — a record producer, a musician and a critic. Each played a role in the events of 1955, a year in which Nichols’ prospects seemed at last to change for the better.

Nichols had been looking for a record date since the mid- 1940s — a proper record date, unlike his impromptu session for Hi-Lo in 1952.“I begged Al Lion ten years for a record,” he told A.B. Spellman. “He said I was the most persistent man he ever met, but he’s one of the most open-minded of them all.”3 Lion, co-owner with his fellow German émigré Francis Wolff of the independent label Blue Note, was not without reason in deflecting Nichols’ overtures. To the extent that the pianist had any profile at all, it was on New York’s dixieland scene; the music that he wished to record was both decidedly modern and, in its originality, only remotely like anything else already on the market — that is, like the music of Thelonious Monk. It would be, by any measure, a tough sell.

Lion, however, had given Monk his commercial record date as a leader in October 1947 and several more thereafter; Monk’s initial session, and others earlier that same year by singer Babs Gonzales’ Three Bips and a Bop and by pianist Tadd Dameron signalled the introduction of modernists to a roster that had been dominated since Blue Note’s inception in 1939 by traditional and Swing musicians, from Sidney Bechet to Lester Young.

Lion had also recorded Wynton Kelly in 1951, Horace Silver in 1952 and Kenny Drew and Elmo Hope in 1953, all of them pianists, and all of them for the first time under their own names. He would give the same opportunity to Sonny Clark in 1957 and to Andrew Hill in 1964.

Nichols thus had precedent in his favour when he approached Blue Note once again, stopping by the company’s Lexington Avenue office with some recordings for Lion to hear — perhaps his Hi-Lo sides Who’s Blues and ’S Wonderful, more likely some newer demos that would have offered a clearer representation of his music — and then playing several more of his compositions for Lion in person at a midtown rehearsal studio. Lion relented at last, signing the pianist to an exclusive contract.4

“I hadn’t been so excited about someone since I first heard Monk,” Lion told fellow record producer Michael Cuscuna in 1985, his enthusiasm — as he recalled it — seemingly at odds with the length of time it took him to respond favourably to Nichols’ entreaties. “Herbie and I went to Nola’s studio one afternoon and he played me tune after tune,” Lion continued. “My gosh, they were all great. I would ask what’s this called and make notes. I wanted to record everything he had just like I did with Monk in ’47. His stuff was so original and it swung.”5

Nichols subsequently offered an acknowledgement in Metronome to Charles Mingus and Teddy Kotick, who, as he noted vaguely, “enabled me to land the contract.”6 The role of the two bassists in this regard is unclear. Had they each put in a good word with Lion on Nichols’ behalf? Mingus, who shared Nichols’ great respect for the Ellington tradition, had been among the musicians who “extended themselves a little to encourage [Nichols] and express faith in his originality of conception” — as Leonard Feather wrote rather elliptically in his liner notes for Blue Note’s first Nichols releases. Feather also mentioned pianist Ellis Larkins and alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce in this regard.7

Or had Mingus and Kotick helped Nichols in some other, more practical way, perhaps by playing on demos, or rehearsing with the pianist in preparation for his Blue Note audition? Whatever the case, Nichols for the moment could only offer them his thanks in return. Neither bassist participated in the pianist’s four Blue Note sessions during 1955, although Kotick would play on the fifth, in 1956. Nichols left — or was required to leave — the selection of his accompanists to Alfred Lion, who tried to recreate history by booking bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Art Blakey for the first session; Ramey and Blakey had accompanied Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver on their first Blue Note recordings.

Ramey remembered his experiences with Monk and “that other strange piano player,” namely Nichols, years later in a conversation with the critic Doug Ramsey. Ramey balked when, in rehearsal for the Nichols sessions, the pianist asked him to play the first tune in the key of D-flat while he — Nichols — played it a half-step lower in C.

“Now, those keys are at war,“ Ramey told Ramsey. “If he had wanted me to go in E-flat or even E, it might have been interesting. But that’s a bad marriage, C and D-flat. So I made everybody mad, refused to do it. I called Al McKibbon and he made the record.”8

As it happened, McKibbon had recorded with Art Blakey under Monk’s leadership for Blue Note in 1951. Unlike Ramey, who was several years older than Nichols and a product of the Kansas City scene of the Swing Era, McKibbon and Blakey were Nichols’ contemporaries — the bassist younger by two days, the drummer by nine months — and evidently more comfortable with his progressive ideas. At the time, McKibbon was working regularly with another pianist, George Shearing, while Blakey and Horace Silver were sharing the leadership of a band that would carry on for more than 30 years under Blakey’s direction alone, the Jazz Messengers.

Blakey’s recollection that he “never knew Herbie too well, didn’t even know where he lived,”9 would suggest that he had little if any prior contact with the pianist before they rehearsed at Nola’s — first with Ramey and then, if Ramey’s story is true, presumably with McKibbon — in anticipation of their initial recording session. Long rehearsals, according to Lion, who noted that Nichols’ music was “very hard to play.”10

Quite — as the recordings that Nichols was about to make would reveal. Although he favoured the standard AABA song form — theme repeated (AA), bridge (B), theme (A) — he often extended his theme on the final repeat by four or more bars (in effect AABA+) and otherwise adjusted or augmented the structure of his compositions in ways that would have kept his accompanists, normally instinctive in their handling of the AABA form, ever on the alert.

So, too, would the particulars of his arrangements. Nichols’ introductory passages, for example, previously evident in Mary Lou Williams’ version of Stennell/Opus Z and in his own recordings of Who’s Blues and ’S Wonderful,were a significant feature of all but two of the 30 sides that he recorded for Blue Note; he invariably ended his pieces in the same way that he had started them, reprising their opening figures and thus strengthening their external symmetry, whatever their internal asymmetries.

Those figures could be fanfares as few as four bars in length or preludes as many as 12. Some were drawn from his main theme, some not.All included drum salvos that served to rally the musicians for the performance that followed and, when those same figures were repeated several choruses later, signalled its dénouement. Again, Nichols’ bassist and drummer, whoever they were, would have to be vigilant, the latter especially, given the cues that he had to catch and the breaks — two bars, sometimes four — that he was required to fill.

Nichols was similarly prescriptive with the solos that he allowed his accompanists to take — his drummers, almost exclusively — within the body of a performance, occasionally a full chorus but more often parts thereof, four or eight bars at a time, integrated in such a way as to forward, rather than interrupt, the music’s momentum.

In matters of harmony, Nichols was no less his own man, well-versed in its theory and application throughout the history of music and inclined to approach it from the perspective of a composer before that of an improviser.Accordingly, his harmonic progressions — his “changes” — were not general to jazz but specific to each of his compositions, or rather to the melodies that he wished to underscore and the effects of colour, texture and mood that he wished to evoke. In particular — and in the judicious manner of Duke Ellington — he used dissonance in the piano’s lowest register masterfully for its darkness, its edge and its ambiguity, whether the rich overtones of a single, held note or the resonant voicing of a chord.

His manner of improvising might have seemed, in theory, relatively simple to his accompanists, based as it so often was on theme and variation, a principle as old as jazz itself, indeed older — dating back in classical composition to the 16th century. In theory simple, but in fact hardly straightforward. Most of Nichols’ solos subjected the defining melodic fragment, or fragments, of any given piece quite freely to reiteration, alteration and ornamentation. He connected these broken allusions no less freely with a variety of recurring decorative figures and digressive runs in the right hand — recurring, that is, from tune to tune — and further contextualized them through irregular harmonic shifts and rhythmic displacements in the left.

As Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker later suggested, “He likes his melodies, and he keeps returning to them, so that by the end of the performance they seem twice as imposing.”11 Those of Nichols’ solos — or those parts thereof — that did not develop through paraphraseology, as it were, still employed the same recurring figures for continuity and applied the same sort of shifts and displacements for contextualization.

Either way, this interspersion of repetitions and cross references gave many of his solos on his Blue Note recordings a doubled back, déjà entendu quality — the sense that he was rarely ever very far from where he had started. Not for Nichols the striving linearity of Bud Powell or the sweeping melodic arc of bebop more generally. He tended instead to rattle along within a fairly narrow dynamic range, all the while generating a kinetic sort of urgency characterized by the jostling density of his ideas and the unhesitating yet deliberate way in which he developed, or did not develop, them — usually at spirited tempos sustained by his accompanists with unswerving drive and unwavering intensity. To that end, on record at least, he asked that his drummers use sticks, never brushes — and, more generally, that his drummers and bassists be firm and clear in their delineation of the beat so that he in turn could be all that much freer with it.

More abstractly, his music was also intensely personal, often evoking a subtext in programmatic or narrative fashion. The unfolding events of The Gig and House Party Starting, the mind’s eye images of Cro-Magnon Nights and Amoeba’s Dance, the people and places of Nick at T’s and ’Orse at Safari — these all meant far more to him than he could expect to convey merely with the melodies and chord changes on the lead sheets, so elegantly scribed, that he placed in front of his colleagues.

His music was indeed, as Alfred Lion acknowledged, very hard to play, harder still for three musicians who had rehearsed it just once or twice together before they travelled on May 6, 1955 to the Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. There — in what was in fact the living room of a house owned by the parents of the studio’s engineer, Rudy Van Gelder — Nichols, McKibbon and Blakey recorded six of the pianist’s tunes, three of them twice. A week to the day later, they recorded six more, four of them twice.

Mark Miller©2009


Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life - Mark Miller

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