In his long and wandering career, Jimmy Giuffre, who died on April 24, 2008 at age 86, defied easy, tidy summaries of his artistic vision. Moving from right to left and back, from swing to avant-garde, he wrote the Woody Herman tune “Four Brothers” but was also a free-jazz forefather. And although he was one of the early pioneers in chordless groups-in 1955, before Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman-one of Giuffre’s more pioneering chapters involved the pianist Paul Bley, in a trio also featuring bassist Steve Swallow.
Although failing to ignite much attention during their brief period together in the early ’60s, their albums 61 and Free Fall are now considered classics, early and important rumblings of the improvisational revolution to come. The trio reunited occasionally and put out a couple of albums in the early ’90s.
A kindred spirit of Giuffre’s, in terms of elastic, experimental and also lyrical sensibilities, Bley first joined Giuffre’s trio at a ripe time for both of them. Bley was working at the Five Spot in NYC when Giuffre came to call, asking him to replace the departing Jim Hall in Giuffre’s band. As Bley notes, “Giuffre deserves all the credit for the innovation where the emphasis was put on counterpoint. He had been doing it for a number of years in a number of different parts of the United States.
“My own contribution was to acknowledge the fact that that was a radical shifting of the emphasis for improvisers. We were stuck in the dilemma of chord changes being the motivating factor behind improvisations. But that was limited to the universe of harmony. Even though I played a chordal harmony instrument, I welcomed the opportunity to get rid of chords as the mainstay of improvising.
“Early on, Giuffre and I agreed on one thing: that we had to get rid of chords. They had dominated jazz for a very long time and to me there was nowhere to go with chords that hadn’t already been done. There was no fresh material for people to improvise on. A solution was needed by the main body of jazz players. And the solution was melody above all.”
In a way, the Giuffre trio was working alongside the then wave-making music of Ornette Coleman-an artist both Giuffre and Bley had crossed musical paths with-building on but also operating on its own parallel track to Coleman’s iconoclasm. An atmosphere of a new musical frontier was in the air, even if their music operated beneath the radar of the jazz scene of the day.
“It was a new frontier in a sense,” Bley says, “in that audiences were abandoning live performances en masse. It’s what people object to that describes you more than what people accept of you. It was a very difficult frontier. There was a time when free jazz was played by scoundrels and the dividing line is that if a musician can’t play jazz and innovate, then what else they’re doing is of no use to the jazz universe.”
Looking over Giuffre’s life and artistic efforts, Bley offers an appraisal of his contributions to jazz language and history. As Bley comments, with some wonderment, “Giuffre invented ‘Four Brothers,’ and then there’s all his work in the big-band era. Giuffre invented a timbre of subtones for the clarinet that he popularized single-handedly. That, in itself, would be worth a place in history. Later he added other reed instruments to the mix and extended that sound and that procedure to all the saxophones he played. Giuffre was always a composer. His compositions contributed contrapuntal group playing.
“Now, it’s not enough to be doing something for the first time. The trick is to do something in a manner that inspires other musicians down a similar path, and after awhile, that gives credence to the new direction. Anybody can change anything they want: It doesn’t mean it’s going to stick with the world of players. With somebody like Giuffre, who became a mainstream player, all of his innovations became part of jazz as it is today.
“He was one of a kind. He was an original. Remember, you are known by what you don’t do, not what you do do.”Originally Published