Terry Gibbs: Tales of a True Bebopper

James Gavin's Overdue Ovation profile of 93-year-old jazz vibraphonist

TerryGibbs

Terry Gibbs (photo by Rebeka Gibbs)

“I am the oldest bebopper alive!” proclaims 93-year-old Terry Gibbs. This forefather of the jazz vibraphone may well be right; age-wise he beats out his closest competitors, including Roy Haynes (92), Jimmy Heath (91), Lee Konitz (90) and Sheila Jordan (89). Certainly few musicians of any age can top his ability to whip up a storm of excitement on his instrument. Having divided his career between the two coasts, Gibbs combined the manic energy of New York bop with the breezy swing of ’50s L.A. For decades he was a fixture on Steve Allen’s TV shows, and he made a standout appearance in the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which shows Dinah Washington joining him on vibes at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Gibbs has made more than 60 albums; several feature his Dream Band, a Hollywood nightclub sensation from 1959-61. Today, he embodies a lost age when jazz was a freewheeling way of life and its key motive was fun.

Six decades in California have not robbed his voice of its native Brooklyn overtones or its machine-gun rhythm. But by 2016 Gibbs had quit the vibes, fearing his stamina was slipping. “I’d been on the road for 80 years,” he says. “I figured I’d cool it for a while.” His son, drummer Gerry Gibbs, prodded him to try a jam session. Pianist John Campbell, bassist Mike Gurrola and Gerry joined him at his home in Sherman Oaks. Gerry’s wife posted a video on YouTube; it proved to the world—and to Gibbs himself—that he still had it. The label for which Gerry records, Whaling City Sound, convinced him to make one last album. That April, Gibbs reunited the band in his living room for four more jam sessions. “All my records are done live,” he says. “Just one take. We’re right on top of each other. Let’s forget the microphones, just play and have fun.” Last summer, 92 Years Young: Jammin’ at the Gibbs House topped the JazzWeek chart for radio play.

For all his love of entertainment, Gibbs has also used his music as a weapon against prejudice, whether it be in or out of jazz. In the ’50s he took an African-American female pianist, Terry Pollard, all over America, and brought blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon to a still-intolerant Las Vegas to sing with the Dream Band. The 1963 album Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazztime is the first recording of pianist Alice McLeod, later to become Alice Coltrane. No wonder vibraphonist Gary Burton points to Gibbs not only as a “pioneer of the vibraphone, and there have only been a handful,” but as a shrewd discoverer of talent. If the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship has so far ignored him, he’s gotten no shortage of other recognition.

Recently I sat with Gibbs in his sunny home office, with a pool outside. But as the stories flew, I felt as though I were on a speeding freight train, racing through several golden eras of jazz. He told me of the night in the late ’40s when Billie Holiday dropped in to see Woody Herman, Gibbs’ boss at the time, and called out, “Woody, let that boy play something for me—‘I Can’t Get Started.’” After the song she kissed him on the lips, in full view of everyone. His hero was Charlie Parker, but Gibbs was so militantly anti-drug that he threw Parker out of his car once when the saxophonist was stoned and nodding off with a cigarette. “I used my mouth, which was pretty bad at times, to say what I wanted to say,” Gibbs admits.

Born Julius Gubenko to Russian-Jewish parents, Gibbs seemed destined for a career as a classical drummer and timpanist; Juilliard even offered him a scholarship. But he fell in love with his brother’s vibraphone at a time when the instrument had only two famous players in jazz, Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton. Classical drumming—along with two other ambitions, boxing and baseball—faded from his life as Gibbs immersed himself in swing.

In 1945, he was home on furlough from the Army and hanging out with his Brooklyn buddy, Tiny Kahn, a hulking 300-pound drummer. “He could hardly wait to tell me about a new music called bebop. He took me down to the Three Deuces on 52nd Street to hear this band with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Max Roach. I had a minor nervous breakdown. I heard something that I’d been looking for, but how would I learn it?” Gibbs stayed until closing, then went on a mad dash to find more bop. “In those days nobody went to bed. You played ’til 4, then everybody went to jam at Minton’s in Harlem. Then we went to Smalls [Paradise]. And maybe got done about 10 o’clock.” For the next week or so, he returned nightly to hear Bird. He recalls sleeping in doorways, so desperate was he to keep the joyride going. “My folks had the police looking for me,” he says.

The next year Gibbs cut his first two 78s. Clearly he was scrambling to catch up to Bird. According to Gene DiNovi, the pianist on those sides, Gibbs’ playing was “as manic as he still is. It was frantic, all over the place.” One night Parker dropped into a club where Gibbs was playing and took his sax onstage. “I almost crapped my pants!” Gibbs says. He was so petrified of having to follow Bird that he crouched down and pretended to tie his shoe at the close of every chorus the saxophonist played.

But he was learning fast, and his fame was sealed when he worked with the Buddy Rich and Woody Herman orchestras, training grounds for some of the hottest newcomers in modern jazz. He even played briefly with Bird. His marriage, alas, did not survive the touring. “I’d go on the road for six months at a time,” he says. “And I was bad. I loved pretty girls.”

Sometimes it was for their talent. In 1953, while visiting Detroit with one of his early bands, Gibbs caught a set by a then-obscure trumpeter, Thad Jones. His pianist was Terry Pollard, 21. “I didn’t believe what I was hearing,” Gibbs says. “Now, Barbara Carroll was a good piano player; so was Marian McPartland. But as the cliché goes, they played like girls. Terry played more like a guy. She had that bebop feel.” Gibbs hired her away from Jones; shortly after that, Parker tried in vain to steal Pollard away.

Integrated bands were still controversial, but Gibbs employed Pollard for four years and endured nobody’s flak, even at a mob joint down South. “I get off the stage and there’s the club owner with two big goons. He says, ‘Terry, you are without a doubt the best attraction I ever had in my club. I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you 16 weeks a year if you get rid of that coon on piano.’ I said, ‘You know what? I’ll get rid of that coon on piano if you get rid of your fat wife!’ I walked away and figured, that’s the end of my life. But I couldn’t help it.”

In 1958, Gibbs moved to Los Angeles, where he created just as much of a scene. Moving into the Seville, a Hollywood club, he started developing the Dream Band: an aptly named summit of West Coast jazz royalty (including Frank Rosolino, Mel Lewis, Conte Candoli and Al Porcino) and a fleet of star arrangers (Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Manny Albam). The club, he says, was “loaded with movie stars, every musician. The guys in the band were making 15 dollars a night. And their bar tabs were 24.” He took the orchestra on tour. “I lost $20,000 a year. But we were having so much fun.”

It had to end, but his own popularity was just beginning. TV loved Gibbs, and his appearances with Steve Allen (whose television band he conducted), Regis Philbin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson kept his drawing power high. In the ’80s and ’90s he recorded a string of acclaimed albums for Contemporary and performed constantly. By 2003, when he published his memoir, Good Vibes: A Life in Jazz (written with Cary Ginell), Gibbs could also boast a happy home life. “My daughter calls me every day to find out if I’m alive. My son calls me every day, too, and I have a great wife. She’s 25-and-a-half years younger.”

As he showed me out, Gibbs pointed to his vibraphone, with the cover pulled over it—for good, he swears. But he’s not through. “Right now I got my drums in my room,” he explains. “I’m getting the snare drum down again—getting my chops back.”

Recommended Listening:

The Exciting Terry Gibbs Big Band Recorded Live at the Summit in Hollywood (Verve, 1961)

Bopstacle Course (Xanadu, 1974)

Buddy DeFranco/Terry Gibbs Quintet Holiday for Swing (Contemporary, 1988)

52nd & Broadway: Songs of the Bebop Era (Mack Avenue, 2004)

92 Years Young: Jammin’ at the Gibbs House (Whaling City, 2017)