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Terry Gibbs: Tales of a True Bebopper

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

Terry Gibbs (photo by Rebeka Gibbs)
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.

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