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the daily review, monday, dec. 21

Herbie Nichols

The only bellowed greetings of "Herbie" from expectant jazz fans nowadays will be for star pianist Herbie Hancock. It's highly unlikely anyone 50 years ago was shrieking "Herbie" in honour of American piano pioneer Herbie Nichols, whose life ended early, in 1963 at the age of 44, from leukemia. Yet in his own, unique way, he was a towering figure in the music that, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, was undergoing wrenching revolutions of approach.

Paradoxically, almost half a century after his death, there's far more interest in Nichols, with research projects into his music, bands playing versions of his compositions and much curiosity from Europe.

Relatively little is known about Nichols outside his music. His story is not the stereotypical tale of a jazz life tormented by drugs, booze, gangsters and poverty. Don't expect a movie.

Finding out more about Nichols wasn't easy for author Mark Miller. New York pianist Frank Kimbrough, co-founder of the Herbie Nichols Jazz Project, told him: "Maybe if someone with a real detective streak took [a book]on, it would be possible, but I doubt it."

Miller is that dogged breed of jazz detective, The Globe and Mail's jazz critic for 25 years from 1978 and author of eight well-researched, accessible books on jazz, notably Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada, Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada and his invaluable Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz.

There's not much juicy information on Nichols's social life, save for brief references in letters to unnamed girls and the merest hint of deep affection for pianist Mary Lou Williams. Nothing pertaining to whisky and wild, wild women. That's because the erudite Nichols, an intellectual, a poet, a follower of classical composers, was obsessed with jazz piano and composing.

Miller nonetheless has done the jazz world a huge favour by pulling together the first appropriate biography of this neglected figure, whose name should be up there with keyboard giants such as Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson.

Nichols, born in Harlem, was always distinctively different, an outsider calling himself a jazzist, spending time in libraries and shunning the limelight despite clearly possessing the jazz chops for any musical context. Never wealthy, he took commercial jobs wherever he could find them but still managed to play what he had absorbed from the jazz piano tradition with elaborate intros, precise touch, darting phrases, dense ideas, short lines and dark harmonies.

Though universally praised by his peers, he never made it to the top. Says trombonist Bill Watrous: "He really wanted to be the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra." Nichols's music was adaptable, individualistic, complex and witty, but his unsociability, total lack of care for his health and reluctance to take risks - except on the keys - held him back.

This week's Daily Reviews

  • Monday: Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life, by Mark Miller
  • Tuesday: Heroic Measures, by Jill Ciment
  • Wednesday: I Am Here and Not Not-There, by Margaret Avison
  • Thursday: Reading Jesus, by Mary Gordon
  • Friday: Merry Christmas!

He first recorded in 1952, then played with Dixieland bands before his star flared bright and briefly in the mid-1950s when he recorded three Blue Note albums and one for Bethlehem, mostly in trios with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey or Max Roach.

The 24 Nichols compositions are fascinating, often looking beyond swing and bebop into the avant-garde. One of them is Lady Sings the Blues, which began life as a jazz staple without Billie Holiday's lyrics for the Nichols tune Serenade.

Taped in three months, the sessions came after 15 years of obscurity; for Cannonball Adderley, the wait was one month.

Nichols wrote prolifically, aware of his personality flaws, leery of jazz critics who he said should at least have a bachelor's degree in music, speculating on jazz-classical relationships and worrying why he was being overtaken in public interest by hordes of newcomers.

Miller's work is thorough, enlightening and a very readable achievement, filling a vital gap in jazz history.

Geoff Chapman wrote about jazz in The Toronto Star for 20 years.