Discovering Jimmy Giuffre

When I first began listening to jazz in the late 1950’s I was initially drawn to the older big-band style, but over the next few years I began to discover another type of music with appeal. Some of the younger guys were playing a different form of jazz, and it caught my attention.

My first favorite was Dave Brubeck, and I still remember playing his big hit, “Take Five,” over and over on the jukebox at my college student center. But even though I remain a fan of his to this day, I eventually began to look beyond Brubeck to see who else was making interesting jazz. One of the first to catch my eye – or my ear – was Jimmy Giuffre, and I was reminded of that recently when I saw that he’d died in late April, just two days short of his 87th birthday.

His music was certainly different from that of Brubeck, and I was intrigued and fascinated by his edgy sound, full of breathy tones and hypnotic rhythms. Although he was new to me, I learned that Giuffre had been around since the days of the big bands, playing sax and clarinet for Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman. In fact, he’d written one of Herman’s bigger hits, “Four Brothers.”

But by the time he came to my notice he’d formed one of his many trios, and small groups would be his style for most of the rest of his career. However, he often experimented with different combinations of instruments within the groups, beginning with the Giuffre 3, which consisted of himself, Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena (later Jim Atlas) on bass. At one time, he also formed a trio with Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and yet another trio was composed of himself, pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.

His best-known tune from those years was probably “The Train And The River,” (video below) and it’s one of my favorites, but I’ve also always liked “Voodoo,” which also shows Giuffre’s constantly inventive approach to jazz. It was a quest that defined his career, which actually was pretty low profile for the last few decades of his life. Although he continued to perform – and record – through the years, much of his time was spent in other aspects of music, including as an educator.

His music isn’t heard much these days and his passing didn’t get a lot of attention, but he should be remembered as one of the jazz world’s true innovators.

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