Monday, April 28, 2008

Remembering a Legendary Forebrother

It's not often that I read a news item in an actual newspaper that I haven't already seen online somewhere. (For that reason, my trip through the front section of said paper takes even less time than before; I still subscribe because of the local stories, the sports coverage, and the comics...and the fact that I need something to read over lunch and don't want to spill food on my laptop while doing so.) So it was quite a surprise when I didn't discover until reading this morning's paper that the legendary jazz musician jimmy Giuffre had left this mortal coil last week:
Jimmy Giuffre, the adventurous clarinetist, composer and arranger whose 50-year journey through jazz led him from writing the Woody Herman anthem “Four Brothers” through minimalist, drummerless trios to striking experimental orchestral works, died on Thursday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 86 and lived in West Stockbridge, Mass.

The cause was pneumonia, brought about by complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife of 46 years, Juanita, who is his only survivor.

Among the half-dozen instruments he played, from bass flute to soprano saxophone, it was the clarinet that gave him a signature sound; it was a dark, velvety tone, centering in the lower register, pure but rarely forceful. But among the iconoclastic heroes of the late ’50s in jazz, he was a serene oddity, changing his ideas as fast as he could record them.
But there was also a personal angle to this:
Mr. Giuffre was born on April 26, 1921, in Dallas. He started on clarinet at the age of 9. He attended what was then North Texas State Teachers College, where he earned a degree in music in 1942; upon graduation he joined the Army for four years, playing with a quintet in mess halls at meal times, then moved to Los Angeles. After trying graduate work in music at U.C.L.A., he gave it up to study composition privately.
You may know North Texas State Teachers College as one of the previous names of my alma mater, the University of North Texas. And while Giuffre was there, he became a charter member of the Gamma Theta Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the same chapter I would join quite a few decades later. So far as we know, he was the only remaining living charter member (which was not surprising, since the chartering took place in 1940!), and I have enjoyed playing some of his music for the new members during the chapter history presentation I give on a regular basis. I never got to meet Brother Giuffre, but he may well have read the alumni newsletters that I edited for many years.

Read the whole article on his passing from the New York Times. One of the things that the article notes is that, after penning "Four Brothers" (we always wondered if he had the fraternity in the back of his mind when he wrote that), he never gained a wide audience because a lot of his music was too "out" for the mainstream. Seeing as how the older I get, the "outer" I like, it's high time for me to explore some more of Giuffre's music; it'll be cool to play some other stuff for the new brothers, and I bet I'll really like it myself.

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