Jazz Institute of Chicago

Most Valued Player: Herbie Nichols

Most Valued Player: Herbie Nichols
by Nic Jones

There is a tradition of dissent in the realm of jazz piano playing, and it stretches from Count Basie to Andrew Hill. The players within it all forsook or have forsaken what might be called correct virtuosity in favour of idiosyncratic approaches of their own devising. Within this stream there is a small enclave occupied by a trio of pianist-composers, namely Hill, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Nichols, who even now enjoys comparatively little coverage.

Nichols was born in New York in 1919 and died there forty-four years later. In the course of his brief life he was for a time an associate of Monk's, though to consequently call his music Monk-like is to do it a grave disservice. He played with—amongst others—Milt Larkin and Rex Stewart out of economic necessity. His own harmonically extraordinary music was no small distance removed from theirs.

This is not to imply however that his music amounted merely to an academic exercise. As it was to be with Andrew Hill some years later, Blue Note records afforded Nichols an unprecedented opportunity to record his own music, and he made full use of it, as the three CD set of 'The Complete Blue Note Recordings' shows. The music found here comes exclusively from his pen and it was recorded in a bout of concentrated recording activity between May 6, 1955, and April 19, 1956. It was all performed in the trio setting, and throughout Nichols plays with a variety of virtuosity that couldn't be included in any jazz curriculum.

As a player he has capable not only of dark lyricism but also of writing melodies so harmonically adventurous that they can make the listener laugh out loud over their audacity. Furthermore, his music was in a rhthymic league of its own, and Nichols was indeed fortunate in the drummers he worked with in his brief recording career—these Blue Note sides find him in the company of both Art Blakey and Max Roach.

In his lifetime Nichols only put out four records under his own name, three for Blue Note and one for the even smaller Bethlehem label, this time in the company of Dannie Richmond, Charles Mingus's drummer of choice. This date offers listeners evidence of his way with a standard song or two. His performance on "Too Close For Comfort" reveals that his musical personality was entirely his own despite any lazy pigeonholing which critics might have indulged in.

The music of Herbie Nichols is undoubtedly an acquired taste. Whilst he ploughed an individual furrow he did so with clarity of purpose and vision. The irony of it is that if he were alive today he would probably have to work outside of music in order to make a living. The passing of time has moved several steps away from the recording and marketing of music as idiosyncratic as his. As such, his life was and is a stark example of the gulf between art and commerce.

Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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