By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Jimmy Giuffre, a jazz musician who composed a popular big-band anthem of the 1940s and became an innovator of a minimalist form of classically inspired jazz, died April 24 at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass. He had Parkinson's disease and would have turned 87 today.
Mr. Giuffre (pronounced JOO-free) had his greatest early fame as the composer of "Four Brothers," a popular instrumental hit for Woody Herman's big band in 1947. Later, after a stint in the saxophone section of Herman's big band, Mr. Giuffre formed a series of trios that explored what he called "blues-based folk jazz."
His groups, invariably called the Jimmy Giuffre 3, often included guitarist Jim Hall and blended advanced musical techniques with a homespun, back-porch feeling. Mr. Giuffre, who played clarinet, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone in the 1950s, gained modest popularity in the late 1950s and was featured in the documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day," filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
Later, as his ideas reached beyond the mainstream, Mr. Giuffre lost his audience and concentrated on teaching and composing. In the past 10 years, however, as his early recordings were re-released, he was recognized as a subtle and forward-thinking jazz pioneer.
"Jimmy followed his own angel," trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, a former member of Mr. Giuffre's trio, said yesterday. "He was one of the most courageous and dedicated men I ever met. He didn't care about what was profitable. He did what he felt was necessary."
After early experience in jazz bands, Mr. Giuffre took an interest in counterpoint, fugues and other elements of classical music. He became identified with John Lewis, George Russell, Gunther Schuller and other musicians who sought to blend jazz and classical music in a style known as Third Stream.
Mr. Giuffre's approach was decidedly understated. His "chamber jazz" trios had neither piano nor drums and instead relied on Hall's guitar and Mr. Giuffre's saxophones or his warm, dusky-sounding clarinet. The result was a fresh, open sound that was both forward-looking and reminiscent of Appalachian jug bands.
He recorded with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and the Modern Jazz Quartet and adapted songs from "The Music Man" into a suite performed by a nine-piece jazz combo. His 1956 album "The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet" opened with him playing a blues tune on clarinet, accompanied only by his tapping foot. In live performances, he and his group often played improvisations that could lead anywhere.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Giuffre added flute and soprano saxophone to his instrumental repertoire and teamed with avant-garde pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. But record companies and audiences turned away, and by 1964 Mr. Giuffre was touring coffee shops with only his clarinet in hand.
"I don't play to win a mass audience, although I wouldn't shun them if they wanted to come along," he told The Washington Post in 1964. "The best way to win a mass audience is to cater to the most familiar. If I wanted that, I'd play with Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk."
James Peter Giuffre was born in Dallas on April 26, 1921. He played in local bands in his teens, graduated from what is now the University of North Texas and played in Army bands during World War II.
By 1946, he was in California, where he arranged music and sometimes played in bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Rich. He also studied for several years with classical composer Wesley La Violette.
In 1947, Mr. Giuffre composed a swirlingly infectious tune for Woody Herman's Second Herd, a band whose reed section included baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff and tenor players Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Herbie Steward, who were known as the Four Brothers. (Al Cohn later replaced Steward.) When Mr. Giuffre took over Sims's chair in 1949, he was finally able to play his own hit tune with Herman's band.
From 1951 to 1956, Mr. Giuffre worked with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars and groups led by drummer Shelly Manne and trumpeter Shorty Rogers as part of the new West Coast jazz movement. He moved to New York in 1956.
When his performing career began to fade, Mr. Giuffre turned to composing for theater, ballet and commercials and also taught at New York University, the New School and the New England Conservatory of Music.
After experimenting with electronic music in the 1980s, Mr. Giuffre returned to his earlier style and toured internationally until 1996. He retired from teaching that year, when his Parkinson's symptoms began to worsen.
Since 1976, he had lived in an 18th-century mill in West Stockbridge, Mass., with his wife of 42 years, Juanita O. Giuffre, who is his sole survivor.