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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Sunday, August 14, 2005

herbie nichols: american enigma

One of the things about being a late night jazz dj in a big city...is this deeply rewarding feeling you get dropping a track at 2AM and knowing that it's going to hit the city's audio speakers in so many different ways:

Cabs, restaurant kitchens, bedroom clock radios, hi-fi stereos in posh apartments...like an instant kaleidoscope...the sounds emanating from your humble turntable get refracted in so many different ways and settings...a portrait of a place and time you'll never see...but one you can imagine if you close your eyes.

As a dj in New York City you also know that there's likely to be a jazz musician somewhere listening to what you're playing. Thinking about it. Hearing it. Thriving in Tempo...

That's why I always played some Herbie Nichols.

Herbie Nichols is an American secret, an enigma, a composer and pianist who worked in obscurity for two decades and died of leukemia at the age of 44 in 1963....by all accounts he was a nice guy.

Forced to play in conventional Dixieland bands to make money, Nichols never stopped composing his own, more contemporary music. Like Thelonius Monk, a friend of Nichols and a colleague from their days at Minton's Playhouse, Nichols' melodies are intrigueing and strangely compelling, they are also tour de force examples of jazz improvisation.

You can play a Nichols' track like the Third Word or Step Tempest and feel like something of the American night has been bottled and its fragrance captured for all time...the pulse, the swing, the drive of the music reflects the scintillations and restless energy of the New York street. Nichols' music reformulates that street energy and, in doing so, effortlessly captures something of urban experience that previously seemed uncapturable...much like the painter Charles Demuth did with his Figure Five in Gold.

Now, for jazz musicians, Nichols is a known and loved figure. Figuring out the changes in Shuffle Montgomery or House Party Starting is part of learning the craft. Like folks said about Mozart, you could never guess what Nichols was going to do next...his music is supple, unpredictable, inquisitive, and open-ended. It is art for the artist, for the love of it. It's also musical...and beautiful...and worthy of listening and savoring to this day. This is straight ahead jazz at its highest level. God knows Nichols never received the fame or attention he deserved in his lifetime. (Significantly, he made sure his compositions were stored at the Library of Congress. You see, Herbie Nichols knew.)

For me, Nichols is much like French classical composer and pianist Erik Satie, an artist so uncompromising and unshakeable that he simply had to do it his way. We know Nichols' name, much like we know Satie's (composer of the eternally beautiful Gymnopedies), because Nichols was the author one of Billie Holiday's signature tunes....Lady Sings the Blues. There is, however, so much more.

As it stands, his recorded output is all we have. And that will have to be enough. Photos of Nichols always show a thoughtful, introspective man...but if you take a second look you can also see the face of someone who never received the recognition or respect he deserved. You can see the hard years logged playing music that wasn't his to audiences who could have cared less.

That's why, for a jazz dj working the late shift in a big city...there's always time to play some Herbie Nichols..time to send his music out to those listeners who can hear it...to release it into the urban night....where it resonates...and where, finally, it belongs.

There is not much Nichols' availible for listening online. Amazon has some lower quality samples. Personally, I own Blue Note's the Art of Herbie Nichols, a single CD selection by Michael Cuscuna that is worth every penny if you can find it.

(PS: Ear Fuzz is good tonight. Don't miss the El Cerrito High School track...it'll bring a smile to your face...good stuff in a weird way.)



  • Thanks for the tip on Nichols. I went to download a song and learned he did Blue Chopsticks, a favorite of mine. I'll be listening as soon as License to Ill is over.

    By Blogger faboo, at 10:29 PM  

  • That's so cool....I'm glad you liked it....and found a way to get some of his music...

    kid o.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 10:44 PM  

  • K/O like the change of pace of your postings...not everything is political.

    By Blogger inthedumpster, at 9:24 PM  

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