Giuffre, Jimmy

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Jimmy Giuffre

Clarinetist, saxophonist, bandleader, composer

The career of jazz performer Jimmy Giuffre spanned the period from the heyday of the big bands through the free jazz experimentation of the 1960s and beyond, into the world music-influenced styles of the 1970s and 1980s. Onto each of these developments he put his personal stamp, with unusual playing techniques on the clarinet, flute, and various saxophones. His original compositions and distinctive textures were infuenced by the polyphonic (multi-line) writing of classical music rather than the melody-with-chords standard of jazz. Some of Giuffre's experiments went over the heads of audiences in his own time, but he had a long career as a teacher and was rediscovered by younger players and jazz listeners before his death in 2008.

James Peter Giuffre (pronounced JOO-free) was born on April 26, 1921, in Dallas, Texas. His first instrument was the clarinet, which he took up at age nine and played for campfire meetings at his local YMCA as a teen. Giuffre enrolled at North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas), studying music there and graduating in 1942. After that he spent four years in the armed forces, playing in musical groups during his service. Giuffre plunged into the world of jazz after his discharge, signing on briefly as a saxophonist with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and then as an arranger with the Second Herd big band of clarinetist Woody Herman.

That led to Giuffre's first big success: his 1947 composition "Four Brothers," written to showcase the Herman band's all-star saxophone section. Giuffre's arrangement went beyond the usual massed-saxophone sound of the big bands. "A miniature masterpiece of section-writing and spurs to individual flights," wrote John Fordham in the London Guardian, "‘Four Brothers’ showed how distinctively he was already negotiating the tricky jazz compromise of freedom and organization." Giuffre joined Herman's band in 1948 as a saxophonist, replacing Zoot Sims, and he became musical director for the band of drummer Buddy Rich.

Settling in Los Angeles, Giuffre studied composition with Wesley LaViolette, a peripatetic teacher active in both jazz and classical music. At first he played in country and even Mexican bands to pay the bills, but the new cool jazz style taking shape on the West Coast was favorable for his sophisticated style. Giuffre played clarinet and tenor and baritone saxophones with Shorty Rogers' Giants and Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, two of the earliest cool jazz groups, and in the mid-1950s he emerged as a leader himself. He recorded for the Capitol label and then for Atlantic. His 1955 Capitol album Tangents in Jazz treated the rhythm section not simply as a fixed layer of support but as a part of the ensemble whose music could be planned out like that of any other instrument.

In the late 1950s Giuffre turned to the trio format, which became for many years his favorite medium for expressing his musical ideas. The Jimmy Giuffre Three was unlike any other jazz trio of the day. In place of the usual configuration of lead instrument, piano, and drums, Giuffre created a set of three equal parts, often his own reed instrument plus guitar and bass, that he noted was influenced by the instrumentation of French classical composer Claude Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola, and harp.

However innovative his textures may have been, Giuffre's music remained accessible and melodic at this point. He called his music blues-based folk jazz and even enjoyed a modest pop hit with the bluesy "The Train and the River." Giuffre appeared performing the piece in two widely viewed visual documents of jazz from the late 1950s: the 1957 television special The Sound of Jazz and the film Jazz on a Summer's Day, made the following year at the Newport Jazz Festival. Giuffre favored a warm, smoky sound preferring the lower range of his clarinet, and when he took a job teaching the instrument at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, the French jazz writer André Hodeir (according to the London Independent) quipped, "Who will be teaching the upper register?"

The Lenox School of Jazz served not just as an instructional venue but also as a meeting place for progressive jazz musicians, and it was there, in 1959, that Giuffre encountered the controversial saxophonist Ornette Coleman, then a scholarship student at the school. Coleman's "free jazz" experiments made a deep impression on Giuffre, and in the early 1960s, working in a trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, he devised his own version of free jazz—often dissonant improvisation unmoored to any specific tune or harmonic structure. Giuffre's trio-sized free jazz, as heard on the albums Thesis, Fusion, and especially Free Fall (1962), was unique, but it was overshadowed at the time by Coleman's groundbreaking 1959 release The Shape of Jazz to Come and similar releases by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Free Fall featured cover art by Giuffre's soon-to-be wife, Juanita, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life and who contributed occasional compositions to his repertoire. Although Giuffre's work later won acclaim in reissues by the Columbia and ECM labels, the Giuffre-Bley-Swallow trio found tough sledding with audiences and finally disbanded, after passing the hat while performing at a coffee house on Bleecker Street in Manhattan and netting a total of 35 cents per player.

That commercial failure temporarily put a stop to Giuffre's recording career, although he remained active as a performer and teacher at such institutions as New York University, the New School, and, until he was sidelined by illness in the 1990s, the New England Conservatory. In the 1970s Giuffre recorded with a quartet that explored African and Asian influences. He reunited with Bley and Swallow for the albums Diary of a Trio: Saturday and Diary of a Trio: Sunday in 1989. Giuffre and his wife settled down in rural West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Despite his original contributions to several key jazz styles, Giuffre was rarely ranked in the top levels of the jazz pantheon. But jazz historian Ted Gioia argued to Michael E. Young of the Dallas Morning News that Giuffre's influence "is greater than most people realize. … My experience is that younger players who hear his recordings become deeply impressed. It's getting them to listen to the first one that's the challenge. He fails on the ‘hipness’ chart—it's not cool to listen to him the way it is to listen to Monk or Mingus." By the early 1990s Giuffre's innovative free jazz music had been rediscovered by young players such as the French bass clarinetist André Jaume, who sought Giuffre out for lessons. Giuffre toured Europe with Bley and Swallow and recorded the Fly Away Little Bird album with them in 1992. But he was already battling the effects of Parkinson's disease, and in the mid-1990s he had to give up performing for good. He died of complications from Parkinson's in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on April 24, 2008.

For the Record …

Born James Peter Giuffre, April 26, 1921, in Dallas, TX; married, wife's name Juanita; died April 24, 2008, in Pittsfield, MA. Education: North Texas State Teachers College (now University of North Texas), studied music, graduated 1942.

Writer, arranger, and later member, Woody Herman's Second Herd, late 1940s; performed with Shorty Rogers' Giants and Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, Los Angeles, early 1950s; formed Jimmy Giuffre 3, ca. 1954; recorded Tangents in Jazz, 1955; appeared on The Sound of Jazz television special, 1957; taught at Lenox School of Jazz, 1957-59; formed trio with Paul Bley, Steve Swallow; recorded Free Fall, 1961; instructor, New York University, the New School, New England Conservatory; recorded with quartet, 1970s; reunited with Bley and Swallow, 1989; toured Europe, early 1990s.

Awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Hall of Fame, inducted 1984.

Selected discography

Four Brothers, Capitol, 1954.

Tenors West, GNP, 1955.

Tangents in Jazz, Capitol, 1955.

The Jimmy Giuffre Three, Atlantic, 1956.

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, Atlantic, 1956.

Music for Brass, Columbia, 1957.

Western Suite, 1958.

Travelin' Light, Atlantic, 1958.

The Music Man, Atlantic, 1958.

Seven Pieces, Verve 1959.

The Easy Way, Verve, 1959.

Ad Lib, Verve, 1959.

Piece for Clarinet and String Orchestra, Verve, 1960.

The Jimmy Giuffre Quartet in Person, Verve, 1960.

Thesis, Verve, 1961.

Fusion, Verve, 1961.

Free Fall, Columbia, 1962.

Music for People, Birds, Butterflies and Mosquitoes, Choice, 1972.

Quiet Song, Improvising Artists, 1974.

River Chant, Choice, 1975.

Dragonfly, Soul Note, 1983.

Quasar, Soul Note, 1985.

Eiffel: Live in Paris, CELP, 1987.

Liquid Dancers, Soul Note 1989.

Diary of a Trio: Saturday, 1989.

Diary of a Trio: Sunday, 1989.

Fly Away Little Bird, Sunnyside, 1992.

Hollywood & Newport, Fresh Sound, 2004.

The Complete Capitol & Atlantic Recordings of Jimmy Giuffre, Mosaic.



Gioia, Ted, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, Oxford University Press, 1992.


Dallas Morning News, May 10, 2008.

Guardian (London, England), April 30, 2008, p. 34.

Independent (London, England), April 29, 2008, p. 34.

New York Times, April 26, 2008, p. C9.


"Jimmy Giuffre," All Music Guide, (June 28, 2008).

"Jimmy Giuffre: Cry Freedom," All About Jazz, (June 28, 2008).

—James M. Manheim