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Herbie Nichols at 100

herbie-nichols

This week the Stone in New York City is hosting a four-night celebration of the centenary of Herbie Nichols, the composer and pianist who remained in obscurity during his lifetime but has since, thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of such admirers as Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Buell Neidlinger, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, been acknowledged as one of the most interesting figures of his era.

I read about Nichols before I heard him, as one of the figures profiled in A. B. Spellman’s great book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, four years after his death from leukemia at the age of 44. By placing his story alongside those of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, all of them much better known, the author granted him a certain standing. In career terms it was a tale of woe, very largely, but it seemed clear that public neglect never dimmed the light of Nichols’s creativity.

Then I got to hear his music — which wasn’t so easy at the time — and, like everybody else who “discovered” him for themselves, immediately recognised his great combination of complete originality and total accessibility. He was kin to Thelonious Monk, quite evidently, and also to Elmo Hope and Dick Twardzik, but with a different outlook.

Here are “23 Skidoo”, “Step Tempest” and “Shuffle Montgomery”, all from the two-volume set of 10-inch LPs recorded for the Blue Note label in 1955, titled The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums (and great abstract cover art by Martin Craig, proving that there was visual life at Blue Note before Reid Miles). And here’s “Love Gloom Cash Love”, the title track of another trio album recorded for Bethlehem three years later, with his old friend George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums.

So that’s Herbie Nichols, born on January 3, 1919 to parents who’d come to New York from St Kitt’s and Trinidad. These pieces are typical in that their characteristic jauntiness seems to be a light disguise for more nuanced feelings. He was great with titles — “House Party Starting”, “Terpsichore”, “S’Crazy Pad”, “Hangover Triangle” — but even better at coming up with combinations of melody, rhythm and harmony that sound completely fresh but also like something that’s been there all your life.

According to Spellman, he wrote a lot of poetry, too, particularly in hard times. I’d love to read that.

* The photograph of Herbie Nichols is by Francis Wolff.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. The guitarist Duck Baker introduced me to Herbie Nichols with his guitar traspositions and c.d. of Nichols music.

    January 4, 2019
  2. Mark Miller #

    My biography Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life, published in 2009, might be of interest. https://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?keyWords=herbie+nichols%3A+a+jazzist%27s+life&type&fbclid=IwAR2GaWqvrRR1Z9jlqoPZFl06H0CteUHcGCSgBne3o82NVdjJs6WRY_yUA8E

    January 4, 2019
  3. The slowed-down yet swinging and spirited version of “2300 Skiddoo” (as it’s “arbitrarily” titled on The Prophetic…) that’s part of the superb Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink Soul Note album Regeneration has to be one of the recording high spots of the 80s. But yes, always good, at any time, to go back to Nichols’s remarkable forward-thinking originals.

    Nichols was also, unusually, as I’m sure you know, Richard, an influential columnist and music journalist. In his Thelonious Monk biography, Robin DG Kelley writes that in the late 30s, when Nichols was barely 20 years old, he was “perhaps better known for his column in the black-owned [newspaper] New York Age”. He later freelanced for, among others, Music Dial, New York’s first black-owned jazz magazine, in 1944 “penning what proved to be the first critical notice of Monk”.

    January 4, 2019
  4. Mark Miller #

    Philip Watson, I have all of Nichols’ extant columns, about 20 altogether. I’d describe them as idiosyncratic rather than influential, although, yes, at “barely 20” he might have been better known for his column in the New York Age than as a musician, simply because he was scarcely known as a musician at that point. He also contributed to The Music Dial, as you note, as well as Rhythm and, on one occasion in 1956, Metronome. Nichols wrote two pieces that referenced Monk. The first, for The Music Dial in 1944, is actually a review of an Oscar Pettiford band in which Monk was playing. The second, for Rhythm in 1946, is, at some length, specifically about Monk.

    January 4, 2019
  5. Bill White #

    I too became aware of Nichols through the excellent Spellman book but didn’t acquire the music until quite a bit later. Miller’s book is a very worthwhile read.

    January 5, 2019
  6. Mark Miller: thanks for clarifying that. I have also just bought your book.

    January 5, 2019
  7. Herbie Nichols, brilliant! Almost forgotten unfortunately. I’ll be playing a concert with Rudi Mahall next Friday with Andrew Hill’s music. I didn’t know about Nichols’ birthday – otherwise we’d chosen definitely his music.

    January 5, 2019
    • Trevor Barre #

      Another greatly undervalued pianist/composer. Uwe, but thankfully with a much larger discography. Hill’s mid-60s Blue Note run is one of the greatest in modern jazz history, imho.

      January 9, 2019
  8. John Evans #

    Opening digression: Herbie’s 100th would have been my mother’s 101st, so his birthday does tend to stick in my mind.

    Mark Miller’s book has been available since 2013 in the print-on-demand edition (ISBN 9781551281650) referenced in his comment above.

    The original paperback edition (ISBN 9781551281469) was published in 2009 and received enthusiastic reviews in various jazz magazines. I saw a British review but found that the book could not be ordered through UK bookshops because the publisher (Mercury Press) didn’t seem to have any distribution outside Canada. I eventually bought a copy directly from a Canadian bookseller in mid-2010 and paid for postage to the UK.

    After a couple of years the scarcity of the original edition (how many copies were actually printed?) was picked up by the idiotic pricing algorithms used in online marketplaces, where grotesquely inflated prices continue to be quoted even today (nearly six years after the print-on-demand edition became available through the Lulu site). At the time of posting this comment, a bookseller in Maine is asking 4,000 US dollars for a used copy of ISBN 9781551281469 in ‘acceptable’ condition (this on AbeBooks.com), while a marketplace seller in New Jersey is asking 5,001 US dollars for an ex-library copy with ‘minor water damage’ caused by a warehouse fire (this on Amazon.com).

    January 6, 2019
    • Mark Miller #

      The book’s history in print is a bit torturous, I’m afraid, and involved the original publisher, The Mercury Press, reinventing itself as Teksteditions for e- and print-on-demand versions, which are what’s on offer from lulu.com. I’m not surprised that the book wasn’t available from UK bookshops, but it would have been available in its original form outside Canada through the Amazon network. It can only be had now, at least at an appropriate price, from lulu.com.

      January 9, 2019
      • John Evans #

        Thanks for responding. At this moment the seller in Maine is still asking $4,000 for a copy in used condition, but has now added a copy in new condition for $100.15. Over at Amazon.com the $5,001 used copy is still there, but a marketplace seller in Pennsylvania is now listing a new copy for $69.07. Another marketplace seller has listed a new copy on the British, German, Canadian and French Amazon sites (the asking price on Amazon.co.uk being £296.79).

        Amazon listings for ISBN 9781551281469 were few and far between (particularly on the UK site) when the book first came out. My Canadian copy came from a seller in Ontario who listed it on AbeBooks.co.uk.

        I hope that more people will now become aware of the publisher’s switch to the print-on-demand edition (ISBN 9781551281650).

        January 10, 2019
      • Trevor Barre #

        Interesting. I am wondering whether it might be worthwhile making my two books on UK Free Improvisation in the 60s and 70s available through print-on-demand. Printing is so expensive that I can’t really afford to get them printed in any bulk. I hate to think that they might be being sold for silly prices as has clearly happened with this very interesting-sounding Nichols book.
        Or maybe they can be found in charity shops for 50p!!

        January 10, 2019
  9. Ian Whiteman #

    I didn’t know jazz musicians could love that long.

    January 6, 2019
  10. I’m glad to see various jazz people shining some light on Herbie for his Centennial. Count me as another fan of Mark Miller’s book, too — I used Lulu.com to get the print-on-demand copy. Also, I just released a new album of Herbie’s music for his birthday, if any of you might be interested in it — it’s a (piano-less) track-by-track re-imagining of the ’56 Blue LP “Herbie Nichols Trio.” I posted some fairly in-depth multimedia digital liner notes, with Herbie’s original recordings and self-penned liner notes for each tune alongside my new arrangements and notes. You can check it all about at http://lucasgillan.com/herbie

    Enjoy!

    January 7, 2019
  11. Trevor Barre #

    The ‘tribute’ albums ‘Regeneration’ and ‘Change of Season’ by Lewis/Lacy/Mengelberg/Arjen Gorter and Han Bennink on Sou Note are also well worth checking out. They helped introduce me to Nichois’ world back in the mid-80s.

    January 9, 2019
    • John Evans #

      Trevor — this is a reply to your comment about print-on-demand.

      As I expect you’ve noticed, physical copies of your second volume are being priced up by marketplace sellers, while the first volume has disappeared completely (no physical copies on offer anywhere online). However, you do have both volumes available as Kindle e-books on Amazon. Is there anything in your Amazon agreement that would stop you from offering the same titles as print-on-demand through a site like Lulu?

      I don’t use Kindle myself, so I haven’t seen your books in that format, but looking at the user feedback on Amazon.co.uk your second volume has been heavily criticised for not being formatted correctly. You posted a comment in the Free Jazz blog in November 2017 saying that you had fixed the Kindle formatting, but the negative feedback on Amazon is dated later than that (December 2017 and January 2018). If you really have fixed the formatting problem, you need to go to the Amazon user feedback and post replies to those critical comments!

      I did manage to buy a physical copy of the second edition of your first volume (from Foyles bookshop) and I think it’s the kind of book that is much more readable on paper than on screen. (The only benefit of the e-format would be searchability to make up for the lack of an index.) One suggestion, though — if you do produce a print-on-demand edition, the pages need to have bigger fore-edge margins (the places where readers like to pencil in a few comments of their own).

      I have no experience of uploading content to Lulu, but I have bought a few print-on-demand books from them over the years (as well as a few PDF files) and I have never found anything to criticise about them.

      Good luck, whatever you decide.

      January 11, 2019
      • Trevor Barre #

        Dear John,
        Many thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment.
        Amazon assured me that the second book had been formatted properly. I will have to look into it again. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
        I completely agree with you about hard copy format being the best for this subject – e-book was a last resort, and readers have told me that they far prefer having a proper book to have and to hold!
        In the medium/long-term, I would like to combine both my books into one (am currently busy with putting the finishing touches to a biog of Barry Guy which I hope will be out later this year) and make this volume available in hard copy to those interested. I hate to think of either of the books being artificially priced out of existence.
        Richard’s blogs are so good for, among many other qualities, facilitating communication within the ‘lovers of all good music’ community.

        January 12, 2019

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