For weeks, the CD reissue of Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s 1961 album A World of Piano! has been propped up near my computer as a reminder to post something about him. It is neither his birthday (December 14, 1931) nor the anniversary of his death (May 26, 1989), and no recently discovered Newborn recording has been released, but we need no special occasion to remember his astonishing talent.
Because he was sporadically troubled by emotional instability, Newborn’s career was spotty. He never got the recognition his virtuosity might have brought him if his health had been on an even keel. Still, from the time the young man from Memphis debuted with Lionel Hampton in 1950, musicians and informed listeners were aware that he was a phenomenon. He made a splash in New York in the mid-fifties when Count Basie and the producer-promoter John Hammond gave him a boost. He worked in a duo with Charles Mingus and played with the bassist on the soundtrack of John Cassevetes’ celebrated art film Shadows. His recordings on RCA, Atlantic, Roulette, Steeplechase, Pablo and a smattering of other labels remain available and sell steadily if modestly. Few serious jazz pianists are without Newborn shelves in their collections.
Through the ’60s and ’70s he recorded a series of albums for Contemporary, at first as a sideman with Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards, then four under his own name. Concord Records, the custodian of the Newborn Contemporary CDs, has allowed several of them to drop out of the Original Jazz Classics catalogue. Some of them have resurfaced as imports and may be found, along with other Newborns, at this web site. It would be difficult to go wrong with any of them. There are, as far as I can determine, no Phineas Newborn albums worthy of fewer than four-and-a-half stars out of five. You will find his complete discography here.
A few clips of Newborn playing with the monumental bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Kenny Dennis have shown up on You Tube. They all seem to come from the Jazz Scene USA televison program hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr., in the early 1960s. If you’re unfamiliar with Newborn, try “Oleo” for an introduction to the piston-perfect technique of his fast playing and “Lush Life” for proof that his harshest critics were wrong when they accused him of being without feeling.
As for the pronunciation of Newborn’s first name, it has been solidly established by family and close friends that he preferred “Fín-uhs” (as in “finest”).