Remembering Clare Fischer

After Gary Foster informed me of Clare Fischer’s death at 83 on Friday, I went to the LP shelves, got out Dizzy Gillespie’s 1960 recording A Portrait of Duke Ellington and listened to all of it. For perhaps the hundredth time, I was moved by the originality that Fischer brought to the daunting task of recasting pieces by the acknowledged master of jazz composition. In an irony of Fischer’s career, the understated brilliance of his arrangements for that remarkable collection went uncredited. The album notes did not mention him. They mentioned no one in the band but Gillespie. Over the years, despite Norman Granz’s Verve Records keeping it a secret, the identity of the arranger slowly made its way through the jazz underground. When finally it became general knowledge that the charts were Fischer’s, few in jazz were surprised.

By then, his writing and piano playing were greatly admired among musicians. Fischer’s vocal arranging for the Hi-Los in the late 1950s and early ‘60s had attracted attention that increased as he wrote for George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Bud Shank, among others, and for his own instrumental and vocal groups. His playing was some of the most compelling of the many pianists who developed in the wake of Bill Evans. He himself became an influence on Herbie Hancock and other younger pianists. Don Heckman traces Fischer’s career in this Los Angeles Times obituary.

The Gillespie album, his work on several Hi-Los recordings, his albums as pianist and arranger with Tjader, his collaborations with saxophonist Foster and his own big band albums, are essential to serious collections. There is a selection of them here. Thesaurus has some of his finest writing for big band. The sublime Songs For Rainy Day Lovers, long out of print, still turns up on sites, including this one, that specialize in LPs.

In an episode from live Los Angeles television of the early 1960s, Fischer is the pianist in Bud Shank’s quartet and the composer of the piece they play. Larry Bunker is the drummer, Gary Peacock the bassist. Fischer also wrote “Carnival,” the tune that begins and ends the segment.

Clare Fischer, RIP

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  1. says

    One of my arranging colleagues told me a lot about Clare Fischer, about his humor, his unorthodox piano playing, his unusual way of harmonizing the blues for instance:

    For making a plain F7 sound somehow floating, for giving it a kind of undetermined direction, Clare would put the third of the chord on the bottom, make it the foundation for the whole, now completely “uncertainly” structured, but surprisingly fresh-sounding chord F7. — I would call it the C-F-A Foundation of the Odd F-Major Blues.

    Since the original LP “A Portrait Of Duke Ellington” I once had in my collection was pretty worn, I gave it away ages ago. To honor Clare Fischer’s uncredited work, I have ordered this very LP some minutes ago.

    On the one I gave away, I wrote in big red letters: “ARRANGED BY CLARE FISCHER”. Have heard it on a radio portrait on Clare Fischer that this was his initial work.

    The first track alone, “Caravan”, with cup-muted Dizzy and rhythm starting the procedures, would have deserved a Grammy for the completely fresh view on Juan Tizol’s old warhorse. I was almost shocked when I heard it for the very first time, in the bridge, when all of a sudden the fl…

    No, listen for yourself. The CD can be found for a bargain everywhere.

    R.I.P. Clare Fischer, your great music won’t be forgotten.

    Long live the musical nonconformists!

    On the new LP (an original issue) there will be written in big red letters again:


  2. says

    RIP Mr. Fischer; little did you know I soaked up your early recordings and appreciated instantly your singular melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal acuity and originality. I am one of those pianists you’ve influenced greatly in my younger days. A true master.

  3. Gary Foster says

    Your mention of The Dizzy / Clare collaboration on Verve is important! Few people know that recording or the circumstances you spoke of.

    Earlier, Clare had written an unreleased album of string arrangements for Donald Byrd. Dizzy heard and was inspired by that recording which led to the Verve LP. Ultimately Albert Marx released an LP of the Donald Byrd recording as September Afternoon, on Discovery, in the early 80’s.

  4. says

    Thanks for comments on Fischer (1928-2012). In honor of the pianist, composer & arranger, here is a video version of my story, “Hands Find the Way.” With Randy Porter (piano) & David Evans (tenor sax) playing Fischer’s “Pensativa” – a portrait of Fischer at age 72, when he visited Portland & dispensed some life lessons about music, memory and happiness.

    To see and hear some of Lynn Darroch’s other recent stories, including one about the death of Chet Baker,visit his YouTube web page.