Herb Geller, 1928-2013

We have word from Herb Geller’s family that the venerable alto saxophonist died on Thursday in a Hamburg, Germany, hospital. He succumbed to pneumonia. Geller had been under treatment for the past twelve months for a form of lymphoma. He turned 85 in November. As noted in this Rifftides post last Herb Geller looking rightJune, Geller remained not merely active but energetic until fairly recently, performing in clubs and at festivals throughout Europe. He had lived in Hamburg since 1965. Until his mandatory retirement at age 65 he was a key soloist with the NDR Big Band, then spent much of the next 20 years touring and recording in a solo career.

Geller’s long residence in Europe gave him steady and reliable employment with a superb government-sponsored orchestra but kept him less visible than contemporaries like Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Bud Shank and Paul Desmond who remained based in the US. Nonetheless, during his period of greatest US activity, when jazz burgeoned on the west coast, Geller was one of the busiest and most respected alto soloists of his generation. He was born in Los Angeles and began playing the saxophone when he was eight years old. Among his band mates at Dorsey High School in Southwest L.A. were fellow saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd and the drummer Bobby White.

After he heard a performance by Benny Carter when Geller was 14, he decided to become a professional musician. Carter and Hodges were his early models, their influences soon leavened by the impact of Charlie Parker. Geller worked with a cross section of the major players in Los Angeles, recording copiously with, among others, Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Andre Previn, Quincy Jones and Chet Baker. He recorded three albums as a leader for Emarcy Records at a time when the label was riding high in the jazz world and was on hundreds of albums in the fifties. Among them, he recorded with Dinah Washington, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Bill Holman, Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson and Kenny Drew. Geller said in aGeller, You're Looking recent conversation that of the thirty or so albums he recorded under his own name his favorite was You’re Looking At Me. That 1997 Fresh Sound CD had a rhythm section of the young Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren and two Los Angeles stalwarts, the late bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Lundgren became one of Geller’s favorite collaborators.

During the 1950s Geller’s first wife, Lorraine, was one of the premier jazz pianists in Los Angeles. The two frequently recorded together. She died in 1958 at the age of 30. Here are the Gellers in 1955 with a “Cherokee” variant called “Arapahoe.” Red Mitchell is the bassist, Mel Lewis the drummer.

One of Geller’s collaborators in his latterday playing expeditions around Europe was the pianist Roberto Magris. Following a lengthy introduction by the emcee and a bit of onstage preparation, we hear him play “If I Were a Bell” with Magris, bassist Nikola Matosic and drummer Enzo Carpentieri at the 2009 Novi Sad Jazz Festival in Serbia.

Herb Geller, RIP

(revised 12-23-13)

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  1. says

    That’s sad news indeed. It’s a shame that I never met Herb Geller. Maybe he lived too far above in the north of Germany. I’m more the southern type. Anyway, I was befriended with one of his students, today a renowned saxophonist (Dave Liebman was also one of his mentors), Peter Weniger. He was always talking with great love and deep respect about the man who made him swing, who inspired him to make an eventually successful jazz career.

    It’s amazing that each of the great white alto players you’ve listed, is mentioning two main initial sources: Benny Carter & Johnny Hodges; Charlie Mariano and Lee Konitz—whom I both met several times—were kinda “shocked” when they heard Bird for the very first time. The first copied him heavily, whereas the latter tried to stay away as long as possible. And what did Desmond do? He choose the President as his main melody man … so far a very abridged version of a non-critic 😉

    When I’m listening to Herb Geller—whom I admittedly never had on the radar too often—his more vibrant style (Mariano’s the most) is a mixture of all those fellows, and definitely a splendid one. The up-tempo “Arapahoe” track you’ve posted could be retitled “Geller’s Koko”. In one word: Fantastico!

    As for the famous ding-dong piece (“I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.”): The old man got wise, but never lost it; even the longtime stint in the NDR big band couldn’t spoil his jazz feeling, neither his fun (did I really see sheet music on the piano?). — Kudos!

    R.I.P. Herb Geller, I will try the northbound next time.

    P.S. — Please include this link, Doug. — Those are fantastic sounds.

  2. Bruce Armstrong says

    The (sad) news of the passing of Herb Geller brings to a close the life of one of the alto saxophone “heroes” of my youth. While still in high school on the East Coast (over 50 years ago), I hit the jackpot at a used record store and picked up both The Gellers and Herb Geller Plays LPs. Thank you for featuring “Arapahoe” as a tribute, Doug, because it was that cut that absolutely amazed me when I first heard it as a 17-year-old saxophone player. From that moment on, Herb was right there in my select group of jazz alto giants along with Parker, Pepper, Niehaus, Mariano, Moody, Konitz, Shank, etc. With Herb’s great technique and hard-bop sound we always used to joke that he “was born on the wrong coast.” Years ago, I was able to see Herb in L.A. during one of his stateside visits, the only time I ever heard him in person. The magic was still there! I have the CD reissues of Herb and Lorraine’s LPs and will be playing them throughout the weekend in tribute.

  3. Don Conner says

    Doug, I have a very heavy heart on this one. I was stationed at San Diego back in the mid-fifties . Herb and Lorraine were two of the jazz musician’s I followed around. I first caught them at a long defunct club called “Zardis” in Hollywood in 1955 or ’56. Unlike some other cats, they were interested in their listeners, particulary one as young and ardent as yours truly. I have the cut you presented (the “Cherokee” thing), plus the other Emarcy sides Herb appeared on. Do you remember Ziggy Vines? He was a Pres-influenced tenor-man who also appeared on Clifford Brown’s last record, an informal thing done in Philly the night the great trumpeter died. These were the only side’s Ziggy ever made. However, Im digressing; Herb’s death so near to Jim hall’s just make’s me feel so lucky that I was able to see so many of these greats who continue to leave the scene at an alarming rate.

  4. Roberto Magris says

    Goodbye Herb!
    Your music and your gentleman’s spirit will remain with me forever.

  5. jeffsultanof says

    I am proud to say that I met Herb Geller at an IAJE convention. IAJE was in many ways a super organization that was later seduced by record labels and corporations, but it did a lot of good and thanks to the conventions, many of us met a lot of our heroes and got to speak to them at length. I told Herb how much his music meant to me and that I had many of his recordings. “Oh, so you’re the guy!” he joked. A truly nice guy who unfortunately proved that during the sixties and seventies, moving to Europe opened up more work possibilities for some of our finest players. As a result, he is far less known here than he should be.

  6. David Franklin says

    Just yesterday I was listening to his cooking version of “Sleigh Ride” with Lorraine and the quartet from the 50s. A great saxophonist.

  7. Larry Walker says

    Very sad news that Herb is no longer with us. Living in England I managed to see Herb play three times as he occasionally made tours around the UK in his later years. The first time I saw Herb play with a top British trio about fifteen years ago in a small room above a pub I was impressed by the the energy and invention in his playing. There was no slacking when Herb was playing as he presented his accompanists with his original charts as well as standards. During the interval he was happy to chat and kindly autographed an album for me. A few years later he wowed the audience at John Dankworth’s Stables Theatre with JD clearly loving it. About five years ago I happened to be in Edinburgh when Herb was completing a tour of modest venues around Scotland. He was now looking a little older. I wondered how his playing would be but again the energy was still there and with his excellent trio played like a man half his age. He left some excellent recordings made for the Edinburgh-based Hep label, in particular his tributes to the music of Arthur Swartz and Al Cohn. Thanks for the memories, Herb, and rest in peace.

  8. says

    I’ve always felt that Herb Geller was one of the most important of the “West Coasters” to emerge during the 1950s, even when one considers that other alto saxophonists making names for themselves at the time included Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette, Frank Morgan and Lennie Niehaus. The problem is that Herb moved to Europe around 1962 and made Hamburg his home for decades. That plus the steady gig he had at NDR (North German Radio) for nearly 30 years conspired to keep him out of the jazz spotlight, at least from an American perspective. This is a shame because his playing only got stronger with time. He was also a fine composer and teacher. Some excellent European players like Fiete Felsch, Lütz Buchner, and Edgar Herzog studied with Herb at one time or another.

    There is a trove of recordings in the NDR archives that feature Herb with small and large ensembles and are certainly worthy of issue. With the assistance of someone at NDR, I am trying to at least document as many of these as I can. An example that has seen the light of day is the excellent 1979 Charles Tolliver session with the NDR Big Band released by Mosaic Records. Herb is featured on several tracks.

    Herb knew the “Great American Songbook” backwards and forwards, inside and out. He often performed the compositions of his idol, Benny Carter as well as those of Billy Strayhorn and Harold Arlen.

    It’s sad to lose Herb but he had a great run. It’s just unfortunate that his legacy isn’t better known and appreciated.

    • David says

      Another example to see the light of day is Chet Baker’s Last Great Concert from 1988. Herb is featured on two tracks with the NDR Big Band and on one quintet track. Both Chet and Herb in great form here.

  9. Jan Lundgren says

    Very sad news indeed. A great man with a huge passion for jazz. A great jazz musician who knew thousands of songs from the Great American Song Book. His knowledge about these songs was very impressive. He always knew the composer, which movie the song appeared in, who sang it, etc. Herb was also a composer of highest rank and many of his fine compositions can be heard on his CDs. In many ways Herb was a role model, always pushing his art, trying to get better. He was an artist who could do it all—play, compose, arrange, lead, you name it! He was one of a kind.

  10. says

    The Los Angeles Times in the city where Herb Geller was born and raised didn’t mention his passing, but there was an absurdly huge obituary for Yusef Lateef. Maybe they didn’t know Herb was a very liberal Democrat.

    At Dorsey High School, fellow jazz players included Eric Dolphy, Vi Redd and Bobby White. Jerry Goldsmith was into another type of music and Billy Barnes wrote songs, eventually “Something Cool.”

    Herb’s first professional gig was at Mike Riley’s Mad House on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. Riley was one of the composers of “The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round” which swept the country in late 1935 and early 1936. It later changed its name to Duffy’s Gaiety where the show was headlined by Lenny Bruce, who became a fast friend. His mother Frances drove him every night and was there at the two o’clock closing. Herb’s first-period class was trigonometry, but he spent most of it with his head on the desk.

    During that period many future jazz greats were attending high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A few of the many included Warne Marsh, Hampton Hawes, Billy Byers, Russ Freeman, Larry Bunker, Herbie Steward and lifelong friend Lennie Niehaus.

    I was fortunate to have produced three of Herb’s recordings including Playing Jazz, which was his musical autobiography. How many of us can say that we dedicated our entire adult lives to doing what we loved and brought pleasure to people the world over?

    We were in contact right up to the very end and I can confirm that the man never lost the spirit and determination that made him one of the greatest to ever pick up an alto saxophone.

    • Dick McGarvin says

      One of the three Herb Geller recordings produced by Dick Bank is the one mentioned above by Doug, the terrific You’re Looking At Me. It’s a quartet session with drummer Joe LaBarbera and the late bassist Dave Carpenter. The excellent and informative liner notes are by Doug Ramsey.

  11. Helene LaFaro-Fernandez says

    So very sad when the news came. Herb was a wonderful musician and human being. Tho I had not seen him for five years, we kept in touch via email. He (and Lorraine) had opened their hearts and home to my brother, Scott, when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1957 and he and Herb remained close until Scott’s death.