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 June, 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 a 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