Jimmy Giuffre could play the tenor saxophone with a rhythm and blues raucousness that
reflected his Texas origins. For a time in the 1950s, though, the low-register intimacy of his clarinet was one of the most identifiable sounds in jazz. Giuffre died last Thursday of complications from the Parkinsons disease that for years had limited his activity in music.
Featuring Jim Hall’s guitar and Ralph Peňa’s bass or Bob Brookmeyer’s valve trombone, he rooted his trio in blues, folk music and standard songs. In this video clip from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, Giuffre plays tenor saxophone. In the early 1960s, Giuffre morphed his group into a risk-taking trio of adventurers. With pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow he explored the expanding harmonic and expressive boundaries of free jazz, in the process taking his clarinet into the stratosphere as well as the basement of its range.
A gifted composer from his college days onward, Giuffre was a major contributor to the Third Stream music that aimed to forge a synthesis between jazz and classical forms. But for all his inventiveness, hard work and dedication, for all the admiration and respect he earned well into the 1990s, a Giuffre work from early in his career is his most recognizable monument.
That piece, of course, is “Four Brothers,” a 1947 hit for Woody Herman’s Second Herd and a staple in the repertoires of big bands ever since. The arrangement featured Stan Getz, Zoot Sims Herbie Steward and Serge Chaloff — and the legion of saxophonists who have followed them in several subsequent Herds. Herman died twenty-one years ago, but the arrangement is a part of every appearance by the band that still tours under his name. Click here for a performance of “Four Brothers” by one of the last editions of the band with Herman at the helm.
It might have been a source of both amusement and satisfaction to Giuffre if, before he died, he saw affirmation that his composition was officially enshrined in American popular culture when it was played on the sidewalks of Disneyland by Mickey’s Toontown Tuners. And I hope that he knew about this version from Hungary, but definitely not from hunger, by a pair of violinists and an impressive big band. “Four Brothers” long ago went global.
Jimmy Giuffre, 1921-2008.