The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols. It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare.
But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition. It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher.
At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi. But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed.
But more about that later. Who was Herbie Nichols? “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer. “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.” “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.” “Inimitable pianist and composer.” “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.”
Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created. The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.” In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas. (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.)
But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.” He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band.
But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily. Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop. He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South. Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better. Al was nasty to Herbie. Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now! Right in the middle of the tune! Let’s stop that shit now. Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah! Go, man, go, go, go!”
Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim. One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.” Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict. African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.
Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators. Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim.
However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey. We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow. A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES. He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system.
Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs. The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread. The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced.
And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him. Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose. His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.
Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.” Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology. Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin. I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end. That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.
COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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