Herbie Nichols reviewed in the Ottawa Citizen
I'm back from a week in Mexico, where, apart from all the unrelenting heat and sunshine, one of my beach-time pleasures was Mark Miller's Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life.
I knew that the Toronto-based veteran jazz writer's book was good, having perused it before penning my recent list of holiday gifts for jazz bookworms. Miller's biography of Nichols, a contemporary of Thelonious Monk who often suffered comparisons with his more flamboyant and successful peer, more than stood up to a second, more thorough reading. I suspect I will enjoy going through it yet again, down the road.
Its subject, after all, is just that interesting. Nichols, Miller makes clear, was not simply a talented and bracingly unique musician who did not receive his due. Thanks to Miller's thorough research and lucid writing, Nichols is vividly revealed as a fully rounded and likeable individual who in spite of his integrity, intelligence and sympathetic qualities could not make a living as an artist. Perhaps that should read "because of" rather than "in spite of."
Nichols, who died in 1963 at the age of 44, was a self-described "lover of all things intellectual." His passions included not just music, but also chess, poetry, painting and journalism. Unlucky at love, he was a solitary figure who lived from week to week but made sure to paid back his debts, a jazzman who lived clean while his peers succumbed to drugs. Perhaps his fatal flaw was that he was not a self-promoter. "I'm just not flamboyant, I'm not Monk," was Nichols' resigned attitude, according to his acquaintance Charles Keil. If Nichols were alive today, someone would have to twist his arm to start Tweeting and maintain a Facebook fan page.
While recognition and career opportunities passed him by, Nichols was stoic and dignified. Although he was a formidably modern pianist -- the highlights of his career were Blue Note recordings made in 1955 with Art Blakey and Max Roach accompanying him -- he more often scraped by playing in Dixieland bands, content to be professional rather than creative and personal.
Miller's job was made somewhat easier because Nichols was an articulate writer in his own right, crafting essays on music and making assertions that still resonate today. For example:
Nichols on defining jazz: "My definition of jazz is a loose one. I believe that jazz is any sort of music with a swing beat and any kind of improvisation."
Nichols on sources of inspiration from classical music and beyond: "Think of what can be done with the sounds of the multiple conterpoint of Hindemith, the neo-classic polytonality of Shostakovich and Piston and the melting of the vast musical devices which Bartok loved to use at random and which makes his kaleidoscopic style come closed to jazz. And we should not forget the spooky, glacial artistry of the atonalists (shades of Macero and Mingus) plus the quarter-tone music of the East and all the other types of sound with which the beat can be wedded to in improvisation."
Nichols on jazz going global: "There is no doubt in my mind that a child born of Russian, Chinese, English, Turkish, Swedish or Finnish parents has [the capacity to play] the same kind of jazz that Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Art Tatum and Dizzie [sic] Gillespie are playing these days. It's all a matter of musical experience."
Nichols on jazz throwing off unsavoury stereotypes and gaining popularity: " If we have voices... leaders to educate the people... make them understand that they have something to be proud of in jazz -- why [,] then it would spread like a flame all over. Another important thing is to make them understand that jazz musicians are not degenerates, as the papers would have us believe."
It will surprise no Canadian jazz fan who followed Miller's work for The Globe and Mail from 1978 to 2005 that he is as good at describing Nichols' music as he is at capturing and organizing the details of Nichols' life and even his states of mind. His summaries of the music on the Blue Note discs strike me as concise and spot-on.
However, what hits me hardest about the book is the sad inevitability of Nichols' decline in life, both professionally and in terms of his health. Although Miller understates things, Nichols' final days, marked by weary resignation, rotten teeth, and finally leukemia, seemed to me like a small yet poignant tragedy. While Nichols referred to himself as a "jazzist," he was more than that -- I know him now, thanks to Miller, as a good person who deserved much better in life.