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Innovative clarinetist and bandleaderCopyright © 2008
An important and influential figure in the development of improvised music in the 1950s and '60s, multi-reed player Jimmy Giuffre died at age 86 from pneumonia. He had been stricken with Parkinson's disease more than a decade earlier.
Having played the clarinet since the age of nine, Giuffre graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from North Texas State Teachers College and volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War II. As a volunteer he was able to avoid active service and spent the war entertaining at officers' messes and composing. In 1946, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue graduate studies at UCLA, but he soon dropped out of college to play informally with musicians like Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers.
During the late '40s he worked as an arranger and saxophonist with Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman. It was with the latter that Giuffre found his biggest early success, writing "Four Brothers," a song that created Herman's signature front line of four saxophones -- three tenors and a baritone -- and became the bandleader's theme song.
In 1951, he joined Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars and after two years switched to Rogers' band. In 1955, influenced by Debussy and his five years of lessons in contrapuntal theory and counterpoint with LaViolette, he released the influential Tangents In Jazz, which dispensed with chordal instruments, and a year later formed a trio with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena. In 1957, he replaced Pena with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, creating the version of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 that was captured in the film Jazz On A Summer's Day playing "The Train And The River."
Beginning in the mid-'50s, Giuffre also pursued a career as a music educator, initially at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. It was there, in 1959, that he encountered Ornette Coleman, whose work encouraged Giuffre to re-examine his own approach to composition. The result was a new trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, which recorded three ground-breaking albums, Fusion and Thesis -- reissued by ECM as 1961 in 1992 -- and Free Fall, but failed to find enough commercial success to ensure its continuation. Giuffre disbanded the trio in 1962 and did not record again for a decade, although he continued to tour widely.
His work in music education continued at the New School and New York University, and in 1978 Giuffre joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught for the rest of his career.
He later performing work included explorations of African and Asian music, an electronics-oriented band that recorded for Soul Note, a quartet with Peter Levin, Bob Nieske and Randy Kaye, and duets with French saxophonist Andre Jaume. His trio with Bley and Swallow reunited several times, and released two additional CDs: The Life Of A Trio (1990) and Conversations With A Goose (1992).
With the onset of Parkinson's in the mid-'90s, he was forced to quit playing and retire from teaching. Giuffre is survived by his wife of 46 years, Juanita, also a musician and composer.