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Tal Farlow: 1921-1998
Tal Farlow

Born: June 7, 1921 in Greensboro, North Carolina
Died: July 25, 1998 in Sea Bright, New Jersey

The Reluctant Innovator

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Farlow, Tal Tal (Talmadge Holt) Farlow's career as a leading figure in the history of jazz guitar cannot be said to have followed the usual lines. His father was an amateur musician and encouraged his son to take up the guitar as a child, but he was largely self-taught, and did not begin playing seriously until he was in his early 20s. As a teenager growing up in the decade of the great depression, music seemed an unlikely career prospect, and Farlow trained as a sign-painter (a skill he shared with Duke Ellington), a craft in which he showed considerable ability, and which formed his principal occupation for long periods of his life.

The inspiration of the great swing bands, and especially the revolutionary example of Benny Goodman's brilliant guitarist, Charlie Christian, sparked a more definite interest in playing music for a living, and he became a professional musician in the mid-40s in New York, where he was exposed to the emerging bebop style in general, and the example of Charlie Parker in particular.

Farlow set about mastering the rapid, skittering lines of bebop in a form appropriate to the guitar. Although self-taught (and never a good sight-reader), he had developed a very high level of technical proficiency even before arriving in New York, and developed even more rapidly under the demands of the virtuosic bebop style.

In what would become a regular pattern, however, he spent the immediate post-war years concentrating on his alternative vocation as a sign-painter before returning to music in 1949, when he quickly established himself as the leading bebop-influenced exponent of his instrument, initially in a group led by clarinettist Buddy DeFranco, and then in the famous trio led by vibraphonist Red Norvo, which also featured Charles Mingus, and Norvo's subsequent quintet.

The fast tempos favoured by Norvo unsettled Farlow in the early stages of his time with the vibraphonist, but he attributed his remarkable speed and facility to the need to keep up with the momentum of that band. That grounding led him to develop what was then an unprecedented speed of execution on guitar, backed up by accurate articulation and, notably in later years, a highly imaginative approach to the music.

Perhaps in a premonition of his own career path, Farlow worked for a time in 1953 with the clarinettist and bandleader Artie Shaw, another musician who had reached the top of his particular musical ladder, but was unwilling to commit himself to an ongoing career in music, in the final version of Shaw's small group, the Gramercy Five. Farlow's reputation and public recognition continued to grow in the mid-50s, and he began to make recordings under his own name for labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Verve.

Having done so, however, the guitarist then went into a kind of semi-retirement toward the end of the decade. He married and settled in New Jersey, where the attractions of a quiet domesticity seemed easily to outweight the dubious blandishments of life on the road and the night club scene. He fell back on his other main occupational interest much of the time, but continued to work on his guitar playing at home, and surfaced to make an occasional recording during the 1960s.

As is often the case, his virtual disappearance from the public eye led to a growth rather than a diminution of his reputation, particularly amongst other guitar players. By the end of that decade, however, he began to re-emerge in a live performance context, and by the 1980s was performing on what was a regular basis by his standards, including a stint with Red Norvo in another version of the trio, and in the celebrated Great Guitars, a trio with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd. Farlow continued to tour until the mid-90s, when failing health again curtailed his career.

There were moments in Farlow's characteristically introspective improvisations when he toyed with melody and harmony in a way which verged on free playing, without ever quite crossing that line. That kind of brinksmanship was a constant pleasure in his work, allied as it was to a subtle and original harmonic imagination. His influence on other guitarists went well beyond bebop (John McLaughlin is one of those who has acknowledged his own debt to his example), and if his relaxed attitude to public acceptance and a conventional career have not made him a household name, he will be remembered as a key innovator in the development of the guitar in jazz, as well as an engaging -- if reluctant -- performer.

He was survived by his wife, Michele Hyk-Farlow.

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