Herbie Nichols

By: Franklin Bruno
January 3, 2015


Composer-pianist HERBIE NICHOLS (1919–67) was given few opportunities to record his own music, always in piano trio format: Two EPs and an LP on Blue Note, supplemented since his death by unreleased takes, and one more album on Bethlehem, all dating from 1955–1957. Heard casually, this music can sound like late, intriguingly angular bebop: a contemporary of Thelonious Monk’s, Nichols played at some of the same Harlem jam sessions in the 1940s, and the Blue Note sides feature two of the period’s greatest drummers, Max Roach and Art Blakey. But it doesn’t take long for other elements — Carribean music, Ellington, Prokofiev — to rise to the surface, and sustained exposure shows why listeners (and even musicians) at the time considered him far-out even by the standards of what was once jazz’s avant-garde. Nichols never played standards, or wrote his tunes over their chords, often breaking away from the 32-bar AABA format of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songwriting, to which even Monk’s compositions clung for comprehensibility’s sake. The drum parts are intricately woven into the music, and Nichols’ solos elliptically paraphrase his melodies rather than blowing through the changes. There is intelligence, passion, and confident iconoclasm in every phrase, but precious little showmanship — either in the music or the man: Nichols played no more than a dozen gigs as a leader while active in New York, scraping by as a sideman with Dixieland groups and gutbucket rhythm-and-blues saxophonists. He died young, disappointed, and obscure, but he hasn’t been forgotten. Nichols habitually registered scores for new compositions with the Library of Congress, and many have been published or recorded by Roswell Rudd, Frank Kimbrough’s Herbie Nichols Project, and others in the decades since, finally realizing his asymmetrical melodies and expansive formal conceits with the horn sections he had always — and only — heard in his head.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: J.R.R. Tolkien, Palmolive.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).


HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music