Herbie Nichols
piano, composer


"...anyone who plays or even contemplates playing a song of Herbie's is making this planet a better place. This music teaches many things, but most importantly the sanctity of our minds and imaginations --
the Third World that lives in each of us." -- Roswell Rudd

In the list of 'obscure, criminally overlooked geniuses of jazz', Nichols must rank near the top. While a prolific composer of well over a hundred works (most of which have been lost), Nichols' recorded interpretations of his own work consist only of a series of piano trio recordings from the mid-50s. He spent most of his career as a sideman in a number of revivalist Dixieland bands, his own music apparently considered 'unmarketable'...

Nichols' compositions displayed 'quirky' yet completely logical melodic twists, the integration of drum parts into melodic lines, and in particular demonstrated a variety of 'song forms' quite different from the standard 32-bar and blues forms still prevalent in the mid-50s. This 'intellectual difficulty' combined with his own unassuming personality kept him from achieving much notoriety in his lifetime outside a small circle of musicians and followers.

A good document of his career can be found in A.B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives (originally Four Lives in the Bebop Business). During his career Nichols was largely considered to be a 'less eccentric Monk', although similarities in their musics and playing styles are largely superficial:

"Herbie's style seems to fall, in a musicological sense, between those of Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk. He has the keyboard dexterity, the clarity, the sonorous tone, and the elegant, well-developed melodies of Wilson. The resemblance to Monk, his contemporary, is more apparent, though the equally apparent differences make it obvious that Monk was not Herbie's influence. The dissonances and a kind of melodic structure based on a preconceived rhythmic development which are common to both pianists were potent in the early Fifties, and Monk and Herbie were two of the very few to exploit that potency...if Herbie had been a more publicized musician, he would have been an important influence on that generation of pianists that came along in the Fifties, and possibly he would have provided an alternative to the John Lewis and Bud Powell approaches which dominated the period." (--Spellman)

Fortunately, the Nichols trio sides were reissued in the late 70s and into the 80s, and through the years his music has been championed by others, particularly Misha Mengelberg and Roswell Rudd (who wrote fine essays for both the Blue Note and Mosaic packages), and in recent years his music has been interpreted by an growing number of musicians (e.g. Geri Allen, Buell Neidlinger, Dave Douglas...)


(this includes only Nichols' recordings of his own works, and is taken from the Mosaic
Complete Recordings of Herbie Nichols box; a number of recordings as sideman,
with Danny Barker, Snub Mosely and others, are omitted.)

Chocolate Williams/Herbie Nichols: several tracks recorded for HiLo and Savoy, 3/6/52 (reissued on CD, Savoy 12100, under the title "I Just Love Jazz Piano", which also includes tracks by Hampton Hawes, John Mehegan and Paul Smith. Perhaps typically (even in the reissue), Nichols' two compositions are not credited.

Herbie Nichols: The Third World (Blue Note LP BN-LA-485-H2, reissued 1975; CD?) recorded 1955-56 with Al McKibbon, Teddy Kotick, Art Blakey, Max Roach. Double-LP of 22 tracks, reissued with alternate takes and unissued compositions on Mosaic's Complete Blue Note Herbie Nichols (Mosaic MR5-118, which may be out of print).

The Bethlehem Years (Bethlehem BCP-6028, reissued 1976; Original title and CD reissue, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love) -- recorded 1957, with Dannie Richmond and George Duvivier.

(note that there is no attempt here to keep an exhaustive, all-inclusive list! Mainly these are recordings that I've heard personally...)

Mary Lou Williams (1951) (title unknown) -- Atlantic LP 114, LP 1271
Archie Shepp (with Roswell Rudd): Live in San Francisco (1966) - Impulse 9118 (one track)
Misha Mengelberg/Steve Lacy/Rudd: Regeneration (1982) - Soul Note SN 1054 (one side)
Mengelberg/Lacy/George Lewis: Change of Season (1984) - Soul Note SN 1104
Mengelberg (arr.) & ICP Orchestra: Extension Red White & Blue (1984) -- ICP 025 (cassette only?)
Charlie Haden/Paul Motian/Geri Allen: Etudes (1987) - Soul Note 121 161-1 (one track)
Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron: Hot House - RCA Novus 3098-2-N (1990 - one track)
Buell Neidlinger/Marty Krystall: Blue Chopsticks (1995?) K2B2
Dave Douglas: Constellation (1995) - Hat Art (one track)
Clusone (Han Bennink, Ernst Reijseger, Michael Moore): I'm an Indian Too (1994) -
Ramboy/Gramavision (one track)
Roswell Rudd: The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1 & 2 (1997) - CIMP
Matt Wilson: Going Once, Going Twice (1998) - Palmetto (one track)
Duck Baker: Spinning Song (1998) - Avant 040 (an entire session of Nichols compositions - solo acoustic guitar!)
Eric T. Johnson: Herbie Nichols Volume One (2003) - Summit DC 351 (Boston guitarist; also features George Garzone)

prepared by Damon Short -- corrections and additions welcome

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