James Peter “Jimmy” Giuffre, jazz multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger, was born on April 26, 1921, in Dallas, Texas. He took up the clarinet at age nine, and at age thirteen Giuffre played unaccompanied clarinet solos at YMCA campfire meetings and later performed with local bands. He also became proficient on tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone. He graduated from Dallas Technical High School and from North Texas State Teachers College, where he earned a music degree in 1942, before serving in the armed forces during World War II. Following his service years, he moved to Los Angeles about 1946 and briefly did graduate studies at UCLA, but eventually he opted to take private lessons and did so in free counterpoint from Dr. Wesley LaViolette, which lasted for some fourteen years.
Giuffre wrote arrangements for the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich, but he first gained fame in 1947 when he wrote “Four Brothers” for the band of Woody Herman. Employing in his arrangement the unusual instrumentation of three tenor saxophones and one baritone sax, Giuffre established a special vibratoless sound for the Herman band that became a recognized feature of that leader’s many units, which he himself denominated his “Herds.” In 1948 Giuffre recorded with Herman’s Second Herd as one of the band’s three tenor saxophonists.
From 1951 to 1953 Giuffre was a member of the first Lighthouse All-Stars, a vital West Coast ensemble formed at Hermosa Beach by Howard Rumsey. During the early 1950s the Texan also joined Shorty Rogers for a Capitol recording session that would be issued as part of The Birth of the Cool Vol. 2; this marked the beginning of an important association with Rogers that resulted in Giuffre’s numerous appearances with the trumpeter on Atlantic and RCA Victor records. Two 1955 Atlantic recordings with Shorty Rogers & His Giants were entitled The Swinging Mr. Rogers and Martians Come Back! They showcased Giuffre on clarinet, tenor saxophone, and baritone sax, including a noteless solo on clarinet in a tune entitled “Chant of the Cosmos” where he huffs through his mouthpiece without vibrating the reed. On the 1954 and 1956 Victor albums, Shorty Rogers Courts the Count and The Big Shorty Rogers Express, Giuffre demonstrated his ability to swing on both clarinet and tenor sax; on the 1955 Pete Rugolo album, Adventures in Rhythm, he turned in a fine example of his rocking baritone sax.
In 1955 Giuffre began to experiment with pianoless combos and recorded his Victor album entitled Tangents in Jazz, on which he performs on all three of his reed instruments along with trumpeter Jack Sheldon, drummer Artie Anton, and bassist Ralph Peña. In 1956 he recorded two highly original albums for Atlantic, entitled The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet and The Jimmy Giuffre 3, with the latter including his most popular folk-blues tune, “The Train and the River.” With the Jimmy Giuffre 3, his trio of himself, electric guitarist Jim Hall, and bassist Ralph Peña, Giuffre created his trademark soft but swinging form of jazz that was a revolutionary approach to the music. In 1958 the Jimmy Giuffre 3, with valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer replacing the bassist, appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and in a documentary film of the festival entitled Jazz on a Summer’s Day, in which the trio performs “The Train and the River.” Giuffre’s Atlantic albums that year included The Music Man, Trav’lin’ Light, and Western Suite.
Always a versatile and experimental performer and composer, Giuffre continued to test the boundaries of jazz with his “fusion,” classical-like chamber trios, and his compositions for larger so-called Third Stream units, like the one assembled in 1957 for a performance at Brandeis University and recorded for the Columbia album Modern Jazz Concert. Having worked in 1955 with the Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn in the Berkshires, Giuffre recorded with that outfit in 1956 and 1957 for the album, The Modern Jazz Quartet & Jimmy Giuffre, to which he contributed his tune entitled “Fun.” Later in 1959 he met the Texas jazz vanguardist Ornette Coleman, who urged him to play freer. While on a European tour with his trio, consisting of himself, Jim Hall, and Buddy Clark on bass, Giuffre unveiled his changing style which began to lean more in the direction of Coleman’s free-jazz harmolodics. In 1961 Giuffre recorded two albums for Verve, entitled Fusion and Thesis, with a trio consisting of himself, Paul Bley on piano, and Steve Swallow on bass. These recordings were then and are today considered his most advanced work, along with his 1962 album, Free Fall, on which British critic Wilfrid Mellers has said that Giuffre takes “the ultimate step and dispenses with ‘beat’ altogether.”
Along with Ornette Coleman of Fort Worth, Giuffre was in his lifetime one of the most innovative jazz musicians from Texas, and his recorded career furnishes examples of all the major movements of the period from the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond. He began writing arrangements influenced by bebop; was a crucial figure in the development of the “cool” West Coast style; created a new lower-keyed form of swing with his Tangents in Jazz quartet and his pianoless and drumless trios; and then gravitated toward free jazz with his trio comprised of his own reeds with piano and bass.
Also a respected teacher, Giuffre taught at the Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts, from 1957 to 1960. He published a book, Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation, in 1969. After teaching composition and saxophone at Rutgers, New York University, and other universities, Giuffre joined the New England Conservatory in 1978 and taught there until the mid-1990s. His “Four Brothers” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1984. Giuffre and his trio of Bley and Swallow reunited to record their 1996 album entitled Conversations with a Goose, on which the multi-instrumentalist added the soprano saxophone to his reed repertory.
Giuffre grew inactive in his last decade from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He died of pneumonia in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on April 4, 2008, two days before his eighty-seventh birthday. He was survived by Juanita, his wife of forty-six years, who commented in 2003 that she had never liked the harsh sound of a clarinet until she heard her husband-to-be with his mellow and richly beautiful tone.