Herbie Nichols Day

January 03, 1919 – April 12, 1963

 

A birthday tribute to an innovative pianist-composer

Pianist and composer Herbie Horatio Nichols was born January 3, 1919 in Manhattan, New York.

Nichols, who grew up in Harlem, worked in 1937 with the Royal Barons and had a stint at Minton’s Playhouse.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Nichols struggled throughout the remainder of his life, working mostly with Dixieland-oriented bands (where his playing was appreciated) while composing modern and very personal pieces, most of which were never performed in public.

He recorded very obscure dates as a sideman with trumpeter Bob Mitchell, trombonist Snub Mosley, pianist Frank Humphries and altoist Charlie Singleton during 1949-50, made five-blues-oriented numbers in 1952 for Savoy, and can be heard on a Rex Stewart session in 1953.

Nichols, whose piano playing and compositions sounded unlike anyone else, is best remembered today for his two trio Blue Note albums of 1955-56 (which were greatly expanded in a Mosaic reissue) and a trio set for Bethlehem in 1957; other than four titles with trumpeter Joe Thomas in 1958, those were his last recordings.

While his song “Serenade” had lyrics added by Billie Holiday and gained a little bit of popularity as “Lady Sings The Blues,” Herbie Nichols spent his life in complete obscurity even as some of the young avant-gardists of the early 1960s (such as Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd) did what they could to help his career.

While Herbie Nichols’ death at age 44 from leukemia cut short off his career, in the 1980s and ‘90s his music went through a revival, fueled by the Mosaic Blue Note box set, Roswell Rudd (who published a book of previously unheard Nichols compositions), and the formation of the Herbie Nichols Project.

No film of Herbie Nichols exists so here is his recording of “Step Tempest.”

-Scott Yanow