Herb Geller: 60 Years of Total Commitment to Jazz

By Mike Hennessey

There are those Jazz musicians who achieve great popularity but who are regarded with scant enthusiasm by their peers. Then there are the "musicians' musicians" who, despite being abundantly accomplished, somehow fail to find favour with the public.

The highly versatile multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Herb Geller comes into neither of these categories. He is undoubtedly a musicians' musician, but his contribution to the Jazz pantheon, in a career spanning almost 60 years, has won him international respect and admiration from critics and public alike.

Philip Elwood, music critic of the San Francisco Examiner, has described Geller as a saxophone legend. Wrote Elwood, in a review of a Geller Quartet performance at Pearl's in the newspaper's May 31, 2000 issue:

"Ever wondered what could be played by a Jazz alto saxophonist who didnít seem to be imitating Charlie Parker - a master craftsman whose every rendition was fresh, imaginative and reminiscent of such grand pre-Parker saxists as Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges or Willie Smith? There is such a player. His name is Herb Geller."

Elwood went on to describe Geller's breath control as "marvellous" and praised his impressive use of dynamics and his irreproachable technique. And he described the performance as "among the most impressive displays of talent I've ever heard."

Reviewing a performance by Geller's Quintet (which included Conte Candoli and Lou Levy) at Fullerton's Steamers Café, Los Angeles, in 1997, Bill Kohlhaase of the Los Angeles Times described Geller's performance as, "a monument to inventiveness and interplay, one that marked him as a giant of West Coast Jazz."

And in his liner note to the 1955 Trip LP by the Herb Geller Sextet -Geller (as), Conte Candoli (t), Ziggy Vines (ts), Lorraine Geller (p), Red Mitchell (b) and Eldridge "Buzz" Freeman (d) - Dan Morgenstern referred to Geller as "a splendid all-round musician whose Carter-Parker roots nourish an individual talent."

Individuality is a high priority with Herb Geller. Like all musicians, he had his heroes, from whom he drew inspiration when he was learning his craft, but he recognizes the critical distinction between inspiration and imitation.

He regards the Jazz scene today as being singularly lacking in innovative and distinctive performers. Says Herb:

"For example, all the young tenor players today seem to be trying to play like Mike Brecker. Now, I admire Brecker's virtuosity but, after a while, he seems to me to run out of inspiration. And this is one of the great problems - there is a kind of Olympic approach to the music these days. The challenge seems to be: How long, how high and how fast can you play?

"What I like is melodic content - because it has always been my belief that, when you play Jazz music, you are supposed to be composing - and that is very difficult because you are doing it without an eraser! Also, in so much of today's Jazz, I hear little emotional content. Guys take 20-chorus solos and after two, they run out of anything to say. Stan Getz and Charlie Parker used to play a lot of choruses, but they were always saying something, always creative.

"And it is not enough just to be original. I recently saw a ten-piece group on television, led by Ornette Coleman, and what they played was just noise - there was nothing musical about it. It was chaos."

Herb Geller is among the longest-established in the community of American expatriate musicians living in Europe. He emigrated in 1962 and, since 1965 has made his home in Hamburg.

Born in Los Angeles on November 2, 1928, he took up saxophone at the age of eight, encouraged by his parents. Says Herb: "My mother played piano in a silent movie house and my father had a friend in the neighbourhood who had a music instrument store. He bought me a second-hand alto and I started having lessons."

Geller attended the Dorsey High School in Los Angeles and, among his classmates, were Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd. It was after seeing Benny Carter's band at the Orpheum Theater in LA in 1944 that he determined to become a professional Jazz musician.

Geller recalls, "At that time there were hardly any musicians available because they were all in the armed services. I was 17 when I started getting calls to play and I would do gigs in licensed clubs which were banned to people under 21 because they were serving alcohol. But I was a big guy so I got away with it."

He did a few gigs with the Johnny Richards Band and, while on vacation from high school, played a two-week engagement with Joe Venuti at a San Diego theatre. Later he worked in the band of Jimmy Zito.

In 1949 he travelled to New York with the Jack Fina band for a month-long engagement at the Skylight Room of the Waldorf Astoria. The saxophone section of that band also included Paul Desmond.

The following year he moved permanently to New York and had a nine-month spell with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. It was in New York that he met Lorraine Walsh, a pianist with the Sweethearts of Rhythm, who became his wife.

After leaving the Thornhill band, Geller got a call to join the Billy May Orchestra which was playing a three-week stint at the Paramount Theater. Geller took the second alto chair, next to the first alto saxophone man, Willie Smith, who was one of his idols. After Willie left the band, Geller took over as lead alto saxophonist.

When the May orchestra travelled to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Palladium for a month, Geller decided after the engagement to remain in California and it was then that he became a major figure in the West Coast Jazz movement, playing at the famous Lighthouse and working with Bill Holman, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Victor Feldman, Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, Dinah Washington, Maynard Ferguson, Chet Baker and André Previn. He also led his own quartet with his wife on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Mel Lewis on drums.

In 1958, Lorraine Geller died at the age of 30. Geller was playing in the Benny Goodman Orchestra at the time and he remembers that Goodman was extremely kind to him. He says, "I know everyone has horror stories about Goodman, but he was great to me. He even made me a gift of a new King saxophone."

Geller did a couple of tours with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and also worked with Louie Bellson, but at this time, to quote Herb, "the Los Angeles love affair with Jazz seemed to be cooling off. There were a lot fewer playing opportunities and the recording scene was going through a bad patch."

It was at this point in his career that Herb Geller set his sights on Europe. He recalls:

"One evening, Stan Getz, who was a very good friend of mine, came into the club where I was working. In the break we had a long talk and he suggested that I should try my luck in Europe. He wrote me a letter of introduction to the people who ran the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen.

"I bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and sold my house and my car. Then, about three days before I was due to leave, I got a call from Benny Goodman asking me to join the band on a South American tour. So I cashed in my air ticket and rejoined the Goodman band. This was in 1961.

"The tour finished in Sao Paulo on New Year's Eve. Two days later, I went to Rio and took a boat to Lisbon. While I was in Lisbon, I picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune and saw that Kenny Drew and Kenny Clarke, both good friends, were appearing at the Blue Note in Paris. So I headed for Paris, took an apartment in the 14th arrondissement and played some sessions with the two Kennys."

Geller then had a five-month spell performing on the French radio programme "Musique Aux Champs-Elysées". It was while playing a date in Berlin that he received an offer to join the Sender Freies Berlin Big Band, whose members included Benny Bailey, ke Persson and Joe Harris.

After three years in Berlin, during which time he met and married Christine Rabsch, Geller was considering returning to Los Angeles when, once again, his travel plans were changed as a result of a telephone call. This time the call came from clarinettist Rolf K¸hn who was leaving the Nord Deutscher Rundfunk Big Band and thought Geller would be an ideal successor. So it proved ñ because Herb successfully auditioned, took over K¸hn's contract and stayed with the band for 28 years, retiring in 1994.

During that time he added oboe, English horn, piccolo flute, alto flute and bass flute to his armoury and regularly composed and arranged for the ensemble. He also taught at the Hochschule f¸r Musik und Theater in Hamburg, the Hochschule f¸r Kunste in Bremen as well as conservatories in Hannover and Rotterdam.

"The working conditions were excellent," says Geller. "The staff musicians worked for nine months a year but got paid for 13, had all medical expenses for their families paid and retired on a full pension. I had considered returning to Los Angeles after a couple of years with the NDR, but it was such a positive experience working in that environment, besides which, I didnít much want to go back to the States while the Vietnam war was still in progress."

Since his farewell concert with the NDR Big Band in 1994, Herb Geller has continued playing composing, arranging and teaching and is just as committed to his craft at the age of 75 as he has ever been. He makes a point of practising at least one hour a day and also composes daily.

Earlier this year he made a 14-date tour in Britain and Ireland, including six engagements in the London area with John Pearce on piano, Len Skeat on bass and Bobby Wood on drums.

"That was a really excellent rhythm section," he says. "I had a lot of new material but they soon got it together and each night that we played the music got better. We received standing ovations!"

If you ask Geller to recall the most memorable highlight of his long and remarkably varied career, he says without hesitation, "My friendship with Benny Carter. He was not only a marvellous musician and one of the greatest composers in Jazz - on a level, in my view with Billy Strayhorn - but he was also a wonderful human being. I have about 40 of his compositions in my computer, including "Souvenir", which is a beautiful ballad."

A couple of years back, Geller registered his respect and admiration for Benny Cater and Johnny Hodges with the album "To Benny And Johnny With Love From Herb Geller", recorded for Alastair Robertson's Hep label, with Hod O'Brien (p), Chuck Berghofer (b) and Paul Kreibich (d).

Although his recording career has been prodigious and has involved collaborations with substantial number of illustrious musical associates, Herb Geller has made only about a score of albums under his own name. In addition to the previously mentioned Hep recording, other notable recent albums include:

"Herb Geller Plays The Al Cohn Songbook" (1994) with Tom Ranier (reeds), John Leitham (b), Paul Kreibich (d) and Ruth Price (vcl) on Hep;

"Playing Jazz" (1997), with the same line-up, plus additional guests, which is a musical autobiography with words and music by Herb on the Fresh Sound label, and "You're Looking At Me" (1998), with Jan Lundgren (p), Dave Carpenter (b) and Joe LaBarbera (d) on Fresh Sound.

by Mike Hennessey

Jazz Now Interactive September 2004 Vol 14 No. 5 - Table of Contents

Copy right: Jazz Now, September 2004 Vol 14 No. 5

Your comment: jazznow@sbcglobal.net