After 24 more hours of thinking about/listening to/reading about Herbie Nichols, here are a few more observations:
Introductions: Nichols often used short, composed introductions to his pieces, and a four- or eight-measure introduction by Herbie Nichols is often more interesting than an entire composition by someone else. Listen to the intro of “Cro-Magnon Nights,” with its hammering low-register tritones, which are answered by Art Blakey’s drums. The first four notes of “Blue Chopsticks” echo the children’s piano ditty, but the introduction quickly goes into distant harmonic territory. These intros are little gems.
Biography: The best source for information on Nichols’ life is still probably A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. (What a great title!) This 1966 book profiles Nichols, along with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Jackie McLean. The Nichols chapter is kind of depressing, though; it’s largely a litany of failure - a listing of all the unrewarding gigs Nichols took in order to stay alive.
Mary Lou: The list of other musicians who have recorded Nichols’ music in my last post was not meant to be complete, but I should make special mention of the outstanding, open-eared pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was an early champion of Herbie Nichols. She recorded several of his tunes in the early fifties, before he had the opportunity to record any of them himself. She was particularly fond of “The Bebop Waltz,” written when jazz in ¾ time was still kind of daring.
Recording debut: WARNING! If you have no interest in the historical/discographical minutiae of jazz, stop reading now – you will be bored.
Rereading Spellman’s chapter on Nichols last night reminded me that Herbie told Spellman that he first recorded in 1946 with Danny Barker on the Apollo label. But in my conversation with Barker in 1992, Danny was adamant that he had not recorded with Nichols. He did add that Herbie had recorded with his wife, Blue Lu Barker, when he (Danny) was not present. Well, Blue Lu recorded twice for Apollo, in August and October of 1946. All the reissues and discographies I have seen list Norman Lester on piano and Danny Barker on guitar for both sessions. But after listening to the Apollo recordings carefully, I suspect that it might not be the same piano player on both sessions. I could be wrong, of course, but the pianist on the earlier session sounds more adventurous harmonically.
More importantly, I’m convinced that Danny Barker is not the guitarist on either session. The guitar is not prominent, but when it can be heard clearly, it’s obvious that it’s an electric guitar. I’m not aware of Danny ever recording on anything but an acoustic instrument, and it just doesn’t sound like him.
So keeping in mind what Nichols told Spellman and what Danny told me, my best guess is that Herbie Nichols is the pianist on at least one of Blue Lu’s Apollo sessions, and that Danny is not present on either one. If Danny set up the date and contracted the personnel, Nichols might well have remembered it as a Danny Barker session, even if Danny was out on the road with some band at the time of the session. I know that this is just speculation, but at least it’s informed speculation. Discographers take note.