Celebrating Pianist Herbie Nichols

No one has done more to keep Nichols’ music in circulation than Oakland saxophonist Sheldon Brown.


Sheldon Brown spent years transcribing every tune Nichols recorded.

Photo by Max Kellenberger

There’s no competition for being the greatest obscure jazz musician, but if some organization wants to fill this lamentable but much needed category, I humbly suggest calling the award the Herbie, in honor of pianist/composer Herbie Nichols.

With only a handful of albums to his credit, and always in want of a gig where he could play his repertoire of extraordinary tunes, Nichols died of leukemia in 1963 at the age of 44, unappreciated even by many of his peers. But over the years some of his pieces, such as “House Party Starting,” “The Gig,” and “Shuffle Montgomery,” have gradually become semi- standards. Combining his love of modernist composers like Satie and Bartok with Caribbean inflections and bebop’s hurtling tempos, he gained posthumous recognition as a singular creative force.

In the Bay Area, no one has done more to keep Nichols’ music in circulation than Oakland saxophonist Sheldon Brown, who spent years transcribing every tune the pianist recorded. For his Nov. 19 concert at Musically Minded Academy in Rockridge (an event co-sponsored by Jazz in the Neighborhood), Brown is performing music from Nichols’ last and least known album, 1957’s Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem).

He’s joined by a superlative sextet that brings together two  different ensembles with which he’s explored Nichols’ repertoire over the years, featuring Ben Goldberg on clarinet and bass clarinet, trumpeter Darren Johnston, pianist Matt Clark, bassist John Shifflett, and drummer Jason Lewis. For Brown, the point isn’t to focus on Nichols’ sad story; it’s to celebrate a musician’s unique contributions.

“He was a melodic improviser who uses the melody of the piece in his solos,” Brown said. “There’s elegance and humor is his music, but definitely tempered by a little bit of melancholy.”

Sheldon Brown, 8 p.m. Nov. 19, Musically Minded Academy, 5776 Broadway, Oakland, $18 advance, $20 at the door, 510-601-5700,  MusicallyMinded.org.


Published online on Nov. 14, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

This report was published in the November edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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