Stan Getz: Improving on Perfection


About 25 years ago, following Stan Getz’s appointment as Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University’s jazz program, I asked an acquaintance of his how the great tenor saxophonist was adjusting to the rigors of academe. Getz was doing better than ever, apparently—swimming laps every morning, attending meetings to help him stay off the booze and the blow, and even talking about enrolling in sensitivity training. “Go ahead, laugh,” my informant said. “But if anybody can benefit from being taught to respect other people’s feelings, God knows it’s Stan.”

Getz could be a prick. According to Steve Kuhn, his pianist in the early ’60s, Getz’s bands always had “a whipping boy,” an unassuming or emotionally insecure member he sensed he could treat like a chump. Until his death in 1991 at the age of 64, Getz was the subject of so much insider gossip that, for years, whenever reading a jazz autobiography in which an anonymous fellow musician was portrayed behaving disgracefully—especially in pursuit of a woman or a high—I’d assume it was him. (No doubt incorrectly, most of the time.)

The shame of it is that despite pronouncing himself “too evil to die” upon being diagnosed with liver cancer, Getz really did, from all accounts, devote his final years to becoming “what I should have been all along—a decent gentleman,” as he put it in a Times Sunday Magazine article published just days after his death. Maybe the touchy-feely stuff actually worked, though I bet it had more to do with finally licking his addictions and contemplating the grave.

My one personal encounter with him was indirect, when he took issue with something I’d written about him and said so . . . before a packed house in a Philadelphia nightclub around 1985. “As he approaches 60, Getz is playing with the autumnal splendor of a Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster,” I’d opined in that morning’s paper. It was a muggy night, and Getz was schvitzing. He kept asking for the stage lights to be dimmed, but the request went unheeded. “I’m sweating like a pig up here,” he finally said. “It said in the paper today that I have ‘autumnal splendor.’ ” He paused a beat for his sarcasm to sink in. “That means I’m old. So give me a break and lower the goddamn lights!”

“Jeez,” I thought. “This guy really knows how to accept a compliment.” Though now that I’m over 60 myself, I think I understand why Getz felt insulted. My turn of phrase was meant to evoke “Early Autumn,” his breakthrough 1949 hit with Woody Herman. But little did I know that true splendor was still several years in the future.

Expanding on a posthumous two-CD set greeted with hosannas in 1992, the seven-CD People Time: The Complete Recordings immortalizes every note played by Getz and pianist Kenny Barron over four nights at Copenhagen’s Café Montmartre in March 1991—Getz’s final recordings, from what proved to be his next-to-last gig. Despite offering 48 full-length performances but only half as many tunes—meaning numerous repeats—this isn’t another of those jazz boxes more geared to discographical research than casual enjoyment. There are no “alternate” takes as such; each of the seven disks presents one complete set with its own mood and variety, and as we hear Getz and Barron treating a new audience to a reprise of a number they nailed on their first try a night or two earlier, it’s as if they’re attempting to improve on perfection, and invariably succeeding.

The liner photos show Getz playing seated; many of his solos left him winded, as Barron tells us in a touching reminiscence reprinted from the original double-album (together with a lengthy and typically perceptive new essay by Gary Giddins). But nothing we hear on moderate-to-uptempos suggests incapacity or fatigue—certainly not his second and third romps through “The Surrey With a Fringe on Top,” which are off to the races from the giddy-up. The more relaxed fourth (and final) version of “Surrey” was the one producer Jean-Philippe Allard decided to go with in ’92, but this must have been one of many tough calls. Among the absolute stunners that failed to make the original cut are “The End of a Love Affair” and “I Wish You Love,” cabaret standards (associated with Mabel Mercer and Charles Trenet, respectively) whose urbanity suits Getz perfectly, and which he never recorded elsewhere.

Barron, Getz’s preferred pianist from the late ’80s on—and one whose playfulness and encyclopedic knowledge of his instrument’s jazz traditions fully emerge only when he’s liberated from the duty of anchoring a rhythm section—benefits as much from the duo setting as Getz does, and their frequent counterpoint chases are high on the list of People Time‘s endless felicities. The pianist’s intros are models of economic mood-setting, and his extended uptempo solos—those on “Surrey,” for example—gradually evolve into witty exercises in Monkian epistrophe, replete with time-bomb silences and dragging left-hand stride bass.

As for Getz, it’s tough to talk about his work here without gushing. The liquid middle register and quick vibrato, the sudden overblown low notes (his version of a honk, though it’s actually more like a Bronx cheer), the melodic fills and casual interpolations as musically complete as entire choruses by most other saxophonists—all of the familiar Getzian touches are on full display here. And as if to provide a final summation of his career, so are his few weaknesses. His one stab at the bebop anthem “Bouncing With Bud” is wide of the mark, and he’s stymied by the tricky chord patterns and extended chorus lengths of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates” on all three tries.

He’s better served by the slow-moving chords of “First Song,” a Charlie Haden near-dirge performed three times to increasingly heartbreaking effect.

Unlike, say, Allen Eager or Brew Moore (to name just two other white, Lester Young–spawned saxophonists of his generation), Getz was only circumstantially a bebopper even in the 1940s, and never one to blindly chase chords. His true gift—and hardly a small one, either—was for melodic embellishment. Though he never literally sang on record, he has to be counted (along with Hodges, Webster, Bobby Hackett, and Miles Davis) among the most persuasive of male jazz singers. Even on songs that don’t have any, lyrics are implicit not only in his phrasing and articulation, but in the hum of his breath as it rises through his diaphragm and into his horn.

Along with “First Song,” four other ballads on People Time are drawn from jazz rather than the Great American Songbook: Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” Thad Jones’s “Yours and Mine,” Brazilian pianist Eddie del Barrio’s “I’m Okay,” and the title tune by Benny Carter. In an ironic twist, not writing his own music gradually worked to Getz’s advantage in making him an unofficial arbiter of which tunes by other jazz performers belonged in the standard repertoire. Would anybody today be doing Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” lovely as it is, if Getz hadn’t retrieved it in 1962? But I doubt “I’m Okay,” for example, is ever going to gain currency, because it’s tough to imagine anyone discovering new lyrical depths Getz left unplumbed.

It’s even tougher to imagine anyone not being moved to chills by his three interpretations of the song on People Time—except maybe the mean SOB Getz apparently was for so many years. Tempting though it may be to point to People Time‘s ballads as evidence of Getz’s heightened sensitivity toward the end, the truth is that there are comparable ballad performances from every stage of his career. Oh, well: Webster and Miles weren’t always such nice guys, either, and don’t even get me started on Sinatra. Maybe what they say about jazz—that someone’s true character is revealed through his or her horn, that what you play is who you are—is hogwash after all. But I’m happier believing that the person Getz ultimately realized he was always meant to be was there in his solos right from the start, as moved as the rest of us, and just waiting for Getz to notice. Go ahead, laugh.