Herbie Nichols (January 3, 1919 – April 12, 1963), was an American jazz pianist and composer. Obscure during his lifetime, he is now highly regarded by many musicians and critics.
Herbie was born in New York City. During much of his life he was forced to take work as a Dixieland musician instead of playing the types of jazz he preferred. He performed originally in bop groups, but is best known today for his own highly original compositions, program music which combines bop, Dixieland, and West Indian music with harmonies derived from Erik Satie and Béla Bartók.
His first known work was with the Savoy Sultans in 1937, but he did not find performing at Minton's Playhouse a few years later a very happy experience. The competitive atmosphere of that scene did not suit his personality. He did though become friends with fellow pianist Thelonious Monk, even if his own critical neglect would be more enduring.
From about 1947 he persisted in trying to persuade Blue Note Records producer to sign him up. He finally recorded for Blue Note in 1955 and 1956, which led to the issue of three albums. Other tracks from these sessions were not issued until the 1980s. His tune "Serenade" had lyrics added, and as "Lady Sings the Blues" became firmly identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957 he recorded his last album for Bethlehem Records. All of his recordings as leader have been released on CD.
Nichols died from leukemia at the age of 44.
In recent years his music has been most energetically promoted by Roswell Rudd, who worked with Nichols in the early 1960s. Rudd has recorded or programmed at least three albums featuring Nichols' compositions, including The Unheard Herbie Nichols (1996). A New York group, the Herbie Nichols Project (part of the Jazz Composers' Collective) has recorded three albums largely dedicated to unrecorded Nichols' compositions, many of which Nichols had deposited in the Library of Congress.
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