19 December 1935
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
1 March 1974 (aged 38)
Robert Henry "Bobby" Timmons (Philadelphia, December 19, 1935 - New York City, March 1, 1974) was an American jazz pianist and composer. He is best known for his role as sideman in Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (1958 - 1959) and as the composer of a.o. "Moanin'", "Dat Dere", and "This Here", typical of his distinctive gospel soul-jazz style.
Timmons was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of a minister. Both of his parents, plus several aunts and uncles, played the piano. From an early age Timmons studied music with an uncle, Robert Habershaw, who also taught McCoy Tyner. After graduating from high school Timmons was awarded a scholarship to study at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. He played as a church organist when young; this influenced his later jazz playing. His first professional performances were in his local area.
Timmons moved to New York in 1954. He played with Kenny Dorham in 1956, making his recording debut with the trumpeter in a live set in May of that year. He went on to play with Chet Baker in 1956–57 (Scott LaFaro was part of this band for a time), Sonny Stitt in 1957, and Maynard Ferguson in 1957–58. Timmons became best-known as a member of Art Blakey's band the Jazz Messengers, which he was first part of from July 1958 to September 1959, including for a tour of Europe. By late 1958 Timmons was sharing bandmate Lee Morgan's East Sixth Street apartment and the pair had bought a piano, allowing Timmons to practice and Morgan to work on composing. From around the time he joined Blakey, Timmons, along with fellow band members, was a heroin user. After leaving Blakey, Timmons joined Cannonball Adderley's band, in October 1959.
Timmons was also known as a composer during this period: The Encyclopedia of Jazz states that his compositions "Moanin'", "This Here", and "Dat Dere" "helped generate the gospel-tinged 'soul jazz' style of the late '50s and early '60s." The first was written when Timmons was first with Art Blakey; the others were composed when Timmons was with Adderley. "This Here" (sometimes "Dis Here") was a surprise commercial success for Adderley: recorded in concert in 1959, it was released as part of the The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco album while the band was still on tour, and they discovered its popularity only when they arrived back in New York and found crowds outside the Village Gate, where they were due to play.
Timmons was reported to be dissatisfied with the money he had received from "This Here", and was enticed into leaving in February 1960 and returning to Blakey's band by the offer of more pay. He left again in June 1961. Timmons appeared on recordings under other leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One was Nat Adderley's Work Song; Timmons did not appear on all of the tracks, because he had been drinking heavily.
After leaving Blakey for the second time, Timmons formed his own bands, initially with Ron Carter on bass and Tootie Heath on drums. In 1963 Timmons' playing, with Lewis Powers on bass and Ron McCurdy on drums, was described by a Washington Post reviewer as "flexible and adventuresome Glossing over everything is an undeniable sheen of church music and spirituals." By 1965 the same reviewer commented that Timmons was employing musicians who were of much lower ability: "Timmons lacks a certain passion but I wonder if this is not the fault of his sidemen." Recordings as a leader continued, usually as part of a trio or quartet, but his 1967 album Got to Get It! featured him as part of a nonet, playing arrangements by Tom McIntosh. Timmons started playing vibes in the mid-1960s. He occasionally played organ, but recorded only one track on that instrument – a 1964 version of "Moanin'" on From the Bottom.
Timmons' career quickly declined in the 1960s, in part because of drug abuse and alcoholism and partly as a result of frustration at being typecast as a composer and player of seemingly simple pieces of music. Timmons joined Milestone Records around 1967. He played in a quartet led by Sonny Red in 1969, and in a trio backing vocalist Etta Jones the same year.
In March 1974, Timmons died from cirrhosis, at the age of 38, at St Vincent's Hospital in New York. He had been in hospital for a month. He was buried in Philadelphia, and was survived by his wife, Estelle, and son, also Bobby.
Timmons was known for using block chords, "a style in which the right hand creates the melody and the left hand moves with the rhythm of the right hand, but does not change voicing except to accommodate the chord changes." His use of them was more aggressive, and less melodic, than that of Red Garland. In the opinion of Scott Yanow, an American jazz commentator, stylistically, "somehow Bobby Timmons never grew beyond where he was in 1960." Gary Giddins, another American jazz critic, however, highlighted other facets of Timmons' playing: the "lush Bud Powell-inspired ballads, his clear, sharp, unsentimental long lines."
The funky aspects of Timmons' playing influenced fellow pianists, including Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, and Benny Green.
Timmons wrote "a steady stream of infectious funky tunes", stated Gary Giddins. Timmons dismissed the idea that he was deliberately a composer: "I'm a dilettante as a composer. I have never consciously sat down and tried to write a song." He stated that his method of composing a new song might involve "whistling, playing around with the notes, or at a club. I'll tell one musician to play this note, another that note, and we kick it around."
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