Stan Getz - Biography

Known simply as “The Sound,” tenor saxophonist Stan Getz had one of the most caressingly beautiful tones in jazz history. John Coltrane, one of the many great saxophonists who credited Getz as an influence, may have said it best when he stated that “We’d all sound like that . . . if we could.” A star by the time he was 22, Getz continued to make jazz history throughout his long career. Despite a turbulent personal life, including marital drama, alcoholism, and heroin addiction, when Getz picked up his horn, he was all music.

Stan Getz was born as Stanley Gayetzky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 2, 1927. The Getz family soon moved to New York City. A top student in junior high school, the young Getz was deeply attracted to musical instruments. By age 12 he was playing bass and harmonica, and his talent at playing whatever he heard was recognized early on. For his thirteenth birthday, his father bought him an alto saxophone. Getz began practicing, a lot. Later he would note, "In my neighborhood my choice was: be a bum or escape. So I became a music kid, practicing eight hours a day.” Getz progressed quickly, and in September of 1941was accepted into the All City High School Orchestra, an honor that also got him access to a private tutor. He also began to play casuals, including frat parties, bar mitzvahs, and dances. By the time he was 14, he had saved enough to buy a tenor sax.

Older musicians helped him get his first professional job in the house band at Roseland in December 1942. Getz dropped out of high school to become a professional musician, joining Local 802 in mid-January 1943. Although his talent would have been sufficient to ensure his prominence in any era, Getz’s rapid rise was made possible by World War II, which put many of the older and more established musicians in the service.

A musician friend suggested that Getz audition for trombonist Jack Teagarden's band. Getz got the job, and was offered $70.00 a week. Instead of the argument he expected at home for leaving school to go on the road, the fifteen-year old was met with surprising encouragement. “Stan, seventy bucks a week!” his father said. “I can't make that in two weeks.”

When Getz’s youth created trouble on the road with truant officers, Teagarden arranged with Getz’s parents to become the youngster’s guardian. The band was playing a grueling circuit of one-nighters. Getz later said “That was a very good introduction to professional music to me. Teagarden was a great musician. His playing is timeless - and it's logical." Getz, at sixteen, a pack-a-day cigarette smoker and starting to drink heavily, left the Teagarden group in California. Due to an arcane union rule, he couldn’t take a steady musical gig for three months, so for the first and last time in his life, Getz took a day job, selling men’s clothes.

In the spring of 1944, Getz joined the Stan Kenton orchestra. Although broadcasts with Teagarden and Kenton have surfaced over the years, Getz made his first official recordings with Kenton on May 20, 1944, for Capitol. During his stay in the Kenton band, Getz made a serious study of his idol on tenor, Lester Young. Learning Young’s solos note for note, he would inject them into his own solos on the band stand. An argument over Young’s approach to music led to Getz leaving the Kenton group in April of 1945. Following a brief stay in the Jimmy Dorsey band, Getz joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra in October of 1945. With Goodman enjoying a months-long engagement in Newark, Getz had plenty of opportunity to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other beboppers first-hand. In July of 1946, Getz made his first recordings as a leader, four tunes for Savoy leading the Be-Bop Boys with Hank Jones on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums.

Back in California by late 1946, Getz began playing with saxophonists Herb Steward, Zoot Sims and Jimmy Giuffre, all fellow devotees of Lester Young. When arranger Ralph Burns came down to hear them, he was duly impressed with their cohesion. On his advice, they were hired for Woody Herman's new Bop-based Second Herd, with Serge Chaloff replacing Giuffre on baritone. The band’s recordings for Columbia in late 1947, included classics like "The Goof and I," "Four Brothers" and "Summer Sequence." The saxophonist stayed with Herman until March of 1949. That spring, he made a number of recordings for Savoy and New Jazz, working with musicians like trumpeter Shorty Rogers, trombonist Kai Winding, saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, pianist Al Haig, and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. When the Herman Orchestra’s 1948 recording of “Early Autumn” was finally issued in July of 1949, it became a top ten hit, and Getz became a big name. He was later quoted as saying “It's a nice solo. But I don't get it. I don't understand why it was such an earth-shaking thing. It's just another ballad solo for me... my music is something that's done and forgotten about."

Placing at tenth place in the Metronome poll at the beginning of 1949, Getz leapt to the number one slot for tenor sax in January 1950; a similar rise was happening in the DownBeat poll. The song’s popularity allowed Getz to escape the casual gigs he’d been taking out of necessity. By Christmas 1949, Getz was a big enough name to be featured on a Carnegie Hall bill that also presented Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan.

Getz worked as a solo artist in 1950, using a variety of rhythm sections on record and in public appearances. On one such trip to Hartford, Connecticut, Getz discovered pianist Horace Silver, who he brought to New York, along with bassist Joe Calloway and drummer Walter Bolden to record for Roost in late 1950 and early 1951. Silver stayed with Getz into 1952. Although a Norman Granz tour of Europe fell through, Getz went to Scandinavia for a week of performances that March, where he was received with cheering crowds. At first a bit stunned at the reaction, Getz soon warmed to the scene and felt right at home (although the lack of heroin sent him scurrying back to New York as soon as he could). He recorded two sessions for the Metronome label in Stockholm.

Back in the States, Getz put together a quintet with guitarist Jimmy Raney, with a notable live recording for Roost at Boston’s Storyville in October 1951. In spring of 1952, Getz recorded "Moonlight in Vermont" under the leadership of guitarist Johnny Smith, which became a hit. Getz was signed to Norman Granz's Clef Records label in 1952. His first recordings for Granz were quintet sides made in December of that year, issued as Stan Getz Plays, with a famous photo on the cover of Getz with his horn, leaning forward to get a kiss from his son Steve. After a final session with Raney under the guitarist’s name for Prestige in April of 1953, Getz put together a new quintet with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer that recorded for Granz in New York in May and again in Los Angeles that summer. The group had a residency at Zardi’s that lasted until September. With no further bookings in sight, Getz was once again on his own. After a brief tour as star soloist with Stan Kenton, a week in Boston in early December, and a demanding session with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach (Diz and Getz, 1954 Verve), Getz was back in Los Angeles at the end of the year, co-leading a quintet with trumpeter Chet Baker. Rampant drug use by jazz musicians was attracting a lot of attention from the police at this time, and on December 19 Getz and his wife were arrested on drug charges. Due to be sentenced in February, Getz attempted to kick heroin by himself during a brief tour of the Pacific Northwest. By the time he reached Seattle, Getz was having serious difficulties and attempted to hold up a drug store. The barbiturates he was taking to wean himself from heroin ended up putting him in the hospital. Eventually sentenced to six months in jail, plus three years probation, Getz did most of his time in a low-security prison farm.

Upon release in August of 1954, Getz went right back to work, joining Baker at the Tiffany Club. Shortly after, Getz reformed the quintet with Brookmeyer for a Granz-organized concert tour, which played to packed houses across the country. The final show of the tour in Los Angeles was released as Stan Getz At The Shrine (1954 Verve). Granz continued to record Getz in a variety of situations in the Fifties, including meetings with Lionel Hampton, Gillespie again with Sonny Stitt and John Lewis in the group, Sittin’ In (1957 Verve) with Gillespie, Paul Gonsalves, and Coleman Hawkins, and with his own quartet of Lou Levy on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass, and Stan Levey on drums.

In order to avoid legal problems, Getz left the United States for Denmark in 1958 with his Swedish-born second wife. On his return to the States three years later, during which time the innovations of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman had shaken up the jazz world, Getz felt somewhat out of touch. But with his innate musicality and ceaseless curiosity, he came to terms with the new sounds. His 1961 album Focus (Verve), composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter expressly for the saxophonist was a personal favorite of Getz, “the record I'm most proud of...”

In late 1961, Getz was working with a quartet at a Washington, DC club when guitarist Charlie Byrd approached him about recording an album of Brazilian songs. Getz agreed, and Jazz Samba (Verve) came out the following April. The album slowly grew in popularity, hitting number one on the Billboard pop album charts in 1963. As Getz biographer Dave Gelly writes, “Jazz Samba remains deeply enjoyable to this day, but when it first came out it was utterly irresistible.” The very month that Jazz Samba hit the top, Getz was in the studio with João Gilberto and his wife Astrud. Although she had no training as a singer, when Astrud sang translations of “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Corcovado” at Getz’s request, he was so taken with her vocals that they were used on the record. The album Getz/Gilberto (Verve) came out in March, 1964, and that summer “The Girl From Ipanema” was an international hit.

Getz’s  regular group from 1963-1966 was a quartet featuring vibraphonist Gary Burton. For Verve, he recorded with strings (Reflections 1963), with pianist Bill Evans, and live at Carnegie Hall with guest Astrud Gilberto. In 1965, he worked with arranger Sauter once more, this time on the film score for Mickey One. He toured the United States and Europe with regularity, filling halls around the world. Burton left to lead his own quartet at the end of 1966. His replacement was pianist Chick Corea, who stayed for a year or so, until Getz’s drinking and behavioral problems had begun to affect his playing.

After several stays at rehabilitation clinics, Getz moved to Spain in the early Seventies and eventually made a connection with organist Eddy Louiss in Paris. He toured with the Louiss trio in 1970, recording the double-album Dynasty (1971 Verve) the following spring. A re-energized Getz played dates across Europe in 1971 before returning to the US to play with a group put together for him by Corea. One of the high points of his later work, Captain Marvel (1975 Columbia), with a quintet of Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Tony Williams, and percussionist Airto Moreira, was recorded in March of 1972, but was held up for a few years due to legal issues. Getz was reunited with Joao Gilberto for The Best Of Both Worlds (1975 Columbia). Another highlight from that year is The Peacocks (Columbia), a duet project with pianist Jimmy Rowles.

After his quartet with pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Niels Henning-Ørsted Pedersen, and drummer Billy Hart was caught on stage Live In Montmarte (1977 SteepleChase), Getz moved more into a fusion groove when he hired keyboardist Andy LaVerne for his next group. The saxophonist even experimented briefly with the Varitone electronic attachment. In 1981, Getz signed with the Concord Jazz label, and returned to a strictly acoustic format. His Eighties quartets included pianists Lou Levy, Jim McNeely, and Kenny Barron, bassists George Mraz and Rufus Reid, and drummers Victor Lewis and Ben Riley. Barron joined the group in 1986, debuting with Getz at the saxophonist’s inaugural concert at Stanford University, where Getz had been appointed artist-in-residence. In addition to touring with his own groups, Getz contributed to projects by the Manhattan Transfer, Woody Herman, Barry Manilow, and Diane Schuur.

In 1987, the removal of a cancerous tumor behind his heart put Getz out of commission for a time. With his cancer having spread but in remission, Getz made a European tour in 1989, recording with the quartet as well as with singer Helen Merrill and an all-star group in homage to Charlie Parker. A big band album (Apasionado, 1989 A&M) was followed by Getz’s final tour, with synthesizers in place of the orchestra. His cancer returned, and in 1991, his health began to deteriorate significantly. His final recordings appear on People Time (1992 Verve), duets with Barron recorded in Copenhagen just three months before he passed away.

Stan Getz died at home in Malibu, California, on June 6, 1991. At his request, his body was cremated, with his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

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