Herbie Nichols was born in San Juan Hill (Amsterdam Avenue, West End Avenue, 59th Street, and 65th Street), Manhattan to parents from St. Kitts and Trinidad and grew up in Harlem.
During much of Nichols’s life he was forced to take work as a Dixieland musician instead of playing the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred, but he 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 Royal Barons in 1937, but he did not find performing at Minton’s Playhouse a few years later a very happy experience. The competitive atmosphere did not suit his personality. However, he did become friends with fellow pianist Thelonious Monk, even if his own critical neglect would be more enduring.
Nichols was drafted into the Infantry in 1941. After the war he worked in various setting, beginning to achieve some recognition when Mary Lou Williams recorded some of his songs in 1952. From about 1947 he persisted in trying to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up. He finally recorded some of his compositions for Blue Note in 1955 and 1956, a number of which were not issued until the 1980s.
Here’s Herbie Nichols on piano; Max Roach on drums; Al McKibbon on bass. Recorded August 7, 1955.
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 in New York City at the age of 44.
A biography, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life by Mark Miller, was published in 2009.
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at least three albums featuring Nichols’ compositions, including The Unheard Herbie Nichols (1996) and a book The Unpublished Works (2000).
In 1984, the Steve Lacy quintet with George Lewis, Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink and Arjen Gorter performed the music of Nichols at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy.
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.