Herb Geller R.I.P.
If Herb Geller’s mother had had her way, he would have become an engineer. If his father’s preference had prevailed, he’d have been a violinist. Instead, at the suggestion of one of his father’s card-playing pals who owned a music shop, Geller took up the saxophone at the age of eight and having been inspired by Benny Carter’s ability to play saxophone and trumpet brilliantly and entertain an audience, he became one of the great alto saxophonists in jazz.
Geller maybe wasn’t one of jazz’s biggest names. His decision to leave for Europe and settle in Germany following his first wife, Lorraine’s death meant that he was sometimes off the radar back in the US. But as those who heard him play in Scotland discovered, even in his later years, he remained a master musician and an extraordinarily fluent improviser who belonged in the company of his contemporaries Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Clifford Brown with whom Geller recorded in the 1950s.
The modest, quietly spoken Geller came to forge quite a bond with Scotland after he recorded the first of a series of albums for the Pitlochry-based Hep Records label which included Hollywood Portraits, a collection of duets with Edinburgh’s own world class pianist, Brian Kellock. He visited here several times, the last occasion being two years ago when he appeared at Glasgow Art Club and despite sitting on a stool to perform, played with undiminished intellectual rigour.
Geller was born in Los Angeles where his father, a Russian émigré, was a tailor and his mother played piano in a silent movie theatre. At school his classmates and fellow members of the swing band included saxophonist and bass clarinettist Eric Dolphy and saxophonist Vi Redd, both of whom went on to make their mark in jazz. All three went to the Benny Carter show at the Orpheum Theater - and all three went back on the following nights – that lured Geller away from his Glenn Miller records and into Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and presently Charlie Parker.
When Parker appeared in Los Angeles in 1945 Geller, still under twenty-one, stood outside to hear an alto saxophonist he described as “so good he was dispiriting”. By this time Geller had abandoned college to play tenor saxophone with violinist Joe Venuti and clarinet with Mike Riley, who composed The Music Goes Round and Round, in his Dixieland band.
In 1949 he moved to New York where he played with the Claude Thornhill, Lucky Milliner and Jerry Wald orchestras and met pianist Lorraine Walsh, a considerable talent who played with Charlie Parker among others. They married in 1952 and moved back to the west coast, where Geller became heavily involved in the burgeoning ‘cool jazz’ scene, playing with Shorty Rodgers, Maynard Ferguson, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Barney Kessel, Andre Previn, and Dinah Washington. He also led his own quartet featuring Lorraine and drummer Shelly Manne. Lorraine’s death following an asthma attack in 1958 affected Geller badly. Initially he worked with Benny Goodman, Louie Bellson and Manne but in 1962 while touring Brazil with Goodman he took a job on a ship bound for Europe.
Arriving in Paris he immediately found work in French radio before moving to West Berlin and then Hamburg, where, in 1965, he joined the NDR orchestra and settled into life in one of Europe’s leading radio orchestras, recording with luminaries including Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and composing music for the orchestra, TV and film. He also recorded in smaller groups with visiting Americans including pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Joe Pass and after retiring from NDR in 1994 he maintained a busy schedule of playing, recording and teaching engagements. He taught at conservatories in in Hamburg, Bremen, Hannover and Rotterdam and wrote a jazz instruction book entitled Crossover.
Among the many significant recordings and concerts Geller featured on during a near seventy-year career one of his most cherished was the Benny Carter at 90 concert at Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles in 1997. He was still playing and trying to match his hero’s brilliance when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour a year ago. He died on his fifty-first wedding anniversary and is survived by his second wife, Christine, daughters Lisa and Olivia, and son, Sam.
Herb Geller, jazz musician, born November 2, 1928; died December 19, 2013.