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Abroad Base

L.A. native Herb Geller has lived in Germany since the '60s, but his audience is international--and his music's still American jazz.

June 05, 1998|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles-born saxophonist Herb Geller, an expatriate who has lived in Germany since 1962, came close recently to buying a house in Cambria, on the California central coast. Sadly for American fans of the 69-year-old alto player, he didn't go through with it.

"I've often been very tempted to come back" to the U.S., Geller said earlier this week by phone from a Brentwood motel, two days after arriving from Hamburg.

His West Coast tour includes performances tonight and Saturday at Steamers in Fullerton, July 14 at Spaghettini in Seal Beach and June 11-14 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Redondo Beach for the American Jazz Institute's California Cool: Celebrating Jazz on the West Coast convention.

"The biggest obstacle [to returning permanently] is health insurance," Geller said. "I'm nearly 70, and we have such good coverage in Germany. And I have two children living in Hamburg with their own lives. I was with the [NDR] radio orchestra there for 28 years, and they're giving me a 70th birthday concert. Hamburg has been very good to me."

How Geller--a veteran of the West Coast scene of the '50s with such luminaries as Shorty Rogers, Billy May, Maynard Ferguson and Bill Holman--ended up in Europe is a tale of the travels and travails of a jazz musician trying to survive in the era of rock 'n' roll.

Some of that story can be found in "Playing Jazz," Geller's musical autobiography, issued last year by Fresh Sounds Records.

"I don't think there's anything like it on record," Geller said of the musical piece, which includes vocalists Lothar Atwell, Mike Campbell, O.C. singer Stephanie Haynes and Polly Podewell (plus jazz deejay Chuck Niles) as well as Geller's quartet with pianist Tom Ranier, bassist John Leitham and drummer Paul Kreibich. "It's a jazz musical, conceived as a theater piece--with an intermission--that tells a story."

Yet the piece--with tributes to pianist Joe Albany, trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Al Cohn, all Geller heroes--doesn't tell the whole story of the saxophonist's journey.

Geller was born in 1928 and became a classmate of saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd at L.A.'s Dorsey High School. He got serious about music after a seeing concert at the Orpheum Theater downtown that included Benny Carter's big band and the trio of Nat King Cole. He cites Carter, Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker among his idols.

Geller moved to New York in the late '40s and became a member of bandleader Claude Thornhill's revolutionary ensemble, which paved the way for "the cool school" of jazz, with arrangements from Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans. That's where he met his first wife, pianist Lorraine Walsh.

Back in Los Angeles, the Gellers led a quartet, recorded for the EmArcy label and played with many of the West Coast movement's finest. Walsh served a stint as house pianist at the fabled Lighthouse jazz club in Redondo Beach.

Walsh, who suffered from heart and asthma conditions, died in 1958. Her death set Geller adrift.

Geller went to Brazil with the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1961 and was offered a job in Sa~o Paulo, where he played for six weeks. Friend Stan Getz had urged him to try Europe, and Geller ended up in Paris playing with two bebop expatriates, drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Kenny Drew.

*

A short-lived gig in Lisbon was followed by three years with the Radio Free Berlin Orchestra. From there he went to Hamburg, where he taught at the Conservatory and, in 1965, began his long association with the NDR Orchestra. He retired from the orchestra about five years ago.

At times, Geller said, he was tempted to come back to the U.S.

"But the Vietnam War was on, and I was very much against that. I had to make a choice between Nixon and Willy Brandt."

Geller remarried, and the demands of his life in Hamburg restored order. Through it all, the saxophonist has remained true to his chosen art form, a subject at the center of "Playing Jazz."

To Geller, melody is primary to music.

"Lots of students learn harmony, but they are weak on melody. When I write, I fit the chords to the melody, rather than writing the chord structure and then trying to make the melody fit it. All my songs are melodic, written in such a way that I can put a lyric to them."

Geller continues to be interested in the musical-theater form that gave rise to "Playing Jazz."

"I've always been interested in musical theater, since the days in New York in 1949 when I worked in a theater orchestra with Paul Desmond and saw 'Pal Joey,' " he said. "I've become a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. He's been my inspiration in that direction."

When Geller appears at Steamers with trumpeter Conte Candoli in his band, he promises at least a few songs from "Playing Jazz" and some of his other compositions.

"I really don't know what retirement means," he said. "I'm at the piano every day writing something. It keeps me fresh."

* Herb Geller plays Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8:30 tonight and Saturday. Two-item minimum. (714) 871-8800. Information for California Cool: Celebrating Jazz on the West Coast: (626) 798-3127.

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