Phineas Newborn, Jr.

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Phineas Newborn, Jr.
Born (1931-12-14)December 14, 1931
Whiteville, Tennessee
United States
Died May 26, 1989(1989-05-26) (aged 57)
Memphis, Tennessee
United States
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Piano
Associated acts

Phineas Newborn, Jr. (December 14, 1931 – May 26, 1989) was an American jazz pianist, whose principal influences were Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Bud Powell.


Newborn came from a musical family: his father, Phineas Newborn, Sr., was a blues musician and his younger brother, Calvin, a jazz guitarist. Phineas studied piano as well as trumpet, and tenor and baritone saxophone.

Before moving on to work with Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, and others, Newborn first played in an R&B band led by his father on drums, with his brother Calvin on guitar, Tuff Green on bass, Ben Branch and future Hi Records star Willie Mitchell. The group was the house band at the now famous Plantation Inn Club in West Memphis, Arkansas, from 1947 to 1951, and recorded as B. B. King's band on his first recordings in 1949, as well as the Sun Records sessions in 1950.[1] They left West Memphis in 1951 to tour with Jackie Brenston as the "Delta Cats" in support of the record "Rocket 88", recorded by Sam Phillips and considered by many to be the first ever rock & roll record (it was the first Billboard No. 1 record for Chess Records).[2]

Among his earliest recordings, from the early 1950s, are those for Sun Records with blues harmonica player Big Walter Horton, We Three (as a trio with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Paul Chambers), and his debut as a solo artist on RCA Victor, Phineas' Rainbow.

From 1956 he began to perform in New York City, making his first album as a leader in that year. His trios and quartets at that time included Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Clarke, George Joyner and Philly Joe Jones.[3]

He created enough interest internationally to work as a solo pianist in Stockholm in 1958 and in Rome the following year.

Subsequently moving to Los Angeles around 1960, he recorded a sequence of piano trio albums for the Contemporary label. However, some critics found his playing style rather facile, and Newborn developed emotional problems as a result, necessitating his admission to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital for some periods. He also suffered a hand injury which hindered his playing.

Newborn's later career was intermittent due to ongoing health problems. This is most true of the period from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s when he faded from view, underappreciated and underrecorded. He made a partial comeback in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although this return apparently failed to benefit his financial situation.[4] He died in 1989 after the discovery of a growth on his lungs and was buried in Memphis National Cemetery.


According to jazz historian Nat Hentoff, Newborn's plight spurred the 1989 founding of the Jazz Foundation of America, a group dedicated to helping with the medical bills and other financial needs of retired jazz greats. In the early 1990s the four-player Contemporary Piano Ensemble was formed by pianists Harold Mabern, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and Geoff Keezer to pay tribute to Newborn; it recorded two albums and toured internationally.[5]


Despite his setbacks, many of Newborn's records, such as The Great Jazz Piano of Phineas Newborn, Jr and Phineas' Rainbow, remain highly regarded. Jazz commentator Scott Yanow even referred to Newborn as "one of the most technically skilled and brilliant pianists in jazz."[6] Evidence of his technical prowess can be heard on tracks such as "Sometimes I'm Happy" on Look Out – Phineas Is Back! where Newborn performs extended, complex, and brisk solos with both hands in unison. Leonard Feather once said of him, "In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time."[7]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

Year recorded Title Label Notes
1956 Here Is Phineas Atlantic Quartet, with Calvin Newborn (g), Oscar Pettiford (b), Kenny Clarke (d). LP 1235, SD 1235
1956 Phineas' Rainbow RCA Quartet, with Calvin Newborn (g), George Joyner (b), Philly Joe Jones (d). LPM 1421
1957 Phineas Newborn Plays Jamaica RCA Victor With orchestra: Ernie Royal (tp), Nick Ferrante (tp), Jimmy Cleveland (tb), Sahib Shihab (as, bars, cl, bcl), Jerome Richardson (ts, fl), Les Spann (g), George Duvivier (b), Osie Johnson (d), Francisco Pozo and Willie Rodriguez (per). LPM 1589
1958 Fabulous Phineas RCA Quartet, with Calvin Newborn (g), George Joyner (b), Denzil Best (d). LPM 1873
1958 We Three Prestige/New Jazz With Roy Haynes and Paul Chambers
1959 Piano Portraits by Phineas Newborn Roulette Birdland Trio, with Roy Haynes (d) and John Simmons (b). SR 52031
1961 A World of Piano! Contemporary Trios, with Paul Chambers (b), Philly Joe Jones (d); Sam Jones (b), Louis Hayes (d). S7600
1961 The Great Jazz Piano of Phineas Newborn Jr. Contemporary Trios, with Leroy Vinnegar (b), Milt Turner (d); Sam Jones (b), Louis Hayes (d). S-7611
1964 The Newborn Touch Contemporary Trio, with Leroy Vinnegar (b), Frank Butler (d). S7615
1969 Please Send Me Someone to Love Contemporary Trio, with Ray Brown (b), Elvin Jones (d). S 7622
1969 Harlem Blues Contemporary Trio, with Ray Brown (b) and Elvin Jones (d). C 7634
1976 Back Home Contemporary Trio, with Ray Brown (b), Elvin Jones (d). C 7648
1976 Look Out – Phineas Is Back! Pablo Trio, with Ray Brown (b), Jimmie Smith (d). 2310-801

As sideman[edit]

Year recorded Leader Title Notes
1961 Howard McGhee Maggie's Back in Town Quartet, with Leroy Vinnegar (b), Shelly Manne (d). Contemporary M 3596
1961 Howard McGhee & Teddy Edwards Together Again!!!! Quintet, with Ray Brown (b), Ed Thigpen (d). Contemporary M 3588
1961 Teddy Edwards Good Gravy! Quartet, with Leroy Vinnegar (b), Milton Turner (d). Contemporary M 3592
1958 Roy Haynes We Three Trio, with Paul Chambers (b). New Jazz NJLP 8210


  1. ^ Robins, Wayne (Spring 1999). "Talk to the Boss: His Majesty Mr. King". Blues Access (37). 
  2. ^ Franklin, Dale. Memphus and the Great Gathering of the Blues People 1 (1st ed.). CreateSpace. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-4414-9218-0. 
  3. ^ "Phineas Newborn, Jr. Discography". JAZZDISCO. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Wilson, John S. (27 May 1984). "Critics' Choices". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ "Contemporary Piano Ensemble". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  6. ^ "Phineas Newborn, Jr. Biography". Pandora Radio. Pandora Media, Inc. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  7. ^ "Phineas Newborn, Jr., 57, Top Jazz Pianist". The New York Times. 28 May 1989. 

External links[edit]