Herbert Horatio Nichols (3 January 1919 – 12 April 1963) was an American jazz pianist and composer who wrote the jazz standard "Lady Sings the Blues". Obscure during his lifetime, he is now highly regarded by many musicians and critics.
During much of his 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 that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies derived from Erik Satie and Béla Bartók.
His first known work as a musician 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 settings, 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, some of which were not issued until the 1980s. 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.
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at least three albums featuring Nichols' compositions, including The Unheard Herbie Nichols (1996) and a book The Unpublished Works (2000).
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.
- As leader
- 1955 The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 (Blue Note) with Art Blakey (drums), Al McKibbon (bass)
- 1955 The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vol. 2 (Blue Note) with Art Blakey (drums), Al McKibbon (bass)
- 1956 Herbie Nichols Trio (Blue Note) with Max Roach (drums), Teddy Kotick (bass)
- 1957 Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem) with Dannie Richmond (drums), George Duvivier (bass)
- 1997 The Complete Blue Note Recordings (3-CD set recorded 1955-56) - as above
- Spellman, A.B. (1985). Four Lives in the Bebop Business. Limelight Editions. pp. 156, 174. ISBN 0-87910-042-7.
- Spellman, pp. 155-56.
- Spellman, p. 165.
- Spellman, p. 168.
- Kelsey, Chris. "Rosswell Rudd Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-11-29.
- Layne, Joslyn. "Misha Mengelberg Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-11-29.
- Corroto, Mark (2001-11-01). "Strange City: The Herbie Nichols Project". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2008-11-29.