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Herbie Nichols

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Herbie Nichols
Background information
Birth nameHerbert Horatio Nichols
Born(1919-01-03)January 3, 1919
San Juan Hill, Manhattan, New York, U.S.
DiedApril 12, 1963(1963-04-12) (aged 44)
New York, U.S.
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
LabelsBlue Note, Bethlehem

Herbert Horatio Nichols (January 3, 1919 – April 12, 1963)[1] 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.[2]



He was born in San Juan Hill, Manhattan, New York, United States,[1] to parents from St. Kitts and Trinidad, and grew up in Harlem.[3]: 156, 174  During much of his career, he took work as a Dixieland musician while also pursuing the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred.[3]: 155–56  He is best known today for music that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies from Erik Satie, Béla Bartók and other modernist composers.

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, as the competitive environment did not suit him. However, he did become friends with pianist Thelonious Monk.

Nichols was drafted into the Army 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.[3]: 165  From about 1947, he persisted in trying to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up.[3]: 168  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 identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957, he recorded his last album as leader for Bethlehem Records.

Nichols died of leukemia in New York City at the age of 44.[1]

One of the four essays in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business (also known as Four Jazz Lives, 1966) is about Nichols.[4] A biography, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life, written by Mark Miller, was published in 2009.[5]



Nichols's music was energetically promoted by Roswell Rudd, who worked with Nichols in the early 1960s. Rudd released three albums featuring Nichols's compositions (Regeneration, issued in 1983 by Soul Note, and The Unheard Herbie Nichols (1997), issued by CIMP in two volumes), as well as a book The Unpublished Works (2000).[6]

In 1984, the Steve Lacy quintet with George E. Lewis, Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and Arjen Gorter performed the music of Nichols at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy.[7] That same year, they recorded an album titled Change of Season (Music of Herbie Nichols) (Soul Note, 1985).[8]

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.[9]

In 2024, Sonic Camera Records released Tell the Birds I Said Hello: The Music of Herbie Nichols, an album by double bassist Ben Allison, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and saxophonist Ted Nash.[10]



As leader

Year recorded Title Label Year released Notes
1955 The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 Blue Note 1955 Trio, with Al McKibbon (bass), Art Blakey (drums)[11][12]
1955 The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vol. 2 Blue Note 1955 Trio, with Al McKibbon (bass), Art Blakey (drums)[11][12]
1955–56 Herbie Nichols Trio Blue Note 1956 Trio, with Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick (bass; separately), Max Roach (drums)[11][13]
1957 Love, Gloom, Cash, Love Bethlehem 1958 Most tracks trio, with George Duvivier (bass), Dannie Richmond (drums); one track solo piano[11][14]


  • 1952: Herbie Nichols Quartet (Savoy; first LP issue: Various Artists I Just Love Jazz Piano - Down And Out (1957), session sometimes reissued with the Gigi Gryce album Nica's Tempo)
  • The Complete Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note; reissued by Mosaic)

As sideman



  1. ^ a b c Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1826. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ Johnson, David Brent; Miller, Mark (5 April 2010). "Night Lights: Herbie Nichols' Third World". Indiana Public Media. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Spellman, A.B. (1985). Four Lives in the Bebop Business. New York: Limelight Editions. ISBN 0879100427.
  4. ^ Wilson, John S. (November 20, 1966). "Jazzmen's Quartet". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  5. ^ Miller, Mark (2009). Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life. Toronto: Mercury Press Publishers. ISBN 978-1-551-28146-9.
  6. ^ Kelsey, Chris. "Roswell Rudd". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  7. ^ Layne, Joslyn. "Misha Mengelberg". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  8. ^ "Misha Mengelberg: Change of Season (Music of Herbie Nichols)". Jazz Music Archives. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  9. ^ Corroto, Mark (1 November 2001). "Strange City: The Herbie Nichols Project". All About Jazz. Archived from the original on 7 September 2008. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  10. ^ "Ben Allison - Tell the Birds I Said Hello: The Music of Herbie Nichols". Jazz Music Archives. Retrieved January 8, 2024.
  11. ^ a b c d "Herbie Nichols Discography". jazzdisco. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  12. ^ a b "Blue Note Records Catalog: 5000 series". jazzdisco. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  13. ^ "Blue Note Records Catalog: 1500 series". jazzdisco. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  14. ^ "Bethlehem Records Catalog: Deluxe series". jazzdisco. Retrieved October 21, 2022.

Further reading

  • Nichols, Herbie; Rudd, Roswell (2000). The Unpublished Works of Herbie Nichols: 27 Jazz Masterpieces. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Gerard & Sarzin Pub. Co. ISBN 978-1-930-08000-3. OCLC 45456453.