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 City
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
LabelsBlue Note, Bethlehem

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.[1]


He was born in San Juan Hill, Manhattan in New York City, to parents from St. Kitts and Trinidad, and grew up in Harlem.[2]: 156, 174  During much of his career, he took work as a Dixieland musician while working on the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred.[2]: 155–56  He is best known today for these compositions, program music that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies 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 competition didn't 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.[2]: 165  From about 1947, he persisted in trying to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up.[2]: 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 firmly identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957 he recorded his last album as leader for Bethlehem Records.

Nichols died from leukemia in New York City at the age of 44.

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.[3] A biography, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life, written by Mark Miller, was published in 2009.[4]


Nichols' music was energetically promoted by Roswell Rudd, who worked with Nichols in the early 1960s. Rudd recorded or programmed at least three albums featuring Nichols' compositions, including The Unheard Herbie Nichols (1996) and a book The Unpublished Works (2000).[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]


As leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]


  1. ^ Johnson, David Brent; Miller, Mark (5 April 2010). "Night Lights: Herbie Nichols' Third World". Indiana Public Media. WFIU Public Radio. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Spellman, A.B. (1985). Four Lives in the Bebop Business. New York: Limelight Editions. ISBN 0879100427.
  3. ^ Wilson, John S. (November 20, 1966). "Jazzmen's Quartet". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  4. ^ Miller, Mark (2009). Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life. Toronto: Mercury Press Publishers. ISBN 978-1-551-28146-9.
  5. ^ Kelsey, Chris. "Roswell Rudd". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  6. ^ Layne, Joslyn. "Misha Mengelberg". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
  7. ^ 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.

Further reading[edit]