Stan Getz Biography

Of the great instrumental soloists who emerged from the revolution in jazz styles that grew in the years after World War II, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (1927–1991) was perhaps the greatest sheer melodist, the most avid pursuer of pure beauty and emotion.

Getz in his youth was an admirer of Lester Young, the great saxophonist whose singing melodic lines did much to emancipate the jazz soloist from the procession of chords that underpinned the tune. Coming of age during the evolution of the dense, difficult new music known as bebop, he forged a quieter but no less intense style of his own that commanded the admiration of legions of jazz fans for decades. In the 1960s Getz helped introduce a new Brazilian-inflected variety of jazz that put him in the top reaches of the sales charts, where he remained one of the top musicians in the jazz genre until his death in 1991.

Reproduced Big-Band Sounds on Harmonica

Stanley Getz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 2, 1927. The birth was a difficult one, during which one of Getz's ears was almost completely torn off by a surgical instrument and had to be reattached. His parents, descended from Jewish immigrants, were never very prosperous; his father, Al, was a low-level printshop employee, and was an alcohol abuser who often drifted from job to job. The family moved to the New York borough of the Bronx when Stan was six. The young Getz had obvious musical talent, but his parents could not afford to buy him an instrument. He got hold of a harmonica and quickly learned to

use it to mimic complex jazz arrangements like Benny Goodman's "King Porter Stomp," and he played the bass in classical compositions in a school orchestra. Finally, as a belated 13th birthday present, his parents gave him a battered alto saxophone.

He quickly learned the other saxophones and took lessons on the more difficult bassoon, and his high school teacher recommended him for a scholarship to the educational apex of classical music, the Juilliard School. But Getz was already hooked on the popular big band jazz of the time. Practicing his saxophone for up to eight hours a day, he was encouraged by his parents, who saw his growing skills as a source of extra money for the family. Soon Getz was frequenting jazz band rehearsals, and when he was 15 he seized the chance to fill a chair left absent by a member of trombonist Jack Teagarden's band. He was hired the same day by Teagarden at a salary of $70 a week and told to show up the next morning at Penn Station (a New York railroad terminus) with a tuxedo, toothbrush, and spare shirt.

At first Getz found work because older players were mostly away in the United States Army, but soon his solid skills and quick-study ways got him noticed by bandleaders. In 1944 Getz signed on with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and one of the veteran musicians in that high profile group talked him into trying heroin on the band's tour bus. Within a few weeks Getz was hooked. But he was young, making good money, and always on the road. Associates noticed that Getz's normally cheerful personality darkened while he was in need of a fix, and saxophonist Zoot Sims, in an interview quoted by Getz biographer Donald L. Maggin, once commented that "Stan's a nice bunch of guys!" But for some years his addiction did not interfere regularly with his playing.

Getz did stints with two more of the best bands in the jazz business, those of Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, in the mid-1940s. Still in his teens, he listened avidly as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and a group of other players centered in New York's Minton's nightclub worked out the radical new bebop style in the last years of World War II. Bebop drastically widened the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz, challenging players to produce rapid, jagged lines that extended the implications of the underlying chords. Getz, mostly by paying close attention to what avant-garde musicians were doing, mastered the new style in a matter of months.

Influenced by Lester Young

The main influence on Getz, however, was the style of swing tenor saxophonist Lester Young, a performer whose relaxed, lyrical style offered a contrast to those of saxophone players who cultivated the instrument's potential for rough sounds and sharp attacks. Getz worked at updating Young's sound with the speed and harmonic experimentation of bebop, creating a new and highly appealing style—lyrical, elegant, and yielding to no one in sheer dexterity. In 1947 Getz joined the incarnation of Woody Herman's Thundering Herd big band known as the Second Herd, honing his skills as part of the band's formidable "Four Brothers" quartet of saxophones (the others were Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff). The year before he had married jazz singer Beverly Byrne, and the pair, though troubled in their relationship, raised three children.

Getz severed his ties with the Herman band in 1949 and 1950, partly because he was disturbed by the grind of the road, and partly by a specific incident in which a railroad brakeman had been decapitated by a train on which he was riding. He began performing and recording, mostly in New York, with small groups. The timing was perfect, as so-called "cool jazz" began to supplant bebop and audiences flocked to the charismatic young saxophonist whom many called romantic. Getz resisted the identification with cool jazz, saying in a 1950 interview quoted by Maggin that "I'm not trying to shove any style or sound down people's throats. It's fun swingin' and getting 'hot' for a change instead of trying to be cool. I don't want to become stagnant. I can be a real stompin' tenor man." Getz had a major jazz hit with "Early Autumn" in 1949, and in the early 1950s he and trumpeter (and cool jazz pioneer) Miles Davis were arguably the most popular jazz musicians in the United States. Numerous Stan Getz Quintet LPs appeared on a variety of jazz labels and inaugurated a run of more than 130 albums Getz would make over the course of his career.

Getz's heroin addiction caused a major interruption to his jazz career in 1954. After several skirmishes with the law, he tried to ease himself off the drug with the equally dangerous combination of alcohol and barbiturates, but in February he found himself in Seattle, Washington, desperate for heroin and with no ready source of the drug. He entered a drugstore near his hotel and made a clumsy attempt to rob it (no weapon was involved, only a pointed finger under his coat), demanding morphine, a chemical relative of heroin. He was arrested and jailed in southern California, where he had faced earlier charges, for six months. Soon after this episode Getz stopped taking morphine for good, although he began to abuse alcohol.

Immediately after his divorce from Beverly Byrne in 1956, Getz married Swedish-born Monica Silfverskiold; with her he had two more children. Partly to escape Getz's legal problems, the pair lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the late 1950s, but wherever he was, Getz recorded prolifically, mostly for the Verve label started in 1956 by the indefatigable jazz promoter Norman Granz. In 1957 alone Getz released six albums, all with star collaborators, and he nurtured the careers of young players in Scandinavia's vigorous jazz scene.

Spearheaded Bossa Nova Craze

By the early 1960s Getz had been on top of the jazz world for more than a decade, and fashions were inevitably changing; the extreme playing of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, pushing at the edges of established jazz procedures, attracted the attention of jazz audiences and writers. But Getz found a new and congenial stylistic home for his smooth playing, first with a widely hailed recording with string orchestra called Focus in 1962, and then later that year with a then-little-known Brazilian style called bossa nova. Getz teamed with guitarist Charlie Byrd for the Jazz Samba album, and "Desafinado" ("Out of Tune") and "Samba de una Nota So" (translated as "One-Note Samba"), both written by Brazilian jazz composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, became major hits. Jazz Samba rose to the top spot on Billboard 's album sales chart, the first jazz LP to do so.

An international bossa nova craze quickly ignited, and Getz gave it a second wind in 1964 with the Getz/Gilberto LP, recorded (as was Jazz Samba ) for Verve. Getz teamed with Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto and his wife, Astrud, on the hit single "The Girl from Ipanema." The combination of Getz's saxophone and Astrud Gilberto's plain, deadpan voice proved irresistible, and Getz/Gilberto outsold Jazz Samba . It missed the top spot on the Billboard chart only because it appeared simultaneously with the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night . Getz remained financially comfortable for the rest of his life as a result of these recordings, and though he eventually tired of playing his big bossa nova hits, he established the Brazilian influence as a permanent part of the jazz vocabulary—one of his most significant accomplishments.

The jazz-rock fusion trends of the 1970s were not really congenial ones for Getz, although he did experiment with the use of electronic instruments from time to time. Recording for the Columbia label he assembled a series of bands that contained the future stars of jazz; one of these was pianist Chick Corea, whose composition "La Fiesta" appeared on Getz's Captain Marvel LP of 1975. Getz had a solid core of admirers, many of them in Europe, who contin- ued to support his straight-ahead acoustic jazz concerts and recordings.

Getz's personal life continued to trouble him in the 1980s; a combination of alcohol abuse and depression over the years had left him prone to sprees of rage, and his marriage to Monica dissolved in 1987 in an acrimonious divorce proceeding that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. No matter what demons might beset him, however, Getz was recognized over his entire career for delivering performances of consistently high quality. Getz recorded for the Verve, Concord Jazz, A&M, and Polygram labels, often joining with pianist Kenny Barron and remaining one of the best-selling performers in jazz. His 1987 releases Serenity and Anniversary were critically acclaimed, and 1989's Apasionado returned the saxophonist to a Brazilian zone of influence. In his last years, Getz finally achieved total sobriety.

Looking toward a third marriage and new musical projects near the end of the 1980s, Getz was diagnosed with liver cancer. He kept performing, and the disease remained stable for several years. One of the most beautiful vocal collaborations of his entire career was You Gotta Pay the Band , recorded in 1991 with singer Abbey Lincoln. Getz remained active until his death on June 6, 1991. The legacy of musicians he had directly inspired included Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, soon to be elected president of the United States.


Contemporary Musicians , volume 12, Gale 1994.

Maggin, Donald L., Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz , Morrow, 1996.


Billboard , June 22, 1991.

Boston Globe , June 8, 1991.

Independent (London, England), June 8, 1991.

New York Times , June 9, 1991.

New York Times Magazine , June 9, 1991.

Washington Post , June 8, 1991.


"Stan Getz," All Music Guide , (October 15, 2006).

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