Sheldon Brown to honor overlooked genius Herbie Nichols

Sheldon Browne will pay tribute to "Lady Sings the Blues" composer Herbie Nichols on November 19th at Berkeley's Hillside Club

When it comes to jazz and new music, the Bay Area is a medium-sized pond that sustains a dazzling array of small, often intermingled scenes. It’s an ecosystem in which a tropical profusion of players has found a niche, and among the most versatile and gifted is reed master Sheldon Brown, who is equally accomplished on an array of clarinets and saxophones.

The Eureka native moved down to San Francisco in 1979, and he’s been turning up in some of the region’s most interesting ensembles ever since, from Club Foot Orchestra, which revived the art of composing and performing scores for silent films, to Berkeley’s Klezmorim, the band that helped spark the revival of Ashkenazi Jewry’s party music.

He’s toured and recorded widely with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s expansive ensemble. And he’s played a key role in Clarinet Thing, the all-clarinet ensemble led by Beth Custer, and Hemispheres, a world jazz combo led by percussionist Ian Dogole.

Brown even finds time to lead several groups of his own, and on Saturday he presents a project devoted to the extraordinary compositions of pianist Herbie Nichols at the Hillside Club.


Responsible for the composition “Lady Sings the Blues,” a tune indelibly linked to Billie Holiday, Nichols became jazz’s quintessential overlooked genius. While he recorded several classic trio sessions for Blue Note, he scuffled for work until his death from leukemia in 1963 at the age of 44. Combining his love of modernist composers like Satie and Bartok with Caribbean inflections and bebop’s hurtling tempos, tunes like “House Party Starting,” “The Gig,” and “Shuffle Montgomery” have entranced subsequent jazz generations.

For Brown, Nichols’ music has provided endless inspiration, and over the course of a decade he ended up transcribing every tune the pianist ever recorded. He notes that while Nichols was profiled as a hard-luck case in A.B. Spellman’s classic book “Four Lives in the Bebop Business,” he should be remembered for his musical achievements rather than canonized as an abused master.

“Nichols is like St. Jude for all those cats who didn’t make it,” says Brown, a longtime Oakland resident. “There is that aspect to his story, but I wouldn’t want that to be the take away. The music is just brilliant. When I was in my transcribing fever, playing through his tunes a lot, I really got to know his completely unique voice. He was a melodic improviser. He uses the melody of the piece in his solos, which distinguishes him from great players who apply their ideas to any tune. There’s elegance and humor is his music, but definitely tempered by a little bit of melancholy.”

Brown’s band showcases a bevy of Bay Area jazz masters. Trumpeter Darren Johnston is one of region’s most consistently inventive players (he celebrates the release of his stellar new album “The Big Lift” Friday at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco with a quintet featuring Brown and Berkeley clarinet maestro Ben Goldberg). Pianist Matt Clark is back on the Bay Area scene after several years in New York City. And bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis make up such an effective rhythm section tandem that they’re often hired together.

“I sort of stole Laurie Antonioli’s rhythm section,” says Brown, who recently played and recorded with Clark, Shifflett and Lewis on Antonioli’s critically acclaimed “American Dreams” album. “Matt’s a fantastic player was in my band before he moved to New York. And Jason and John are really great at playing their instruments, but they’re thinking about the whole group. They’re playing for the team, and that’s the goal for me.”


The Sheldon Brown Quintet plays the music of Herbie Nichols on Saturday November 19th at 8:00pm. Admission $15 ($10 for HSC members and Seniors). The Berkeley Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street Berkeley 94709 Info: (510) 845-1350

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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