Writings About Music

Transcendental Consolidation: The Music of Stan Getz

Stan the Man from Out of This World

Stan Getz with his daughters Pam and Bev

It seems so simple now, but it took quite a while to figure out that Stan Getz is part Swing, and part Modern Jazz, of course, but also, hardly known at all, one equal third Dixieland. Dixieland? Stay with me. The predominant swing influences are Lester Young, Benny Goodman, and, not as commonly acknowledged, Artie Shaw. Modern jazz influences lead towards Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. What is new for me, however, is how Jack Teagarden’s influence on Stan’s sound and style is equally important compared to anyone else. This is apparent from listening to the great trombonist and singer’s sound and phrasing; a joy of smoothness, limpidity, elegance, and direct expressive impact without pretense or masks. During the course of his musical development, Teagarden transitioned jazz trombone from Dixieland (also known as Hot Jazz, Traditional Jazz and Early Jazz) to Swing, subsequently moving back and forth between the two forms, but always retaining dramatically exquisite elements of Dixieland in his playing, particularly at slower tempos. Like Getz, Teagarden makes any question of whether the music is made by an African American, Caucasian, or Jewish musician irrelevant. One simply doesn’t care to focus on such relative trivialities compared to the actual music

Part of the background for Teagarden’s pervasive hold on Getz was how Stan joined his orchestra at the tender age of fifteen, an arrangement only allowed by authorities after both Stan’s parents and Teagarden agreed that Jack would serve as his legal guardian, especially on the band’s lengthy road trips. This included riding in the car with Teagarden and his wife whenever automobile was the chosen mode of transportation to engagements, which was frequent, including the telling of exceptionally earthy jokes by the bandleader, delivered uncensored to the astonishment of the young musician.

Stan Getz (front row right) with Jack Teagarden (center standing)

Stan Getz was certainly a prodigy, proven by the perfected technique, expression, and style demonstrated on his earliest recordings and film. It is impossible to overestimate the musical, social, and psychological sway Teagarden imparted to the young, impressionable saxophonist, including extra-musical modes of intoxication taken for relaxation or stimulation: alcohol and drugs, the latter coming from band members. Indeed, like Charlie Parker, Getz became a heroin addict while still in his teens, naively imitating some older musicians from either the Teagarden or subsequent Stan Kenton band who apparently found it amusing to show a young teenager how to inject morphine like themselves, which eventually led to heroin. Equally unbeknownst and misunderstood by most even in the jazz world, Parker had succumbed to opiates only after a severe back injury from a tragic car accident that threatened his ability to walk again.

Stan Getz ( left), Machito (behind Getz), and Charlie Parker (front right)

But I still cannot get over how much Stan Getz I hear in both Jack Teagarden’s trombone playing, and his singing. Partially because I have had relatively little interest in Early Jazz, I never really heard Teagarden until now, and his music is truly a timeless marvel of expression married to technique, with a passion for melisma and sculptural perfection. Together with these utterly assimilated concepts, there is a purity of tone mostly seeming to come from the human body that Getz and Teagarden share, only colored by their respective brass and woodwind instruments. Actually, Adolph Sax, the Belgian inventor of the saxophone, envisioned a new instrument that combines the power of the brass family with the flexibility of the woodwind family, absolutely succeeding in his quest, but only after the saxophone was adopted by jazz musicians.

Overall, due to the formative influence of Teagarden, Getz is discernably closer to the "brass spectrum" of the tenor saxophone than Young, without sacrificing any flexibility, of course. (Actually, rather than being literally closer to brass, I would say his sound is closer to the following metal as defined by Wikipedia: “Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and atomic number 79. It is a bright yellow dense, soft, malleable and ductile metal." Incidentally, Stan did begin playing a gold-plated tenor after his silver-plated horn was stolen in the mid-sixties.) For example, if you listen carefully, Lester Young generally articulates his eighth notes in a slightly more "slurred" fashion than Stan Getz, closer to the "woodwind aspects" of the tenor saxophone, in addition to being a bit more irregular in terms of rhythmic placement.  I mention eighth notes because they often emerge as an important rhythmic component of jazz improvisations. (Once, when asked what he does for a living, Lee Konitz, with a wry sense of humor, replied: “I play eighth notes.”) Enormously swayed by Young in terms of timbre, expression, phrasing, rhythmic propulsion, and other important qualities, Getz’s eighth notes are more relatable to the "brass identity" of the tenor saxophone than Young, being more "portato" and weighted, relatively speaking, of course, and a degree more rhythmically regular. My assertion is that these are among the qualities found in Getz’s playing that were planted permanently by Jack Teagarden, and one may even sense magically swift motion by the well-oiled, golden brass, main slide of a gloriously legato and buoyant trombone when Stan is playing at medium and fast tempos. Legato, yes, but definitely trombone-influenced. (Central to Teagarden's uniquely liquid brass sound was how he only used the first three of the possible seven trombone positions.) And Getz’s extroverted exuberance playing at medium and fast tempos is derived, in part, from the celebratory ceremony that is Early Jazz as interpreted by Teagarden. Stan's treatment of ballads? Here the influence of Teagarden's trombone playing and singing clearly forms the foundation of his young (sic) disciple's vibrato, articulation, phrasing, tone production, and expression; a foundation that was organically expanded upon after Getz was inspired by the music of Lester Young.

Stan himself gave much credit to Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young for influencing the development of his tone quality and overall style, expressing tremendous admiration for all three musicians. Regarding the origins of Young's playing, I was curious to hear C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer for the first time, and was amazed at how transparently recognizable the connection is. Following this, I also listened to alto saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey for the first time, and was thrilled to finally understand the crucial effect he had on Charlie Parker.

Stan Getz with Lester Young

There were two occasions when I heard Stan Getz in person: once in a club, and the other time in a larger concert venue. The club experience, at Fat Tuesday's in Manhattan, remains, and always will be, a unique musical astonishment. My Hindu friends sometimes remind me that God is everywhere, and in everything. This concept comes to mind when recalling the pervasive magic of Stan’s tone that evening; how it “drenched” the space like divinely scented liquid air, filling every atom and quark of the room with unimaginable tonal splendor, as if we were suddenly transported to the ancient Indian Mughal Akbar the Great's palace bedecked with rubies, emeralds, gold, silks, and sapphires overlooking the Yamuna River with fair, refreshing breezes. What I’m trying to say is that he had an unbelievably luminous tone, making sense of why even John Coltrane once said that every tenor player wished to have a sound like Getz. It was also stunning to realize that the full vibrancy and presence of Stan's sound was only approximated on even his finest recordings, a phenomenon David Amram has noted in regard to Charlie Parker.

How to explain Stan Getz’s sound? Perhaps he was more profoundly in tune than any other horn player, including somehow intuitively finding the resonating frequency of any space he played in, factoring in both his accompanying musicians and the audience members as part of the equation. It’s also possible that Stanley’s early training on the bassoon from Simon Kovar of the New York Philharmonic helped develop that stupendous sound - he was offered a full scholarship to study bassoon at Julliard – because there is a uniquely dark and alluringly rich, grainy density that informs his tone quality, which may be related to a bassoon timbre, combined with shiningly ethereal overtones, and an almost Dionysian inclusion of exquisitely calibrated breath sounds in all registers. Getz himself said that he took in more of the mouthpiece than other saxophonists, and mentioned his "oral cavity" by way of explanation. (Stan had a lifelong passion for swimming, and the reason he decided to learn bassoon was because there was an opening for that instrument in the James Monroe High School band, and being accepted into the school included access to their pool, which he yearned to swim in!)

Stan Getz playing the bassoon

However, Stan Getz's music only begins with the sound. His improvisations are charged with infectious melodic shapes and rhythms, power, energy, compelling continuity, expressive depth, and complexity balanced by simplicity, punctuated with either refreshing or hair-raising cries and trills depending on the prevailing rasa. While some commented superficially on how "relaxed" Getz appears and sounds while playing, he was much more, in his own words: "A seething mass", an insight seconded by Bill Evans. Indeed, the level of concentration and physical prowess required to produce the sound and music Stan improvised -- never making a mistake -- is extraordinary even among other masters of jazz. Getz’s embouchure alone could probably lift most drawbridges, and his breath control might power a score of sailboats …

Stan Getz with Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins

That evening at the club, I wandered out onto the sidewalk between sets, and after breathing in some of the cold November air, paused to look around, and there he was! Getz was standing alone across from me, both of us under the awning, and we locked eyes. I very much wished to speak to him, but both the extreme intensity of his ocular focus, and legendary status were intimidating, causing me to hesitate. (Stan Getz grew up in an impoverished and dangerous neighborhood, and said that he likely would have entered into a life of organized crime if it had not been for music.) Unfortunately, this delayed response cost me because when I finally decided to approach the maestro, and began moving towards him, he hurriedly put out his joint or cigarette, and slipped back into the club in order to prepare for the next set. Stan's gaze at me had been an invitation to speak and make myself known, but I wasn't ready at that moment's notice, and the opportunity was lost.

I’ve never met anyone who loves and appreciates saxophonists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Lee Konitz more than myself, but recently, I find myself listening to Stan Getz more and more when in the mood for jazz. And it isn’t always to learn or be inspired, though that certainly is a prime motivation. Sometimes it’s just about experiencing a sensual musical nirvana; a music that appears to emanate without any human interlocutor.

Stan Getz with Billie Holiday

Adding depth to his effervescent, irresistibly swinging synesthesia, Getz amassed a prodigious arsenal of timbral colorations and dynamic shadings together with an architectonic sense of structural form and balance all derived, in part, from his life-long preference for listening to classical music when not actually performing or recording. These combinations are the qualities Getz most shares with Artie Shaw, including the listening habits. That hypnotic look in Getz’s strikingly azure eyes while playing is closest to a chess grandmaster both instinctively and analytically marshaling his pieces, which in this case are swaras (tones), or a military genius keeping a cool head in order to prevail through a complex maze of possible responses.

While much of the relatively recent vocabulary and syntax of jazz, including myriad musical forms influenced by jazz, was shaped by Parker, Coltrane, and Bill Evans, it now appears that the vocabulary and syntax of Stan Getz, including his innovative expressive traits, has also had an enormous influence on the music of our time. Stan's output is sometimes taken for granted, and even wrongfully downplayed because of the meteoric commercial success he enjoyed playing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, challenging even the Beatles for popularity at times.

Jobim attributed the stunning resonance of their collaboration to Stan’s “great soul,” also revealing a primary source of his compositional inspiration being the “cool” jazz played by Getz, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and others in the late forties and early fifties. It’s not commonly known that Stan and Miles enjoyed playing together during this formative time in jazz history, intuitively sharing and shaping important new aesthetic ideals, even though Getz did not specifically participate in the sessions titled "Birth of the Cool" by the record label for various reasons. When Miles Davis engaged in a series of blindfold tests during the mid-sixties for Downbeat, he mostly excoriated the recordings played for him, with one extreme exception: the brand new Getz, Jobim, João and Astrud Gilberto, Sebastião Neto, and Milton Banana effort, titled "Getz/Gilberto", which he awarded the highest possible response of five stars, enthusing about Stan’s playing. Truth be told, Getz’s venturing into Brazilian music is a historically fecund confluence of North American and South American traditions, as was John Coltrane’s blending of South Asian and African forms into jazz.

Stan Getz with Miles Davis

It’s unfortunate I never did get to speak with Stan Getz because after viewing several interviews, it’s clear he was an extremely thoughtful and creative thinker, including a hilarious sense of humor. For example, Getz revealed himself to be a member of the Harmonica Rascals while in grade school, and during his solo performance of Silent Night and Oh! Susannah at the end of the summer concert for parents, Stan wet the brand new white pants his beloved mother had purchased especially for the occasion. The accident was clearly visible to the audience while it was happening, yet, amazingly, Getz continued playing until the end. As funny, embarrassing, and unfortunate as the story sounds, it also indicates an uncanny level of concentration and determination in the face of adversity.

Stan Getz with a portrait of Napolean Bonaparte

Hearing the sound and personality of Stan’s speaking voice at some length for the first time caused me to double take because there is a marked similarity with the manner in which Lee Konitz speaks, including being careful to express humility despite an evident superiority. Even with something comparable to the size of the Pacific Ocean separating them in terms of contrasting styles of play, both musicians do share a lot in common, including being born the same year; dropping out of school to begin life as professional road musicians while still in their teens; winning Downbeat and Metronome polls over an especially formidable list of tenor and alto saxophonists; sharing a Jewish heritage; and enjoying making humorous asides to audiences in-between numbers. It does make me wonder if one influenced the other in regard to speaking characteristics and demeanor, but more likely it’s a cultural-generational thing, a coincidence, or perhaps someone else set an example for both of them!

Stan Getz with Benny Goodman

One of the most scintillating jazz recordings of all time is titled, For Musicians Only, featuring Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Levey, Ray Brown, John Lewis, and Herb Ellis, recorded in 1956. All three horn soloists are magnificent, but if forced to choose one, I would have to go with Getz because he blows like a monsoon sweeping across the subcontinent, and never loses the resplendent beauty of sound he possessed irrespective of how fast the tempo raced. It will take decades before we are able to begin to fully digest the supreme recorded legacy Stan left for us. More attention needs to be given to his recordings from the fifties, and even the forties, in addition to better-known efforts from the sixties and beyond. In fact, it is those earlier recordings that have become my favorite Getz for the time being, at least. Just recently, I heard Stan's mid-fifties albums, The Steamer, and Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, for the first time. How good are the recordings? It flew into my mind that the song, Fly Me To the Moon, composed during the same time period, might well have been inspired by his out of this world playing! Come to think of it, I also just heard for the first time the song, “Out of This World,” recorded in the mid-sixties by Tony Bennett and Stan, and the effect of their inspired collaboration matches the title as well.

His was a musical gift on par with twentieth-century composers like Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, and Shostakovich in terms of artistic quality, the main difference being he improvised his music on the tenor saxophone in a one-of-a-kind manner impossible for anyone to ever replicate, as opposed to writing out compositions for orchestra, string quartet, and piano, etc., which an infinite number of possible musicians may interpret in an equally infinite number of ways. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Konitz, Bill Evans and John Coltrane are among others on par with this concept too, of course.

Stan Getz with Leonard Bernstein

Composers and musicians are fortunate when their music is appreciated during their lifetime, and afterwards. Stan Getz was one of the most admired musicians of his time, but it now appears that his recorded legacy will continue to grow in importance much more than most originally expected, an achievement brought about by his transcendental consolidation of Early Jazz, Swing, and Modern Jazz tributaries within the sometimes simmering, sometimes lava-erupting style and temperament of a truly extemporaneous and conquering spirit. Zoot Sims famously said: “Stan? Yeah! Nice buncha guys.” Mining beneath the surface for musical roots, one might say the same for Stan’s playing.

My dear friends, Charlie and Irene Colin, originally knew Stanley Getz, whose family name was shortened from Gayetzsky, from the time he was a teenager taking music lessons in their studios. Irene once related a story that still roused her ire many years later. Having become a famous jazz artist, Stan frequently used their Manhattan music building for rehearsing, and one day she noticed the scent of ganja coming from a back room where Stan and Shorty Rogers were playing duets. Upon being patiently reminded that any smoking was strictly prohibited in the building, Getz responded by complaining bitterly with foul language about the policy, and so Irene, who was an extremely kind woman, was compelled to ask him to leave and not come back again!

Stan Getz six months old

Such behavior by Stan was an unfortunate byproduct of the alcoholism he desperately resorted to in order to help break the earlier heroin addiction, and Getz was eventually able to achieve complete sobriety in the mid-eighties for the remainder of his life.  Many who knew him either well or casually were charmed by his charisma, candor, humor, warmth, and generosity, including myriad jazz musicians whose careers were launched by playing in Stan’s various quartets. His ability to discover and nurture upcoming artists, placing them in the limelight, was legendary, including Horace Silver, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, and too many others to list here. As Lou Levy was fond of explaining, Getz was the best small bandleader he ever worked for because of the freedom allowed to expand musically, and the sheer delight and excitement of performing with Stan was like attending a superbly stimulating and enlightened university.

Musically protected by a spirited strength and edge, it is the inner core and essence of Stan Getz we hear when he plays ballads. Something soft, gentle, and lovely as a lavender rose covered with dew on a brisk autumn dawn with the sun shining effulgent.

- Michael Robinson, August 2014, Los Angeles

© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Special thanks to Bev Getz and Steve Getz for providing information about their father related to this article and for permission to include the splendid photographs.

Bev has also created one of the finest jazz sites I've ever come across: Stan Getz - The Sound

You may also visit Stan Getz - The Sound on Facebook


Stan and Bev Getz



Stan and Steve Getz


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).