Phineas Newborn (Jr.) was born in Whiteville, TN, on December 14, 1931. People born around this time of year can be quite eccentric, antisocial, and just plain weird. (You'll have to take my word for it.) He died in Memphis on May 26, 1989.
I had the pleasure of recording Mr. Newborn on several occasions in the early 1980s. During this time, I got to know him as well as anyone was allowed to, I suppose. That is to say, you did not get to know him at all. He was a slight man who seemed to be in a daze all the time. He always had a handler who would see to it that he got wherever he needed to be, and who tried to keep folks away from Mr. Newborn. However, once anyone actually met Mr. Newborn, it was highly unlikely that they really wanted to be close to him again. He was . . . well, off-putting would be a nice way to put it.
Some folks said that he had a heroin problem. I never saw him put a needle in his arm, but I can tell you that many of the mannerisms he had would lead me to believe those rumors more than discount them. Regardless of the reasons why he was so antisocial and even antagonistic at times, that man could do things on a piano which I've never seen or heard anyone else do.
Some critics have compared Phineas Newborn to Oscar Peterson, and that's quite a fair comparison. Both were into the bebop style, but would choose lyrical songs which kept their 1950s feel while pushing that jazz envelope around the edges.
Newborn started out in Memphis and worked with B.B. King and Lionel Hampton before a two-year stint in the military. I assume he was drafted. When he got out, he moved to New York and worked with Charlie Mingus and Roy Haynes in the late 1950s. Most of the time when he played, however; he was the lead in a trio or quartet. He did several recordings for Atlantic, Contemporary, Pablo and the Japanese Philips label.
I was recording some local concerts he was doing in Memphis as part of some sort of government funded art project. You could tell he really didn't want to go to these high schools and play substandard pianos to kids who'd never heard of him. But when his fingers hit those keys, magic would happen. He'd play songs like Lorraine's Walk, Willow Weep for Me, Nica's Dream, Cheryl and Celia. (He seemed to like the songs with girls' names in them.) He'd play Charlie Parker tunes like Confirmation. And during the song, he might stop abruptly and start muttering about how no one but Parker understood how this chord change was never played correctly and what a shame it was that true genius was often so overlooked. No one could hear what he was on about. Except me and my recording equipment.
I've listened to those recordings several times since then, and every time I seem to understand just a little more how gifted this little guy was. I don't know about you folks, but playing jazz on the piano is the highest musical art form to me. It must be special, because so many of the folks who can do it well seem to be . . . well, unusual would be a nice way to put it.
* * * * * *
And just a short note on the weird congruence and twists and turns of coincidence:
I had to drive an hour, late at night, on 5/4/01 to pick up my daughter at a dance she'd gone to with a new boyfriend. My thoughts were scattered, as I'm not used to being sober at that time of night. I was thinking of her and how she's grown and how much I loved her and how much I worried about what would happen in the years to come, as these puppy love boyfriends would become more and more serious both to her and to me. I was listening to talk radio until the station faded out, and then I switched to FM to find some music. None of the rock stations were playing anything which helped take my mind off the matters pressing down on my head, so I tried NPR.
A piano jazz song by a quartet was playing. It was very nice. I was thinking, "Hmmm. This almost sounds like Phineas Newborn. That would be way strange if it were, seeing as how he's so obscure and seeing as how I just wrote that piece on E2 about the guy."
The song ended and the announcer gave the artist's name. I don't remember it, but I do remember thinking, "Oh, well. That would have been too weird."
Then, the announcer said, "The name of that was Waltz for Phineas, a tribute to Phineas Newborn."
A small chill ran up the back of my spine.