Jazz legend Stan Getz would have turned 85 today. In remembrance, we present a look at the life and career of the tenor saxophonist known in jazz circles as “The Sound.”
Born Stanley Getz on February 2, 1927, Getz was the son of Ukrainian Jews who’d immigrated to Philadelphia from Kiev in 1903 partly to escape the pogroms back home. Not long after arriving in the U.S., the family relocated to New York City.
Getz was an outstanding student and his mother had hopes of him becoming a doctor, but even from a young age his true passion was music. He experimented with any instrument he could get his hands on until his oft-unemployed father brought him his first saxophone at the age of thirteen. Obsessed with the instrument, Getz was soon practicing eight hours a day – much to the annoyance of his fellow Bronx tenement dwellers.
In 1941 he won a seat on the All City High School Orchestra of New York playing the bassoon and was tutored by the New York Philharmonic's Simon Kovar. The conductor offered Getz a scholarship to Julliard, but Getz declined.
This was largely because he was already playing saxophone as a professional musician, where he would cross paths with a young Alan Greenspan (yes, that one). With lots of draft-age musicians off fighting in WWII, Getz had opportunities he might not have enjoyed otherwise – including an invitation to join the Jack Teagarden band at the ripe old age of fifteen. Getz feared his parents wouldn’t let him go, but his father was impressed by the promised salary of $70 per week – nearly double his own.
That same year Getz settled down in Los Angeles to play in Stan Kenton’s band, but quit when Kenton criticized the music of Lester Young as “too simple.” Getz also played with Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and was already a heavy drinker when during his stint in LA fellow musicians introduced him to heroin. He was fired from the Benny Goodman band for missing four gigs in a row while going through heroin withdrawal.
As WWII ended, audience tastes began changing. Big swing bands were out and serious young jazz musicians were exploring a new style called bebop.
After recording the surprise hit “Early Autumn” with Herman Steward, he became famous enough to launch a solo career. Getz was known for never listening to his own recordings, but he did hear “Early Autumn” on the radio. “It’s okay,” was his reaction. “It’s a nice solo, but I don’t understand why it was such an earthshaking thing. It’s just another ballad solo for me.”
At age 22, Getz was invited to open Birdland along with Charlie Parker and Getz’s idol Lester Young. By 1950 he found himself playing an all-star billing at Carnegie Hall that included Miles Davis, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Sarah Vaughan. Bebop had given birth to “cool jazz” (among other offshoots), and Getz became known as one of its chief practitioners with his 1951 recording with guitarist Jimmy Raney.
By 1952 he was making $1,000 a week and spending almost all of it on heroin. That same year, strung out and unable to get a fix, he walked into a pharmacy in Seattle, claimed to have a gun under his coat, and demanded morphine. The police were alerted and Getz fled. Already awaiting trial on a California narcotics charge, he then attempted suicide by barbiturate overdose and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy inside prison.
After a six-month jail sentence, Getz emerged drug- and alcohol-free for the first time in twelve years. Less than two days after his release, he was taking the stage with Chet Baker, so perhaps it’s little wonder his newfound sobriety did not last. His family life was also in chaos. His wife Beverly, a fellow heroin addict who’d delivered their third child while Getz was in prison, was in a serious car accident. Getz requested a divorce from her while she was still in the hospital wearing a full body cast.
By this time he’d become involved with Monica Silfverskiold, a wealthy 21-year-old Georgetown student from Sweden. After Getz wound up suffering heroin withdrawal in a mental asylum while visiting her in Stockholm, her family sent the couple to Africa in order for Getz to detox. The couple then lived in various Scandinavian locales for a time, before returning to the D.C. area in 1961.
It was there he met guitarist Charlie Byrd, who’d just returned from a government-sponsored trip to South America with tape recordings of a new kind of music called bossa nova. Long story short, a year later Getz released Jazz Samba which landed #1 on the album charts, earned Getz a Grammy and kicked off the bossa nova craze in America and Europe. In 1964, along with Astrud Gilberto and Joao Gilberto, he recorded the genre’s biggest ever hit with his version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema.”
Alcohol and drug abuse issues still plagued him, and he would undergo five unsuccessful rehab attempts at Minnesota’s Hazleton Center between 1965 and 1980. Fearful of his violent, drunken temper, his wife Monica often sprinkled Antabuse in his food – a drug that produces unpleasant effects when combined with alcohol. When the couple later underwent a nasty divorce, she would claim the Antabuse was administered with Getz’s consent, while he countered she’d been secretly poisoning him and could have killed him.
Finally, with the help of AA, Getz gave up drinking and drugs for good at the age of 59. He became an Artist in Residence at Stanford University, allowing him a stable income and normal work schedule for the first time in his life. He would play regularly in the Bay area and perform the occasional festival date overseas before his death of liver cancer at the age of 64 on June 6, 1991.
“My life is music,” Getz once said. “And in some vague, mysterious, and subconscious way, I have always been driven by a taut inner spring which has propelled me to almost compulsively reach for perfection in music, often – in fact, mostly – at the expense of everything else in my life.”
Originally published June 2011