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Stan Getz: Genius Saxman

The late Stan Getz was one of those artists who make their mark not in a single defining moment or work, but in a lifetime of continuous artistic change. He was a great stylist. Whether backed by a string orchestra or a rhythm section, for over 50 years Getz's shimmering, muscular sound held us in thrall. Unlike his style, which was almost beyond reproach, Stan Getz the man had certain common, well-known vices. Yet, in the '50s and '60s, we overlooked his trouble with alcohol and heroin. One night in San Francisco's North Beach area we had occasion to recall his arrest in the '50s for petty theft. When he left the jazz club, he took my friend's tenor sax, borrowed during the last set, with him. We didn't know what to say. I suppose we thought it was a kind of honor to have one's sax lifted by the great s axman himself.

Getz had been playing professionally since he was 15. Born in Philadelphia in 1927, he grew up in the Bronx and turned down a scholarship to Juilliard to play jazz. In his late teens, his artistic integrity prompted him to quit a job envied by much older, more experienced players. Getz had been hired by Stan Kenton for his famous orchestra, but when Kenton criticized the music of the beloved Lester Young as too simple, Getz quit.

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Like Young, though Getz played hard, he never lost the spirit of play. He was the Fred Astaire of saxmen. Satiny smooth, elegant and compact in his phrasing, he always made it look easy. At a time when other jazz musicians were enriching the jazz palette with extra-musical squeals and raucous hiccups and sobs, Getz was never less than musical.

He was the most popular jazz artist of his time. His profound command of color, timbre, and attack allowed him to cross over into mainstream styles. The title of his great album of 1961, in which he was accompanied by a string section, says it all: ``Focus.'' Getz never lost his jazz focus: He could outshimmer shimmering violins.

How Getz loved to flirt with fame! Though he would later scorn it, one year after ``Focus'' he introduced a new Brazilian rhythm to his fans: bossa nova! I remember my frustration as, listening hard to ``Desifinado,'' Getz's hit tune with guitarist Charlie Byrd, I used hands and feet to take in the novel rhythm. I had to keep starting over as I tried to master the complex cross-rhythms of the new beat. Stan Getz helped me realize my talent was for other things. Various are the offices of hero in a young man's life!

Eventually Getz would win 11 Grammys. He loved new ideas but always returned to his basic sound. In the '70s, electronic music was the main distraction. Getz's kaleidoscopic tone seemed suited the new fusion music that added the flavor of rock to jazz.

Many of the leaders of the new music had played with him at the outset of their careers. Getz soon left electronic music behind as he had bossa nova earlier. Not even his tumultuous, acrimonious, and expensive divorce and a cancer diagnosis would keep him from making the '80s one of his greatest decades.

Remembering Getz, I remember bits of myself. Past and present fuse in one of his lilting phrases. Buoyant with wit and high color, Getz's sound gives me the feeling that, yes, on a clear day you can see forever, and that this is such a day.

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