Swing Era Jazz: Who Was Phineas Newborn, Jr.?

January 9, 2012


Quite a few years ago, after having completed three years of undergraduate school at New York University, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served a mandatory two-year stint. After completing four months of basic training and band training at New Jersey’s Fort Dix, I was stationed for the remaining time with the Army band at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Ala. It was quite a culture shock, to be sure, for this Caucasian Bronx-born-and-raised young man to be shipped from a rather benign Northeast political environment to what might be described as the then Southern hotbed of racial tensions, with its train station and drinking fountain signs marked “Colored” and “White.”

I have often told anecdotes to my friends about my military “heroics,” relaying to them various amusing details of my official Army job as a glockenspiel player with the base’s marching band at parades and ceremonies. (I, a pianist by profession, was assigned to the glockenspiel because one obviously can’t play the piano in a marching band.) However, on many mornings, I also conducted our band in rehearsal in classical music literature. You see, we had quite an extensive library of music that had been transcribed from their original symphonic orchestrations to symphonic-band orchestrations – the main difference being that there are no strings in a symphonic band (those parts are instead ordinarily played by clarinets and other woodwinds).

Also, once a week, a song-and-dance fellow band member and I wheeled a small upright piano from ward to ward in the large post hospital, entertaining ill soldiers with popular songs of the day.

My military service occurred during a time of no ongoing wars, so fortunately my life and safety were never threatened, and I truly enjoyed an exuberant and fun couple of years involved in music and, happily, a long distance away from sweating over mid-term and final exams and from the supervision of my parents with whom I had been living at the time.

Meeting Phineas

Coinciding with the time of my own military service, African-American jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. (1931-1989) was stationed with the Third Army Band in Atlanta, Georgia; which was considered to be a plum musical assignment, because the Third Army Band was reputed to be among the best musical ensembles in the entire Army at that time. At some point, however, Newborn, who was evidently starting to experience mild symptoms of emotional stress, ran into some conflicting situations with his superior officers. As a result, he was expelled from that organization, and was subsequently transferred to the Army band in Anniston, where I was serving. So, for the last couple of months of my Army days I got to know, at least somewhat, this gentle and fantastically gifted man. I had even once loaned him a few bucks so that he’d have enough money to be able to travel to visit family and friends in Memphis, his home city.

Phineas and I compared musical notes on a few occasions; he informally playing some incredibly impressive bop-based jazz piano improvisations for me, and I sharing with him some of the classical piano repertoire I had been practicing at the time. Through these shared experiences we developed a good rapport and comfortable casual friendship, at least as much as can be achieved in only two months or so.


Not long after our discharge from the military, lo and behold, I read that Phineas had been booked into New York City’s world famous Birdland jazz club. Of course, I immediately went downtown to hear him play, and received a personal warm greeting when I walked up to him to say hello.

I remember his piano playing vividly. He sounded like a reincarnation of Art Tatum, with unending jazz musical ideas and the piano technique of a jazz equivalent to the concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. I also will never forget Newborn’s keyboard touch at that time, which was as light as a feather. You know how some people among the general public sometimes say corny things about pianists, such as “He really tickles the ivories”? Well, Newborn was most definitely the embodiment of that expression – especially in those earlier days before his rapidly growing emotional problems were soon to cut his musical career short. He barely touched the keys, yet produce firm but gentle jazz of the most incredibly impressive inventiveness and virtuosity. To be sure, the critical consensus was that had he not succumbed to emotional instability, he would eventually be recognized as the next Tatum. Today, Newborn is only a faintly remembered cult figure to jazz keyboard aficionados, and is not known at all by the general public. But fortunately some of this jazz giant’s recordings can still be acquired, and I strongly urge jazz lovers to seek them out.

End Word

Life can sometimes be quite unfair! Several fabulous and historically significant jazz musicians have been lost to us through death at a too early age, including such luminaries as Bunny Berigan, Bubber Miley, Chick Webb, Paul Chambers, Fats Navarro, Charlie Christian, Clifford Brown, Jaco Pastorius, Scott LaFaro, Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker, to name a few. Just imagine what additional contributions they would have made to jazz history if only they had survived longer and lived a normal life span! Add Phineas Newborn, Jr. to this distinguished list of immensely important jazz creators. Phineas conceivably could have reached the highest artistic peak and recognition in jazz, if only his creative life had not been tragically cut short.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent solo-piano publications for The FJH Music Company include Color Me Jazz, Books 1 and 2 for late elementary to early intermediate levels; Ole! Original Latin American Dance Music, and Fiesta! Original Latin American Piano Solos, both for intermediate to upper intermediate levels. Along with four co-authors, Evans is author/composer of the 6th and latest edition of Keyboard Fundamentals (Stipes Publishing), a formerly two-, but now one-volume beginning-piano method for adult beginners, scheduled to be published in March 2012.

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