Here is Phineas Newborn Jr. on a muggy Memphis day in July, 2021. Buried at plot C-399 B at the Memphis National Cemetery, he’s laid there since his death on May 26, 1989 after a growth was found on his lungs. He served in Korea in his early 20s, virtually the only time in his life when he was not supported by his fingers twinkling a piano, but service time that guaranteed him a spot in the National Cemetery, hidden on Memphis’ north side. He’s buried between two World War II vets, one named — and this is true — George Washington, who died a month before Newborn Jr.
The National Cemetery system is one of the United States’ finest forms of bureaucracy; every gravestone made of the same white marble, every plot roughly the same size, no matter the city, state or region of the country. Which is to say: Though his grave plot houses one of the finest men to ever touch the ivories in the name of jazz, he’s given no more preferential treatment than the men and few women — including more than a few Civil War veterans — buried in his midst. It took me two hours of walking row after row of gravestones in a sudden Memphis summer afternoon rain to find his resting place, as inauspicious as it is.
When Phineas died, he was virtually penniless, unable to afford basic medical care beyond what his VA benefits offered. His lung malady might have been treatable, but we’ll never know. His death took on a greater valiance for the jazz community, however. In 1989, the Jazz Foundation of America was founded in order to provide support for the wide array of jazz musicians who were reaching retirement age without any means of paying for things like medical checks and rent. The reality of Phineas’ plight at the end of his life, along with similar stories from the first wave of jazz artists reaching old age, inspired the foundation's creation. So while Phineas died destitute, he at least inspired benefactors to prevent that fate from befalling his fellow jazz musicians.
Here is Phineas at home in Memphis, sometime in the ’50s, playing piano at his mom’s house. He’s working up runs that will fill out later performances and albums, and every morning while he plays, a local kid folds his newspapers on the lawn, preparing for the day’s deliveries by listening to the music waft out of the screen door. Later, that paperboy would write about this experience in his memoir, and consider it his formal jazz education. His name is Booker T. Jones, and he’d smash the keys for virtually every important soul single to ever come out of Stax studios. Time is, as Jones’ biography is titled, tight.
Here is Phineas on a Thursday and Friday in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1956, recording his debut LP, Here Is Phineas, at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio. Phineas had recently moved to New York to join the larger jazz world as a band leader after years banging the keys for his father, Phineas Newborn Sr. Joined by his wildman brother Calvin on guitar, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, Newborn hits Van Gelder’s studio with one of the Ertegun brothers — the more jazz-minded Nesuhi — and does what he does when he sits at a piano bench: kills them and leaves. Across two days and eight songs, Phineas unspools torrents of right-hand mastery, high runs of keys that no other jazz musician has approached in terms of technical achievement, all while his left hand gives you the deepest pits of Memphis blues. If you lacked imagination, you could say he sounded like Bud Powell, another guy who played like he was paid by the keystroke vs. the song, but Bud didn’t have Phineas’ grasp of the Memphis blues; he couldn’t make you feel the sadness in the same way. He also couldn’t play as fast nor as rhythmically precise as Phineas.
Phineas opens the album with a take of Charlie Parker’s “Barbados,” which he shoots through like a comet, a presence you see blaze across the song but aren’t sure you actually saw for real. It’s as much an opening as it is a “How you like this?” mic drop. He follows that with a subdued but technically impressive cover of Oscar Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are,” a ballad that feels emotional and unhinged in the right places. Mack Gordon’s “The More I See You” gets chopped and machine-gunned next. After, he one-ups one of Powell’s fastest compositions, “Celia,” for kicks.
After a seminal take of Clifford Brown’s “Dahoud,” Newborn delivers his first original composition in “Newport Blues.” Dropping the band, Newborn conjures one in his dexterous fingers, as his right hand prances, flicks and hammers, while his left delivers the straight dope of the Memphis blues. It’s like his two hands are a pair of pianists working in tandem, a one-man parade and fireworks show in one, his mind and hands moving faster than most of us can process even our own thoughts. Listen in good headphones and you can hear the piano’s keys straining to keep up, their clicks as audible in the background as a third sound alongside his hands. Phineas finishes the album with two standards of the day, Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and John Lewis’ “Afternoon in Paris,” each delivered with his panache and flair, wrapping as virtuosic a performance as any first album that exists in jazz.
The jazz cognoscenti did not think so. They derided Phineas for a “lack of feeling,” because — as it was assumed and parroted throughout his career — that anyone that quick and good at the piano wasn’t actually feeling it, whatever that meant. It’s a charge that would later be levied by white rock critics at Jimi Hendrix, the same as the white critics who lobbed it at Phineas Newborn Jr. Conscious bias or not, early jazz, blues and rock critics thought sloppiness meant soul, and technical prowess denoted a lack of one, like a century’s worth of Memphis jazz and blues tradition couldn’t have been filtered out in Phineas’ technical prowess as much as Furry Lewis’ busted-down blues or B.B. King’s riffs.
It’s extremely hard to not tie this fundamental repudiation of his art as “too technical” with what came next: years in and out of mental institutions, seemingly self-sustained hand injuries and periods of low-down destitution riding the couches of his mother and friends. Critics didn’t make Phineas Newborn Jr. lose his mind and his art, but they didn’t help.
Here is Phineas Newborn (Sr., that is) as remembered in Stanley Booth’s Rhythm Oil, popping into a music store on Union Avenue in Memphis each week, and being told that there was some unknown, unnamed preteen boy coming by every day to play literally every single piece of sheet music in the store by sight. No one could believe it; the kid could play anything and everything. He needed to be in Phineas Sr.’s band! Newborn Sr. would tell those attending and conversing at the store that he was happy with his own piano player, and wasn’t interested in someone who could barely see over the keys when standing in front of them. Later, he walked in one day and finally laid eyes on the tiny piano player. He wasn’t surprised to realize it was his own son, Phineas Newborn Jr.
As recounted in Rhythm Oil, stories of Phineas Jr. were like tall tales among Memphis musicians in the ’40s and ’50s, to the point where it’s hard to know what to believe. One Memphis pianist was fond of saying Phineas had, “a boogie-woogie left hand, a bebop right hand, and this ... third hand.” He was famous in Beale Street bars as a teen, alongside his brother Calvin, and their high school band director claimed that the brothers could play literally every instrument the band had on offer. There’s the story of the underaged Phineas Jr. at 17 having to beg the musician’s union to let him play on the first commercial releases by a Memphis blues DJ named B.B. King, and of he and Calvin’s touring with Ike Turner following the release of “Rocket 88,” widely considered the first rock ’n’ roll song.
As far as Phineas Sr. was concerned, his two sons’ greatest breakout moment was in 1948, when Phineas was 16 and Calvin was 15. His long-held dreams of starting a family band finally came to fruition, as he and his sons took up residencies at progressively bigger clubs around Memphis. Senior had dreamed of having a family band, perhaps irrationally, over all his other opportunities; he passed on the opportunity to tour with Count Basie — who nicknamed Junior “Bright Eyes” for how he reacted to music as a kid, according to Booth — in order to stay home and make sure his sons got the musical education they’d need for this eventual opportunity to play as a family. It was Calvin and Junior’s own 10,000 hours, playing from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. for years with their dad, woodshedding a blend of blues, jazz, soul, gospel and rock ’n’ roll, in the fertile crescent where all those sounds sprung. It was in this period that Phineas developed his unique style and honed his mammoth technique; he could hammer keys and kick pedals faster than anyone who’s ever done it before or since, and thanks to his dad’s demand for technical excellence, do it night after night.
As a college student, a music professor told Junior he belonged at Juilliard, but, fearing the breakup of the family band, Senior forbade him from going. Junior responded by dropping out of college to gig with Turner, and ended up being eligible for the draft during the Korean War. After a stint in the Army band, Junior returned to Memphis in 1955 just long enough for him to meet Howlin’ Wolf and help Senior teach him to read music, and for legendary producer John Hammond to see him play at Count Basie’s urging — he believed in Junior, 20 years later — and link him up with a group of promoters, agents and record men in New York. They all agreed that Junior would be best served in New York, where he was signed by Atlantic, and became part of the jazz scene. His life would never be the same, and Senior’s dreams of a family band were crushed with finality when Junior took Calvin with him as his guitarist.
Old Man Newborn, as the Memphis kids called Senior by the late ’50s, would tour with a youth orchestra, without either of his sons. On a tour in 1960, one of the singers on Senior’s tour lamented being stuck in New York and away from his girl in Memphis, and wrote a song about it. It was “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the second song on William Bell’s debut LP, The Soul of a Bell (VMP Classics No. 11).
Senior would die in 1965, not long after a doctor told him he needed to stop leading the life of a touring drummer or it’d kill him. The same night he died, he played a set with Junior — an increasingly rare father-son show, as Junior’s mental health struggles were escalating by then — having a heart attack shortly afterward. Senior only ever wanted to be a drummer with a family band, and he went to his grave playing one more time with his son.
Here is Phineas enshrined in the Calvin and Phineas Newborn Jr. and Sr. exhibit at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, located in the same complex where the hometown Grizzlies play. A giant picture of young point guard star Ja Morant looms over the Hall of Fame, metaphorically capturing the ever-present push-pull between the past and the present that exists in every nook and cranny in Memphis. For every Hi Records historical marker, there is a coffee shop selling nitro cold brew catering to young residents whose only interaction with soul music is via Spotify playlists for studying. The Newborns have a single section of the museum, alongside one of B.B. King’s Lucille guitars and around the corner from the Stax exhibit featuring luxurious fur coats and gold records.
It’s tempting to paint another metaphor here, to bemoan the relatively small slice of the museum devoted to a Memphis family that spawned three famous musicians who played with and touched everyone from William Bell to Charles Mingus, Count Basie to Sun Ra, Ray Charles to Booker Little, Booker T. Jones to Howlin’ Wolf. But that there’s even an exhibit to them at all speaks to the greatness of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which could have easily filled another glass case with ephemera from Elvis’ career. But the Newborns are ensconced in a case alongside all the other important Memphis musical figures, right where they belong. For once.
Here is Phineas in the ’70s, trying to string a comeback together after years spent in and out of mental institutions. He’s gotten back onto Atlantic records, thanks to some help from Booth — who had seen him cutting down other pianists in Memphis on stage in piano battles and pushed him back into the studio — and was readying his next album after six years away from jazz on wax. After Here Is Phineas, he released seven albums in seven years but released only one in the decade-plus between his original seven-year run and what would become 1975’s Solo Piano. Here Is Phineas is his finest LP, and his best as a bandleader, but Solo Piano is Phineas at his most uncut; he’s the only sound you hear on the record, and it’s mic’d in a way that it’s possible to hear how fast his fingers touch keys, how quick his feet destroy his pedals. He’d receive some of the best reviews of his career, but the same charges volleyed at him — that he played too technically well to have “soul” — were still present. “The absurdity of a white piano teacher from New York telling Phineas Newborn about real jazz feeling is delicious,” Booth writes about one such review in Rhythm Oil.
His comeback album never really materialized into a concrete positive for Phineas; he’d be in and out of institutions and his mother’s house in between making the final half dozen albums of his life. His comebacks never improved his life much, never did much to restore his reputation in the jazz world, never made him into the luminary he was cruelly unrecognized for being. But you listen to any of his albums, especially Here Is Phineas, and it’s hard to not be blinded by the obvious greatness in front of you, the technical achievement, the deep well of experience in all the music that filtered up from the Memphis bluffs, and the audible pit of sadness.
Phineas Newborn Jr. was a born pianist, a man whose feats at his instrument were prayed for by his father, and who was preyed upon by a series of systems that chewed him up and left him on the fringes: The music industry, which never provides a safety net after a musician is no longer profitable; the American healthcare system, which doesn’t even take good care of the military men “protecting our freedoms”; the brutal reality of time, which made Phineas a star in the ’50s and had moved onto new genres within five years. Phineas Newborn Jr. never got the accolades, devotion, attention, respect and care he deserved when he was alive.
Here is where you come in.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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