The life of Stan Getz was a rollercoaster ride. The tenor saxophonist, whose distinctively beautiful tone earned him the nickname “The Sound,” entranced listeners and put him on top of the polls. Yet his personal life was turbulent, marred by depression, alcohol and heroin addictions, and violent outbursts. In his book Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz Donald L. Maggin quotes saxophonist Zoot Sims as saying, “Yeah, Stan’s a nice bunch of guys.”
Born on February 2, 1927, and raised in the Bronx, Getz was a handsome, intelligent child who was drawn to music. He began playing harmonica, and in high school he progressed to bass, then bassoon, and demonstrated perfect pitch and a photographic memory. He acquired a beat-up alto saxophone in 1940, played local gigs and saved enough to buy a tenor. In 1943 he quit school and joined the band of trombonist Jack Teagarden which broke up in southern California where Getz settled.
In 1944 he joined the Stan Kenton band and, at eighteen, became its premiere soloist. He left the following year to join first Jimmy Dorsey and then Benny Goodman, who fired him for missing performances while he was scuffling for heroin. With Woody Herman’s Second Herd he made a name for himself with the recording of “Four Brothers,” featuring Getz, fellow tenors Zoot Sims and Herb Steward, and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, and with his solo on the band’s 1948 recording of “Early Autumn.”
Getz left the Herd in 1950 while he was number one tenor saxophonist in Metronome magazine and second in the Down Beat poll. He was 22 years old, addicted to alcohol and heroin, married and a father. Still he toured internationally, recorded prolifically as a leader, and maintained his popularity in the jazz polls.
In 1953 he was arrested on a narcotics charge and spent a few months in jail. But he continued to maintain an impressive musical career. In 1958 he moved to Copenhagen, returning to the U.S. in 1961 to find the music changed and John Coltrane outpolling him. He recorded a critically acclaimed album, Focus, with the orchestra of arranger Eddie Sauter and was introduced to Brazilian music by guitarist Charlie Byrd with whom he recorded Jazz Samba. The album rose to number one on the charts in 1963 and earned Getz a Grammy for best jazz solo. He followed up with Getz/Gilberto which won album of the year in 1965 and the best jazz instrumental award for Getz.
Never one to stand still musically and eager to flex his jazz muscles, Getz formed a pianoless quartet with vibist Gary Burton at the same time of his bossa nova recordings. However, their fine 1964 recording Nobody Else But Me wasn’t released for 30 years. Despite his successes, Getz’s depression was overwhelming, he was drinking heavily, and ultimately he attempted suicide. The only constant in his life was his music. Getz himself said, “My life is music....” His attempts to reach perfection were, in his own words, “...at the expense of everything else in my life.”
During the ‘70s and early ‘80s Getz’s touring alternated with rehab and another European stay, yet he continued to produce impressive recordings and experimented with electronics, recording with Chick Corea and the group that was to become Return to Forever.
Finally in 1985 he attained sobriety. He taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshops and recorded with Diane Schuur who won a Grammy for her 1986 Timeless album for which Getz provided sensitive accompaniment. He recorded two acclaimed albums in Copenhagen and before his death on June 6, 1991 he recorded a memorable duo album, People Time, with pianist Kenny Barron.