Getz at the Gate gives a glimpse of a critical moment in Stan Getz’s career

In 1956, tax problems compelled Stan Getz to move to Denmark.

He wasn’t alone when it came to sizable tax bills and a European escape. After paying their sidemen immediately after gigs, many jazz leaders didn’t or couldn’t set aside an appropriate portion for the IRS. Other musicians spent all of their gross pay to cover drugs, alcohol, cars, failed marriages and other expenses, leaving them unable to pay the tax bill. Most musicians didn’t think about financial planning or accountants.

Depending on the source, Getz either dodged the tax bill entirely by living in Denmark or paid the IRS back incrementally by mail from Copenhagen. Whichever story is accurate, Getz returned to the U.S. on Jan. 19, 1961. But the only way he could have avoided arrest is if he had paid off the debt or worked out an IRS payback deal in advance of his return.

Part of Getz’s motivation to return to the U.S. was the September, 1960, death of bassist Oscar Pettiford, who also lived in Copenhagen. According to Donald Maggin’s Getz biography, Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz, the tenor saxophonist took Pettiford’s passing hard: “Pettiford was the only musical intelligence with whom Stan could consistently explore the American innovations, and his feelings of artistic isolation increased dramatically when Pettiford was taken away from him.”

From left: Oscar Pettiford, Joe Harris and Stan Getz in Copenhagen in 1959.

Once back in New York, Getz was in for a jolt. New York club audiences that came to see him were thin. With the rise of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and other saxophonists who had a freer, more aggressive attack, Getz’s smooth, high-register approach influenced by Lester Young seemed dated. Fortunately for Getz, he had a friend in Verve producer Creed Taylor, who loved his sound since his college days at Duke University. Taylor also may have worked out a deal with the IRS or advanced Getz the money owed when the saxophonist signed with Verve.

Throughout 1961, Getz, with Taylor’s guidance, worked methodically to rebuild his credibility and reputation in New York. In July, Taylor had him record Focus, a more abstract album than Getz was used to. Getz then recorded Stan Getz / Bob Brookmeyer in September. In November, Getz was taped live at Birdland with pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Roy Haynes. The result was released on a Fresh Sound recording in 2013.

Now, a second tape from November, 1961, has been found and released by producers Zev Feldman, Richard Seidel and Ken Drucker on Universal Music’s Verve label. This one was recorded at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate on Nov. 26, 1961, with bassist John Neves replacing Garrison. The new album sounds fantastic and is Getz’s most interesting recording of 1961. Here’s why:

  • Kuhn’s piano is astonishing. His playing was refreshingly distinct and his block chords and Bud Powell-influenced runs lean forward with a futurist feel.
  • The same is true for Roy Haynes, whose drumming in 1961 had already crossed into the 1960s.
  • Though Getz is still playing like Getz, you can hear him trying out new approaches on the saxophone in an effort to revive his popularity and re-establish his name at clubs.
  • The Village Gate gig came just three months before Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba, an album that would lead to a string of revolutionary bossa nova albums by Getz and produce several major pop hits such as Desafinado and The Girl From Ipanema.

All of which fills in a blank. As I wrote in my liner notes to the 50th anniversary of Getz/Gilberto in 2014, Getz never cared much for his bossa nova recordings, despite the fame and fortune it bestowed upon him. For one, he felt bossa nova was pop and dreaded being viewed by peers and fans as a sell-out. For another, Getz had his eye on returning to the top of the jazz heap and to rival Coltrane. Getz was intensely competitive. This new album provides a powerful glimpse at Getz evolving at a critical and uncertain moment in his career, just before his Brazilian Faustian bargain.