Phineas Newborn Jr. was born on December 14, 1931 in Whiteville, Tennessee, into a musical family. His father was a drummer, and Phineas first played piano in a family band with his father and brother, Calvin, on guitar, but he also played the full range of reed and brass instruments throughout his formative years.
Beginning in 1945, Newborn played piano in rhythm ‘n’ blues bands in Memphis, including groups led by his father and guitarists Saunders King and B.B. King. His father’s band, which also included Tuff Green on bass, was the house band at the Plantation Club in West Memphis, and performed with B.B. King and as a studio band for producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, where many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll records were made.
Both Phineases, junior and senior, can be heard on B.B. King’s first recordings as a leader in 1949, which are included on the compilation album B.B. King Classics, 1949-1952,which was released on CD in 2003.
In 1950, Newborn Jr. enrolled as a music major at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville. While there, he worked tirelessly on his classical repertoire and technique, developing a particular affinity for Franz Liszt, whose double and triple octave approach to linear melodies became characteristic of Newborn’s spontaneous improvisations.
He moved back to Memphis and continued to study music at Lemoyne College. It was then, in 1952, that he spent some time performing with Lionel Hampton’s band, and learned to play the vibraphone. The next year he was drafted into the army. After his discharge in 1955, he continued to perform in his father’s group, as well as with the saxophonist Willis “Gator” Jackson.
It was in 1952 in Memphis that William “Count” Basie heard Newborn play, and brought him to the the attention of legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond. Hammond had launched the careers of Basie, clarinetist Benny Goodman, guitarist Charlie Christian and many others.
With Hammond’s encouragement, Newborn moved to the East Coast to be represented by the Willard Alexander agency, which at various times represented dozens of the era’s most successful jazz musicians, such as Basie, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, drummer Buddy Rich, and clarinetist Artie Shaw.
Newborn first record as a leader was released on Atlantic in 1956 with his brother Calvin on guitar, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums.
On Newborn’s treatment of saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Barbados,” he adds a Latin feel during the melody sections, but opens it up to swing for improvising. The middle of his busy solo is interrupted with a spacious, bluesy shout chorus, which is welcome simplicity after such athletic improvising.
This approach, which contrasts dazzling displays of technique with a light touch a careful use of space, makes it difficult to comprehend why his early performances were criticized as lacking feeling. “There was always the temptation to turn everything into a virtuoso showpiece, to which he yielded far too often,” wrote critic Pete Welding in Down Beat magazine in 1962.
Careful listening to “Barbados,” or his recording of John Lewis’s composition “Afternoon In Paris”from the same album, confirm that Newborn since the beginning has used his almost flawless approach only to control and articulate his ideas for the better.
Other highlights of this first recording are his extended solo introductions to Hammerstein and Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and Gordon and Warren’s “The More I See You,” both played in a Tatum-like fashion with virtuosic embellishments of the song’s original melodies.
Unlike most successful jazz soloists, Newborn made a record with a symphony orchestra quite early in his career. While My Lady Sleeps was recorded for RCA Victor in 1957 and featured Newborn with Dennis Farnon and his Orchestra. Newborn’s classical training can be heard in his tone-full chords during the opening of “Moonlight In Vermont.” And his obbligato lines behind the strings are carefully placed, executed with the fine articulated touch of a bebop professional.
The listener comes away from these recordings with the feeling that both pianist and orchestra wanted to make this record for themselves, as opposed to the date being merely a commercial venture. It is even stated in the record’s liner notes that the members of the orchestra applauded Newborn Jr.’s playing at the end of each take.
In 1958, Newborn recorded with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Roy Haynes., and also in addition to recording several more records as a leader. His recording with Mingus of “Nostalgia In Time Square”was featured in John Cassavetes’ early film, Shadows.
With Haynes, Newborn recorded the album We Three for Prestige Records, with Paul Chambers on bass.Tadd Dameron’s composition “Our Delight” showcases Newborn tastefully playing swinging eighth notes, at times in octaves, but here never resorting to his always available double time lines. Instead we hear delicately chosen notes, sparse triplet phrases, and warm bebop resolutions. From the same Haynes album, the tune “Reflection” finds Newborn systematically working phrases through the harmonic motion of the tune, and more of his signature bursts of speed.
In 1958, Newborn also toured Europe in a production entitled Jazz From Carnegie Hall. In addition to Newborn Jr.’s trio members, Pettiford and Clarke, the production also included saxophonists Lee Konitzand Zoot Sims, trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, and Red Garland.
In 1961, Newborn moved to Los Angeles, where he recorded A World Of Piano with Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The session includes their arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” The track hints at Maurice Ravel’s “Sonatine,” with Newborn improvising contrapuntal lines in contrary motion, and throughout has him sticking close to the melody, with reharmonisations, and form embellishments.
That same year, Newborn also recorded albums with trumpeter Howard McGhee and tenor saxophonistTeddy Edwards. On the Teddy Edwards record Together Again, Newborn begins his solo on McGhee’s “Sandy” by improvising in a blocked chord fashion, but with more extended harmony than his improvisations included in the 1950s. The harmonic movement of this tune goes in some unexpected directions, which Newborn handles with the conviction of a musician who has continued to improve as advances in harmony have been made. It is a well structured solo, with an arc-like shape. On the McGhee/Edwards collaboration, Newborn improvises on the opener, “Demon Chase,” a blues, incorporating his Memphis roots, as well as modern, intervallic phrases, and even harsh Thelonius Monk-like dissonances.
Even as he enjoyed success in the 1960s, Newborn battled alcoholism, mental illness, and failed marriages, and spent time at Camarillo State Hospital in California. After a period of hospitalization, Newborn returned to recording in 1969 with bassist Ray Brown. The records Please Send Me Someone To Love and Harlem Blueswere recorded at the same session in Los Angeles, on February 12th and 13th, 1969, for Contemporary Records.
This project involved, for the first time in Newborn’s recorded output, drummer Elvin Jones. Jones’s intensity was a solid fit for Newborn powerful sound and virtuosity. Victor Young’s “Stella By Starlight” begins with an extended Newborn intro, typical of his style with dazzling Tatumesque arpeggios and harmonic substitutions. Newborn is easily able to match Jones’ hard swinging aggression, with startling, pianistic two and three note octave passages.
Clearly at this point, Newborn’s playing had not declined. “Ray’s Idea,” written by Brown originally for the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, finds the pianist recalling his bebop roots. There are passages of blocked chords, and a quote of the popular song “Billy Boy.” The pianists Ahmad Jamal and Red Garland had already made popular trio recordings of the tune, and often improvised using block chords.
Newborn’s move back to Memphis in 1971 accelerated his decline into mental illness. As the result of a 1974 mugging during preparation for a solo piano record, several of the pianist’s fingers were broken. He continued to pursue a career after his recovery, but he never recovered either the brilliance or magnitude of his output in the 1950s and 1960s.
A disappointing session from 1974 entitled Solo Piano for Collectibles, includes a melancholy approach to Quincy Jones’s “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set.” Absent are the quick flourishes of substance that would surround the melody, in Newborn’s earlier records. There is some of his characteristic, keyboard virtuosity present on Harold Arlen’s “Out of This World,” but not with the same kind of fullness, or confidence that were present in his previous, effortless – if there is ever such a thing in jazz, Newborn came close – recordings.
By 1978, it had been a decade since Newborn had performed in New York, when he returned for a run at the Village Gatem, which earned him favorable reviews from The New York Times. A celebration of his career resulted in opportunities to perform in various settings at the 1978 Montreux International Jazz Festival in Switzerland, in duo performances with Jay McShann, Hank Jones and John Lewis, and a three-piano setting with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
In 1982, Newborn joined Ray Brown and drummer Dannie Richmond for a trio set at New York’s Sweet Basil, once again to favorable reviews from The New York Times. The gig found the pianist in a comfortable setting, performing familiar pieces from his career repertoire, including “A Night In Tunisia,” “Lush Life,” and “I’m Confessing.”
In 1989 Phineas Newborn Jr. died in his home town of Memphis of lung cancer. He was survived by his mother Rose, two daughters, Shelly and Pamela; a son, Phineas the 3rd; and two grandchildren. At the time of his death, he had reportedly been working on a set of sonatas by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, which was to be recorded.
Newborn was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Memphis National Cemetery. According to jazz historian and critic Nat Hentoff, the difficult circumstances of Newborn’s later years prompted the 1989 founding of the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping with the medical and other expenses of aging musicians.
In a tribute to Newborn, Oscar Peterson, whose style, along with Tatum’s, was often linked to the Memphis pianist, said: “If I had to choose the best all-around pianist of anyone who’s followed me chronologically, undoubtedly I would say Phineas Newborn Jr.”