Jazz nicknames often seem, to outsiders, utterly inexplicable. Why Sonny Rollins would be referred to as "Newk," for instance, or how Julian Adderly came to be called "Cannonball" seemed mysteries as inscrutable as the Sphinx.
But it didn't take an Einstein to figure out why Stan Getz, who died Thursday of liver cancer, was called "the Sound."
In fact, all you had to do was listen, and the singularity of the tenor saxophonist's tone seemed obvious. Clear and clean, with just a hint of warmth beneath each cool, breathy note, it sounded as if someone had found a way to filter an early fall sunset through a tenor saxophone.
Most people know the sound from his two Grammy-winning pop hits, "Desafinado" and "The Girl from Ipanema," but there were plenty of other places to hear it. It was there in the early recordings he made as a big band section player in the late '40s, and it was still there on albums like "Apasionado," "Anniversary" and the scintillating "Billy Highstreet Samba," recorded while Getz suffered with the malignancy that eventually killed him at age 64.
Compared to Getz, other tenor men sounded brash and boorish, as if unfit for polite company.
But then, they didn't have the sound.
How he developed that marvelous tone is anybody's guess, but it made its appearance early. Getz had only been playing three years when he got his first full-time gig, a seat in the saxophone section of trombonist Jack Teagarden's band, a feat which seems remarkable even in light of today's teen-aged jazz virtuosos.
Although he spent a couple years in Stan Kenton's band after leaving Teagarden, most jazz fans didn't pay him much mind until he joined Woody Herman's Second Herd in 1947. There, he became part of the famed "Four Brothers" saxophone section (named for the Jimmy Giuffre arrangement that showcased Getz, altoist Herbie Steward, fellow tenor Zoot Sims and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff). Still, it was his solo spot in the rapturous "Early Autumn" (recorded in 1949) that really sold the fans on his light, sweet tone.
He'd only been playing professionally for six years, and already the Sound was famous.
Getz tired of the big bands, though; he was a soloist, and soloists were better off playing in smaller ensembles. He'd already been making records that way, starting in '46 with a quartet called the Be-Bop Boys; besides, he was already winning enough jazz polls to know that there was an audience out there waiting for him.
So he went after that audience, and quickly found himself one of the leading lights of the "cool jazz" movement. In truth, Getz's association with cool was more a matter of timing and luck than design; unlike fellow cool guys Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, he'd had no part in Miles Davis' epochal "Birth of the Cool" sessions. But the distilled purity of Getz's tone, along with note-sparing consideration as a soloist, seemed to fit in with the tenor of the times.
It didn't hurt that Getz was a keen judge of talent, and that his small groups invariably featured big talent. He co-lead one noteworthy ensemble with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and another, later band with pianist Bill Evans; he also had great taste in sidemen, employing over the years such greats as vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Scott LaFaro, guitarist Jimmy Raney and pianists Joanne Brackeen and Baltimore native Albert Dailey.
Getz even wound up inadvertently creating other bands. In the early '70s, he had run into American jazz musician Chick Corea while in London, and invited the young pianist to join his rhythm section -- bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Tony Williams and percussionist Airto Moriera. This quintet recorded only one album, "Captain Marvel," in 1972; incredibly, it went unreleased for three years, and by the time most fans heard it, Corea, Clarke and Airto had formed the jazz-fusion band Return to Forever.
But the most memorable discovery Getz ever made wasn't a musician -- it was the bossa nova, a lush, lilting pop style from Brazil that briefly became all the rage in the early '60s. Getz himself got hooked on the sound when, looking for a follow-up to his (woefully underrated) orchestral album, "Focus," he wound up cutting an album of Brazilian music with guitarist Charlie Byrd; titled "Jazz Samba," it spent most of 1962 on the pop charts, eventually climbing all the way to No. 1.
Two years later, "Getz/Gilberto" did even better, with the single "The Girl from Ipanema" landing the tenorman in the Top-5, and helping him beat out the Beatles for the Record of the Year Grammy. And, once again, it was the Sound that did it, that martini-dry whisper that perfectly complimented the lazy phrasing and languorous syllables of "Ipanema" singer Astrud Gilberto.
Now, of course, the Sound is no more, silenced forever. There will always be records, naturally -- one plays as I write this, presenting Getz's gloriously translucent tone as if trapped in amber -- but that means we'll have to make do with the music already made. There will be no encores.
Granted, the 45 years Getz spent making records was more time than many players got. But when it came to hearing that particular sound, it's not hard to understand how some fans could get greedy.