Tal Farlow, one of the seminal guitarists of the Hard Bop period and a true legend in jazz, died Saturday, July 25th (1998) of cancer. He was 77.
Talmage Holt Farlow was born on June 7, 1921 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was filled with music as his parents played a variety of instruments. Tal grew up viewing music and electronics as hobbies and chose sign painting as his vocation. In fact, he had a full time painting business off and on throughout his life.
Tal's playing was characterized by fearsome technical virtuosity, advanced sense of the Bebop language and jazz harmony and an overriding upbeat mood
The first big guitar influence on Tal was probably Charlie Christian. Tal built an electric guitar pickup after hearing Christian. He tinkered with guitar electronics ever since.
Tal's first break came during the war. Bandleader Dardanelle Breckenridge hired Tal from about 1943 to 1945. They toured the East Coast and Tal eventually left the band, settling in Piladelphia. He played a variety of gigs in Philly and New York before meeting vibist Red Norvo. Tal played in Red's trio in the early 50s (which at times included bassist Charles Mingus). It was in this group that Tal came to the attention of producer Norman Granz and was offered his first recording contract. See the JGO review of the Red Norvo trio's Move!.
Many of Tal's best recordings were made for Verve in the 1950s, and see Verve Jazz Masters 41. Near the end of the decade and throughout the 60s, Tal dropped into semi-retirement and went back to sign painting. He made only very few appearances in festivals and concerts in this period, staying mostly in his Sea Bright, New Jersey home.
In the early 1960s, however, guitar manufacturer Gibson produced a series of high-end electric-acoustic 'artist' guitars, including the Tal Farlow. It was first listed for sale in 1962, and remained in the Gibson line through 1967.
In the late 1970s, Tal came back. His recording "The Return of Tal Farlow" told the world that he had lost none of his fire and amazing technical ability but had gained some musical maturity. Many people believe that Tal did his best playing in the following years. Tal was the subject of a television documentary in 1981 and rekindled his relationship with Red Norvo. The new trio played throughout the US and Europe to great public acclaim.
From then on, Tal recorded infrequently (mostly for Concord) and played gigs and clinics here and there. I was fortunate enough to see Tal at the Bellarmine Jazz Guitar Clinic in 1993, playing with Jimmy Raney and Atilla Zoller. This fantastic experience was videotaped and I may put some excerpts online at a future date.
Tal's playing was characterized by fearsome technical virtuosity, advanced sense of the Bebop language and jazz harmony and an overriding upbeat mood. He was known for his large hands and the great reach they gave him on the fretboard. Special effects like artificial harmonics and "bongo" tapping became Farlow trademarks. Tal was also immortalized by Gibson with their Tal Farlow model guitar which had a shorter scale neck and shallower body than most Gibson archtops.
In the last years of his life Tal's style was the subject of an excellent book by Berklee instructor Steve Rochinksi, and also a Verve Masters Series CD compilation.
Reports indicate that Tal had been fighting esophageal cancer for several years and cancelled several appearances in 1998 for health reasons.
Encyclopedia of Popular Music © Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998
Steve Rochinski, Liner notes, Tal Farlow: Jazz Masters 41 (Verve 314 527 365-2)
© 1995 PoyGram Records
Maurice Summerfield, The Jazz Guitar: Its Evolution, Players and Personalities since 1900 © 1978-1993 Ashley Mark, Newcastle, U.K.