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Tal Farlow, aka “The Octopus”

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Tal Farlow, who was nicknamed “The Octopus” because of the size of his hands and their ability to navigate the fretboard, has a surprisingly short bio at AllMusic:

Nearly as famous for his reluctance to play as for his outstanding abilities, guitarist Tal Farlow did not take up the instrument until he was already 21, but within a year was playing professionally and in 1948 was with Marjorie Hyams’ band. While with the Red Norvo Trio (which originally included Charles Mingus) from 1949-1953, Farlow became famous in the jazz world. His huge hands and ability to play rapid yet light lines made him one of the top guitarists of the era. After six months with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five in 1953, Farlow put together his own group, which for a time included pianist Eddie Costa. Late in 1958, Farlow settled on the East Coast, became a sign painter, and just played locally. He only made one record as a leader during 1960-1975, but emerged a bit more often during 1976-1984, recording for Concord fairly regularly before largely disappearing again. Profiled in the definitive documentary Talmage Farlow, the guitarist can be heard on his own records for Blue Note (1954), Verve, Prestige (1969), and Concord. He died of cancer July 25, 1998, at age 77. (Continue Reading…)

That’s it. Farlow was  the subject of a movie, however — and the film’s site has a better bio. It starts this way:

Talmage Holt Farlow’s half-century career in jazz embodied the unusual.  Born June 7, 1921 in Greensboro, North Carolina, he was supposed to grow up and become a textile plant worker like his father.  Instead, he spent countless hours tuned-in to remote radio broadcasts of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Coleman Hawkins. By the late 1940’s, the polite, lanky boy with the massive hands had moved to New York after playing in dance and society bands down South.  Tal’s highly innovative style and unique sense of harmony soon established him as a vital link in the chain begun by Charlie Christian.  His work in the bands of Buddy DeFranco, Artie Shaw, and in the landmark Red Norvo Trio with Charles Mingus eventually landed him on a successful and much-heralded career as a leader. (Continue Reading…)

The site also has some clips from the movie. The great jazz guitarists of the middle of the century seem all to have been  inspired by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Farlow semi-retired to Sea Bright, New Jersey, where he was a sign maker. I haven’t been in Sea Bright, but know that it is possible to have a very nice life as a sign maker in those Jersey shore towns. Unless, of course, a hurricane happens by.

In Air Mail Special, above, Herb Ellis (right) and Charlie Byrd flank Tal Farlow. Below, Farlow plays Misty.

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Reading Music

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Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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