Jutta Hipp is another forgotten '50s jazz pianist with an odd past. She recorded briefly but gave up on jazz in 1956 for reasons that remain mysterious. The German-born Hipp spent her teens under Nazi rule and performed in Germany after the war. She recorded in Germany sporadically from 1952 to '55, and a year later she caught the ear of producer Leonard Feather, who was in Duisburg, Germany. Feather urged Hipp to come to New York.
Hipp did just that—arriving in the early spring. Horace Silver talked her up in New York, and Hipp overnight became the first and only female jazz instrumentalist to be signed by Blue Note. The label first released a live recording that Hipp had made in 1954 with sidemen—New Faces, New Sounds from Germany. She also recorded live in April '56 at New York's Hickory House. Volumes 1 and 2 for Blue Note feature Hipp in a trio setting.
In the summer of '56, Hipp performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and in July she recorded on Blue Note with Zoot Sims—an album that would be her last recording.
According to Wikipedia, her nervousness playing with top-flight players caused her to abandon jazz and become a seamstress in 1958, dying in 2003 in Queens, N.Y. virtually unknown. Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me, so I nosed around.
In 2006, a summary of Katja von Schuttenbach's masters thesis appeared in the July/August 2006 Jazz Podium magazine (go here). Von Schuttenbach [pictured] had just received her Master of Arts in Jazz History & Research from Rutgers University. According to von Schuttenbach's thesis, Hipp had stage fright and alcohol problems—but her ambitions were the victim of Leonard Feather's amorous pursuits. Von Schuttenbach states that when mentor Feather was spurned by Hipp, he choked off her career:
It appears that the unwilling and resisting Hipp had turned from protégée to persona non grata for Feather within months after her arrival," Von Schuttenbach writes. He retaliated by writing negatively about Hipp in his still widely read encyclopedias and personal memoir, even claiming that Horace Silver's influence had destroyed Hipp's playing style....In 1958 Hipp still lived in New York City but was destitute. She had lost her apartment because she couldn't pay her rent and she didn't even have enough money to buy a meal."
For whatever reason, von Schuttenbach's assertions in the Jazz Podium go undocumented. It's unclear whether her statements about the Feather-Hipp relationship were based on love letters, interviews with sources who had intimate knowledge of Feather's pursuits, or were merely conjecture. [Pictured above: Leonard Feather]
Before coming to the attention of Feather, Hipp developed her piano style in Germany, and until now many of her early recordings were thought to be lost. Jazz Haus found them and has released Jutta Hipp: The German Recordings 1952-1955. The results are rather fascinating.
Though Hipp's playing in 1952 was somewhat wooden, she clearly was deeply influenced by Lennie Tristano's inside-out piano style. Her approach cheers up a bit in '53, on tracks like Moonlight in Vermont and Come Back to Sorrento, but these, too, remain brooding, as if played to a metronome. By 1955, Hipp had become more adventurous and sure of herself.
For me, Hipp's Hickory House trio recordings remain exemplary examples of her adventurous style while her album with Sims demonstrates an acute ear for accompaniment. What happened after these sessions remains foggy, but I hope to be in touch with Katja von Schuttenbach to learn more.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Jutta Hipp: The German Recordings 1952-1955here.