Remembering Laurindo Almeida, a musical giant

September 2, 1917, was the birthdate of jazz and classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida. So, on the occasion of his birth, it is appropriate to share some wonderful personal recollections. As a jazz fan and amateur guitarist, I was familiar with some of Laurindo’s recordings on Capitol and Concord Jazz.

Laurindo Almeida with Harvey Etheridge at the Pensacola JazzFest, 1985. Photo by Norman Vickers

The first Pensacola JazzFest was held in spring of 1983 and was held under the auspices of the Pensacola Arts Council with radio station WUWF-FM and newly formed Jazz Society of Pensacola. Our only out-of- town jazz artist was guitarist Chuck Wayne, who was playing his last year with pianist/ composer George Shearing’s Quintet. The rest of the performers were local professional and amateur jazz musicians and local high school and college jazz bands.

Laurindo Almeida. Photo by Norman Vickers

For the second year, the Arts Council Committee elected to bring Chuck Wayne back and to invite harmonica/guitarist Jean “Toots” Thielemans and classical/jazz guitarist Laurindo Almeida. I was designated the contact person for both Thielemans and Almeida. The committee was working on a tight budget so our artist budget was necessarily small. I called Thielemans and Almeida, introduced myself and asked if they’d be interested in coming to our young festival for the relatively small fee which we were able to offer. Both answered in the affirmative. It was a wonderful festival. When Wayne or Toots was the leader, he’d invite the other one as a guest and the fact that Toots was also a chromatic harmonica player, it didn’t seem that we had too many guitarists. Laurindo played from charts, usually with a drummer and bassist, so we used our local artists, drummer Jim Servies and string bassist Harvey Etheridge, as Almeida’s back-up musicians.

Laurindo and I became friends and over the years he returned to Pensacola three more times to perform for the Jazz Society and, during those visits, performed at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church for two special concerts. I visited in his home a couple of times in Northridge overlooking the San Fernando Valley. My last visit to his home was Labor Day weekend 1994. His home had been damaged by the previous earthquake and, because he had foresight to have appropriate insurance, he was living in another home while his was under repair. The earthquake had damaged his five Grammy awards and he’d just gotten replacements from the academy — much larger and elegant than the original awards. I encouraged him to take one out of the case so we could photograph him with it.

Laurindo Almeida. Photo by Norman Vickers

Laurindo performed music behind the opening scene in Clint Eastwood’s western movie, “Unforgiven.” The reviews of the movie were mixed in that there was considerable violence. However, because Laurindo told me that he’d done the long guitar theme, I attended the movie. That opening pastoral scene was lovely — horses, blooming meadow in a Canadian spring and the classical guitar piece was appropriately beautiful. However, in watching the movie credits, Laurindo’s name didn’t appear. I later mentioned it to Laurindo and he replied: “Yes, Eastwood requested that I play for that scene, walked through while I was recording and gave me a ‘thumbs up,’ and then sent me a BIG check!”

He succumbed to a malignancy July 26, 1995, at age 77 but he was teaching, recording and performing until a week before his death. Laurindo’s archives are at the U. S. Library of Congress. He had composed more than 1,000 separate pieces including 200 popular songs. His legacy lives on in recordings and music books. Any piece he recorded, he published the score for sale. There are also multiple YouTube offerings that I encourage you to sample.