Herbert Horatio Nichols, January 3, 1919 – April 12, 1963, was a Harlem jazz pianist and composer who wrote the jazz standard “Lady Sings the Blues”.
Obscure during his lifetime, he is now highly regarded by many musicians and critics.
He was born in San Juan Hill, Manhattan, New York, United States, to parents from St. Kitts and Trinidad, and grew up in Harlem.
During much of his career, he took work as a Dixieland musician while also pursuing the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred.
He is best known today for program music that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies from Erik Satie and Béla Bartók.
His first known work as a musician was with the Royal Barons in 1937, but he did not find performing at Minton’s Playhouse a few years later a very happy experience, as the competitive environment did not suit him. However, he did become friends with pianist Thelonious Monk.
Nichols was drafted into the Army in 1941. After the war, he worked in various settings, beginning to achieve some recognition when Mary Lou Williams recorded some of his songs in 1952.
From about 1947, he persisted in trying to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up. He finally recorded some of his compositions for Blue Note in 1955 and 1956, some of which were not issued until the 1980s.
His tune “Serenade” had lyrics added, and as “Lady Sings the Blues” became identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957, he recorded his last album as leader for Bethlehem Records.
Nichols died of leukemia in New York City at the age of 44.
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