The unappreciated genius is a stock figure in the literature of jazz, the art form that seems to require long-distance perspective--say, from Europe, or Japan--in order to receive the cultural approval it deserves. Sometimes beauty, like a prophet, goes without honor in its own country.
Phineas Newborn, Jr.
To the list of jazz greats who toiled in obscurity you can add Phineas (pronounced, improbably, "fine-as") Newborn, Jr., whose failure to achieve the fame he deserved seemed at times self-inflicted.
Newborn was born in Whiteville, Tennessee in 1931 and paid his dues playing in Memphis R&B bands with his brother, Calvin, a guitarist. He recorded with locals including B.B. King in the early fifties, and played with Lionel Hampton and Willis Jackson before serving two years in the military. He moved to New York in 1956 and astounded critics and audiences alike with his precise virtuosity. He could play a fully-scored song with just his left hand, and is credited with inventing a double-octave technique. (This jackleg pianist isn't quite sure what is meant by that, but it certainly sounds impressive.)
He was 23-years-old when he recorded his first album, The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, Jr., an effort of which jazz promoter George Wein said "the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum." Since Fats Waller said one night of Tatum when he saw him in a nightclub "God is in the house," that would make Phineas a minor deity of the keyboard, one who had only to persist and endure (as Faulkner might put it) in order to become a major one.
Roy Haynes, lookin' preppy.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather seconded that appraisal and pronounced him one of the three greatest jazz pianists ever, but Newborn seemed to be overawed by the acclaim with which he was received when he burst god-like upon the world of jazz mortals. He stepped back from leading a group of his own to join Charles Mingus, then Roy Haynes, then faded from the scene, a pattern he would repeat several times over the course of his career.
Whether Newborn's problems were physical or mental or simply a preference for his native Memphis, he retreated from the limelight, making only sporadic appearances before he resumed recording in the late 60's. The jazz revival label Pablo recorded him in 1978 at a time when he was in danger of becoming a curiosity, the subject of a whatever-happened-to? question.
I saw him at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the early 80's, and the academic setting underscored the marginal place he had been relegated to in the jazz world; Symphony Hall, where by rights he should have been playing, was right down the street, but there symphonic warhorses and the Boston Pops reign.
Newborn was a mentor and inspiration to a number of Memphis-based pianists who came after him including Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern and Donald Brown. He died in 1989 at the age of 57.