He started out working in Memphis R&B bands with his brother, guitarist Calvin Newborn, and recorded with local players including B.B. King in the early ’50s. Brief stints with Lionel Hampton and Willis Jackson preceded a period in the military (1952-1954). After moving to New York in 1956, Newborn astounded fans and critics alike. Although he worked briefly with Charles Mingus (1958) and Roy Haynes, Newborn usually performed at the head of a trio or quartet. His early recordings for Atlantic (1956), Victor, Roulette, and Contemporary are quite outstanding. Unfortunately, after the mid-’60s, Newborn‘s profile dropped sharply, and although there were further recordings for Contemporary (1969), Atlantic (1969), Pablo (1976) and the Japanese Philips (1977) label, and although he still sounded strong when appearing in public, the pianist was in danger of being forgotten by most of the jazz world during his last decade. Spending most of his time in Memphis, he was an inspiration to many younger pianists including James Williams, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, and Geoff Keezer, who after Newborn‘s death would dedicate their work as the Contemporary Piano Ensemble to him.
December 14, 1931 in Whiteville, TN – May 26 1989 – Memphis TN.
Of all the Unsung pianists in Jazz, IMHO, Phineas is the most disrespected by the so-called jazz experts. All I know is when I first heard his playing on record, I had never heard anyone play that fast before on piano, and it still sounded good and made sense musically. One day in the spring of 1965 after youth jazz band practice , Gerald Wilson, who happened to rehearse his big band at the same studio. and was co-sponsor of this youth Jazz band called me over ..”Come here son, Let me introduce you to these very hip musicians…”Sure”, I said.. I was just waiting for my dad to pick me up, as I was not quite old enough to get my license yet. Gerald introduced me to Ornette Coleman since I played alto sax..but the second guy, he looked familiar, but I was not hip as to who he was until Gerald said his name. ” And this is Phineas Newborn Jr” (BOOM!!) Wow, I was frozen, The Cat I had been hearing on the radio now was in my face. I never forgot that day and grateful to Mr Gerald Wilson for that inspiring and generous act. I had the pleasure of reminding him personally in December 2012 of that day and what it meant to me at the time.. He just gave that big Gerald Wilson smile. As he was directing his Big Band that day in Los Angeles for one of his men had passed away, Mr. Carl Randall, tenor man.. Carl was a beautiful person and a great player RIP. Phineas lived around the corner from the Grant Music Center & Studios, so it wasn’t strange to see him chatting with Gerald or other local cats that played in Gerald ‘s band whenever he was in town.