Born in Philadelphia on Feb. 2, 1927, Getz joined trombonist Jack Teagarden when he was 16. A succession of gigs with big band leaders, including Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, led him to Woody Herman, where in 1947 he became part of the famous "Four Brothers" sax section, with Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Herbie Steward. In 1948, Getz's breathtaking solo on the Herman recording of "Early Autumn" catapulted him into the upper echelon of jazz soloists.
A disciple of Lester Young, Getz played with an immediately identifiable tone -- yearning, ethereal, vibratoless -- and a swing-to-bop momentum that gave him broad appeal. Though possessed of a sophisticated, post-bop sense of harmony, Getz never let chord changes get in the way of a beautiful line, which distinguished him from the more slavishly harmonic hard boppers. His recordings with guitarist Jimmy Raney in 1951 are cool bop classics, as is his 1961 gem, Focus, on which he improvised over modernist string arrangements by Eddie Sauter.
Getz struggled with alcohol and drug addiction most of his life, and from 1958-'61 lived in semi-retirement in Denmark. Over the years, the saxophonist hired and recorded with a string of great young players who would later make their marks, including Chick Corea, Joanne Brackeen, Steve Swallow and Gary Burton. His 1972 album with Corea, Captain Marvel, and The Peacocks, with pianist Jimmy Rowles, in 1977, remain popular among aficionados today; his bossa nova albums continue to attract new fans across the board.
During the 1980s, Getz taught at the Stanford University Jazz Program in Palo Alto, Calif. He died on June 6, 1991, in Malibu, Calif.
In 1986, Getz was elected by the Readers to the Down Beat Hall of Fame.