The American jazz saxophonist Herb Geller, who has died aged 85, had a career of two halves. Initially, he was prominent among the musicians who created the west-coast jazz style, picking up combo gigs and recording dates with the best players in California. Later, after the death of his first wife, he relocated to Europe and established himself as a salaried artist in a subsidised orchestra, lauded by the authorities in his adopted home city of Hamburg as both a teacher and a performer.
Geller was born in Los Angeles. His tailor father had settled there after leaving Russia and met Geller's mother, who played the piano for silent movies, at a Jewish singles dance. A local friend who owned a music store suggested their son should learn an instrument so, aged eight, Geller was given an alto saxophone and a weekly lesson. "My musical talents came from my mother," he said.
By the time he got to Dorsey high school in Los Angeles, he was proficient enough to join the school swing band alongside fellow saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd, both destined to achieve jazz celebrity. It was with these friends that Geller first heard the great alto-saxophonist Benny Carter at a band show at the Orpheum theatre; he returned several times to marvel at Carter's fluidity and decided he wanted to play like him.
After a short vacation gig with the violinist Joe Venuti, exciting enough in its way, Geller heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles in February 1945. He began to bone up on Parker's style and to take every kind of road job he could, performing in a succession of short‑lived professional bands and playing in every jam session that came his way. Determined to get to New York, always the key destination for aspiring jazz musicians, Geller joined the pianist Jack Fina who had bookings there.
Briefly back in LA, he met the brilliant pianist Lorraine Walsh. They married in 1952 in New York, where they had settled. Geller took engagements with the top orchestras of the day including those of Claude Thornhill and Billy May. When May's band made for LA, Geller and Lorraine went along, quickly establishing themselves on the then rampant west-coast recording scene. They ran their own quartet, worked with the satirist Lenny Bruce, played gigs in strip clubs by night and made recordings by day with artists of the highest calibre, including, in Geller's case, Clifford Brown, Dinah Washington and Shorty Rogers.
In 1958, shortly after the birth of their daughter, Lisa, Lorraine died suddenly aged 30 after suffering from a pulmonary infection while Geller was on the road with Benny Goodman. Eventually, Geller placed his daughter with his sister and resumed his road life, rejoining Goodman. Geller was, in his own words, "emotionally distraught" and disoriented, until his fellow saxophonist Stan Getz suggested he make for Europe. After starting out in Lisbon and Paris, Geller moved in 1962 to Berlin, where he joined the jazz orchestra of the radio station Sender Freies Berlin, staying three years before relocating to Hamburg where he became a staff member of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk orchestra as a composer, performer and arranger. This gilded period – paid vacations, free healthcare and all – brought him extraordinary success and financial security.
It was during this time that he met his second wife, Christine. His base in Hamburg was an ideal launching pad for festival appearances with celebrated European orchestras often including fellow Americans, and it was a superior location itself for session work, Geller having added a roster of extra woodwind instruments to his usual alto and soprano saxophones.
After his retirement from the NDR in 1994, Geller taught at local universities and began to appear regularly in the UK, touring as a soloist and releasing a series of fine albums for the Scottish-based Hep label. He was an irresistibly creative player, able to find new things to say on old songs, fusing something of Carter's liquidity with the boppish fire of Parker – "the greatest musician in the world," he thought – evidently relishing the chance to play. "I consider jazz to be fun music," he told me.
Genial and approachable, with a gift for friendship, Geller created a musical play about his own career and devised a hit show about the life and times of Josephine Baker.
He is survived by Christine, their daughter, Olivia, and their son, Sam, and by Lisa.
Herbert Arnold Geller, jazz musician, born 2 November 1928; died 19 December 2013