The death of the American jazz pianist John Bunch, at the age of 88, has triggered an outpouring of warmth from fellow musicians, festival organisers, promoters and the many friends and fans he made during his 38-year freelance career.
He may have been in his late eighties, but Bunch – who had been battling melanoma, and only played his last gig a month ago – was still a vital part of the jazz scene, and remained young at heart right up to his death. Even as his health was deteriorating in the last few months, he was finding new ways to stay in touch with his younger friends – beating many of them on to such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter.
A quiet and thoughtful character who was known in the jazz world as “Gentleman John”, Bunch was renowned for his supremely tasteful and innately swinging style of playing as well as for his extremely modest and self-effacing personality. During a career which spanned over five decades, he was the first-call pianist for several generations of bandleaders, among them Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Scott Hamilton whose career he helped to launch. And in the late 1960s, he was hired by jazz-loving Tony Bennett to be his musical director and right-hand man.
Born in the small Indiana town of Tipton in 1921, Bunch didn’t show any interest in music until a man he later described as “a wonderful piano player” moved into the area and began to teach children what was known as “popular piano” – the popular songs of the day. All the children took lessons but it was 11-year-old Bunch who emerged as the town’s top piano student. His teacher, who played in jazz bands and was very influenced by the great Fats Waller, asked Bunch’s mother if he could take him along to his gigs – and soon Bunch was sitting in with professional players.
Bunch’s mother initially rented a piano for him to practise on, and when his talent began to shine through, one was bought – though this being the Depression, it involved a great deal of sacrifice. His parents split up around this time, and his mother took a job as cook in a restaurant, which was one of the first places to have a jukebox. The man who came to service it loved jazz and, having heard about the teenage Bunch’s talent, asked Mrs Bunch if he could take John to Indianapolis to hear the Count Basie band.
Bunch later recalled: “It was a great experience. They let us sit up on the bandstand because it was so crowded. Imagine, a kid 14 years old sitting in front of Basie’s most famous band – with Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and all those guys.”
After leaving school, Bunch played piano locally and worked in a factory before serving in the Second World War as a bombardier in the 91st Bomb Group, flying B-17s – “Flying Fortresses” – over Germany. On their 17th mission, they were shot down over Germany and two of the crew were killed. Bunch was the only one to emerge without any injuries, despite having had to bail out.
He and his crew were taken prisoner and held in Stalag Luft 13, a camp for captured airmen. He later said: “I couldn’t believe it. They had a band, and I became its piano player.” It was for this band that he wrote his first arrangement.
Bunch’s propensity for survival didn’t just extend to emerging physically unscathed from a burning plane; he also survived the infamous “death march” from his camp to another, in January 1945.
“The Russians were starting their drive towards Berlin,” he recalled in 2002. “Since our camp was on the way, we felt sure they’d liberate us, but the Germans wouldn’t let them have us. Things were desperate and they wanted us as bargaining tools. They made us walk through a terrible blizzard which lasted several days. A lot of us died or were killed trying to escape. It was a desperate, terrible thing. We ended up in another camp for the last few months of the war.”
After the war, Bunch took advantage of the GI bill for veterans to get a free college education. He studied speech rather than music because his sight-reading skills weren’t up to scratch, and he chose the University of Indiana because it had a band.
He later admitted that his natural insecurity held him back from taking up opportunities in jazz that would have meant leaving Indianapolis earlier than he did. Playing with the celebrated guitarist Wes Montgomery changed his outlook. “I thought if guys like Wes liked me, then I must be okay.”
Bunch worked with the Woody Herman band in Los Angeles before settling in New York in the late 1950s. There, he played occasionally with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and, as he put it, “lucked out” by landing a job in the last full-time band that “King of Swing” Benny Goodman led.
Indeed, Bunch helped Goodman put together the band for the historic, government-sponsored, tour of Russia in 1962. During this tour, he became good friends with his hero, fellow pianist Teddy Wilson whom he had “idolised” when he was growing up.
Bunch’s only stint in a full-time, non-freelance job was as Tony Bennett’s musical director between 1966 and 1972. While he enjoyed the challenges of the role, he missed jazz and took to organising jam sessions in his apartment to work off the frustration of having to turn down gigs. By the time he stopped working for Bennett, the jazz scene was picking up, thanks to the influx of such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton, who remembers how in-demand Bunch was.
“John’s manner of playing was unique. Nobody ever played as simply and as clearly as he did, but he had a kind of rhythmic sophistication, a rhythmic ability which meant that he could do something that others couldn’t do – and that was to really play in tempo. No-one could compete with him on that, and there was never a pianist at any time who was more wanted by more different kinds of musicians because of that – he was popular with everyone, and he was a particular favourite of mine and of people like Ruby Braff, Roy Eldridge and Benny Goodman.”
Bunch helped launch Hamilton’s career and secured the younger man his first recording date but it was the fact that he joined Hamilton’s band – the quintet which put him on the map in the 1980s – that was the greatest source of pride to the saxophonist. “He loved being freelance, and he didn’t join a lot of groups so to have joined mine – well, he must have enjoyed it. He meant a lot in my life, and he did a lot for a lot of musicians.”
Scott Hamilton also points out that “John was probably the best accompanist in jazz. He knew exactly what to do. You know, Tony Bennett was trying to get John back to join him in the last ten years – Tony phoned him and asked him to join his group again – but although John had loved doing it before, he wanted to remain freelance.”
As a freelance musician, Bunch travelled the world making new friends and fans wherever he went. Throughout his career, younger musicians and admirers were drawn to him – which Hamilton puts down to the fact that “he didn’t act like there was any age difference, so you didn’t feel it. I’m sure that’s why young musicians were always part of his social circle. He wasn’t lost in the past at all – far from it. He took things as they came, and he was very open to new ideas. He understood music in a kind of universal way.”
Bunch is survived by his second wife, Chips Gemmell.
* John Bunch, pianist, born December 1, 1921; died March 30, 2010.