Tag Archives: Ruby Braff

Tony Bennett: The Great Life

Tony Bennett PR shot 1The last time Tony Bennett performed in Glasgow, two years ago, he was already well into his eighties but, over the course of a non-stop 75 minute performance, he positively romped through a programme of no fewer than 26 songs, without pausing for anything more than the briefest chat and acknowledgement of the massive outpouring of affection for him from the packed Concert Hall. The longer he was onstage, and the more he sang, the more animated he became – and it seemed that the enthusiastic response from the audience was fuelling his staggeringly lively performance.

But it seems that there is more to it than that. Bennett, who is now 88 and set to return to the Concert Hall next week, is not so much driven by the need for applause as he is by the desire to entertain, and by his own enormous pleasure in singing. He explains: “I love doing it, and I like to try to make people feel good. It’s always very enjoyable to me leaving the theatre knowing that I made people feel good.”

And it’s not just to his audience that Bennett feels a sense of responsibility; as the oldest popular singer on the block – and the one whose career stretches back over an incredible six decades – he regards himself as a custodian of the Great American Songbook. After all, there can only be a handful of singers still around who have direct links with the original contributors to that body of work, and such original exponents of it as Bennett’s hero, Fred Astaire. Does Bennett feel a sense of responsibility to these songs?

“Yes, I do because the United States in the 1930s had a renaissance period very similar to what happened in France with Impressionism, with Monet, and musically with Ravel and Debussy. It was the beginning of talkies in films so they grabbed Fred Astaire off the stage and put him in films and they hired George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to write the songs. These songs are gorgeous, they never become dated because they’re so well-written. I travel the world and wherever I go, people start to sing them back at me – they’re known internationally.”

Bennett first heard many of them – including the one he cites as his personal favourite, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (“I just adore that song”) – as a youngster growing up in the Queens borough of New York. Before he discovered this homegrown American music, however, it was his father’s Caruso records which introduced him to the art of singing, and in particular to the “bel canto” style, which explains his graceful way with a song and his elegant phrasing.

“My father adored opera and had a reputation himself as a singer. I was told that he would sing on the top of a mountain in Calabria and the whole valley would hear him. This inspired my older brother and myself – and we both became singers. My brother was very successful – at age 14 he was hired by the Metropolitan Opera House. So he was called Little Caruso. Of course I became a bit envious so I just became interested in jazz and started improvising.”

Asked who his first inspiration as a singer was, Bennett instantly names Louis Armstrong who, like him, enjoyed success as both a jazz and a popular artist and who effectively invented jazz singing. That the pair became great friends is perhaps no surprise given that they seem to share the same outlook about entertaining an audience and living life to the full. Bennett says: “His whole life he just wanted to make people feel good and have fun. He loved what he was doing so much that it never became old-fashioned. Just listen to him playing on a Hot 5 record. If you listen to the musicians playing behind him, it does sound a little dated but when Louis comes in on trumpet or singing it sounds like right now.”

Speaking to Tony Bennett, it’s impossible not to be struck by his delight in discussing jazz – his first musical love – and its characters. On Duke Ellington: “He was a complete genius, unbelievable. He just performed every night. I knew him at least the last 30 years of his life and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t compose some music – even when they were on tour doing one-nighters and he was travelling 150 miles a day, he would have the orchestra try something that he might want to put into his composition.”

On John Bunch, the much-loved pianist, and former music director to Bennett, who was a regular visitor to Scotland’s jazz festivals until his death in 2010 : “Gentleman John Bunch. I loved him so much. He was the most wonderful person. In fact, I’ll tell you a cute story .. He asked me one time when we were in London: ‘Did you ever play tennis?’ I said ‘no.’ He said: ‘Would you like me to give you a lesson?’ I said ‘okay.’ So he took me out to a stadium to play at the net and he showed me how to hit the ball over the net and all that sort of thing. Later on I found out that we had been playing at Wimbledon! I’ve been working down ever since then…”

Billie Holiday (“a sweet, beautiful, sophisticated lady”) was a particular favourite – and Bennett, who first topped the charts in 1950, was lucky enough to meet her. “Duke Ellington had a show at a nightclub in New York and I went to see it. Billie Holiday was there too. It was the days when there was an awful lot of prejudice. She said: ‘C’mon Tony, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ The people I was with kind of indicated to me ‘don’t go up there – it’s dangerous,’ you know? I regret it to this day.”

Bennett may be embarrassed about that episode but it was exceptional, since he was an active supporter of and participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, responding to the call to arms from his friends Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. His own life hadn’t been without struggle, and the other overwhelmingly striking thing about a conversation with him is how lucky he feels to have had the life he’s had, making a living doing something he loves, and how – even now, nearly 60 years after his initial success – he still counts his blessings.

“After my father died [when he was ten years old], my Italian family would come over every Sunday and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. They told me that I sang very well and that they liked my paintings of flowers. They created a passion in my life to just sing and paint, and I’ve gotten away with it – I’ve never really worked a day in my life. I just enjoy what I do.”

Asked if he escaped into his music when times were tough, Bennett explains that it wasn’t merely a form of distraction; it was a practical escape route out of poverty. “I went into showbusiness to stop my mother from working – she was making a penny a dress sewing in a sweat shop to put food on the table for her children. I was able to accomplish that with my first couple of hit records – I was able to send my mom out into the suburbs into beautiful nature.”

Tony Bennett - Concert Hall steps

Tony Bennett on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1995 (c) Herald & Times Group

The adult Bennett has had his fair share of professional frustrations and personal problems – and for a while he was, to paraphrase one of his early signature songs, “lost, his losing dice was tossed, his bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go.” A period out of the pop limelight in the 1970s produced some jazz albums – notably of duets with pianist Bill Evans and, most sublimely, his two volumes of the
Rodgers & Hart Songbook with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; intimate, cult recordings which are among the very best vocal works in all jazz and which highlight Bennett’s admiration and respect for the some of the most eloquent lyrics in the Great American Songbook..

Relaunching his career in the late 1980s, performing on MTV, and duetting with young pop stars – most recently Lady Gaga – has brought him to new audiences. But best of all, his later success has allowed him to be exactly the kind of singer he wants to be – singing jazz with his quartet and creating an intimate atmosphere even in the largest venue. “I like working that way,” he says. “To clarify my whole premise: I don’t want to be the biggest. I’d rather be one of the best.” Mission accomplished, I reckon.

* Tony Bennett performs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, September 9th.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday August 30th

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CD Recommendations – April 2012

Billie Holiday: The Complete Masters 1933-1959 (Universal)
As somebody who already owns everything by her favourite singer – but scattered across box sets, single CDs and LPs – I am thrilled with this exquisitely presented limited edition collection of all the master takes from her vast and varied career. It’s a shame not to have some of the best alternative takes, but great to not have two versions of the same tune back to back. And to be able to hear her go from radiant, ebullient, teens-to-twentysomething Billie on her joyful 1930s small group recordings, right through to her worn-out, but utterly compelling and sumptuous final (with strings) album, is a privilege and a treat.
Derek Nash Acoustic Quartet: Joyriding (Jazzizit Records)
British saxophonist Derek Nash’s first CD with his regular trio is a fresh, funky and engaging affair which features an imaginative selection of tunes, most of them originals by Nash himself but also such stand-outs as the Ennio Morricone’s unjustly neglected Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso and a Gerry Mulligan-inspired take on Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are. Nash is a lovely, melodic player who has a terrific rapport with his trio, particularly with the ever-elegant pianist David Newton.
Ruby Braff: Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz)
Wow. This is one of the best of these Avid two-CD sets that I’ve heard. The great trumpeter Ruby Braff was in his early thirties when these four late-1950s LPs were recorded – and his playing is sensational, as is the company he keeps (Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Freddie Green, Hank Jones – on vibes! – etc). In fact, it’s difficult to get past the first album, Hi-Fi Salute to Bunny, which finds him alongside the legendary clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and is an absolute gem, featuring a string of unforgettable, downright sexy takes on such evergreens as I’m Coming Virginia.
Bucky Pizzarelli: Challis in Wonderland (Arbors Records)
The octogenarian US guitarist Pizzarelli is still playing as superbly as ever. On this new CD, he pays homage to both the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Challis, the arranger who ensured that Beiderbecke’s masterful piano compositions were transcribed and saved for posterity. All four of those feature here (played on guitar, of course), alongside some other Bixian numbers and tunes of his era – plus Pizzarelli’s own title composition. He’s joined by his son and fellow guitarist John, and a string quartet featuring the violin whiz Aaron Weinstein. Delightful stuff.
Nigel Clark: Under the Stars (Circular Records)
While some solo guitar players seem to sap the life out of their material by picking it apart, stretching it out and extemporising ad infinitum, Glasgow-based guitar star Clark brings colour, energy and lyricism to whatever he plays – as effectively as if a whole band was performing. On the 16 eclectic tracks included on this, his first, solo album, his classy taste and love of (and respect for) a beautiful melody shine through – among the highlights are numbers by Jerome Kern, Carlos Santana, Antonio Carlos Jobim and a trio of original tunes.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Masters 1935-1955 (Universal)
The Ella Fitzgerald set in this superb new series of limited edition box sets may not – as the Billie Holiday one did – cover her entire career, but it takes in some of her finest work, notably this reviewer’s favourite Fitzgerald recordings, the duos with elegant pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 (her first Gershwin songbook) and 1954. The 14 discs span the dynamic singer’s output from her coquettish debut with Chick Webb through to the 1950s when she exuded a downright regal quality on her ballads.
Charlie Parker: The Complete Masters 1941-1954 (Universal)
As with the other box sets in this limited edition series, this 11-disc collection is a must-have for anyone interested in the subject; this time, the legendary bebop pioneer and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It traces his evolution – and that of bop – from his Kansas City beginnings in the mid-1940s with Jay McShann’s blues ‘n’ boogie-style band through to his sporadic final recordings before his untimely 1954 death (aged 35). Highlights include his electrifying encounters with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and his masterful strings albums.
Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters 1931-1953 (Universal)
The legendary New Orleans-born clarinettist and soprano saxophonist is the subject of the fourth and final of the superb new limited edition box sets from Universal. This collection isn’t comprehensive –  the recordings he made after settling in France in June 1950 aren’t included (so Midnight in Paris fans won’t find Si Tu Vois Ma Mere) – but it is an impressive 14-disc set nevertheless and spans his career from 1923 (though he first recorded in 1921) to 1950, by which time he was being feted by the younger generation.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Overview

Published in the Nairn Telegraph, August 14, 2002

Thank God for the Nairn International Jazz Festival. Thanks to it, I will have enough musical memories to sustain me through the next 12 months until my next trip north to jazz heaven. The festival, which ended on Sunday, provided more moments of sheer pleasure in one week than Scottish fans of swinging chamber jazz can expect to enjoy in a whole year’s worth of concerts elsewhere in the country.

This year’s event summed up everything that makes Nairn special. There was the enthusiasm of the musicians who appreciated the excellent acoustics (if not the unbearable temperature earlier in the week) of the Universal Hall in Findhorn, the laidback feel of the Newton Hotel’s Conference Centre, and, especially, the warmth and attentiveness of the audiences. Among the musicians who were enjoying themselves so much that they played well beyond their bedtimes were veteran clarinettist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Ray Bryant and cornet legend Ruby Braff.

Then there were the last-minute concerts staged by festival organiser Ken Ramage: two guitar recitals by top American players in a Forres coffee shop and the Saturday night finale, pulled together in a day (following the cancellation by headline act Steve Tyrell), and still managing to attract a more than respectably sized audience.

Of course what matters most is the music, and Nairn served up more treats than even the most optimistic festival-goer could expect, and all in a refreshingly laid-back manner which contrasts with the concert hall formality favoured by so many other jazz festivals these days. Ken Ramage is a talented programmer with a healthy intuition about which musicians will work well together, and he knows that the happier the musicians are, the better the music is likely to be. Which is why, unlike other festival organisers, he often brings over whole bands or arranges for the preferred rhythm sections of certain top soloists to come up north, rather than taking the easy option of simply putting the star turn on with a Scottish trio.

The festival is very much a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, but it’s also proof that focusing on one area of jazz – the so-called “mainstream” side of things – doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have diversity and broad appeal. Nairn’s very strength is that it doesn’t try to be all things to all jazz fans. Because of this, it has a strong identity and has established a reputation among musicians all over the world as one of the most desirable festivals to visit. Add to that the warm hospitality, the scenery and, of course, the tropical temperatures (well, Monday and Tuesday’s anyway), and, well, roll on next year…

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 2

Published in The Herald, Monday August 12, 2002

It may not be in quite the same historic league as Benny Goodman’s legendary gig at the Palomar Ballroom, or Louis Armstrong’s Town Hall concert or the Ellington band’s riot-sparking Newport performance, but American cornet star Ruby Braff’s Wednesday night concert at The Newton Hotel for the Nairn International Jazz Festival was undoubtedly one of those nights which will be talked about for many years to come – at least by those who were there.

Before Braff opened his mouth, things didn’t bode well. Looking frail and wizened, and suffering from emphysema, the 75-year-old made it out of his wheelchair and up onto the stage. Propped up by pillows, he looked as if he should be in the local infirmary rather than in front of an all-star band. However, as soon as he began to talk, it was obvious that the notoriously cantankerous star was in good spirits, reducing the audience and the musicians onstage to tears of laughter with his politically incorrect jokes.

Of course, it wasn’t just the priceless patter which made Braff’s concert such a highlight. It was a fantastic night musically – a perfect example of swinging, melodic chamber jazz. Holding court for well over two hours, Braff brought out the best from an already terrific band which featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, John Bunch on piano and Jon Wheatley on guitar.

Rather than taking the easy – and more common – all-star concert option of featuring each soloist individually or dividing the band into different line-ups for different numbers, Braff simply had each musician play a share of the melody before everyone took a solo. The results were sublime, particularly the beautiful, laid-back version of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, which prompted Braff to comment: “That was like a nice conversation.”

Braff’s playing gave no indication of his breathing difficulties; indeed, the horn seemed to double as an oxygen mask, and as the evening progressed, he played for longer stints, always with that unique, mellow tone. He was surprisingly generous in his praise for his fellow musicians, and was clearly relishing the opportunity to be playing with Bunch and Hamilton again.

In those wee small hours of Thursday morning, it looked as though the highpoint of the festival had just finished, but there were still treats ahead, among them Scott Hamilton’s lunchtime reunion with pianist Brian Kellock. Kellock hooked up with his own band (John Rae on drums and Kenny Ellis on bass) to join American saxophonist Harry Allen for a gig on Friday evening which proved that the United Reformed Church should probably be a last-resort venue for Nairn jazz. Allen and co rose above acoustic problems and turned in a terrific extended set which left the tenor man raving about Kellock’s trio being the best in Britain.

Aside from the Braff concert, the gig which best summed up the spirit of the Nairn International Jazz Festival was the lunchtime concert by members of the Gully Low Band. Featuring a quartet made up of the magnificent trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the elegant clarinettist Dan Levinson, virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden and tuba player-bandleader David Ostwald, the first set epitomised the relaxed, informal feel of the best Nairn concerts. This was a rare chance to hear this kind of line-up and their swinging, tasteful performances of such little-played 1920s and 1930s numbers like Diga-Diga-Doo and From Monday On were superb – sheer pleasure.

The relaxed feel of this ensemble was in complete contrast to the more carefully staged and formal atmosphere of the two concerts by the entire Gully Low Jazz Band, on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. Although this band went down well with audiences, it seemed to lack the joyfulness and spontaneity of the small group sets, and, frankly, leader David Ostwald’s dull announcements were tiresome and unnecessary.

Also more formal and less rewarding than might have been expected was the concert by young stars Benny Green (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar) on Thursday evening. This slick, sharp-suited duo was, unquestionably, a class act but there was a strong sense that they were simply working their way through the material on their album, and that, to them, this was just another stop on the touring itinerary. Which is about as far removed from the one-off, peculiarly Nairn, feel of the Braff concert and the Bob Wilber-Fapy Lafertin gig of earlier in the week.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1996: Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton

Published in The Herald on August 20, 1996

Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton, Nairn Jazz Festival

Another successful Nairn Jazz Festival came to a close on Sunday night with the kind of fabulous all-star concert which fans haven’t seen in a long time – unless they were lucky enough to be at some of the Nairn events earlier in the week. Once again, promoter Ken Ramage gambled on expensive big names, but once again it paid off with a capacity crowd and music of the highest calibre.

Cornet star Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton were the main headliners, but this excellent six-piece outfit also featured classy piano man John Bunch, guitar genius Bucky Pizzarelli and Brits Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums). Unlike some of the jazz festival concerts we’ve seen recently at Edinburgh, this one was leisurely, civilised and good-natured.

Braff, who had apparently lived up to his reputation as a difficult and highly strung customer at Thursday night’s concert, was all smiles and hilarious wisecracks. His playing throughout was every bit as polished as it sounds on record, but twice as funky. The presence of his old pals Bunch and Pizzarelli no doubt contributed to his performance: it’s unlikely that he would have been half as relaxed in the company of a Scottish pianist and guitarist.

As for Hamilton, he and Braff formed a mutual inspiration society within this great band, egging each other on most memorably on Sunday, Just One of Those Things, and a cheeky Jeepers Creepers. New Nairn-comers Bunch and Pizzarelli were also dazzling in their virtuosity; the self-effacing pianist’s elegant style a joy to experience live after years of listening to his recordings.

I’ve found my notes on this concert. Here’s the list of numbers played.. During the first half, Braff complained about the heat under the lights and asked, good-naturedly, if they could be extinguished. “An electrician could do it,” he quipped. After a 40-minute interval, the second half was played in near-darkness, with moths swirling round the bells of Braff’s and Hamilton’s horns – like the cigarette smoke in Herman Leonard’s famous photos of Lester Young’s sax.

* Just You, Just Me

* Rockin’ Chair

* Poor Butterfly

* Cherokee (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Easy Living (rhythm section)

* Indiana

* Just One of Those Things

* The Days of Wine and Roses

* Skylark (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Jeepers Creepers

* Yesterdays (without Scott Hamilton)

* Sunday

* Take the A Train

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Saturday

This was my favourite moment in the first night of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. Midway through an all-star closing set headed by Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, the stage emptied leaving just the leader, plus trumpeter Duke Heitger, guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Giorgos Antoniou. And what did they serve up? An exquisite Sweet Lorraine – perfectly seasoned. Not too sugary, not too fast; just a gentle, laid-back conversational handling of the old standard. The way that Galloway, the impish charmer of sinewy soprano sax melody, and the mellow-toned Heitger gently batted the melody back and forth reminded this listener of a memorable night in Nairn when Ruby Braff struck up a similar musical dialogue with Scott Hamilton and Jon Wheatley. The set ended with what seemed like a nod to my Glasgow granny (and probably Galloway’s too): a hugely enjoyable tout ensemble (11 players) version of Show Me the Way to Go Home.

Earlier in the night, the Japanese clarinettist Eiji Kitamura and tenor man Scott Hamilton had only really hit their stride by the time they were on the closing numbers of their 45 minute set: a classy take on These Foolish Things, which – unlike some of the earlier tunes – seemed to benefit from Kitamura’s restrained style, and a super-fast Lover Come Back to Me which boasted a classic Hamilton filibuster solo.

Marty Grosz can always be relied on to do his homework, and his arrangements for his set entitled Songs You Thought You’d Never Hear – or Gold for Mouldies were typically colourful and catchy, and it was a treat to hear this superb eight-piece band playing them. Highlights included Cincinnati, which featured some superb solo work by the dynamic duo of Ken Peplowski (clarinet) and Enrico Tomasso (trumpet).

Since Warren Vache and Bill Charlap’s cornet-piano duet version of What’ll I Do has ruined me for any other, I guess Houston Person didn’t stand a chance. But he made sure of it by playing it at break-neck speed during his late-night set.. Luckily, the ballad to which he introduced me two tunes later more than made up for it: Why Did I Choose You? was the perfect showcase for his spare balladeering style and rich sound.

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John Bunch obituary

John Bunch, photographed at Nola Studios by Alan Nahigian, in October 2009, for Arbors Records

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 it 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.

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