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Joe Temperley Obituary

Jazz 2012 004Joe Temperley, who has died at the age of 88, was a giant of the baritone saxophone and the first Scottish jazz musician to make it on the New York scene. In a career which spanned seven decades, he worked his way through the best British dance and jazz bands before moving to New York and doing the same there, serving in no less prestigious an organisation than the Duke Ellington Orchestra and, later, its closest modern-day equivalent – Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

That Temperley was regarded as an integral part of that ensemble’s sound and success was obvious even before he was honoured with a concert in his name last year. Wynton Marsalis told one magazine: “It’s difficult to express in words the depth of respect and admiration we have for Joe. And it’s not just about music. It’s also a personal, a spiritual thing. His approach is timeless. And he’s the center of our band.”

In addition to his long association with that band, Temperley was also an educator who taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, and was a guest mentor for the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra during his regular visits back to Scotland where he kept up with his extended family and the jazz community here. In the hours after his death was announced on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook was flooded with heartfelt messages from students who had benefitted from Temperley’s teaching.

Until old age and ill health took their toll, Temperley was a big, physically imposing figure who seemed physically to embody the history which he represented; a history that spanned the dance band era, the big bands, bebop – and was peppered with musical and social encounters with such icons as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, in whose final concert he played.

His burly figure, often gruff manner and stern appearance could make grown men – such as his favourite UK pianist, Brian Kellock – quiver in their boots. In the jazz room at Hospitalfield House in Abroath, a large photo of Temperley hangs on the wall behind the bandstand. Its subject appears to glower over in the direction of the piano. “It’s really quite disconcerting,” says Kellock, “even though, once I got to know him, I discovered that he was really a big softie.”

The cumbersome baritone saxophone was an appropriate instrument for a towering figure such as Temperley – but it wasn’t cumbersome in his hands. Famously, he could coax the most tender and romantic sounds out of it (fellow saxophonist and jazz educator Tommy Smith yesterday compared the Temperley sound to “sweet velvet”) – as exemplified in recent years on his chosen Scottish encore, an unaccompanied performance of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose in which the melody was caressed in such a gentle and exquisite way that you knew he was singing the words in his head. It stopped the show every time.

The son of a bus driver, Joseph Temperley was born in the mining town of Lochgelly, in Fife, in 1927. The second youngest of five children, he left school at the age of 14 when his mother secured him a job in a butcher’s shop. By this time, he was already playing cornet alongside his elder brother, Bob, in the Cowdenbeath Brass Band – and it was Bob who bought the youngster his first saxophone, an alto, so he could join his dance band. As Temperley liked to tell it later, he had six months of lessons and then ended his musical education because, by that point, he could play better than the teacher. “All the stuff that I learned, I learned by doing,” he said.

The teenage Temperley formed a band called the Debonairs, in which he played tenor sax. Speaking in 2010, he recalled: “I had a horse and cart and I would go round all the villages during the day, trying to sell meat. Then at night I’d play sax in dance bands!”

When the Debonairs took part in a dance band competition organised by Melody Maker, Temperley’s talent was spotted and he was invited to play with the winning band. At the age of 17, he left Lochgelly for the bright lights of Glasgow where he played at the Piccadilly Club on Sauchiehall Street for 18 months.

During the days, he would augment his earnings by playing snooker. “The guys in Glasgow thought that I was just some country boy from Fife and they would be able to take a few bob off me – but they didn’t know that I had been playing snooker at the Miners’ Welfare for years. The days were quite profitable for me!”

When Tommy Sampson’s band, one of the most popular of the period, came to play at Green’s Playhouse, Temperley went along for an audition and was signed up on the spot. Not yet 20 years old, he moved to London to take the tenor chair in the Sampson band – “the first time I was in a band that was sort of regimented”. He then joined the Harry Parry band, with which he had his first experience of foreign travel, then moved onto Joe Loss’s band, then Jack Parnell’s and Tony Crombie’s (with Annie Ross on vocals) before settling into what turned out to be eight year stint with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, during which he switched to the baritone sax. “That was the start of my professional career,” he later said. “The rest was incidental.”

With “Humph,” Temperley met many top American musicians – Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Anita O’Day. “The first time I came across iced tea was when Cannonball Adderley ordered it,” he recalled in 2010. “I thought: ‘what’s that?’!”

Temperley’s first taste of New York, the epicentre of jazz, was with Lyttelton’s band in August 1959. “I arrived wearing a Harris tweed jacket. It was so hot, I’d sit in the bath all day and only go out at night!’ After returning from three weeks in jazz heaven, Temperley was desperate to get back – and in December 1965 he did so, permanently.

After six months without a gig, Temperley was approached by Woody Herman to join his band for a series of one-nighters, but after two years on the road, he had had enough and returned to New York where he freelanced quite contentedly for several years, with a regular gig with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra every Monday at the famous Village Vanguard club. He met everyone there. “Miles Davis came in two or three times. And Charlie Mingus, André Previn, Bill Evans. People from the Ellington band. Monday night was a big social scene, and some marvellous people came down there.”

In the early 1970s, he worked with Frank Sinatra – an experience he alluded to during An Evening With Joe Temperley, a special duo concert-cum-trip-down-memory-lane he gave with Brian Kellock at the 2010 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. When Kellock interrupted Temperley’s roll call of stars he had met to ask if Sinatra was a nice guy, the audience got a typically frank reply: “The bass player who worked with him for 20 years was leaving the band. As he left, he said to Sinatra ‘I’m off’. And Frank Sinatra replied: ‘I don’t talk to the help.’!”

A change of direction came in October 1974 when the pastor of the Lutheran Church on 54th Street, the church which serves New York’s jazz community, asked Temperley to play at the funeral of Harry Carney, the great baritone saxophonist who had played in Duke Ellington’s band for 45 years.

“I played Sophisticated Lady at Harry’s funeral – and that’s how I got the job replacing him in the Ellington band,” recalled Temperley as he introduced that number at the 2010 jazz festival. Temperley spent ten years in the Ellington band – by now run by Mercer Ellington – before becoming one of the original members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1990; a gig which he described as being “like a real job with health benefits, dental benefits, a pension”.

Until relatively recently, he was still touring the world with the orchestra. Latterly, he claimed that the only thing that troubled him about the sax was carrying it. Despite his obvious frailty, he turned in a series of terrific and surprisingly robust performances, switching between the baritone and the bass clarinet during a mini tour with Brian Kellock which turned out to be his final visit to Scotland in March 2015.

* Joe Temperley, jazz saxophonist and educator, born September 20 1927; died May 11 2016.
Joe Temperley and meText and photos (c) Alison Kerr, 2016.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman

Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman – The Four Brothers, Queen’s Hall, Thursday July 28th  ****  

American clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski’s five-day stint in Edinburgh came to a spectacular and exhilarating conclusion on Thursday when he assumed directorship of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra for a programme of music from the Woody Herman bandbook.

In the hands of some musicians, staging a programme of music from a famous big band could be akin to giving a live history lesson, but the quick-witted and charismatic Peplowski injected so much fun into the proceedings, and directed the band with such enthusiasm, that the whole concert was hugely entertaining. The schtick, between numbers, was Peplowski the stand-up at his best.

He neatly put one heckler in his place by commenting that the “first big band this guy heard was Beethoven’s”, and introduced drummer Stu Ritchie as “the winner of the 2011 EJF Robert Shaw look-alike award,” adding “we’re particularly proud of him because he won in both the ‘drunk’ and ‘sober’ catgegories”.

Peplowski was clearly energised by the reception he received both from the audience and the musicians with whom he had obviously enjoyed working through the week. This was a tight, polished band and the ensemble playing was terrific – Hallelujah Time and Bijou being stand-outs.

There was a tendency in many of the horn solos to blast and squeal, but some non-blasters and squealers stood out, among them Colin Steele, who contributed an eloquent muted solo to Opus de Funk, and Jay Craig whose baritone stole the show on Four Brothers. Pianist Dave Milligan was also in great form. Peplowski, disappointingly, wasn’t featured much, but he did turn in a magnificent extended solo clarinet version of Body and Soul.

(First published in The Herald, Monday August 1st)

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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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