John Bunch's hands in action, New York City, February 12, 2003
In June 2002, impresario/pianist George Wein threw a belated 80th birthday party for John Bunch at New York’s Danny Kaye Playhouse. I don’t remember the number, but there were probably about twenty other great pianists on stage, wishing well to one of jazz’ unsung heroes. I would be hard pressed to think of any pianist who’s had such a fine career, making exceptional music for half a century, with so little recognition.
I don’t remember the first time I heard John, he may have been at Downtown Sound on a session produced by someone else, but I wasn’t generally familiar with his work. For almost all the years I’d been in New York City, he’d either been Tony Bennett’s music director or with Benny Goodman and I’d never seen him with either artist. Those are, however, rather exceptional credentials. Then as now, there was nobody better at his craft than Tony Bennett and Benny Goodman was in a class by himself, even in the early 1970s.
The first time I worked with John was in May 1975. The third Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims project was about to be recorded, and John was set to hold down the piano chair, in a band that also included Milt Hinton and Bob Rosengarden. It may well have been that John was part of the group working with Joe at his Michael’s Pub engagement, but no matter the reason for his being part of the band, I was sufficiently impressed with his playing to suggest a solo piano project on the spot.
It turned out no one had ever asked John to make a solo recording. It certainly wasn’t lack of qualification, but probably no producer looked on John as a soloist, only as a guy who could conduct a major symphony orchestra for Tony Bennett, accompany him in a small group, or hold down the Goodman piano chair, which he’d done off and on since the late 1950s.
John wasn’t then, nor is he today, the kind of guy who’ll come up to you and say, “Please record me.” He won’t come up and say he has a great idea for a recording. When I asked him to consider a solo turn, he didn’t exactly jump at the chance, but said I had to think up a project that would make sense. So I thought about it, spoke with friends who knew John’s work and paid most attention to George Avakian, who suggested it might make sense to undertake a Kurt Weill project, something that would require a pianist with a fertile mind, someone who would work on some of the less familiar music in the Weill songbook, and come up with something special. George, of course, is a big Weill booster, and has been for half a century. But I liked the music as well and the thought of a project that would be a bit out of the ordinary, was appealing.
The first challenge was to get the music. I found a book of standards, but we wanted to go beyond that. George was close to Lotte Lenya and well-connected to a foundation that that propagated Weill’s work, so we were able to find sheet music of some of the more obscure songs from 1930s shows that opened and closed immediately, such as Johnny Johnson and Marie Galante.
The first recording session was pretty rough. John wanted to record on his own Steinway, at his West Side apartment. I put together the remote gear and headed north on a wet May day. I don’t remember how I managed to keep the Revox dry, but I did and set it up, along with two microphones in John’s living room. John played all afternoon for an audience of two, and we got some good takes, but not nearly enough for an album. We had to work around the rain. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but when the rain began coming down in chunks everything was put on hold.
The truth was, we didn’t expect to complete anything that day, except a handful of songs. John worked on all the most unfamiliar songs very carefully. That first session was just to capture the ones he felt were under his fingers. He wanted more time to work on the others, which is exactly what he did. We continued the sessions, once again at his apartment and then a couple of months later, at the newly renovated Downtown Sound, using my Steinway B, instead of John’s. There was a slight difference in sound, but we managed to equalize the various sessions so I still can’t tell which one was recorded where. Maybe John remembers.
The only thing I can tell is the difference between the 1975 recordings and the five that were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in 1991. I wanted to reissue the record as a CD, and asked John to pick out five more Weill tunes. He selected five good ones, played them with all the finesse and clarity I expected, and the LP was expanded by nearly twenty minutes for the CD release. And the sound was flawless because there is nobody like Rudy, a couple of others have come close, but no one has hand the consistency and longevity.
The original liner note by Lotte Lenya were simple and to the point. She said:
Since the Weill project was George Avakian’s suggestion in the first place, I urged him to write new notes for the CD, which are as well thought out as John’s performances. But about John, he said:
The two key words are tasteful and thoughtful. I’ve continued to work with John for over three decades. He was part of The Floating Jazz Festival at least a dozen times, appeared on numerous Chiaroscuro recordings, one which was recorded at the Festival, a rollicking sextet recording featuring Kenny Davern, Joe Temperley, Joe Cohn, Michael Moore and Joe Ascione. He was the star of the recording and I can say that because I believe it, but I’m also pretty sure none of those five guys, all of whom also played extremely well, will read my ramblings about pianists. But John was exceptional and was 79 when he made the recording, doing his best to control a tough Steinway D, rocking on the Queen Elizabeth 2, in the middle of the Atlantic. His ideas were fresh and flawlessly executed; not a cliché to be heard anywhere, and that’s hard to do when you’er mainly playing standards with a loosely organized band in a concert hall setting, trying to get it right on the first take.
I offered him a solo project in 2001 or maybe it was 2002, involving Noel Coward. John worked at it for a while, but it just didn’t work. The songs were fine, but most of Coward’s songs were best suited to the stage and not to interpretations by a jazz pianist. So we thought a little more and came up with a concept that evolved into An English Songbook, which was recorded in 2003.
The CD was a companion to John Eaton’s Made In America, an album that featured jazz standards by non-American composers. In An English Songbook, John picked songs that have been played extensively in the United States, but which were written by English composers. It only made sense that John feature English composers, he made his first visit to that country in 1944, courtesy of the USAAF. He didn’t remain for long; he was shot down over Leipzig and sat out the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. But now he’s back in that country at least four months each year.
We enjoyed making the record so much that within a couple of months we were back at the studio to record Tony’s Tunes. This CD also had a theme, songs associated with Tony Bennett. John was Tony’s music director and conductors back in the 1960s, and thought it would be a cinch to come up with some good tunes associated with Tony. We added Bucky Pizzarelli and Jay Leonhart to make a trio and recorded fourteen songs in what seemed like fourteen minutes. It was a flawless performance by John and his pals. Tony wandered into the studio during a late night playback and gave the project his blessing, along with permission to reproduce a charming drawing he’d made of John a few years earlier.
It’s all worked out so far. John is now 86 and still as graceful and imaginative as ever. I get emails every so often, usually warning me of an internet virus or an upcoming performance. His most recent turned up in January 2007; announcing he was playing Billy Stayhorn compositions of Strayhorn’s piano. I stole a couple of hour and sat in the back row. He sounded wonderful and I wasn’t surprised.
Note: I wrote the above in 2008 and see no reason to change anything other than to say that John played well right up to the end. He preformed with Bucky and Jay in early March and died on the 30th of that month. I realize it is written from the standpoint that John is still alive, but why change that. Put on one of his CDs and he’ll come alive in an instant.
John Bunch, New York City, February 12, 2003