Pianist John Bunch, who passed away at the age of 88 on March 30, was among the few pianists in history who not only made the transition from swing to modern jazz, but was instantly identifiable via his singular touch.
Bunch, who was a POW in a German war camp for six months during World War II, was a latecomer to jazz, but ultimately performed with the likes of Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and for six years, was Tony Bennett's musical director.
After hearing four bars of piano, you knew it was John Bunch. His touch was sparkling and his improvisations were inventive and devoid of cliches. And indeed, he was as much at home with Maynard and Al and Zoot as he was with the Gene Krupa Jazz Quartet, were he played along with Charlie Ventura from 1961 to 1964. His recordings as a leader in later years--and as a sideman with players like Scott Hamilton and Bucky Pizzarelli--proved that he had evolved as an improvisor and that he had come to virtually personify taste.
As a person, he was as honest and as refreshing as his playing. He allowed me to interview him at length for my first book on Gene Krupa, even though I had no publishing deal at the time.
In speaking about Gene, he wanted it known that Krupa's famed "showmanship," i.e., GK's physical and facial gyrations, were totally sincere. "He was the same guy in rehearsal as he was on the gig," Bunch told me, adding some comments about Gene's musicality. "I played years with both Buddy (Rich) and Gene," Bunch explained. "I don't know who you would want to play with night after night, but my choice would be Gene Krupa."
Around 1970, I had the great honor--as a relative youth--of playing several months with Charlie Ventura at a club in Philadelphia. One evening, after his gig backing Tony Bennett at The Latin Casino night club in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Bunch showed up to visit his old colleage in the Gene Krupa Jazz Quartet, Charlie Ventura.
Charlie, who may have had a beer or two by that late hour, introduced me to John Bunch--about 50 times--and then asked Bunch if he'd like to sit in. Charlie was using an organ player at that time, and Bunch, very politely, declined, telling Ventura that he was not an organ player. I would estimate that Charlie asked John to sit in about 50 times, and that John politely declined about 50 times.
Our break was over, and Charlie, organist Count Lewis and I returned to the stand.
First thing that happens?
Charlie announces that John Bunch is in the audience and that he's going to sit in.
Bunch had no choice but to do so.
And while he was no organist by his own admission, he played his behind off, as he always did.
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