Knowing Bernard (Peiffer)

Remembering the late, unsung jazz piano genius

Pianist Bernard Peiffer and saxophonist Charlie Ventura, other than being Philadelphians (Charlie born and bred, Bernard settling here in 1954 from France) would seem to have little in common. The common denominator? Bernard and Chaz were two players that I idolized so much, that I became dedicated to 1)being their friend; 2)playing drums with them. I'm blessed to have accomplished both.

I first became aware of Bernard via my dating of the daughter of Philadelphia record executive, Alan Sussell. I went out with his daughter, Laurie. "Laurie Records"--named for Alan's daughter-- released two LPs by Bernard, with the titles being "Can Can" and "Modern Jazz for People who Like Original Music." In that I was a faithful reader of Down Beat magazine, I knew of Bernard's history--he was a star in France--and that Dave Brubeck, no less, identified Bernard as Erroll Garner in one of Down Beat's famous Blindfold Tests.

Years later, when Al Stauffer, Bernard's bassist, the legendary teacher and guru Al Stauffer, joined the "All-Star Jazz Trio" with Andy Kahn and yours truly, I became more aware of Bernard, his talents and his contributions. Bernard wasn't working much in the early 1970s, but whenever Bernard and Al appeared (first with drummer Jimmy Paxon and later with drummer Billy Jones) within 100 miles of where I lived, I was there, often with tape recorder in hand.

Al brought Bernard in to the center city Philadelphia restaurant where Kahn and I were playing, and Bernard sat in. I was heavy into my Krupa and Rich mode back then, with a bass drum as big as a house. I gave it my best shot, but it must have sounded--to Bernard, anyway--like I was a refugee from a drum and bugle corp. That same description, by the way, was used to describe Buddy Rich's work on record with Thelonious Monk.

Bernard Peiffer had a long memory. He never forgot that night, my playing and the big bass drum. In the beginning, he never took to my friend Andy Kahn. I don't think Bernard was thrilled that Andy was working a lot back then and that his performances in those days were on the extroverted side.Mine were, too, and it just couldn't be helped. We were selling youth and excitement. Later on,Bernard's feelings about Andy changed, as Andy recounts in his as-yet-unpublished memoir. In brief, Kahn and I went to hear Bernard, Al and Jimmy Paxon in concert at a community center on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.

Much to everyone's horror, the piano provided for Bernard was not in working order. If memory serves, I believe the pedals didn't work. Indignant--and pissed--Bernard refused to play. It was Andy Kahn who saved the day. He somehow found some scraps of metal and wood in the backstage area, got a couple of tools out of his car, jumped on stage and under that piano, and got the darn thing into working order in no time. Bernard played and ultimately, his whole attitude toward Andy Kahn changed. Some months later, Andy hosted a private party at his Society Hill apartment, with the guest of honor being Bernard. Bernard and Andy both played that night.

The Bernard and Al Duo got a weird gig, which lasted for some months, at the Steak and Brew, near Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I was there every night they were. I remember the newspaper ad hyping their appearance, which read, "Sing and Dance with Bernard Peiffer." I used to kid Bernard by asking, "What time does the dancing start?"

A short time after Al Stauffer joined our trio, he took Andy Kahn and I under his wing in an attempt to open our ears to more modern music. We played with Al nightly and studied with him daily. I also resumed percussion study, with Al's teaching partner, Lenny Neri. The whole idea, I was told--or perhaps I just believed--was that I was being groomed to take over Jimmy Paxon's drum chair with Bernard.

In time, I began to understand and internalize "modern music," a.k.a. the sounds of players like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, and naturally, Bernard. Bernard and I became very, very close. He used to call me at home at least three nights a week, complaining about the lack of work, asking me why, and suggesting that I do what I can to help him. On the musical side, I heard him play so often and was studying the "how to play modern jazz drums" course so diligently, that I began to understand his music and what a drummer could do to enhance it.

To my ears, no player--and I mean no player in history--surpassed Bernard Peiffer in terms of pianistic technique. More significantly, in terms of his contributions, I maintain that along with pianist/composer John Lewis' group excursions into what was called "Third Stream," Bernard was the only soloist in the history of jazz to effectively combine jazz and classical music. If his sphere of influence was relatively small, it's only because what he did was nearly impossible.

Looking back, I think he needed a "percussionist" rather than a drummer, jazz or otherwise, perhaps someone who could combine the musicality of an Airto with the sensitive, interactive playing of a Paul Motion. I couldn't wait to try, but the drum chair was filled by a wonderful, Philadelphia drummer by the name of Billy Jones. With the encouragement of Bernard and Al, Billy grew into the job. It was not any easy one.

In his later days, he had a number of piano students, including Steve Goodman, Kahn, Uri Caine Tom Lawton and Don Glanden (Don has almost single-handedly helped perpetuate Bernard's memory via commercially issued recordings, academic papers, etc.). Edward Bottone, then owner of Philadelphia's Borgia Cafe', booked jazz regularly in the early 1970s. Like many of us, he worshipped Bernard, and gave him steady work at the Borgia. His roster of students was healthy, and he again returned to the national spotlight by way of his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1974. He died on September 7, 1976 from kidney related ailments. He was a mere 53 years old.

Bernard did well for some years after he first moved to the states. He played the best places and was hyped enthusiastically by the critical community, then led by Leonard Feather. What happened?

Theories still abound about why Bernard wasn't able to sustain his early successes. Should his base of operations have been New York or Los Angeles rather than Philadelphia? Could he have used better or more aggressive management? Was he asking for too much money? Was he too much the "idealist"? Was his playing "over the heads" of jazz fans?

While I don't know the definitive answer, if there is one, I do strongly suspect that Bernard Peiffer was a man way, way ahead of his time.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, none of Bernard Peiffer's commercially released recordings have been issued on CD. Fortunately, Don Glanden stepped forward a few seasons back, and in collaboration with Bernard's son, Stephan, produced and released a CD entitled "Formidable." This wonderful project consists of never-before released private tapes of Bernard's latter day, solo piano work. It is, as the title indicates, formidable. For further information, visit

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Bruce Klauber