Pianist Ross Tompkins Dies at 68

Ross Tompkins, 68, the jazz pianist best known for his regular gig as part of the Tonight Show band, died of lung cancer June 29 in St. Augustine, Fla.

Although Tompkins was most popular as a member of Doc Severinsen’s ensemble on the Tonight Show for over 20 years, the pianist was also noted for stints in the 1960s with Eric Dolphy, Benny Goodman and Wes Montgomery and recordings like Scrimshaw and Live at Concord (1977).

Born in Detroit in 1938, Tompkins studied at the New England Conservatory and then moved to New York, where he appeared as part of the Al Cohn/Zoot Sims quintet and the Bob Brookmeyer/Clark Terry quintet, in addition to holding tenure as the Half Note’s house pianist. Tompkins moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and began performing with Louie Bellson, who was known for his previous work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Harry James. That same year, Tompkins joined the Tonight Show band, which he played in until Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson in 1992.

Tompkins led groups on a number of recordings, including Live at Concord (1977). On that album, Tompkins is joined by violinist Joe Venuti-who died in 1978, making it his final recording session-on interpretations of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “I Got It Bad,” “I Want to Be Happy” and “Dark Eyes.”

In 2001, Tompkins released his last album, Younger Than Springtime, a solo set featuring Great American Songbook tunes and covers of Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” and Artie Shaw’s “Moonray.”