Saturday, April 3, 2010

R.I.P.: John Bunch

(born on December 1st, 1921, Tipton, Indiana, USA;
died on March 30, 2010, New York, NY, USA)
John Bunch, Pianist with Goodman and Bennett, Dies at 88
by Nate Chinen
New York Times, April 2, 2010

John Bunch, a jazz pianist whose elegant style led to prominent sideman posts with Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett as well as an accomplished solo career, died on Tuesday in Manhattan, where he lived. He was 88.

His death, at Roosevelt Hospital, was caused by melanoma, said Cecily Gemmell, his wife and only immediate survivor.

Mr. Bunch was one of a handful of pianists who made a successful transition from swing to bebop in the 1940s, though he never lost his feeling for swing nor his admiration for Teddy Wilson, one of its piano paragons. His main outlet in recent years was a trio called New York Swing, with the guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and the bassist Jay Leonhart, which played regularly in New York and Europe, releasing albums on different record labels.

Born in Tipton, Ind., on Dec. 1, 1921, Mr. Bunch caught the jazz bug early, idealizing the piano sound of Fats Waller. He studied with George Johnson, a pianist of Walleresque style and local renown, before coming to favor the smoother approach of Wilson, who played with Goodman. By age 16, Mr. Bunch was hitching rides to another town, to sit in with musicians at the Black Elks lodge. He was a working musician in his own right by the outbreak of World War II.

He joined the Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a bombardier. During a B-17 Flying Fortress run over Germany on Nov. 2, 1944, his bomber was shot down and he became a prisoner of war. He spent the next six months in a camp, until its liberation in late April.

After the war, his intention was to enroll in music school, but he was stymied by a lack of classical training. Instead he became a speech major at Indiana University -- and an extracurricular student of bebop, which by then was in full force. Intrigued by its harmonic and rhythmic complexities, he found a new hero in the bebop pianist Bud Powell. And he found work in Indianapolis, connecting with bebop-savvy musicians like the guitarist Wes Montgomery.

In the 1950s Mr. Bunch, seeking greater opportunity in Los Angeles, joined the Woody Herman Orchestra. He followed Herman to New York and stayed there, transitioning into Goodman's band. He also worked in groups led by the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and the drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, though his longest stretch would be with Mr. Bennett, with whom he worked as pianist and musical director for six years.

The subtlety and sensitivity that Mr. Bunch brought to the art of accompaniment, coupled with an almost self-effacing nature, may have prevented him from reaching greater stardom. But he was busy in his last decades, making well-regarded albums and playing to appreciative audiences. His final gig, with New York Swing, was on March 11.
(John Bunch & Tony Bennett)

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