When pianist Billy Taylor asked fellow keyboard legend George Shearing in 1984 how he developed the "Shearing Sound," Shearing said he sandwiched the styles of two different musicians. Recalled Shearing: "When I came back to the States [in late 1947], I went to all of the big talent agencies. They seemed determined to make another Alec Templeton out of me. But I didn't want to do what I had already done. [Audiences] didn't need the English Art Tatum, or the English Fats Waller, or the English Teddy Wilson. They already had the real ones. Then I heard Milt Buckner [pictured] playing the blues with the locked hands style. My arrival in the locked hands style came from adapting Buckner—and Glenn Miller."
Bandleader Glenn Miller you know. Buckner, on the other hand, may be a bit of a question mark. Recently I had dinner with a jazz pianist friend who is quite knowledgeable about the history of the jazz piano, particularly the players of the 1930s and 1940s. When I asked if he was familiar with Buckner, he drew a blank. And little wonder. For much of the 1940s Buckner was tucked away in Lionel Hampton's band. In the 1950s he played an r&b organ. And in the 1960s and beyond he was in Europe.
But Buckner (1915-1977) is important—and spectacular. Graced with a fearless keyboard technique, Buckner was the father of the impossibly difficult "locked hands" style. Unlike most pianist greats of the 1940s, who favored some variation of stride or bebop, Buckner didn't quite fit into either style. Instead, he was more of an early r&b pioneer, shooting for the listeners' feet rather than the head or heart.
A pianist who employs the locked hands style keeps his or her hands close together, almost touching, and plays dense chords in unison along the melody line. The result is hypnotic, as in Buckner and Shearing's case. Red Garland also made great use of the style, merging it with Count Basie's spare swing approach to create a contrast. And many seasoned pianists today, like John Bunch, toss in block chords to add density and, yes, huge excitement.
Buckner spent the 1930s as an arranger for McKinney's Cotton Pickers and played piano with various Detroit bands. He joined Lionel Hampton's orchestra in November 1941 as pianist and arranger, and he remained with the vibraphonist for seven years. His percussive locked hands style raised his visibility in the band, and his foot-stomping arrangements for Hampton helped give the orchestra its early r&b feel. In 1948, Buckner formed his own band but soon returned to Hampton in 1950, staying until 1952. After Buckner left Hampton, he toured as a leader of small r&b-jazz groups, working consistently in Europe from the late 1960s onward, often with drummer Jo Jones and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.
While Buckner's locked hands style in the late 1940s influenced George Shearing, it was his funky and rambunctious organ style in the early and mid-1950s that transformed a generation of players. Buckner's influence can be heard in players as varied as Wild Bill Davis, Don Paterson and Charles Earland. He also had an enormous impact on Booker T. and the MG's, the 1960s Stax Records' house band. The MGs' hit Green Onions is purely derivative of Buckner's riffy organ-groove style.
Though Buckner never had a pop hit, his best known recording among organ aficionados probably is The Beast, which appeared on the Rockin' Hammond of Milt Buckner for Capitol Records in 1956. On that obscure track, Buckner developed a lasting r&b groove, overdubbing a jazzy piano and creating one of the first jazz-soul instrumentals. The Beast most recently surfaced in 2001 on the soundtrack to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.
While Buckner's early piano and late-career organ playing is well represented on CD, only one album available today shows off his locked hands technique. That CD is Block Chords Parade (1974), and it knocks me out. Joining Buckner on the date was bassist Major Holley and drummer Jo Jones. Just listen to his rolling attack on Time After Time, Johnny May and Nola. And dig those hands hammering out block chords triplets, which create the same effect as hands cupped over a harmonica.
Buckner may not be a household name to most jazz fans, but he should be. If we step back and put the pianist in perspective, he influenced the Shearing sound, launched the soul-jazz sound, and inspired Stax' funky edge. Hopefully many of his 1950s Capitol piano and organ albums will be reissued on CD.
JazzWax tracks. You're in luck. Block Chords Parade is available as a download at iTunes or as a CD here. If you love jazz, just download it. I guarantee you're going to go nuts when you hear Buckner's playing. The entire album provides a breathtaking example of the pianist's strength and creative consistency. Most of all your foot won't stop moving and your ears won't believe what they're hearing as his hands race together all over the keyboard. Buckner's style is long gone now but it reaches back to a time when pianists were tasked with motivating an entire band of road-weary musicians—three or four times a day. For more on Milt Buckner, go here.
JazzWax clip: To hear how great Buckner was on the soul organ, dig this clip recorded in France in 1975 with Illinois Jacquet and Jo Jones. Dig Jacquet's Lester Young impersonation at the outset, before he drops Prez and launches into vintage Jacquet. Most of all, dig Buckner showboating with one hand. If your foot isn't moving, call the doctor...