John Bunch liked to be underestimated. The courtly and congenial pianist who died last week at age 88 enjoyed projecting an everyman image and often made a point of telling people that he didn't have much technical training. But what John did have was something that most jazz musicians spend a lifetime trying to acquire—perfect rhythm and enormous taste in chord phrasing. And for a jazz pianist, that's pretty much all you need. With just those two skills, John could swing a trio as hard as big bands led by Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and Benny Goodman. [Photo of John Bunch by Brian Young]
I interviewed John last year but sadly we were unable to complete our conversation for one reason or another. The following interview sat untranscribed in my computer—until yesterday. Unfortunately John and I didn't reconnect on the phone. I wish now, of course, that I had made a renewed effort to do so. On the other hand, if John's life was about simplicity, brevity and swing, then perhaps this two-part interview is plenty. My only regret is that John didn't have a chance to see it posted.
Here's Part 1 of my two-part conversation with the late grandmaster of modern swing piano:
JazzWax: How did you ever learn to keep such amazing time and play so tastefully?
John Bunch: You either get it early or you don't. My teacher in Indiana when I was 11 years old was a working jazz piano player. He’d holler at me, “Beat your foot, man! You can’t just sit there without putting some excitement into it” [laughs]. There might be some of my former teacher in my time-keeping.
JW: Was he a good teacher?
JB: Yes, very good. He was a superb tap dancer and used to try to teach me rhythm. Rhythm comes first, he used to say. If you don’t have it, all the technique in the world won’t mean a thing. My style might have come out of that experience. My teacher introduced me to tap dancing, which in the 1930s was very popular. Whenever there was a band playing, there was a tap dancer there, which is why so many musicians of that era had such good time. My teacher drilled into me that rhythm is very important.
JW: After World War II, what did you do?
JB: I moved back to the small town where I grew up in Indiana. I took small playing jobs, but I couldn’t get much work there. So I worked in a factory on the assembly line making governors for tractors.
JW: Why did you do that?
JB: A friend of mine worked there. He said, “Anyone can do this work, it pays good and it’s a steady job.” I told him that I didn’t know anything about making governors. He said: “Don’t worry about it. They'll teach you the first week. If you have the ability and can learn that first week, they’ll keep you on. If not they’ll let you go.”
JW: How did you do?
JB: They kept me on for a year. Then I got a job in the office of an insurance company. This was in Indianapolis. I could walk to work from where I was living, so it was convenient. At the time, I began studying to be an underwriter.
JW: What changed your mind?
JB: In 1947 I decided to go to college under the G.I. Bill. I thought it best to take advantage of that. So I started attending Indiana University. But they wouldn’t let me into the music school in those days. They were very anti-jazz then. Plus I couldn’t read well enough to qualify on piano.
JW: What did you do?
JB: I took speech and radio broadcasting. I thought if I could get into radio, I could get a job playing piano or something. I wound up graduating in 1951 with a degree in arts and sciences.
JW: What next?
JB: I moved to Florida and worked down there some. Things were bad for jazz there in those days. At that point I started thinking about going back into the service after I was offered my commission again. I was in my early 30s then.
JW: Did you worry about your future?
JB: A little. My wife at the time and I had been married for 10 years and decided to split up. I went back to Indianapolis. Jazz had taken over the city and was booming for both white and black players. I fit right into the scene, which gave me a lot of confidence.
JW: Was that part of the problem early on, confidence?
JB: I think so. But by the time I returned to Indianapolis, if you had talent, one thing led to another. They let you sit in a band, and if the leader liked you, the next thing you know you were taking someone’s job away. That’s what happens.
JW: Did you stay in Indianapolis?
JB: For a little bit. I played with all these wonderful musicians there. Then in the mid-1950s, I moved to Los Angeles and started playing with name guys.
JW: What was the turning point for you?
JB: My second trip to Indianapolis, when jazz took over. People came out to support it and mixed bands emerged. I was so impressed to see a mixed band. Then getting to play with great players, which I had never done before. I was thrilled, and the experience gave me more confidence.
JW: Your first recording was a live performance by Woody Herman’s band in 1957.
JB: I think Jimmy Rowles got me that job. I had known Jimmy a little in Los Angeles. Or it might have been Leroy Vinnegar. I had played with him in Indianapolis.
JW: Was Herman a hard rehearser?
JB: Not really. In fact, Woody wasn’t much for rehearsals. He left it up to the guys to get things right. I remember someone wrote an arrangement and set up a rehearsal with the band. Woody wasn’t even there.
Tomorrow, John talks about recording with Urbie Green, Maynard Ferguson and Benny Goodman, and cites his two biggest piano influences.
JazzWax clip: Here's John Bunch playing I've Got the World on a String from Tony's Tunes (Chiaroscuro)...