The late John Bunch is best remembered as an elegant trio pianist. But back in the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s, John played fearlessly in some of the best big bands still touring and recording. The list includes one of the most revered band recordings of the late 1950s, Maynard Ferguson's A Message From Newport. That's his piano on there swinging away on intros and breaks. [Photo of John Bunch in 2003 by Hank O'Neal]
Last year when I interviewed John, I asked him whether he had heard himself recently on the Ferguson album or on Urbie Green's The Message (1959). John said, "No, but wow, now you've got me excited. I'll have to listen to them." So I made him copies. When I saw him at Small's in New York months later, we were talking between sets and he said to me softly, "I was pretty good on those, wasn't I?" And how.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with John, the pianist talks about his big band recordings and the pianists who most influenced his style:
JazzWax: How did you wind up recording on A Message From Newport with Maynard Ferguson in 1958?
John Bunch: I don’t remember how I got that job. Mostly luck, I think. I sort of knew Hank Jones. Hank had played with Maynard at Birdland with the Dream Band. Hank helped me when I came to New York by getting me gigs. I had just come to town and was hanging out at musicians’ hangouts. He and I wound up playing later with Benny Goodman.
JW: Did you flinch when you saw the Message from Newport arrangements?
JB: Not really. Maynard had three really good arrangers in the band. Slide Hampton did the modern stuff. Don Sebesky [pictured] did the mid-tempo material. And Willie Maiden wrote the ballads. Maynard had it covered.
JW: Do you recall anything about the band?
JB: I remember how exciting it was when we went down to Newport, R.I., to the festival to perform. Miles, Ella, Duke—everybody was there digging it.
JW: You didn’t record another album with Ferguson.
JB: In those days he didn’t have that much work. We’d go to Buffalo or Boston and then Hartford over a weekend and that would be it. Then there were no gigs for 10 days or so. It wasn’t a full-time band. But the crowds loved him, and we played a lot at Birdland.
JW: What was Ferguson like?
JB: Maynard was good to me. He gave me more solos than a lot of bandleaders would have. Songs opened with me racing along on piano or there were open stretches in songs. Maynard was a brilliant musician. You had to look up to him. He not only was a high-note player but he could play with the trumpet section as well.
JW: How good was he?
JB: Very. One night, we were invited to his apartment on the Upper West Side to a party before going to work at Birdland, our regular gig. But when we got to the club, it turned out he had forgotten his mouthpiece back at his place.
JW: What happened?
JB: One of the guys threw him a mouthpiece and said, “Try this one.” Most trumpet players would be uptight about that. They’re sensitive about using only their own mouthpieces. But Maynard had no choice. He just popped it into his horn and played the exact same way.
JW: Do you recall Urbie Green’s The Message in 1959?
JB: Not vividly. I remember that studio work had died down a lot by then so Urbie was playing more jazz. Urbie was a great jazz player and he was able to read anything and play it with feeling the first time down. One take and the music was recorded perfectly. But the demand for that kind of recording work had slowed by the late 1950s. The music was changing.
JW: But if you were playing with studio guys, you’re a better sight-reader than you’re letting on.
JB: Oh, I caught up [laughs]. I had taken lessons from different teachers over the years.
JW: Was the Rich vs. Roach recording in 1959 really the rivalry that Mercury Records made it out to be?
JB: No, not at all. Buddy was a strange guy with his temper and all that, but he always seemed to respect other drummers. Max and Buddy got along just fine. I remember when I was with Buddy in a small group, we worked opposite Max at Birdland. At the time of the Rich vs. Roach recording in 1959, Max didn’t have a piano player so that job fell to me for both Buddy and Max’s tracks. Both bands were set up in the studio pretty much the way they wanted to, which was a unusual because you were usually at the mercy of these sound guys.
JW: Benny Goodman loved your sense of time when you joined his band in 1960.
JB: Benny also was very good to me. I don’t know where all the horror stories about him come from. I didn’t see any of that. He was very considerate. When Benny asked me to join the band, I knew that all of these wonderful pianists had been with him, like Teddy Wilson and Mel Powell. I said to Benny, “ I have to tell you right now, I’m not a good sight-reader. If you want a classically trained player, then I might not be right for you.”
JW: What did he say?
JB: Benny kind of liked that. He liked my honesty. I’d always tell him the truth. Sometimes he didn't like that. But he appreciated that quality about me.
JW: Did you enjoy playing with Goodman?
JB: It was incredible. I had always loved his first band. It was the most exciting thing I had heard in the 1930s. It was a full band but sounded like a small combo. It had the tightness of a three or four piece group. That was amazing.
JW: Are you happy with your playing now?
JB: I’ve always envied guys with a lot of technique. I’m more of a natural player. If I had more technique, I would probably play like Art Tatum. And if I could play like Tatum, I wouldn’t be playing the way I do now [laughs]. I never could approach that level of playing. I just play the way I play.
JW: You make it sound like your style is born from limitation.
JB: I guess it does sound that way. My first inspirations were pianists who had a lighter touch. Like Count Basie and Teddy Wilson [pictured]. I was influenced by them. Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan were influenced by them, too.
JW: Do you miss your big band days?
JB: Not much, no.
JW: Why not?
JB: The traveling and one-nighters could take it out of you. It was a tough life and certainly not for an older person. I always liked big bands, more so than most piano players. I just liked to hear them play. I’d even go to hear rehearsal bands at the musicians’ union in New York. Later on the bands rehearsing weren’t in the same class as the ones I had been in, but it was still a thrill. They were big bands. When you play in one, the feeling you get never leaves your system.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Benny Goodman's small band on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 playing The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise. The band included Jack Sheldon (tpt), Urbie Green (tb), Jerry Dodgion (as), Flip Phillips (ts) Jimmy Wyble (gt), John Mosher (b) and John Markham (dm). In addition to stunning solos by Goodman and Red Norvo on vibes, that's John Bunch on piano keeping everyone on time...