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John Bunch On Piano Jazz

Pianist John Bunch was born in Tipton, Ind., a small farming community north of Indianapolis. As a boy, he studied piano, and at 14, he was already playing with bands in central Indiana. During WWII, he served on a B17 Flying Fortress that was shot down over Germany. Bunch and his crew were taken captive, and while in a prison camp, he learned to arrange for big bands.

After the war, he returned home to Indiana, where he was refused entry to study music at college — he couldn't sight-read classical music. But he connected with Indiana-based jazz players like Wes Montgomery. In 1956, Bunch moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the Woody Herman orchestra. He followed Herman to New York, where he made the move to Benny Goodman's band. Bunch also worked with drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, but he spent his longest stint working as Tony Bennett's musical director from 1966-72. Bunch's late career was devoted to working in the New York Swing Trio alongside guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Jay Leonhart. John Bunch died earlier this year at age 88.

"John [Bunch] was always so complimentary of my playing, and quite generous," host Marian McPartland says. "He always sent me the music to tunes that I asked about over the years. The last time we played together was at Dizzy's before he fell ill. I miss him terribly."

Playing With Arthritic Abandon

Piano Jazz remembers Bunch on this 1991 session featuring tunes from a wide range of composers, including Ron Carter, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter.

Bunch opens this session with a couple of solo takes: Ron Carter's grooving "Twelve Plus Twelve" and the tender ballad "Something to Live For" by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

"That's such a catchy, quirky tune," McPartland says of the Carter tune. "Where did you learn it?"

"I heard Hank Jones play it down at the Village Vanguard one night," Bunch says. "I asked him what it was, and I got Ron to send me the music."

"That's one I should know," McPartland says. "Now I'm envious!"

The session continues with a duet on an early Sonny Rollins tune, "Doxy," from the 1954 Miles Davis outing Bag's Groove. The album featured Rollins on tenor along with vibes player Milt Jackson. Bunch and McPartland seem to have a blast trading solo lines in this tune, a bouncing bop groove typical of Rollins.

"I've never worked with Sonny, but I know him from working opposite him at Birdland," Bunch says. "He's a very nice man."

Bunch takes a break during McPartland's solo in "It's Too Late Now" and returns to the keyboard for a swift duet take on "Have You Met Miss Jones?" followed by Bunch's lovely solo tune, "Forget the Woman."

"You know, I can always tell it's you when it comes time for the piano solo on a recording," McPartland says. "You have certain things that you always do."

"Well, to quote Oscar Levant, 'I would say that I play with arthritic abandon,' " Bunch says.

McPartland takes a solo swing through another standard, "When I Fall in Love." The tune was originally a hit for Doris Day, and later recorded by Nat King Cole and others. McPartland performs beautifully and closes the tune with a shimmering coda.

The session ends with a duet on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" The pair keeps the rhythm swinging throughout, with McPartland taking an extended solo and Bunch inserting a few bebop quotes.

"I see who has the last word in this group," McPartland says. "Hey, that was a lot of fun!"

John Bunch died in Manhattan in 2010. He was 88 years old.

Originally recorded Feb. 20, 1991. Originally broadcast June 8, 1991.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grant Jackson
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