Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jimmy Rowles: Sprinkling Jazz


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Long acknowledged as the favorite accompanist of every singer for whom he played, Rowles is an artist of consummate harmonic imagination.”
- Leonard Feather

“Jimmy Rowles is a pianist of refreshingly consistent taste and swinging invention ….”
- Nat Hentoff

“A few things about Rowles stood out from the start. He didn’t sound like anyone else; he knew more tunes than Sigmund Spaeth [a musicologist who traced the sources and origins of popular songs to their folk and classical roots] ; and he was, on occasion, droll in the way that only a grizzled hipster can be…. His own two chorus solo is of a sort no one else would attempt – a coherent montage of hammered single notes, offhanded dissonances, wandering arpeggios, abrupt bass walks, trebly rambles.”
- Gary Giddins

"Most of what I'm trying to say [about the importance of the melody] is nicely illustrated in a story about the great, unique pianist Jimmy Rowles, who knew as much about songs and harmony as anybody who ever lived. 

He was playing a piano-bass duet gig for a while and one night his regular bassist sent in a sub, who decided to try and impress the master with his knowledge of harmony by hitting him with a whole slew of super-hip bass notes and chord substitutions, playing everything but the kitchen sink. 

After a couple of tunes worth of this, and working on his second double vodka, Rowles turned to this Einstein of the bass with a glare and rasped 'I'm aware of the possibilities … let’s just play the f---ing song the way it goes and make some music, OK?'"
- Bassist Steve Wallace

The Carriage House was located at 3000 West Olive Avenue in Burbank California. This was the name of the restaurant and bar before pianist Bill Chadney bought it in the mid-1970’s and named it after himself – Chadney’s.

It was located just beyond the tip of a triangle formed by the intersection of Parish Place, Alameda and Olive Avenues.

Across Alameda Avenue and just slightly southwest of this man-made traffic nightmare are NBC’s television studios which were re-located to this site [3000 West Alameda] from their original location as part of NBC’s Radio City at the corner of Sunset & Vine in Hollywood, CA.


When these studios first came into existence around 1955, the network used them to create “live” programming for the West Coast [allowing for the time difference between Eastern and Pacific Daylight Time]. In 1962, they became NBC’s “Color City” [i.e.: color television studios] and ultimately the “home” for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and the many television specials of comedian, Bob Hope.

It’s amazing to reflect on the fact that I saw these [now massive] facilities come into and [soon to] go out of existence during my lifetime.

One of my closest friends in high school [who’s Dad worked there as an electrician] and I would ride our bikes to NBC and literally walk around back of the buildings and into it sound stages: no security guards, no locked doors, no alarm systems.

The initial structures looked like two, corrugated aluminum airplane hangers situated in the middle of a cow pasture. They didn’t even have signs on them. It has since become an immense complex replete with not one, but two, landing pads for helicopters.

All of these Burbank television production facilities and operations are scheduled to be re-located to nearby Universal Studios as the latter consolidates its ownership of NBC.

Needless to say, with good food and grog available right across the street, The Carriage House [and later, Chadney’s] became a regular haunt of many NBC stars, executives and employees.


In its early years, pianist Jimmy Rowles often worked at The Carriage House, usually with a bassist and a drummer, but sometimes, too, as a solo pianist.

Amongst the bassists were Bob West, Red Mitchell, John Simmons, and Monty Budwig and the drummers included Larry Bunker, Nick Martinis, Frankie Capp and Donald Bailey.

The atmosphere in the step-down bar area was always very relaxed and convivial, no doubt made possible by the generous drinks served up by its bar tenders who were usually pretty well-lubricated themselves.

The martinis came with olives that were almost as big as they glasses in which they were served, the draft beer wasn’t watered down and wine-by-the-glass was served out of the bottle that it came in.

The cocktail waitresses were respectful of the music, patrons who wanted to talk sat in the back of the lounge and musicians usually made up half of the audience on any given night [although usually during the later sets on the weekends].

Jimmy held forth at the well-tuned piano without much pomp and flash. He played a lot of Duke Ellington’s music, a smattering of Monk’s and just about the greatest collection of tunes from the American Song Book that I’d ever heard. I mean, the guy knew every tune ever written [in just about every key, too].

When listening to Jimmy, I always got the impression that he sprinkled Jazz: a few notes here, the odd phrase there . Kind of like a West Coast Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, and Jaki Byard all rolled up into one.

As Jazz author, Gary Giddins, describes in one of the introductory quotations that serve as a lead-in to this piece, Jimmy’s solos are often … “a coherent montage of hammered single notes, offhanded dissonances, wandering arpeggios, abrupt bass walks, trebly rambles.”

Gary goes on to observe: “Rowles is not an aggressive or showy player; he leaves lots of space, uses dynamics sparingly, and swings softly and at an even gait. What makes him remarkable is his ear for detail (the fills that make his accompaniment so stylish are no less disarming when he uses them to decorate his own solos), his depth of feeling (he could play a melody straight and make it sound like an improvisation), and his harmonic ingenuity (he rarely attacks a chord head-on, preferring dense substitutions or oblique angles). His repertory is immense and arcane ….” [Visions of Jazz, excerpted from pages 535-536].


To paraphrase, Doug Ramsey: “Jimmy Rowles is as uninhibited, witty, and earthy a pianist as he is a storyteller. [His] music is complex, fascinating, often hilarious. Nobody knows as many obscure tunes as Jimmy.”

Here’s another take on Jimmy and the qualities he expressed through his music from vocalist and pianist, Diana Krall, who studied with him for a number of years:

“Jimmy Rowles was not flashy, but he was incredibly complex harmonically in his knowledge, which extended from popular music in general to Debussy and Ravel in particular.

The way he played and sang was very, very subtle, and the beauty of the music came through in the way he played and sang songs like Poor Butterfly, Nature Boy, or How Deep Is the Ocean. Those things sunk in while I was there, but I'm still processing that, and coming to terms with his whole artistry.

But the other thing he taught me was not to take myself too seriously, even though I took the music itself very seriously." [As told to Gene Lees, JazzLetter, Vol. 18, No.. 5, May 1999].

You got mesmerized listening to Jimmy. In his solos, he sometimes juxtaposed a variety of piano styles from ragtime and stride to the most sophisticated, modern piano chord substitutions. All of this complexity was interspersed in such a way that Jimmy constantly kept the listener guessing as to what was coming next.

You began to listened to Jimmy play piano out of fascination and a fair amount of amusement, but when you’d finished listening to him play, you shook your head in admiration at the totality of his musical expression.

Jimmy used space and pace in a very controlled manner; you could almost hear him thinking about what not to include in his solos!

Although he performed mainly as an accompanist to Jazz vocalists and in trio, duo and solo settings for most of his career, one of Jimmy’s earliest recordings under his own name was with a septet for which he and Bill Holman did the arrangements.


The recording – Weather in a Jazz Vane: The Jimmy Rowles Septet – has always been one of my favorites. Originally issued in 1958 as an Andex LP [S3007], it is also available in a digital format as VSOP #48.

On it, Jimmy is joined by Lee Katzman on trumpet, Bob Enevoldsen on valve trombone, Her Geller on also sax, Bill Holman on tenor and baritone sax and a rhythm section made up of Monty Budwig on bass and Mel Lewis on drums.

Aside from the superbly arranged and performed tunes which all have, not surprisingly, weather related titles [e.g.: The Breeze and I, Heat Wave and Some Other Spring, the album offers the additional treat of the following liner notes as written by the late drummer and club owner, Shelly Manne.

“Musicians have a way of using words in a sense totally different from their everyday usage. One of these words is "Beautiful".

Where most people use the word to describe an outward appearance that is pleasing to the eye, the musician uses it to describe the inner person.

I know of no person who deserves this description more than JIMMY ROWLES.

Musicians, familiar with his playing, have long hailed him as one of the great jazz pianists and are often dis­turbed by the lack of recognition given him. Anyone who hears him, considers his playing beautiful in any sense of the word.

Jimmy is quiet with a quick wit and large sense of humor. These things are in his playing. He is honest and unaffected. These qualities are also evident in his playing.

He is a master of understatement and every time he plays something it has meaning. His taste is uncanny and with all his subtleness he swings hard through his perfect sense of time and his intensity; and of course one very important thing: he loves to play.

There is a sort of hidden code among some rhythm section players on record dates, where the band is so spread out that we can't feel the time or hear each other too well, to follow Jimmy's foot and it will straighten everything out.

He is a walking music library. He knows more old tunes (standards and jazz originals) and more new tunes (standards and jazz originals) than any other musician I've ever known.

All the qualities of Jimmy's playing are carried over into his writing. He is wonderfully original whether he is writing arrangements on standards or compositions of his own, for large orchestras or small groups.

Jimmy was born in Spokane, Wash. August 19, 1918. He started playing piano during his freshman year at Gonzaga College.

He first became interested in jazz piano when he heard Teddy Wilson on a Benny Goodman trio record. He was so impressed that he bought as many B.G. records with Teddy on them as he could find. Needless to say Teddy was his first influence.

Jimmy says that although he loves the feel of the rhythm section, over the past years he has been more influ­enced by horn men than piano men.

In 1938, after Mr. Wilson lit the fire, Jimmy made a trip to nearby Seattle to hear Duke Ellington's band. Jimmy says "especially to hear Ben Webster." He not only got to hear him, but they became close friends, a friendship that is just as strong today. Ben encouraged and gave Jimmy confidence. I know what this meant for Jimmy because a few years later Ben did the same for me.

Jimmy went back home from Seattle with a picture of Ben under his arm. He displayed it in a place of honor in "the front room of the house."

When Jimmy finally left the Northwest in 1940 he was undecided whether to go to New York or Los Angeles. He chose L.A. because it was closer and "at least I wouldn't freeze to death down there."

After a period of unemployment and just listening to what was happening jazz-wise, he joined a group headed by Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart, known to the public at that time as "Slim & Slam." From that group he joined the small band of Lee & Lester Young. It was during this time around 1942 that I first heard Jimmy play.

All the talk among jazz musicians then was about this new piano player with Prez. Jim spent about nine months with this group.

After that he joined Benny Goodman's band, then Woody Herman. From Woody's band he went into the army. After his discharge from the service he rejoined Woody until the band broke up.


It was then that he decided to stay in L.A. and freelance, doing studio work and record dates. Jimmy was in great demand as a vocal accompanist, working with such singers as Evelyn Knight, Betty Hutton, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, for whom he still does a lot of work. He has also done some vocal coaching.

Jimmy started writing while he was in the army but went through a period, when he rejoined Woody, of not writing at all. Says Jimmy, "Woody's arrangement's were so good I was afraid to submit any of my work for fear it wouldn't be liked." I'm sure that if Jimmy hadn't been so modest a great many of his charts would be remembered in the list of the "Herd's" classics. Of course now, even though he is still modest, Jimmy does a good deal of writing, not only for jazz dates but vocal backgrounds and T.V. shows as well.

Duke Ellington was Jim's major inspiration in writing. He also likes the work of Gil Evans and Bill Holman with whom he shared arranging honors on this album.
I mentioned earlier Jimmy's vast repertoire of tunes old and new. On this album he chose a few beauties dat­ing back quite a ways. "Throwin" Stones At The Sun," "Too Hot For Words", and 'Some Other Spring."

This album was built around Jimmy's piano playing. His arrangements of "Throwin’ Stones", "When The Sun Comes Out", "The Breeze and I", and "Some Other Spring" emphasize his originality, especially on "The Breeze and I" where the form is unusual. Also obvious is his penchant for just writing and playing what is need­ed to make good, sound, musical sense. The scores are uncluttered, with much clarity and plenty of room for improvisation.

His humor comes to the fore on "Too Hot For Words" (note the ending). I believe this is Jimmy's first recorded vocal effort. It was spontaneous. No vocal was planned but at the date Jim decided to lean in towards the piano mike and sing. It knocked everyone out so much that they set up a separate mike and recorded his voice for posterity

I'm not going to try to analyze the playing and writing on this album. I'm doing the notes because 1 liked what I heard. The band swings freely, plays the charts with understanding, and the soloists play some outstand­ing jazz.

Bill Holman, who is responsible for this album, is an acknowledged great in jazz writing and on this record his scores go hand in hand with Jimmy's musicianship.

As for Jimmy Rowles I feel he can do no wrong.
It’s always fair weather when Jim's around.

Shelly Manne, June 5, 1959

The audio track to this video tribute to Jimmy is made up of The Wind and The Rain in Your Hair Bill Holman arrangement from Weather in a Jazz Vane: The Jimmy Rowles Septet.