© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
[Jimmy’s solos are often] … a coherent montage of hammered single notes, offhanded dissonances, wandering arpeggios, abrupt bass walks, trebly rambles. ...
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 ….”
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz
“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.”
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz Matters
“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."
-Diana Krall as told to Gene Lees, JazzLetter, Vol. 18, No.. 5, May 1999].
Jimmy Rowles had a low profile and as far as the general public was concerned his talents were largely ignored. Among musicians it was a different story. Rowles' touch, taste, and harmonic imagination made him an ideal accompanist, and was been highly valued in that role by a succession of demanding employers: Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae.
Saxophonist Stan Getz tried to rescue him from obscurity by producing a Rowles album for Columbia - The Peacocks -  and bassist Ray Brown did the same for Rowles on the Concord Jazz label, accompanying him on an LP of piano/bass duets - As Good As It Gets  .
Rowles attended Gonzaga University in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. His first important jobs, in the early 1940's, were with bands led by saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young. Apart from accompanying singers, Rowles also worked over the years as a pianist for Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Chet Baker, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, and Zoot Sims. During the 1970's he lived in Los Angeles and worked regularly for the Hollywood studios. Despite his reputation as a musician's musician, his apparent lack of interest in promoting his own career left him a virtual unknown. But he had much to say about the immensely important role of the piano in accompaniment, an area that he turned into his expertise.
The following interview was taped by author-journalist Len Lyons after the Concord Jazz recording session produced by Ray Brown . Explaining that he dislikes the studio atmosphere, Rowles had the lights turned down, lit a cigarette, and sipped at a vodka Collins, which he nursed along throughout the session. He was self-critical of his playing and requested numerous retakes of several pieces.
What was your early background on the piano?
I used to listen to my mother, who could play by ear, and I imitated her and started playing by car myself. My sister had a boyfriend who had a real Earl Hint's fed co his playing, and he taught me the first song I ever learned to play, "Saint Louis Blues." I did a little studying with a private teacher, but it didn't work out too well, since what I really wanted to be was a tennis player. I probably had a couple of private teachers I quit on. What changed me was listening to Guy Lombardo's pianist. In fact, I liked his whole orchestra. I was the guy who wouldn't even listen to Benny Goodman. After hearing something I liked on piano. I started looking for a teacher in my hometown and eventually found a guy named Norm Thue. He had me go through all the chords and the keys, throw my hand to the bass notes, and practice a stride that was built on tenths, not single notes.
The next step was while I was studying at Gonzaga, where I met Don Brown, a Blackfoot Indian and a real genius. He forced me to listen to Teddy Wilson, and I resisted at first because I thought I knew what I wanted. But after about four bars I said to myself, "That's it! That's the way I want to play piano!" So I started studying him—and I'll never leave him entirely—and then I went on to discover Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Earl Mines. This was around 1936, and I also began to listen to horn players like Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge. and Ben Webster, the [Jimmy] Lunceford band, Ellington, Andy Kirk. I guess of all those I was closest to Ben Webster, who became like a father to me, musically and personally.
In your playing - the harmonies and understatement - has such a modern feeling to it I'm surprised to hear you mention influences from another era.
Well, I have had some more modern favorites, too. Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan, and Hank Jones. But still, I'm not in the Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea bag. It's great stuff for them but that trend isn't my thing.
I've noticed a strong sense of bass line in your playing. Your bass-line melodies really sing out.
Yeah, I focus on that quite a bit. When I studied with Norm, he stressed the fact that all chords start from the bass note. Not necessarily the tonic of the chord, but the bottom note and the notes that lead to it. They're essential. If you've got the right bass note down there, you can fool around all you want on top of it. But if your bass note's wrong, the chord isn't going to sound right no matter what you do.
In analyzing a tune, do you work on the bass line separately from the rest of the music?
Sure. I figure out the bass line even before I work on the melody. Sometimes I'll mess around with a countermelody in the thumb of the left hand, but I don't take that as seriously as getting a good bass line down there. With everything else, I honestly mess around and hope everything comes out right.
It sounds as if you're using a lot of flat-ninth intervals for right-hand dissonances. Where does that come from?
That's Ravel. He's my man, but I like a lot of those cats. Debussy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Erik Satie, Villa-Lobos. I really love that stuff. You know, you can get tired of listening to jazz because every so often you crave something really deep. Stan Getz wouldn't have had a theme song if it weren't for Ravel. But I have to admit: Everything is relative. I went up to this old-timer in Spokane - he was playing in one of the bars - and I asked him what he thought of Art Tatum. He said, "Oh, well, he's got his style, I got mine." I loved that answer.
When did you first start playing professionally?
It was college bands at first and some small groups in Spokane, but I used to hang around the after-hours joints and play with all the black cats, which is where I got my first real jazz experience. Not long afterward I went to Los Angeles just to see what would happen, and I ended up with Lester Young. It was quite a group. Big Joe Turner was singing the blues; Ray Bryant was dancing; Billie Holiday came out to sing with us. Eventually Billie and I got very close and worked well together over a period of years. I've always liked lyrics, been sensitive to them, and making albums with her was the time I really learned how to accompany. But I also learned a lot from working with Peggy Lee and Ella [Fitzgerald]. Practice makes perfect. Ellis Larkins in New York is a great accompanist, and you could take a real lesson by paying him some attention.
Can you tell me more about the singers you've worked with?
When I got out of the army after the war, that's when I started working regularly with Billie. We had hit it off when I was with Lester Young's and Lee's band [Lee Young, a drummer, was Lester's brother] Billie was making some records and asked for me. The recording group also had Benny Carter, "Sweets" [trumpeter Harry Edison], and Ben Webster. It was wonderful working for Billie. The sessions were smooth, and she seemed happy. I never had any problems with her. After Billie, I went on the road with Evelyn Knight, Vic Damone, and Peggy Lee.
Was Peggy Lee a jazz singer? Some people say she was, but I've always had ambivalent feelings about her.
She had jazz feeling, but she wasn't an improviser. She did swing; she was sort of a rhythmic singer. I was with her about five years. For many years afterward I worked in the staff orchestra at NBC. That lasted through most of the sixties. Some of the interesting people I worked for were Andy Williams and Henry Mancini. I think I was with Mancini on and off for seventeen years.
Then I worked for Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan, who was the greatest of all the female musicians. She did the arrangements and everything else. She was sort of the Art Tatum of singing, and she has an impeccable ear. She's also a good pianist. She can sit down and just "noodle" and it'll scare you. I wish she'd play more often. I also worked for Ella for two years, but there's no comparison to Sarah in musicianship. In terms of range, no one can touch her [Sarah].
Now Billie Holiday was a completely different kind of singer. She didn't have a voice, really; she had a sound. It was a very natural sound like Louis Armstrong's, but it wasn't a singing voice. Sarah's sound is cultivated, almost classical. In terms of feeling, phrasing, and sound, Sarah and Billie are in different worlds. They only have one thing in common-they're both perfectionists. That was the basic similarity, but Billie was never the accomplished musician Sarah is.
Well, what can you say about a method for accompanying singers?
I'd say there are two rules. Anticipation of the singer is one of them. The other is subduing yourself. If you don't subdue yourself, the listener is going to get confused because the piano part will be competing for the listener's attention. That's the worst thing that can happen. What you're doing is weaving carpets for the singer to stand on, and maybe you do little things that fit into the open spots. Don't play too much, don't play too loud, and don't play the melody. Now some of this is going to depend on who the singer is. For Sarah Vaughan, you could play World War Four on the piano, and she'd still be right in there. Carmen [McRae] is that way, too. But there are some singers-and I won't mention any names-who want you to play the melody so they know where they're supposed to be. But that's just a special case.
How did you team to accompany yourself? Is it different?
Actually I wish I could accompany myself better, and it is different. I started singing just for the fun of it in the army; but when I was working for Peggy Lee, she liked my singing, and she used to make me sing. Some people actually liked it. As far as I can tell, I sound like old Gravel Gertie, What I keep in mind, most of all, is the interpretation of the lyrics. When you're singing a song, you're telling a story. I can't stand a singer who listens to the sound of his own voice and doesn't show any sign that he knows what he's singing about. I'd rather hear Louis Armstrong. I'll bet he never thought about his voice for a minute.
Another feature of your music seems to be space. There are a lot of si fences, a spareness.
Good, I'm glad. I don't like to kill the keyboard.
You might be considered the opposite of an Oscar Peterson.
Well, let's be honest. I don't have his chops. But even if I did, I'd still be myself. I like to take things a little easier, although I admire Oscar's playing a great deal.
How did you acquire finger dexterity?
I used to own a windup phonograph, and I'd slow it down so I could really hear rhc runs of the other pianists. Then I'd transcribe the solos and imitate them note for note. Teddy Wilson was a favorite, and I did a few of Art's solos. I knew I was in trouble when I got to Fats Waller because he could think in two directions. His left hand was saying one thing, and in his right hand, he'd be fooling around with another thought.
Do you hare any exercises now for your fingers or hands?
I often bend my fingers back at the bottom joint, although I never crack my knuckles. I know a lot of guys who do, but I avoid it. When I'm playing, I often lower my hand, just let it hang and then shake it around, loosen it up and get the circulation going. You should also try to remember that the source of tension is in the back of the neck, so keep your shoulders relaxed and generally try to keep cool and loose.
Do you have any reflections on your recording career?
I was never too happy with it, as far as my personal music goes. The first recording I cared for at all was done in the late fifties with Henry Mancini and Neal Hefti. Mancini likes to keep his music fairly simple, but we did the score for a picture called Harlow, and on the piece "Girl Talk" Henry gave me sixteen whole bars with strings. That was actually satisfying.
How do you choose your repertoire?
I like to do a song that I can camouflage. I like to give it a fresh interpretation and present my own feelings about it. Ray [Brown] and I just did "Like Someone in Love" as a stride thing. During an opening set at a gig in New York, where I do most of my playing, I did "Sophisticated Lady" as a bossa nova. Sometimes I'll throw in some Rimsky-Korsakov or do "Yesterdays" as a bolero. If I can play the song differently, I'll do it. I also dig up tunes out of the past that no one else knows about.
I noticed you don't play the blues as inch, but there's a lot of bluesy feeling in your Standards.
I get that from Erroll Garner, who was one of my favorite pianists and people.
Have you worked on any electronic keyboards? How do you feel about them?
Well, I've been forced to use the novachord and the Fender Rhodes. In fact, I made a whole album on the Rhodes with Barney Kessel. I don't mind them all that much, but I'd sure rather play a beautiful Steinway B, like the one I just recorded on. You see, as a studio musician in Los Angeles, which was my gig when I used the electronic equipment, you can't put any feeling into the music, anyway, unless you happen to dig what the session leader is doing. With an electronic keyboard it makes matters a little bit worse because you have to deal with the mechanical nature of the instrument, too. The best feature of an acoustic piano is that you can really express yourself on it.
As Stan Getz says in his liner notes about you, your name isn't exactly a household word. How do you feel about your career now?
I like the musicians I'm playing with. I like what's going on in my head. And I think people are getting more receptive to the kind of music I play, so I'd have to say everything is getting better. I only hope it continues.
[Jimmy Rowles, 1918-1996].