Sunday, June 8, 2008

Whatever Happened to Larry Bunker?

By Mal Sands, LA Jazz Scene, May 1994 [copyright; all rights reserved]
“That is the question that many people, including myself, have been asking for several years now in jazz clubs and at concerts and festivals, especially those that celebrate the ‘West Coast sound’ of the 1950s.

Bunk, as he is fondly called by friends and colleagues, was right there at the evolution of the California Cool movement.

He was a mainstay of the L.A. jazz nightclub scene during the 50s, 60s and 70s and worked with such legends as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Shorty Rogers, Bill Evans and Peggy Lee. By the time the 1980’s rolled around, Bunker had all but disappeared from public performance in the clubs. Only on the rarest occasions and for the best of friends would Bunker extend his services as a sideman.

I asked saxophonist Gary Foster about Bunker’s whereabouts and he told me that Bunker was alive and well and busy working in the studios where he has been for over forty years now. It was through Foster that I got to meet this legendary percussionist who I had wondered about for so many years. The first thing that impresses one about Bunker is his very casual attitude and laid-back demeanor. He is such an easy-going, down-to-earth, regular kind of guy, that after a few minutes, I was so comfortable with him, I felt that I already knew him.

Our first meeting took place in a recording studio in Burbank, … [but] it was several months before I had the opportunity to interview him.

I drove out to his beautiful, Spanish-styled home in the [Hollywood] hills above Los Feliz and spent the better part of three hours chatting and asking him questions, and listening to his stories, recollections and opinions about himself, his career and all of the legendary musicians and assorted characters that he knew and worked with.

I began the interview by asking Bunker to give me a brief biography. He was born in Long Beach, CA on November 4, 1928. He took up drums in grammar school at the age of seven and began fooling around with the piano at the age of ten. … He became self-taught on both [drums and piano], as well as, tenor saxophone, which he played briefly in junior high school.

After high school, Bunker enlisted in the army for a one and a half year stint in 1946. During that period he played drums and piano with several different outfits. Upon his discharge in 1948, he settled in Monterey, CA. It was shortly thereafter that he first learned how to play the vibraphone.”

LA Jazz Scene [LAJ]: You played both drums and piano as a youngster. At what age did you start playing the vibes?

Larry Bunker [LB]: It was 1950. I was 21 or 22 and I was playing drums with a trio that included the Hammond organ and the guitar. The organist, who was the leader, asked me if I’d ever played the vibraphone and I said, “No, I’ve never played one in my life.” He said, “Well, the fact that you know harmony and are an improvising player and know the keyboard and drums, it’s a natural for you. I’ve got an old set of vibes in my garage. Why don’t you take it home and work out a couple of tunes and we’ll see what happens.” Now I was aware of Lionel Hampton and just beginning to get into Milt Jackson. So I took the thing home, figured out how to put it together and spent three days just doing exercises and playing scales.

LB: So I went on the job and did the first set on drums and then the guys asked: “What have you worked out?” I said that I had worked out a solo on a song and when he asked my what I wanted to play I said just play anything. So we played a couple of standard ballads and then some up-tempo things and got screaming applause from the audience. We came off the bandstand and there were people in the audience, musicians I had worked with who came up to me and said: “Geez, Larry, I didn’t know you played the vibes. How long have you been doing that?” I said: “Three days.”

LAJ: Wow! That’s amazing! Now in the 1950s when you were playing drums and vibes in Monterey, the Dave Brubeck Trio featuring Cal Tjader on drums and vibes was doing more or less the same thing up in San Francisco, correct?

LB: Sure, exactly! And I used to hear the radio broadcasts of that group in San Francisco and I was aware of Cal and what he was doing on vibes. Not long after that, I left Monterey to tour with a very bad four-piece band that got me back to Los Angeles. I moved back in with my Mom in the house that I had lived in since I was nine years old and set up shop there. We had a piano, drums and a set of vibes right there in the living room and that’s where I set up shop.

LB: In 1951, I got the job of drumming at the Lighthouse with Howard Rumsey, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss, among others. That was three or four nights a week. On Mondays I had an invitation to jam sessions on the East side of LA, mostly to play vibes, so that’s how the whole thing got started for me here in town in 1951.

LAJ: Were you becoming better known as a drummer or as a vibist?

LB: It seemed like it was happening both ways, but I worked mostly as a drummer with occasional gigs on vibes. On rare occasions I played both like when I was with Georgie Auld when I worked with him both in town and on a tour back East. The idea was that he and I would tour and we would pick up a piano player and a bassist wherever we were. I took drums and vibes with me and he featured me on both. We traveled cross-country by car and worked at the old Blue Note in Chicago and also hit Philadelphia, Minneapolis and several other places.

LAJ: By car, huh? That must have been quite an experience. Now was this around the same time as the ‘West Coast Jazz’ movement was beginning?

LB: Yes, exactly. In 1951-52, things were really starting to happen in LA. As guys were leaving the road bands and setting up in Southern California. Within a year or two, Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Don Bagley and Frank Rosolino had all left Stan Kenton. That’s when this whole West Coast thing started. I replaced Chico Hamilton in piano-less Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet with Chet Baker.

Dick Bock formed Pacific Jazz Records and I started to record with these guys. We were in the studio two or three times a week making different albums. It was also at that time that I recorded my first motion picture soundtrack. I received a called from an old Russian viola player, named , Franz Waxman, who was scoring the movie Stalag 17, starring William Holden and he needed a jazz vibist and a drummer. I said that I did both so he hired me to play in the Paramount studio 75-piece orchestra.

LB: I was absolutely awestruck. As an 8-year old kid, I had lived to blocks away from the place and ride past it on my way to school without any idea that I would ever see the inside of a place like that. I was very intimidated, but I got through it and that’s how I started working in the studios.

LAJ: And it was also during this period that you began working the club circuit with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper and later on with Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank, right?

LB: Right. I worked with Chet and Gerry at The Haig.

LAJ: What did you think of those individuals?

LB: Chet Baker was unbelievable. I have never been as impressed with anyone more than I have been with him, with the exception of Bill Evans, who I worked with later. Baker could come up with something every night, every set that would just bring you out of your seat. He was a stunning, creative musician, but a horse’s ass as a human being and became legendary for that. … just an all-around bad-ass, but a brilliant musician. Gerry Mulligan was okay. He was kind of stand-offish, but appreciative of my work and that was all right.

LAJ: How about other players during these early West Coast Jazz years? [interjection]

LB: I worked with Stan Getz at Zardi’s and that wasn’t too pleasant. This was just after his bust for holding up a drugstore, for which he did some time in the county slam. I worked with Art Pepper at the Surf Club in downtown L.A. with Hampton Hawes and Joe Mondragon. I really enjoyed Art’s playing, but didn’t enjoy being around him because he was so heavily into junk at that point. He would show up an hour late for work and it was always the same story. “My battery went dead,” or “I had a flat tire.” On the bandstand he was either trying to play, keep from nodding off or looking to score. I had no contact with him socially and had no reason to. Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper and Bill Perkins were all good cats and professional musicians.
As far as other drummers were concerned, there was a period in the 50s that Shelly Manne was the drummer of choice. He, Mel Lewis and Stan Levey kind of had the jazz scene sewed-up. I kind of got what was left over.

LAJ: Every year, just before the Playboy Jazz Festival, Mark Cantor hosts an evening of rare jazz film clips from his private collection. At last year’s program he showed a clip from a television show that was broadcast in the late 1950s with the Art Pepper Quartet featuring you on the piano. Cantor said that you were a last-minute replacement for Pepper’s regular pianist, Carl Perkins, who apparently was too high on dope that night to make the gig. Do you recall that?

LB: I don’t, but several other people mentioned seeing that same clip, so I guess it must have happened. When I first started playing with Bud Shank in 1960 or ’61 here in town, he hired me as a vibraphone player and a pianist. His regular drummer was Chuck Flores and his bassist for a short while was Scott LaFaro, who later left for New York to work with Bill Evans. His place was taken by Gary Peacock. Scott, unfortunately was killed in a car crash at a very young age.

LAJ: You also worked with Bill Evans. What was that experience like?

LB: Phenomenal! Bill Evans was my hero, and my association with him is probably the highlight of my career. I worked with him for about a year and a half between 1963 and ’65 and the projects that I did with him are the things that I am most proud of. We recorded three of four albums together. Trio 65 is the one I am most fond of.

LAJ: That was an excellent album. Your work with Bill Evans was exclusively on drums, correct?

LB: Yes. I never played vibes with Bill. My best vibes work in my opinion was with Dave Grusin in the early 1980s.

LAJ: You also became involved with Latin music when it became hot in the mid-fifties. How did that come about?

LB: I had no interest in Latin music whatsoever, until I started listening to the radio and heard all the great Latin jazz bands that were playing in New York.

LAJ: Are we talking about Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito?

LB: Exactly, and that triggered my interest. The more I listened to it, the more I liked it and tried to play it. I auditioned for Bobby Short in ’54 or ’55, and he told me that he did a couple of Caribbean-type numbers in his act and that I was required to play the congas. Well, I had never played the congas in my life and told him so, but I wanted the job so I went out a bought a set of congas. These were the old ones that looked like skins nailed to a pickle barrel. Tune-able instruments were still a thing of the future. As a result, I started working with Latin bands here in town, primarily with Eddie Cano, who was a crossover musician. His style was very Latin-oriented, yet he was really like a jazz piano player. I played and recorded with him on vibes, but occasionally played Latin hand percussion and became known for that.

LB: During that period I received a great many calls to do hand percussion in the studios because most of the guys in town, the true Latin drummers, had no concept of reading music. They were authentic players but they couldn’t start or stop when they were supposed to and if you were doing a motion picture that required sight-reading and playing with a jazz feeling, they really didn’t do that.

LAJ: I didn’t realize that you played hand percussion instruments. Are there any recordings of you playing these?

LB: Yes, there was an album I did in 1972 with Pat Williams called Threshold which we recorded at the Phil Ramone studio in New York. The rhythm section included Mike Melvoin, Jim Hughart, John Guerin and Larry Carlton. People like Tom Scott, Buddy Childers, Billy Byers and Marvin Stamm were also involved. I was the utility percussion man and played congas, bongos, vibes, marimba, chimes and tympani. That album won a Grammy.

LAJ: Do you miss the L.A. jazz scene of the 1950s? What were some of your favorite clubs and hangouts of that era?

LB: Jazz City is one I miss. They used a lot of local musicians and occasionally would bring in some headliners. It was there that I first saw Miles Davis in person. He had John Coltrane, red garland, Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones with him. It was there that I got to see and meet Cannonball Adderley for the first time. I also worked there with a variety of people including Barney Kessel and Conte Candoli. I also worked there with Shorty Rogers opposite Lenny Bruce.

LAJ: Lenny Bruce; what was he like?

LB: Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. We also worked across the street at a place called Peacock Lane. We would do a set and then Lenny would do a set and offend everybody and then we would have to come back on and try to calm everybody back down. In the 1960s I worked and hung-out at Shelly’s Manne Hole all the time. In the 1970s it was Donte’s.

LAJ: Do you have any desire to work clubs again?

LB: At this point, I really don’t think so. It was fun while I was doing it in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, but by the ‘80s it got to be less and less gratifying. It was no longer emotionally satisfying so I decided to hang it up. I think I have said everything I’m going to say in that way.

LAJ: Do you have any idea how many recordings you have made, either jazz, television and motion picture soundtracks, commercial jingles or whatever, all together? Even a ballpark figure?

LB: No idea. It’s not something I ever considered important.

LAJ: Of the many recordings that you have made, are there any with you as a leader?

LB: Only one. It was an album that I produced and did at the old Shelly’s Manne Hole with vibraphonist Gary Burton. We had met and became great friends and I became a great admirer of his. He was working with George Shearing at the time and would stay at my house when George was in town. We decided that we should record together. This was in late 1963 when Gary was barely out of his teens. I contacted engineer Bones Howe and we rented Wally Heider’s portable recording equipment and went into the Manne Hole to record. We had to postpone the date a couple of weekends due to the [J.F.] Kennedy assassination. We did it with Mike Wofford on piano and Bob West on bass and I spent the next couple of years trying to sell the thing. There were no takers. I finally gave the masters to a producer named Jackie Mills and he got it marketed. It wasn’t out very long and sold maybe about 20 copies. I never realized a dime from the thing.

LAJ: That’s too bad. Where is the record now?

LB: In limbo. Several years after we recorded it, Gary called me from New York and told me it had surfaced in Europe entitled “The Gary Burton Quartet.”

LAJ. But it was actually “The Larry Bunker Quartet, right?”

LB: Yeah, but you got to remember that when he called in 1967 or ’68, Gary Burton was hot. Nobody over there knew who the hell “Larry Bunker” was. The masters were eventually lost but surfaced some twenty years later in Japan. I got a call from a guy who wanted to issue it over there on the Vault records label. I said “fine.” In the meantime, a set of alternate master takes surfaced in Spain and was issued on the Fresh Sound label.

LAJ: So there are two different versions of the album?

LB: Yes, and maybe even three.

LAJ: Who is your favorite vibes player?

LB: Milt Jackson, hands down. There’s nobody like him. He has influenced so may vibe players and you can hear it in their playing. Gary is phenomenal and he really has kind of revolutionized the vibraphone insofar as what’s possible to play on it. He, too, has had a profound influence, especially on the younger players that have come up. But the guy who still touches my heart is Milt.
LAJ: And on drums?

LB: Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Dave Weckl.

LAJ: Throughout your long and distinguished career you have worked with many of the jazz legends and greats. Is there anyone living or dead that you didn’t get to work with, but wish you could have?

LB: Oh sure. John Coltrane, Miles Davis. I would have loved to gig with those cats. I got to play with Dizzy at the Monterey Jazz festival back in the ‘60s and I did actually get to play once with Charlie Parker when I played a couple of tunes on piano at a dance job with him in L.A. at a place called the “Five-Four Ballroom. Some guys I knew where playing with them so I went down to catch the gig. There was a tune they wanted to play and the piano player didn’t know it. Larance Marable saw me and called me up to the stand and said: “You know that tune, don’t you?” I said: “Sure.” So I sat in and comped for Bird.

LAJ: What do you do for recreation or relaxation during your leisure time?

LB: Mainly I just stay at home and listen to classical music on my cable radio hook-up. I am able to get symphony broadcasts from all over the country.

LAJ: Classical music?

LB: Yes, I have become totally caught up in classical music, particularly when it comes to playing tympani. I have been playing tympani seriously now for ten or twelve years and really enjoy it. As a matter of fact, if I knew then what I know now, I might have gotten some serious training and become a timpanist with a major symphony orchestra. Unfortunately it is too late now. You don’t decide at the age of sixty-five that you’re going to change careers and look for an almost non-existent job as a concert timpanist.

LAJ: So what’s next for Larry Bunker?

LB: To just keep doing what I’m doing. Working in the studios and making a living."


  1. Phenomenal interview.Very Informative.
    Great work ethic!
    I think Larry Bunker was one of my father's favorite musicians.

  2. Larry Bunker was my uncle, my dad's little brother. My dad was very proud of him. I remember his "shop" in my grandma's living room when I was a little girl. Thanks for sharing this story. He passed in March of 2006, a year before my dad. I wish I had known him better.

    1. God bless you and your family. You were living among a legend.

    2. That should have said March of 2005. My dad passed in 2006.

  3. What a great interview! I was privileged to hear Larry play a number of times over the last 8-10 years of his life at the annual "Vibe Summit" put on by Mal Sands, the interviewer. To my knowledge these were the only times Larry played before a live audience after he quit performing. He was a beautiful vibes player and a great guy.

  4. This is a great interview. Larry has been one of my heros for many years. I heard him kick a big band of all- star L.A. musicians sometime around 1970. He was great!I have a lot of recordings he made as a side-man over the years including "Threshold".

  5. Always great to hear a real modest musician who made such a full contribution to the Jazz & studio scene in LA.

  6. His brush playing in particular when he was part of the Bill Evans trio was superb. Great muscian.

  7. Amazing Article... Most tasteful and creative drummer I've ever heard. Trio 65 record is a gem. Larry was a true Master !!

  8. He is one of my favorite drummers of all time but I heard him on vibes for the first time earlier tonight on an album with Anita O'Day. He was as tasteful on vibes as he was on drums. Simply an incredible musician.

  9. I'm surprised there is so little mention of Larry and the Peter Gunn series. And, I don't see any mention in lists of his instruments of vibes he may have owned. I still have the original Peter Gunn LP that I got about 1961 or thereabouts. As a marimbist/xylophonist/vibist, I pause the "on demand" Peter Gunn episodes whenever Larry on the vibes is front and center. I have about 400 chromatic percussion albums featuring many artists and styles. At various times, I've owned six marimbas, one of the 18 Deagan base marimbas, two xylophones, one vibes, a celesta, a glock, and still own a Wurlitzer steel-bar orchestra bells my father bought use summer of 1918. (Note that the forgoing is about my hubby, Bruce, who submitted this comment).

  10. Fascinating interview. I became interested in jazz at the age of thirteen through my college-aged brother-in-law’s record collection, and a four disc set of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Larry, Chet Baker, and Carson Smith. That experience had a profound impact on my life. I resurrected an old Leedy and Ludwig snare from my grade school band days and, through the generous tutorship of several astoundingly black r&b players, became a professional drummer. Those old photos from the EP album of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with Larry in his undershirt, are still prominent in my memory. My first inspiration.

  11. Larry Bunker is cited as playing on Lalo Schifrin's iconic DIRTY HARRY score/soundtrack. Was it tabla he played or drum kit? John Guerin is also listed on percussion. Some say it was Guerin on drum kit. Inquiring minds want to know...

    1. Without a copy of the recording session filed with the musician union by the contractor for the date/s, it would be difficult to know for sure. Johnny wasn't known for hand drumming while Larry played many dates as a percussionist, but he was also pretty versatile around the kit. I ran a quick check of Tom Lord's discography, but couldn't find any information although Larry worked quite a bit with Lalo in 1971 on other recordings.


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