Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Johnny Guarnieri: Master Stride Pianist

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

Equal parts coffee shop, steak house and bar, Leon’s Steak House opened in 1945 on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, in North Hollywood, CA.

Leon's occupied an odd niche. Regulars from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation down the road in Burbank, Ca built the bar's cabinets from spare aircraft parts and neighborhood residents often dropped by and held their special occasions in the restaurant’s catering room.

Held by founder Leon Grown's family for about 50 years, the restaurant nearly closed in 1992 when the family decided to sell. A group of employees pooled their money with several other partners, bought the restaurant and kept it alive.

But 10 years later it finally joined the legions of restaurants in the San Fernando Valley that have come and gone in the second half of the 20th century as tastes changed and people sought entertainment in different venues

The breakfasts were huge, the steaks were grilled to perfection, but for any musician who lived in the San Fernando Valley, for many years the main reason to drop by Leon’s was to hear pianist Johnny Guarnieri give a clinic on the finer points of playing stride piano.

No cover, no minimum, order a brewski, a cocktail or a glass of your favorite vino, sit at the bar or at a table that looked like a reject from the local ice cream parlor, and take in the music of a time-gone-by as Johnny brought Ellington, Fats Waller and many of the composers of the Great American Songbook to life once again.

Johnny had deep Jazz roots having begun his career by replacing the legendary Fletcher Henderson on piano with Benny Goodman in 1939. He also played in the big bands and small groups of clarinetist Artie Shaw, trombonist Tommy Dorsey’s big band and Raymond Scott’s CBS radio orchestra.

Over the years he recorded as a leader or as a sideman with such Jazz luminaries as Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong. He also had long associations with bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Cozy Cole.

In the late 1940’s Johnny joined the staff of the NBC in New York and remained with that orchestra for 15 years until he moved to California in 1962 where he performed for long spells as a solo pianist until his death in 1985.

Not a bad resume.

Sadly, few who heard him play in the bar at Leon’s Steak House were aware of his previous Jazz achievements.

I always enjoyed it when Johnny played some of the more obscure Ellington tunes like Birmingham Breakdown or Mississippi Moan or rarely heard Fats Waller tunes such as Clothes Line Ballet or Moppin’ And Boppin’.

Thankfully, Star Line Productions and Caz Jaz International have released some of Johnny’s music on CD and it was while listening to Johnny’s Echoes of Ellington [SLCD-9003] and Fatscinatin’ [CJCD-32296] that the idea for this profile formed in my mind.

And thanks to a friend’s generosity, I am able to share the following article about Johnny by Leonard Feather that appeared in the May 2, 1968 edition of Downbeat.

At the conclusion of Leonard piece, you will find a video tribute to Johnny on which he performs Duke’s Birmingham Breakdown and an audio-only track of his interpretation of Ellington’s Mississippi Moan.

© -Leonard Feather/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“If a jazz student enters the scene in the late 1960s — after being attracted by the records or concerts of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Lloyd, and the like — and does his homework, he'll discover some of the innumerable artists whose contributions made possible the sounds of today. What is true of jazz applies also to popular songwriting.

The study process, however, is made more difficult for the young fan as he finds endless contradictions in books written by members of various critical factions. He remains unaware of — or is bemused by — countless errors, of sins of commission and omission. In short, there is little hope that he will acquire a full, accurately balanced view of the scene.

All this is a preamble to an attempt to place in correct perspective the life and times of a brilliant musician named Johnny Guarnieri.

Because he has made virtually no records for many years, has been living in almost total obscurity, and is all but ignored in most history books, Guar­nieri by 1967 was a forgotten man. Living in Hollywood since 1962, he had been playing jobs unworthy of him, out of keeping with his distinguished back­ground as a name-band sideman in the 1940s and successful studio musician in the '50s.

One day I received a letter from Tom Matthews, a local fan and friend of Guarnieri’s, suggesting that an investi­gation was in order. The pianist, said the letter, was experimenting with a new idea that deserved exposure.

A few days later I found Guarnieri; it turned out that he was living just five minutes from my house in North Hollywood. A little heavier than in the early years, he is now a stubby, moon­faced man, amiable and garrulous, who peers through strong glasses. Though neither aggressive nor arrogant, he is self-confident about his musical con­victions.

During an hour or more at the piano, demonstrating his concept and chatting about it, he revealed that he had been working on it for about three years, but had never demonstrated it in a jazz club for a sophisticated audience.

A couple of weeks later he played a series of gigs at Ellis Island, a new club in the neighborhood. The barrier was now broken, for he elicited an excellent audience reaction.

Briefly, Guarnieri explained the back­ground of his concept:

"I have always been greatly con­cerned with the preservation of works by the great popular composers—the Gershwins, Youmanses, Kernses, and many others, who have passed on. In the jazz field, nobody did more to glorify these works than Art Tatum.

"After he died, there was no great race between any heirs apparent to the throne. There just was no replacing him; it was the end of an era. As the years went by after his death, we missed his beautiful pianistic arrangements of these standard tunes.
Oscar Peterson plays a lot of them, of course, and is in the mold of Tatum; but there were very few exceptions.

"I hated to see a world develop in which there was no concern any more for Kern or for Tatum. I felt that at the rate we were going, a hundred years from now they would be nothing but little indexes in a book of names.

"So, for the past three or four years, I've been using this great heritage of songs, playing them in a certain un­orthodox way but without announcing in advance what I was doing. After I got through with, say, Someone to Watch Over Me or Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, people would be startled and en­thusiastic. They'd say, 'Gee, that was wonderful but there was something dif­ferent about it. What did you do?'

"Then I'd tell them.

"I'd been playing all these tunes in 5/4 time."

Of course, as Guarnieri well knows, 5/4 is not new in jazz, but previously it had almost always been used for original instrumental works by the lead­ers of various groups. However, as a steady ploy to re-educate the average listener and give him a new slant on an old theme, it is an idea that surprises most listeners, whether or not they are aware of what is being done.

The role of the pioneer is one with which Guarnieri has long been familiar. In 1940 he became the first keyboard artist to record a genuine jazz harpsi­chord solo, as a member of the Gramercy 5 contingent of Artie Shaw's band. Eight tunes were waxed at two sessions, the best remembered being Special Delivery Stomp and Summit Ridge Drive. Three years later, Guar­nieri was part of another group that made history when he played in Ray­mond Scott's orchestra at CBS, the first racially integrated radio staff band.

Born in New York City on March 23, 1917, Guarnieri logically might have been expected to take up the violin, since he is a descendant of the famous Guarnerius family of violinmakers. But he took to the piano at 10, and not long after graduation from Roosevelt High School, landed his first name-band job, with George Hall, in 1937.

"I remember once we played opposite Claude Hopkins in Brooklyn, and we were very thrilled when the guys in Claude's band told us that we had one of the best rhythm sections in the busi­ness. It was, too, with Tony Mottola, Nick Fatool and Doc Goldberg."

After an interlude with Mike Riley's combo, Guarnieri rejoined Hall for a while and then jobbed around in local clubs until, in December, 1939, he auditioned successfully for Benny Good­man, replacing Fletcher Henderson. ("For at least two months after I'd joined the band," Guarnieri said, "Benny kept calling me Fletcher until he finally got to remember my name.")

The Goodman job was, as he once recalled in the book Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, "a fulfillment of a beautiful dream. It was what I had lived and worked for, and, because I was a sober individual and wasn't involved in rival­ries, drinking, narcotics, money prob­lems, and such, like some of the other musicians, I enjoyed every minute of it. It was all very vital and absorbing, in­cluding the traveling."

The pleasure, apparently, was not entirely mutual. In the early days of their association, Goodman assured Guarnieri that he was the worst piano player he had had since Frank Froeba. Apparently it escaped Goodman's ear that Guarnieri was aware of important modifications taking place at that time in the role of the piano in the rhythm section.

"Benny wasn't too happy with me, be­cause instead of a steady four, I'd comp differently, using punctuations," Guar­nieri said. "But I was lucky; Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian en­couraged me, told me I swung, and influenced Benny to keep me in the band."

During this period, Guarnieri spent many of his nights off taking part in after-hours sessions uptown, often visit­ing Minton's with Christian and sitting in with Kenny Clarke's group. He feels now that had he not shifted into the studio world a few years later, he might well have become an integral part of the early bebop movement.
When Goodman became ill and dis­banded temporarily in mid-1940, Guar­nieri joined Shaw. Early in 1941, in­spired by the presence of Cootie Williams in the Goodman band, he re­joined Benny, but later that year was back with Shaw.

Guarnieri took part in several historic Goodman Sextet recordings. He is especially proud of The Sheik (a track that is now available only on a Euro­pean LP) and of his solo on Poor Butterfly.

After a time with the Jimmy Dorsey Band in 1942, he spent a memorable year at CBS with Scott, whose sidemen at one time or another included Emmett Berry, Billy Butterfield, Ben Webster, Hank D'Amico, Cozy Cole, and bassist Billy Taylor. For a while he and D'Amico and Cozy moonlighted as a trio on 52nd St., accompanying Billie Holiday at the Onyx Club.

"After leaving Scott, I got my own little group together and worked on staff at WMCA. I did a lot of recording for the NBC Thesaurus library—about 100 sides with June Christy among other things."

The late 1940s were incredibly busy years, especially in the recording studios. In proportion to the total quantity of recording that was taking place, one might say that Guarnieri was the Hank Jones of his day, participating in jazz and pop sessions of every kind.

He led several small groups, one of which (on Savoy) featured Butterfield, D'Amico, Lester Young, guitarist Dexter Hall, Cozy Cole, and bassist Billy Taylor. Some sessions, including a 1946 date on Majestic, included his brother Leo on bass.

Having used John as a sideman on several dates, I recall with particular pleasure a group, under the nominal leadership of Slam Stewart, also featur­ing Red Norvo, Morey Feld and Bill DeArango or Chuck Wayne. These 78s, on Continental, were later transferred to an LP under Norvo's name. A high­light was Honeysuckle Rose, in which Guarnieri played and sang so much like Fats Waller that he fooled many a Blindfold Test subject.

Always an eclectic, Guarnieri ex­plained that he played in the styles of Waller, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson and other giants of the day because they represented the ultimate in jazz piano and because he felt he could devise no better or more attractive style. Greatly respected by his contemporaries, he played on dates with Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

As studio work took up more and more of his time, Guarnieri faded from the jazz spotlight, though several times he had risen as high as third in the Down Beat and Metronome polls. The 1946 readers' poll in the latter had him trailing only Tatum and Wilson.

In 1954, Guarnieri joined the staff at NBC, where he endured eight years of stability and anonymity. For a while he was on the equivalent of the Tonight show, when it was called Broadway after Dark.

"I enjoyed that program when Jazzbo Collins was handling it, because he gave us a chance to do something," he said. "I also did the Today show many times with Dave Garroway.

"During all that time I wasn't really as much away from jazz as you might think, because there was always some­one to play with. Any time we found a loose five minutes around, we'd use it —I'd trap guys into jamming with me: Don Lamond, Eddie Safranski, Mundell Lowe, Clark Terry, and some of the other jazz-oriented staff men."

The decision to move west was motivated by a combination of events, mainly marital problems and a desire to write for motion pictures.

"I thought I could make enough money to subsidize myself and become an honor-bound kind of writer, doing only what I believed in. I wanted to play, too, and practice and enjoy my­self, and along with this I thought I could get some good writing contracts. Well, I soon found out that contacts are not as easily followed up as I at first imagined. There's so much com­petition. It was a whole new world, and things were much rougher than I'd ex­pected."

The only actual score Guarnieri got to do was one commercial for which he wrote, arranged and played, leading a sextet. Finally, willing to settle for a weekly paycheck, he worked as a soloist from 1963-5 in the bar of the Holly­wood Plaza Hotel. It was the wrong room with the wrong clientele; but he put the time to good use.

"I was faced with the eternal problem of no bass and drums, so I turned to the Tatum style. I worked on doing things with the left hand alone. Since my hands are not large, and I could never play those big chords with the right hand, I started to compensate by making the left hand so complete that the piano would be almost like a stereo instrument."

At the same time, he began to de­velop an idea that had its roots in the NBC sessions with Safranski & Co.

"I had written a lot of 5/4 pieces in the '50s and early '60s, but I found a new concept: I could use this meter not just to write originals, but to keep some of the great songs alive, and also to give a new twist to the styles of those idols whose ideas I'd emulated through the years," he explained.

"I kept on developing this feeling until playing any tune in five became second nature to me. I also found that I could play like Basie in five, like Teddy, like Tatum, like Fats.

"After the Plaza, I started doing two things. Every time I performed any­where, I would either play my music in 5/4 and announce it ahead of time, or I'd go right ahead and do it without telling them. The difference was ironic. When I announced it in advance, the reaction would always be, 'Well, you can't dance to it,' or, 'Why do you want to fool around with something that's already intrinsically good?'
"But when I didn't announce it, and the people would revel in it, they'd ask me why somebody didn't do something about exploiting it. I would tell them that I just hadn't been lucky enough yet to find somebody who believed in it."

A session around the Guarnieri key­board is an extraordinary experience.

"Play Penthouse Serenade the way Erroll Garner would do it in five," I would say. Or, "Play Honeysuckle Rose, and sing it, the way Fats would have done it in five." Next, "How about Liza a la Teddy Wilson, or Flyin' Home, Tatum style, in five?" Unhesitating, Guarnieri would re­spond as if to the meter born. The five-beat feel, after three years of dedication to the point of obsession, is second nature to him now.

Even such antiques as Tiger Rag came out fresh, wild, and wonderful in a 10/8 stride. Waltzes, too, were con­verted to five through the uncanny Guarnieri blend of cultivated instinct and technique. Each number gained a delightful new dimension; none seemed awkward or bent out of shape, though in the course of the interview I decided to act briefly as devil's advocate.

"Isn't it true," I asked, "that multi­ples of two are endemic to a vast mass of music, and particularly to traditional jazz, which is required to swing? If a tune is written in quarter and eighth notes, how do you manage to stretch it so that it fits logically into a five-beat format? Isn't it an unnatural and syn­thetic thing in some cases?"

"No," said Guarnieri firmly. "First of all, if we take a simple melodic track of any tune that was ever written, play it on the piano without anything under, and then put the top line on tape, you should be able to play three against that top line, or four, or five, so that it comes out exactly right. By the way, I'm not interested in doing any work at the moment in any other time valua­tion except 5/4, because I can forsee 5/4, within the next few years, sweep­ing the world completely.

"We'd better get on the ball, because Brazil already has a good start on us, with songs like A Man and a Woman; in fact, I believe they've got 75 per cent of their current crop of writers turning out 5/4 music. I heard from Southern Music—they handle a lot of music from Brazil—that volume after volume of manuscripts in 5/4 is coming up from Rio.

"I don't mean that everything except 5/4 is dead or dying. Sometimes I prove my point by playing, for instance, a three- or four-chorus version of a Jerome Kern melody, playing the first chorus as well as I can in four. Then I play the second chorus in five, yet basically the same way, with the same general direction and feeling, thinking in terms of pretty changes, because the harmonic element still has to remain vitally important, no matter what meter you're in.

"In the third chorus I'll switch back and forth between five and four. People hear this, and they collapse! It's not something I learned, really; I just stumbled on it, then developed it little by little.

"I have a theory that too many of our dance orchestras through the years knocked themselves out to maintain rhythm sections that would over-accentuate the strict tempo. They were so crazy about keeping that one-two-one-two going, they became so basic that the sheer simplicity of the music tended to destroy it. Now when we get into the rock 'n' roll era, and to a great extent the destruction of the melodic form, what are we hit with? The tempo, just the beat, and as much electrical wattage as can possibly be consumed. This was like the final desecration, with every­body being sure to accent the one-two-three-four, and very little left at the top. "The new framework, the new dress, has this value: it gives the good music of the past several decades a flow, a rhythmic flow of its own. I'm convinced that by employing this medium, many artists will be able to reactivate a lot of the music that hasn't been played too much lately.

"To me, this is an experience of a lifetime—like the unraveling of a great mystery. Each day I find a new device, a new way, a new tune, something dif­ferent that goes into this 5/4. When I run into people who knew me years ago, and find that I can't win them over, I tell them that anything I ever did in the past which they found meritorious, I will not just duplicate but improve on; and sooner or later I win them over."

How could he explain or rationalize the translation into 5/4 of such styles as those of Tatum, Waller, and others who had never in their lives (or at least, never publicly) played a single chorus in five?

"What I play is simply an extension of their original ideas. I'm sure if some of those men were alive today, they would have changed considerably, not only by experimenting with meters but in other ways. Fats Waller, for example, would probably have incorporated a lot of Erroll Garner into his style, because of the strong element of humor, which is natural to Erroll and would obviously have appealed to Fats.

"Tatum, had he lived, would probably be doing some fantastic things in five today—not as a steady diet, but just once in a while. As for Basic, he may not feel it, but I can still play his style the way he would sound if he did feel it. So could Dick Hyman, by the way. Dick is a fantastic musician. I'm sure he could do everything I'm doing with five, but he would do it just to prove a point; I'm doing it because it's all I believe in and am wrapped up in."

Guarnieri has not experimented with 7/4, 7/8, 9/8 or any of the exotic rhythms with which the names of Dave Brubeck, Don Ellis, and others have been associated.

"I haven't studied them," he said, "and I'm really not interested in other time dimensions. As a musician I might become interested in them theoretically but not to play myself. I'm too firmly convinced that five is the next gradua­tion point for everybody in the world of music."

Except for the solo jobs at Ellis Island, Guarnieri has not yet exposed his unique repertoire-cum-technique to the public. However, since the news of his work came to light, he has had two or three offers from record companies. He will undoubtedly have an album on the market in the near future.

"Don Ellis and Emil Richards, who have both experimented so successfully with new meters, have been very helpful to me," he said, "especially in the mat­ter of finding musicians to work with me. I've been trying out some ideas with a bass player named Jim Faunt, who's been working recently with Don's band. He's phenomenal! He can pick up on these harmonically complex tunes and play them without hesitation in five just as naturally as most bass players can in four. I've also been rehearsing with a drummer, Joe Procaro, who has the same kind of ability."

Though his involvement with the pro­fessional rat race has brought him more than his share of misfortune, Guarnieri is neither bitter nor pessimistic. On the contrary, he feels that the tide has now turned. His enthusiasm seems boundless as he expresses his gratitude for all he has learned in music.

"I'm very grateful for my talents, and I consider myself a very lucky man, because I've been around people from whom I could learn so much. Even though I've been just a musician for hire, I think I've remained pretty honest, trying to do the right thing at the right time.

"I want to make five a commercial universally successful thing. I think it will help to save music—the great music of yesterday. It isn't a question of to­day's music being superior or inferior to yesterday's; it's just that the great musical works of yesterday, in any idiom, should become accepted as the classics of today.

"Within the last 20 years — I can't state this as a fact, but I'm sure ASCAP could provide a detailed tabulation —  you find a continuous slackening off in the performances of the great writers. Take a great Kern or Gershwin stand­ard; compare the numbers of perform­ance credits in 1938 against 1948, 1958, 1968. The champions of these works are disappearing. Very few of the younger artists, whether they be singers or instrumentalists, are concerned about building up a real repertoire of this caliber. I'm not saying they don't like the tunes; whatever the reason, they don't play them."

The Guarnieri theory has a dual ob­jective: to preserve the songs that de­serve to remain a part of the next century's musical legacy and to revital­ize them through this process of metric innovation.

To those two aims perhaps a third should be added: The theory should bring a new, prosperous and musically gratifying lease on life to the patient and gifted artist who dreamed it up.”


  1. Another treasure..thanks Steve..

  2. Thanks Steve! I wish I had some of his music!


  3. I heard him play many years at the Tail of the Cock on Ventura Blvd; he would play "Alley Cat" to announce my arrival since he knew i had been hospitalized for a cat bite. He provided years of pleasure with his music.

  4. Lord knows that Johnny Guarnieri was an amazing talent.If you never heard him play live..you missed a treat. I take exception to one line on this site "he decision to move west was motivated by a combination of events, mainly marital problems and a desire to write for motion pictures." Our family did NOT move because of marital problems. He had people in California who kept telling him he should write for the studios...and except for a meeting with Paramount, it simply didn't come into fruition. Johnny was a solid musician, husband and father. I know...I'm one of his daughters.

  5. I consider myself blessed to have been able to spend about 3 hours, almost alone, with Johnny, at Hanratty's in New York, c 1982. He was in town for a 6 week residence, and I had recently heard him on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Johnny was a revelation. He could play pretty much anything, and even with those small hands, swung his ass off. He seemed to possess an encyclopedic memory. Assuming that there would be other occasions to hear him live, I left Johnny at midnight, to head back to the Bronx, and my medical studies Sadly, my schedule did not allow me time to hear Johnny again, before he died, a few years later. The memories of that one night will remain with me forever, along with the recordings: the 2 LPs ( Stealin' Apples, and the JTP album on which Johhny plays stride versions of Chopin and Paganini, among other masterpieces ) which Johnny signed for me that night, among them. As a stride stylist, he belongs in the same conversation with Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson ( who upon hearing Johnny play for the first time, dubbed him: " number 3 ". Who am I to disagree with James P. ? Mark Borowsky, M.D.


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