Randy Sandke writes:

Someone should really acknowledge the passing of John Bunch.  He was a truly unique stylist and a brilliant improviser.  I remember listening with awe once as he played multiple choruses on the blues, every one taking up a new idea and developing it through each 12-bar sequence without being the slightest bit pedantic.  I thought I was listening to the spontaneous creation of a 20th Century Goldberg Variations.  John had a all the qualities of a great player – originality, flawless technique (which never called attention to itself), great subtlety, and infectious swing.  All he lacked was the major recognition, partly because his personality was very much like his playing: no flash or gimmicks.  Also, perhaps because he was identified as a “mainstream” player, which signifies lack of originality in critical parlance.  But as Harry Allen once said, John was always the most modern (and timeless I would add) player on the bandstand.


Nate Chinen’s piece in the NY Times was respectful and accurate to a point, but again, it implied that John was a “swing” player (there’s that word again).  John’s conception began with bebop, and his whole approach (rhythm, harmonic, melodic) was much more in the Hank Jones school than Teddy Wilson, though again, he spoke unequivocally in his own voice.

John was also a gentle and self-effacing person, on the reserved side, but one who had a wealth of fascinating stories to tell: of being shot down over Germany in WWII and spending months in a prisoner-of-war camp (all of which he told me as we were touring Germany); how his trio in Indianapolis couldn’t find a bass player so they used Wes Montgomery playing bass lines on guitar; and how, after playing with a young Freddie Hubbard, he thought “this guy sounds terrible; he’ll never make it.”

John will be sorely missed by those who knew him and those who revered his playing.  Like any true artist, he leaves a void that cannot be filled.

I can only add that I first saw and heard John play with Ruby Braff in the early Seventies.  In retrospect, I was so awed by Ruby’s playing that it took some time for me to actually hear closely what John was consistently, quietly doing.  But I can still see and hear Ruby standing by the piano while John soloed, urging him on, agreeing, smiling at what he heard. 

In a musical landscape of extroverts and self-dramatizers, John pursued his art — serenely and thoughtfully, with wonderful swing and understated eloquence.  In my experience, certain musicians, now gone, were always reliable and more: seeing them onstage, I could relax, knowing that the music was going to be superb.  Jake Hanna, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, John Bunch.  We are fortunate to have heard them, to have been welcomed into their individual rooms.

To hear more from John himself, visit Marc Myers’ invaluable JazzWax, where he is posting an interview he did with John — incomplete but invaluable:

10 responses to “JOHN BUNCH by RANDY SANDKE

  1. Pat Carroll

    just today I did my obit for JAZFAX in which my final sentence was “He played and recorded in every style and did so with a delicacy and refinement that was accepted and could be enjoyed by everyone regardless of their particular favorite style.”

  2. I got turned on to John after hearing his name come up repeatedly when soloists were asked to name their favorite accompanists. Judy Carmichael did a nice interview with him last summer:

  3. Danny Tobias

    I loved playing with John! He was kind enough to take time to help me, and correct me if I played a melody incorrectly.

  4. “Should have lived for ever” my wife said when I gave her the sad news.

    Immaculate, nay, perfect player. Randy is spot on by saying ‘spontaneous creation’ when listening to John.

    I have been honoured to have met and talked to one of the truly great jazz pianists and a humble man into the bargin.

  5. John Whaley

    I had the pleasure of hearing John on the occasions when he came to Belfast — as a soloist or accompanist he was without equal and a genuine human being — we are lucky he made so many recordings — may he rest in peace.


  7. bob sparkman

    Boy, did Randy’s comments ever hit home with me! I had the privilege of working with John often at the last Condon’s and, besides being the most brilliant pianist of his day, he was one of the world’s nicest guys. I as once asked by a young jazz fan to recommend a contemporary “best to listen to” to learn about jazz, and without even a thought said “John Bunch.” Thanks Randy! Bob Sparkman

  8. Dear Bob,

    We never met — but I recall hearing you at the “old” “new” Condon’s circa 1975 when you were part of a band with the dangerous and ethereal Ruby Braff. And maybe I caught you at Arthur’s, too. I surely admired your playing — and am grateful to have you as a reader here. Cheers, Michael Steinman

  9. bob sparkman

    Hi, Mike — Thank you for the nice comments. Playing with Ruby was, indeed, a”dangerous”, if exciting experience. Like John, you really learned from him, but unlike John, there was some “pain” with the pleasure! I might suggest that a sorely under appreciated player from whom many of us “learned” in the ’70s, was trombone/pianist Bobby Pratt who worked with Roy Eldridge at Ryan’s. Bobby played piano with the Condon’s Hot Lunch band on Fridays and trombone with the Jazzmen at the Donnell Library on Wednesdays, and we all loved him and his music – a “quiet” giant! And thank you for the great web site! Just got this computer and am very encouraged that our music is still so vibrant and alive, thanks to sites such as yours. Cheers back at you!! Bob

  10. I had the privilige of working with , listening to and getting to know John over a number of years. the experience always left me feeling exhilerated. We used to introduce him as “The Fred Astaire of the piano”. He was a class act all the way. he will be sorely missed.
    there should be some kind of tribute paid.

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