I suspect that everyone who reads JAZZ LIVES has heard the magical sounds of Joe Bushkin‘s piano, songs, voice, and trumpet.  My birthday celebration for him is a bit early — he was born on November 7, 1916, but I didn’t want to miss the occasion.  (There will also be birthday cake in this post — at least a photograph of one.)

He moved on in late 2004, but as the evidence proves, it was merely a transformation, not an exit.

I marvel not only at the spare, poignant introduction but Bushkin’s sensitive support and countermelodies throughout.

“Oh, he was a Dixieland player?” Then there’s this:

and this, Joe’s great melody:

A list of the people who called Joe a friend and colleague would include Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett,Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Zoot Sims, Bill Harris, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Judy Garland, Jimmy Rushing, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Spargo, Red McKenzie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Tough, Brad Gowans, Benny Goodman, Joe Rushton, Roy Eldridge, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Ruth Brown, June Christy, Barney Kessel, Pearl Bailey, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Chuck Wayne, Jake Hanna . . .

Here’s a sweet swinging tribute to Irving Berlin in 1951 that segues into Joe’s own homage to Miss Bankhead, PORTRAIT OF TALLULAH:

He’s on Billie’s SUMMERTIME and Bunny’s first I CAN’T GET STARTED; he’s glistening in the big bands of Bunny, Tommy, and Benny.  He records with Frank Newton in 1936 and plays with Kenny Davern, Phil Flanigan, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna here, sixty-one years later:

But I’m not speaking about Joe simply because of longevity and versatility.  He had an individual voice — full of energy and wit — and he made everyone else sound better.

A short, perhaps dark interlude.  Watching and listening to these performances, a reader might ask, “Why don’t we hear more about this wonderful pianist who is so alive?”  It’s a splendid question.  In the Thirties, when Joe achieved his first fame, it was as a sideman on Fifty-Second Street and as a big band pianist.

Parallel to Joe, for instance, is Jess Stacy — another irreplaceable talent who is not well celebrated today.  The erudite Swing fans knew Bushkin, and record producers — think of John Hammond and Milt Gabler — wanted him on as many record dates as he could make.  He was a professional who knew how the music should sound and offered it without melodrama.  But I suspect his professionalism made him less dramatic to the people who chronicle jazz.  He kept active; his life wasn’t tragic or brief; from all I can tell, he didn’t suffer in public.  So he never became mythic or a martyr.  Too, the jazz critics then and now tend to celebrate a few stars at a time — so Joe, brilliant and versatile, was standing behind Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, then and now.  He was also entertaining — someone who could act, who could do a television skit with Bing and Fred, someone who could fill a club by making music, even for people who wouldn’t have bought a Commodore 78.  Popularity is suspect to some people who write about art.

But if you do as I did, some months back, and play a Bushkin record for a jazz musician who hasn’t heard him before, you might get the following reactions or their cousins: “WHO is that?  He can cover the keyboard.  And he swings.  His time is beautiful, and you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else.”

One of the memorable moments of my twentieth century is the ten-minute YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY /  MOTEN SWING that Joe, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Wayne Wright, and Jo Jones improvised — about four feet in front of me — at the last Eddie Condon’s in 1976.  “Memorable” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this: Joe and his marvelous quartet (Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton or Sid Weiss, and Jo Jones) that held down a long-running gig at the Embers in 1951-2:

Something pretty and ruminative — Joe’s version of BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

And for me, and I suspect everyone else, the piece de resistance:

For the future: Joe’s son-in-law, the trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill — whom we have to thank for the wire recording (!) of SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY —  has organized what will be a stellar concert to celebrate his father-in-law’s centennial.  Mark your calendars: May 4, 2017.  Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Ted Rosenthal, John Colianni, Eric Comstock, Spike Wilner, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Steve Johns, drums; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Bob Merrill, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; and of course a surprise guest.

Here’s the promised photograph of a birthday cake.  Perculate on THIS:


Thank you, Joseephus.  We haven’t forgotten you.

May your happiness increase!


  1. Nicholas Niles

    A fine tribute to a good friend…joe Bushkin…as Joe used to quote fats Waller’s remark to him….”it’s so easy when you know how. ” A group of us got a record out of Atlantic called ” play it again Joe” maybe you have heard it. The company’s was called “Boomerang Records” . We didn’t know whether it would it us back. I spent many hours with Joe and he was maybe the funniest man I have known…and a real good, supportive friend. May 4 th …great idea…best Nick

    Nick Niles 123 Old Field Rd. Hawley, Pa. 18428 570 775 7138 570 575 2399 (cell) Sent from my iPad


  2. Dear Nick, I know you — you played piano on one or more of the CHANGING TIMES jazz party records, right? Cheers, Michael

  3. Thanks for reminding us about Joe Bushkin, his talent and effusive personality. Here are two short excerpts from my interview with Joe, for the Fillius Jazz Archive, which took place in Los Angles on 2/15/99.

    As a young man performing in the 30s:

    JB: Yeah it was back in the 30’s, I played intermission piano at Kelly’s Stables when the Coleman Hawkins Quartet was there, and I was at the Embers. We opened the Embers in New York which became the hot jazz venue and we were there for nine weeks, I was there with Milt Hinton, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones on drums, that was the quartet, and Art Tatum was there appearing. We spelled one another, and it was hard work because you played four or five shows a night from 9:30 to 4 in the morning. And many times, Art would call me and ask me to do his first set for him because he wasn’t feeling up to it. And I’d be happy to do it. You know, when you’re a young cat and you’ve got a lot of energy, and also, a great love for what I was doing, which was the biggest break of all. The percentage of people in the world who go to work everyday and really love what they do, is very, very small. I can’t even think of it mathematically, it’s way down there.

    On Louis Armstrong:
    JB: Well I’ll tell you, Louis Armstrong, I like the fact that Wynton Marsalis talks about Louis all the time. And I appreciate that. It makes me listen to him a little more carefully. And Louis was the Messiah of our music, there’s no two ways about it. And I don’t know how to put this except Louis was like a great, great obstetrician who delivered a thousand kids but didn’t have any of his own. And what Louis did, I meant to mention, is that when I did the Armstrong / Goodman concert, he always had a little Wollensack and he would record every one of our performances. And with all the static and just done off the cuff he’d throw a mic on the floor someplace, backstage. And he was listening and I remember him listening to “The Saints Go Marching In” which is a finale. And one evening he played [scats] and he liked that phrase, so he kept it in from then on. So Louis was a stickler for listening to himself, and finding riffs that he liked, and avoiding the ones he thought were not as happy or didn’t sound like him as much as he wanted it to.

  4. Don "Zoot"Conner

    Loved the above comments-history I didn’t expect to get.Nice job,Michael.

  5. Joe B on joining Muggsy’s band and ‘Relaxin’ at the Touro’ (from Richard Hadlock’s 1995 notes for RCA/Bluebird CD ‘Muggsy Spanier 1939):
    “When I finally joined Muggsy in Chicago […] we met to talk it over in the Three Deuces, where Art Tatum was appearing. Muggsy was now playing opposite Fats Waller at the Sherman and we worked out a kind of stage show for the two bands. Muggsy was a man of great integrity. We played a blues in C and I made up a little intro. After tthat I was listed as the co-composer of ‘Relaxin’at the Touro’ […] it was all head stuff, no written notes, but those were damn good records.”

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