“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

4 responses to ““SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

  1. Girish Trivedi

    Most interestingly Informative. Thanks.

    Keep swingin’


  2. Of all of the second generation of Harlem Stride Pianists , perhaps my favorite is Johnny Guarnieri. I have him among the handful of greatest stride pianists of all time. Descended from the family of violin makers, Johnny was trained in the classics, and developed into one of the most versatile of all traditional jazz pianists. He is to be heard on approximately six thousand recordings, with many of the greatest names in jazz. Sadly, much the same as his mentor James P. Johnson, his name is largely unknown to the public. I must admit that I too had never heard of Johnny Guarnieri before he came to Hanratty’s for a six week engagement in 1984. Dick Wellstood had filled me in on his history, and said that he played the Tatum arrangement of Tiger Rag. That was all I needed to know for it meant that Guarnieri was a pianist that I had to hear. I was not to be disappointed. Shortly before his engagement at Hanratty’s, he was Marian McPartland’s guest on her “Piano Jazz” program. He played a version of Maple Leaf Rag in 5/4 time, as well as a stride composition called The Great Fred Harding Circus Shout, which he had composed in a honor of a friend and devoted listener in Sherman Oaks. Parenthetically, I recently was successful in tracking down a recording of the McPartland program, which I wanted to hear again for musical, historical, as well as strong sentimental reasons. Johnny had been a fixture in the New York Jazz scene in the 1940’s and ‘50s before he moved to California in search of work in the film industry. A composer as well, Johnny wanted to write movie scores. He found most of those doors closed to him, and settled into a long engagement at a restaurant in Sherman Oaks called the Tail O’The Cock, where he played in a back room. Sadly, when he came to Hanratty’s, few people knew who he was, and fewer still came to hear him. With my busy medical school schedule at the time, I managed to do so only once, and regret to this day that I was unable to do so more often. Johnny was thrilled to have me as his keenly interested, captive audience. He told me of his youth, his love of baseball, how he wanted to play center field for the Yankees. Alas, Johnny was too small, slightly over five feet, with extremely small hands. My hands are not particularly large (I can reach an octave and with difficulty a ninth,) but when we put our hands up against one another’s, I saw how much smaller than mine Johnny’s were. He could not play a true tenth, but his left hand would jump back and forth between the upper and lower notes in order to simulate playing a tenth. As the foundation of a stride bass is the tenth, which of course Johnny would not be able to reach, he adapted this technique in order to be able to play a stride bass, and Johnny could stride with the best of the Harlem giants, including Donald Lambert who also did not have particularly big hands. Johnny related the story of the time he first met James P. Johnson. The way he described it to me, he thought it was about 1933 when he and some friends made their way to the Decca studios in midtown Manhattan, where they chanced upon a jowled, heavyset black man playing some very swinging piano. Johnny stopped to listen, and told the performer that he sounded just like his favorite pianist, Fats Waller. The man at piano answered “My name is James Price Johnson, and Thomas Fats Waller is my prize pupil.” James P. then had Johnny play for him. Johnny played stride piano well enough as a teenager, much as a teenage Fats had for the so called “Father of Stride Piano,” that James P. was prompted to say, “Johnny whatever your name is, you are number three. Fats is number two.” Thus, not yet twenty years old, Johnny Guarnieri was anointed as the second in the line of succession to James P. Johnson by none other than the master himself. Johnny was to later comment that the designation “Johnny whatever your name is” has been a metaphor for his life: a superbly talented and versatile pianist, who has played and recorded with a galaxy of better known greats, but who is still largely unknown to the public, much the same fate as suffered by number one, James P. Johnson.Whereas Fats, in his short life made over five hundred sides, starred in films, and played around the country, Johnny, after leaving New York for Los Angeles in the 1950’s struggled to remain in the public eye. He became the house pianist at the Tail O’ the Cock for many years, largely unappreciated by a Southern California public notoriously oblivious to great jazz talent. He continued to compose, a double piano concerto for example which was performed by the Pasadena Civic Orchestra, and he told me that he was working on an album where he would recreate the piano style of many of the great Harlem piano masters that he had heard in his youth: James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, Luckey Roberts, Donald Lambert, Stephen the Beetle Henderson, Willie Gant, Marlowe Morris, and Art Tatum. Sadly, Johnny did not live to complete the project for which he was personally writing the music. He died in February of 1985 shortly after suffering a heart attack while playing at a concert on the upper east side of Manhattan. Dick Wellstood was to follow him less than three years later. Both men would be mourned and sorely missed as unique talents and personalities.

  3. Thank you Mr Borowsky for so capably filling out the story of Johnny Guanieri!


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