New York in July 1963 I joined Ben Webster’s quartet at the Shalimar, on 7th Ave and 123rd St., across the street from the Hotel Theresa. The Theresa was headquarters for Elijah Muhammed and the Black Muslim movement. The clientele at The Shalimar was practically all black, and it often seemed like drummer Mel Lewis and I were the only white males for blocks around. There was a definite chill in the air, especially around the Fruit of Islam guys in their sharp navy blue suits, but people were polite, maybe because they saw we were with Ben Webster and Ben was a big hero in that neighborhood.
There was a group of four or five well-dressed men who sometimes hung out at a table near the far corner of the bar . They would be in deep conversation, and never glanced at me when I waited to order from the bartender. It sounded like they were into politics and world affairs, but I didn’t pay much attention. One night I overheard them trying to name the Detroit Tigers infield from 1934, and they were stuck at third base. So I said, “How about Marvin Owen?” And this one guy turned to me and we began to fire names at each other:Billy Sullivan, Dick Bartell, Johnny Gorsica, Elon Hogsett, and on and on for a few minutes, and then it was time for me to go back on the bandstand. Ben said to me, “You know who you’re talking to over there?” I said I didn’t and he said, “Ever heard of Malcolm X?” I said, “No kidding!” and that was that.
We stayed at The Shalimar for the rest of the summer. One night I was standing with some people out in front of the club smoking a cigarette, and I saw Malcolm and his friends coming across the street from the hotel. As Malcolm passed by he gave me a smile and said, “Hey, Baseball!” I don’t remember who I was standing with, but they looked at me with new respect. “You know him?” “Of course,” I replied.
I recognized early on in my piano-playing life that there are certain pianists (and I’m talking about jazz players in this discussion) that can touch the keyboard in such a personal way that the informed listener, upon hearing a few notes on a recording, knows instantly who is playing; and I also recognized the remarkable fact that among these pianists, there are a handful who draw such a personal sound out of the keyboard that nobody can duplicate it.
For instance Duke Ellington can strike a three note chord in the middle of the piano along with a single note down in the bass, and you can walk up to the same piano and hit the same four notes and you can’t get Duke’s sound. Blossom Dearie can play a chord and it will sound unearthly quiet, and you can play the same voicing, and it will be beautiful, but it won’t sound like Blossom. Often it’s the time feeling that’s so personal, as with Mose Allison or Erroll Garner or Pete Johnson, but the scary ones are the pianists that can touch a piano key and make a sound that nobody else can make.
Continuing the list of unique sound generators: Count Basie, Eddie Heywood, Claude Thornhill, Nat Cole, Thelonious Monk, Mel Powell, Bud Powell, Horace Silver- and outside of the strictly jazz realm don’t forget Frankie Carle and Chico Marx. And then there is Jimmy Rowles.
Jimmy Rowles was unique in a different way. It was the way he proceeded from note to note, He spun passages that were so dynamically constructed that he seemed to be bending notes, and everyone knows that’s impossible with a piano. Rowles could milk sound from the bass clef register that was almost organ-like. He splashed chords down with a rolling blurry attack that was his alone. I’ve never heard anybody come close to his piano sound.
I think he has been my main piano influence, even though I long ago stopped trying to sound like him. I was a teenager in the late forties when I first heard him on the Woody Herman Woodchopper Columbia records. I was stunned by the way he handled his parts in the rhythm section and the sometimes startling way he comped behind soloists. Then I bought the Peggy Lee ten-inch Decca LP “Black Coffee”, and I heard Rowles as accompanist. For my money nobody touches him when it comes to playing behind singers. His imagination is outrageous, and his taste is flawless– a perfect model for artistic playing.
Once in St. Paul when I was about nineteen, a trumpet player said to me, “Hey, you sound like Jimmy Rowles.” Although it wasn’t true of course, and it never would be true, I still consider it the most generous and rewarding compliment I ever received. But “sound like Jimmy Rowles?” Forget it.
Reprinted by kind permission of Dave Frishberg.