West Coast Piano


1950’s business cards from Anne Seidlitz (WOW!)

Last week I published “Deck the Halls with Vince Guaraldi” at the New Yorker Culture Desk. The essay has been generally well received, except by die-hards who can’t accept any critique of their God Guaraldi.

Truthfully, I’m actually a little abashed about celebrating Guaraldi, for in no way is he a jazzer’s jazzer. If you are talking West Coast piano of a certain era, many serious fans love Hampton Hawes and Jimmy Rowles more than Vince Guaraldi. But it is through Guaraldi’s fame that I can sneak in Hawes’s and Rowles’s names into that famous New Yorker font: “Though his (Guaraldi’s) bebop lines were enjoyable, he lacked the fire of Hampton Hawes or the mystery of Jimmy Rowles.”

To make up for going commercial with Charlie Brown, I thought I’d transcribe some things by the greater masters.

Here and Now was one of my best-loved albums when I was a teenager. Hawes tackles “the latest hits” with an ultra-modern rhythm section, Chuck Israels and Donald Bailey.  On “What Kind of Fool Am I” Hawes makes up wonderful bebop melodies and drives his pulsating time through the middle of the chaos from the bass and drums. It’s doubtful Guaraldi could hang with Israel and Bailey here (VG was a notorious control freak about his rhythm sections).

fool 1fool 2


(Related DTM: Hampton Hawes and the Low Blues and Drums and Cymbals by Donald Bailey.)

Jimmy Rowles is perhaps the ultimate refined taste for the truly discerning connoisseur of mainstream jazz piano. I never paid Rowles much attention until Mike Kanan made me keep relistening. Then one day I “got it,” and now I’m one of those nuts that collects Rowles LPs.  So far, the two I think are most special are the solo album of Duke and Strayhorn (maybe the best Duke tribute album after Monk?) and The Special Magic of Jimmy Rowles with bassist Rusty Gilder.

I think Mike was also the one who made me aware of an extraordinary YouTube of Oscar Peterson hosting his show with Rowles as a guest.

The whole video is catnip for jazz piano fans. Oscar is so hip and respectful and the group with Ray Brown and Bobby Durham is so swinging. But I was especially struck by Rowles’s subtle chorus on “Our Delight.” Rowles almost doesn’t play like a pianist here: Most of his lines are more like an old-school tenor player, someone in-between Lester Young and Don Byas. That kind of “+1 higher octave smear” is definitely a way to get the piano to “talk” like a blues shouter or a brass person with a plunger.



Trivia: Jimmy Rowles was a studio musician in the 50s and 60s, and literally almost everyone has heard him play piano or electric piano on famous Henry Mancini hits. Yeah, that’s Jimmy Rowles! He was also the pianist on the first performance and recording of Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” with Woody Herman. It’s not a virtuoso part, exactly, but it is certainly exposed. Yeah, that’s Jimmy Rowles!

Speaking of trivia, the biography Vince Guaraldi at the Piano by Derrick Bang is full of interesting stuff. The plunger mute has turned up already on this post, and it turns out the the first time the “talking adults of Charlie Brown” immortal “wah-wah” was introduced, it was played by jazz great Frank Rosolino. And the whistler on the hit Hugo Montenegro rendition of Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Theme” was Guaraldi’s uncle, Muzzy Marcellino. (At one point the relatives were both charting on the radio.)

Finally, Tom Harrell is featured on some 70s Peanuts specials. According to Tom’s own tweet, “Yours truly on trumpet solo and horn arrangement.” The vocalist here is none other than Vince Guaraldi.