Larry Bunker

Perfect supporting jazz musician

The Pianist Bill Evans had a huge influence in the jazz fraternity and particularly on the drummer Larry Bunker. Bunker seems to have taken it calmly in 1963 when Evans, who was playing a couple of weeks at a club in Bunker's home town of Los Angeles, called the drummer over from his seat at the bar and asked him to make up a trio:


I was a Bill Evans fan long before he asked me to sit in. I had stopped listening to all other music and musicians. I wore out his albums. I was simply in awe of him and everything that he played.

Lawrence Benjamin Bunker, drummer, pianist, vibraphonist and percussionist: born Long Beach, California 4 November 1928; died Los Angeles 8 March 2005.

The Pianist Bill Evans had a huge influence in the jazz fraternity and particularly on the drummer Larry Bunker. Bunker seems to have taken it calmly in 1963 when Evans, who was playing a couple of weeks at a club in Bunker's home town of Los Angeles, called the drummer over from his seat at the bar and asked him to make up a trio:

I was a Bill Evans fan long before he asked me to sit in. I had stopped listening to all other music and musicians. I wore out his albums. I was simply in awe of him and everything that he played.

Bunker stayed with Evans for the rest of the residence and eventually two albums of the music that they played in the club were issued on the Verve label.

When Evans returned to the town the following spring he asked Bunker to join him again and when the job was over invited him to return to New York as a permanent member of the trio:

I was a well-established studio musician at the time and I certainly was not looking to get back into jazz or to go out on the road. But, when Bill asked me if I wanted to go with him, I could hardly refuse. My then wife said I'd kick myself for the rest of my life if I turned it down.

Bunker joined Evans and toured all over Europe in 1964 and again in 1965.

Never one to make much noise as either a person or a drummer, Bunker was the epitome of the perfect supporting musician. In the studios he played everything from rock to classical and he had a jazz pedigree that was unmatched.

The Gerry Mulligan Quartet had been in existence for only a few months when in 1953 Bunker replaced its drummer Chico Hamilton. As was so often the case, Bunker moved into a band that included heavy drug-users - Mulligan, his trumpeter Chet Baker, Evans, and Art Pepper, for whom Bunker also worked, were all heroin addicts. Bunker remained uninvolved:

I have never done drugs. I had my own little bout with the bottle. If you are not a "druggie" and you are hanging out with people who are, they can manifest an outsider thing to you, no matter how nicely it's done. I had known too many people who were dear to me found face down in the gutter dead from an OD, so I was petrified of any of that.

Bunker was taught to play the drums when he was seven and learned piano from the age of 10. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1946 and played both instruments. When he was discharged in 1948 his first professional job was as a Bebop musician on a Mississippi riverboat.

Returning to Los Angeles in 1951 he doubled on piano and vibraphone and played with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. The star musicians amongst the locals realised his talents and he worked with Georgie Auld, Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes before joining Gerry Mulligan. When Chet Baker formed his own quartet after Mulligan was sent to jail for drug offences, Bunker worked in that group too.

He had a job in television with Bob Crosby's band in 1953 and 1954 and the following year was given the ultimate seal of approval when he was called on to take a seat in Peggy Lee's accompanying group. He also backed the singer in the film Pete Kelly's Blues. He played for and recorded with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Shorty Rogers, Benny Carter, Jim Hall, Woody Herman and Barney Kessel and was on the recordings that Billie Holiday made in Los Angeles. His skills made him a natural for vocalists and he was the first choice to record with Anita O'Day, June Christy and Mel Tormé.

During the Sixties he played jazz as a sideman in Los Angeles with groups led by Bud Shank, Pete Jolly and Clare Fischer. He toured Australia backing Judy Garland in 1964 and in 1965 Japan with Stan Getz.

Although Shorty Rogers said of Bunker, "He always lights a fire under the band and just makes everyone come alive", it is hard to think of a quieter or more subtle jazz musician. He certainly had an effect on the music that was in inverse proportion to the noise that he made. He was a self-effacing drummer and it's in character that his inspired vibraphone playing never received its due.

Steve Voce

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