Ross Tompkins

Versatile jazz pianist

Ross Tompkins, pianist: born Detroit 13 May 1938; married; died St Augustine, Florida 29 June 2006.

The pianist Ross Tompkins was one of the horde of immensely gifted jazz musicians that moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of the abundant work in the film, radio and television industries concentrated there. The studio work was dull, but nights were free and there was, in the good years, a multitude of jazz clubs. Because the musicians were so gifted, standards in the jazz groups were exceptionally high. The result, during the Fifties and Sixties, was that bandleaders like Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich or Bill Holman had an unlimited choice of great soloists.

Moving to the city in 1971 Tompkins came late, but soon became ubiquitous. He was both an outstanding soloist and a tasteful accompanist who could play any kind of jazz. He was drawn into jazz when he heard Louis Armstrong; his piano playing then became influenced by that of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Fats Waller.

His family moved from Detroit to Florida when he was young and he was brought up there. He studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston and moved to New York in 1960. There was no shortage of good pianists in New York, but Tompkins found his niche and worked in clubs with giants such as Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman and Wes Montgomery. He had a regular job with the Kai Winding Trombones from 1960 to 1967, making exhausting tours to play at clubs and college campuses.

When Winding accepted a job as musical director of the Playboy Clubs, the touring slowed down and amongst his other work Tompkins became the pianist of the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet and that of another quintet led by Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. He worked with Benny Goodman during 1968 and managed to get a much-sought-after job in the New York studios.

On moving to Los Angeles he joined the orchestra of The Tonight Show, a television programme presented by Johnny Carson that had a huge audience across the United States. Tompkins stayed in the band from 1971 until 1992 when Carson left the show. He became the first-choice pianist for many local musicians, notably the guitarist Herb Ellis and the trumpeter-comedian Jack Sheldon.

Tompkins began recording albums under his own name in 1975, but mostly recorded for other people. He was co-leader on albums with the violinist Joe Venuti (1977) and with Red Norvo (1979) and worked often in the big band and small groups led by the drummer Louie Bellson. In 1979 he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Herb Ellis.

In New York Tompkins had been a key member in the quintet led by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and he was delighted when Zoot Sims came to Hollywood to record in 1976. Sims chose Tompkins as his pianist on the album Hawthorne Nights, recorded for Norman Granz's Pablo label. Another of his old bosses, Al Cohn, came from New York in 1978 to work briefly on the West Coast orchestrating music for the 50th anniversary of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Tompkins took the chance to book a season for the two of them to play at Donte's, then a jazz bistro in North Hollywood where Tompkins played regularly with the guitarist Herb Ellis. Cohn joined Tompkins's regular trio to make the album Ross Tompkins and Good Friends for Concord in 1977.

Throughout the Eighties Tompkins worked mainly with the bands of the trumpeter Bill Berry and with his friend Jack Sheldon. "We hit it off," said Sheldon:

I've always wanted to work with just a piano. It really is intimate. And Ross is so good. He can do anything and he knows every tune. Every tune I've ever called, he's known, and I know quite a few.

Tompkins made his last album of piano solos, Younger Than Springtime, for the Arbors label in Florida in 2000.

Steve Voce