Obituary : Jimmy Rowles

Monday 03 June 1996 00:02 BST

"I think Jimmy is one in a million. Actually, he is unique in the universe. His genius is also the best-kept secret to the public at large since Mona Lisa's smile." Stan Getz was not known for giving lavish praise, but in writing of the pianist Jimmy Rowles he understandably went over the top. Getz continued: "Of course, insiders have known this for a long time, e.g. Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan know it - Johnny Mercer and Billie Holiday knew, so did Lester Young and Charlie Parker."

Rowles, who took his surname from his stepfather, was to number amongst his friends Duke Ellington and Erroll Garner, and as a jazz pianist he was different from but as effective as either of them. His playing was characterised by its originality and instinctive good taste. When accompanying vocalists he had an unerring ability to predict what was going to happen next and to provide a perfect cushion for it which could be unanticipated by both the singer and the listener. He was so capable an instrumentalist that only the great all-rounders like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan are worthy of mention in the same breath, and that is not to say that they are as good. Certainly they did not have his sense of humour for, although basically a retiring man, he was also a rebel.

On one occasion Rowles was at a rather staid club, Bradey's, in Greenwich Village, when he was invited to the table of his bass player, George Mraz. Mraz was sitting with his girlfriend Judy and a man whom he intoduced as a singer. "I didn't know who the hell he was," Rowles remembered. "Never heard of him before."

"He's a famous opera singer," said Judy. Over several drinks Rowles and the singer talked about music. "Sing me something!" demanded Rowles, "Let out a roar! If you don't I will." The singer obliged. "RrroooOOORRR!" The horrified owner of the club ran across the floor and said "Don't ever do that again!"

"He and I are gonna do an opera together," said Rowles. "Right, Plas?"

"That's right, Jim!" said Placido Domingo.

Rowles hated the piano lessons of his youth in Spokane, Washington. His stepfather wanted him to become a lawyer and Rowles enrolled at a law college where he met a fellow student, a Blackfoot Indian called Tom Brown. Brown made Rowles listen to his first jazz records. "Tom was a genius. He played me records of people like Ben Webster and Benny Carter and he'd point out the inner voices. 'Get inside the music,' he told me.

"After a year or so Marshall Royal came through Spokane with his band and I played for him. He told me I had to go to Los Angeles, so I did. My father thought I was still in law school."

This was 1940. In Los Angeles, Rowles first worked at the 331 Club where he nervously took his place amongst stars like Slim Gaillard, Art Tatum and the Nat Cole Trio.

At this time Rowles met Ellington's tenor player Ben Webster - the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Through Ben he became a familiar of Ellington, Jimmy Blanton and the other legendary Ellingtonians, and before long moved to Billy Berg's as Lester Young's pianist. Ben Webster recommended him to Benny Goodman and he joined Goodman's big band. When he saw a couple of Goodman's sidemen demolished by the infamous "BG Ray", a mindless and musically fatal stare, he knew that, rebel as he was, his days with Benny were numbered. Rowles moved to Woody Herman's band.

He went into the army in 1942. "I was lucky enough to be in the Special Services with Gil Evans for 16 months. It was like a free education. When I got out of the army I was holding up my first drink when the phone rang - it was Woody." When Herman disbanded in 1946 Rowles rejoined Goodman for a few months and worked in the bands of Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey.

"It was about that time that I started to do record dates. Peggy Lee came along and I worked for her. Some people at 20th Century Fox wanted her to sing something for some movie. While we were there some guy said he liked the way I played and would I come over for some of the studio orchestra calls. I really didn't think I could handle it, but he thought I could. I started to get calls and, before I know it, 25 years had passed."

His studio work in Hollywood left Rowles with plenty of opportunity to make jazz records and he did, most notably a long series with Billie Holiday and Ben Webster.

He moved to Now York in 1973 as an established soloist. It was then that he worked and recorded with Stan Getz, notorious for his unpredictable personality. "It was like working with a different guy every night, " said Rowles. "It was like he had multiple personalities a lot of times, but we got along real good." ("Stan Getz?" recalled Zoot Sims. "A nice bunch of guys.")

Getz's record company, CBS, tried to persuade him to make albums with commercial appeal. He agreed, as long as they would also let him make jazz albums by artists of his own choosing. The first and, as it transpired, only result of the second part of the bargain, was the album The Peacocks (1977), which Getz had planned as a solo album by Rowles. In the control room as Rowles played, Getz became carried away and left to return with his tenor sax. A series of masterpieces resulted.

"Jimmy reminds me of another James - Thurber," said Getz. "His acerbic wit is legendary, but few people know the scope of his skills, ranging from drawing (Thurberish), tennis (Mittyish), singing (indescribably Nat Coleish) and writing (delicious). It was his tune 'The Peacocks', a gem of a composition, that stirred me so, seasoned as I am, that I was irresistibly drawn out of the control booth and into the session."

Rowles was an ideal accompanist who had an unusually retentive memory for songs, "He's a champ," wrote Peggy Lee in her autobiography, and other singers who benefited from his talent included Kay Starr, Julie London and Betty Hutton. He toured with Ella Fitzgerald as her accompanist from 1981 to 1983, a job which he came to detest, and then returned to California where he worked in the night-clubs which he had come to loathe even more.

A couple of years ago Rowles recorded an outstanding album in London with Norma Winstone, one of the best British singers. Despite the fact that his health had failed to the stage where he had to keep taking oxygen throughout the session, the result was one of his best partnerships.

Rowles made innumerable albums under his own name, all typified by the same quality and sound of surprise, often in duos and trios and sometimes with his trumpet-playing daughter Stacy. Each counts as a great musical achievement and their consistency ensures that Rowles will be remembered as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all.

James George Hunter (Jimmy Rowles), pianist, composer, vocalist: born Spokane, Washington 19 August 1918; died Los Angeles 28 May 1996.

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