John Bunch, a jazz pianist whose elegant style led to prominent sideman
posts with Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett as well as an accomplished
solo career, died on Tuesday in Manhattan, where he lived. He was 88.
His death, at Roosevelt Hospital, was caused by melanoma, said Cecily
Gemmell, his wife and only immediate survivor.
Mr. Bunch was one of a handful of pianists who made a successful
transition from swing to bebop in the 1940s, though he never lost his
feeling for swing nor his admiration for Teddy Wilson, one of its piano
paragons. His main outlet in recent years was a trio called New York
Swing, with the guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and the bassist Jay Leonhart,
which played regularly in New York and Europe, releasing albums on
different record labels.
Born in Tipton, Ind., on Dec. 1, 1921, Mr. Bunch caught the jazz bug
early, idealizing the piano sound of Fats Waller. He studied with George
Johnson, a pianist of Walleresque style and local renown, before coming
to favor the smoother approach of Wilson, who played with Goodman. By
age 16, Mr. Bunch was hitching rides to another town, to sit in with
musicians at the Black Elks lodge. He was a working musician in his own
right by the outbreak of World War II.
He joined the Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a bombardier. During a
B-17 Flying Fortress run over Germany on Nov. 2, 1944, his bomber was
shot down and he became a prisoner of war. He spent the next six months
in a camp, until its liberation in late April.
After the war, his intention was to enroll in music school, but he was
stymied by a lack of classical training. Instead he became a speech
major at Indiana University - and an extracurricular student of bebop,
which by then was in full force. Intrigued by its harmonic and rhythmic
complexities, he found a new hero in the bebop pianist Bud Powell. And
he found work in Indianapolis, connecting with bebop-savvy musicians
like the guitarist Wes Montgomery.
In the 1950s Mr. Bunch, seeking greater opportunity in Los Angeles,
joined the Woody Herman Orchestra. He followed Herman to New York and
stayed there, transitioning into Goodman's band. He also worked in
groups led by the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and the drummers Buddy Rich
and Gene Krupa, though his longest stretch would be with Mr. Bennett,
with whom he worked as pianist and musical director for six years.
The subtlety and sensitivity that Mr. Bunch brought to the art of
accompaniment, coupled with an almost self-effacing nature, may have
prevented him from reaching greater stardom. But he was busy in his last
decades, making well-regarded albums and playing to appreciative
audiences. His final gig, with New York Swing, was on March 11.
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