In person, jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles was a cutup, a card, a madcap presence, a piece of work. After coming east from California in 1973, he would appear often, sometimes for weeks at a time, at Bradley’s, The Cookery, The Knickerbocker, Michael’s Pub, and other top New York City piano rooms, usually in duos with acoustic double bassists George Mraz, Buster Williams, or Tommy Bryant; or with electric bass guitarist Bill Takas, playing a fleet, elegant, swinging piano and, in his raspy voice, tossing off witticisms and anecdotes about music and performers—especially other pianists such as Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, or organist Jimmy Smith—from behind the piano. He gossiped with patrons, fans, and other musicians at the bar and at tables between sets, swilled vodka-tonics and carried on, and never seemed to be having anything less than a terrific time. He occasionally vocalized, talk-singing standards like Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Sunday, Monday, or Always,” the Victor Young melody “A Hundred Years From Today,” the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields song “Remind Me,” the Billie Holiday-associated “Miss Brown to You,” or his own composition “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” a country-and-western novelty in which Rowles’ lyrics incorporate the titles of such Monk tunes as “Ruby, My Dear,” “Pannonica,” and “Round Midnight.” He was fond of off-beat (and sometimes off-color) jokes and puns about music life: Once, when asked who had written the moody “Yellow Day,” he answered, with great precision, “Joe Beam,” deliberately mispronouncing composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s surname.
During his engagements at Bradley’s, Rowles frequently tutored owner Bradley Cunningham, benefactor and confidant to pianists and a gifted amateur pianist himself. Together, they were a sight: the medium-sized Rowles with his shaggy gray hair, academic’s mustache, and horned-rim glasses, and the linebacker-sized Cunningham, once described as a “cartoon dinosaur,” at six-foot-four and 235 pounds, with his shaggy gray hair and aviator spectacles, hunched side-by-side over the piano at Bradley’s after hours, knocking back vodka-tonics and working out chord progressions. As the eminent bebop pianist Al Haig said of him, “That’s Jimmy—he drinks, he smokes, he cavorts.”
Given his devil-may-care nature, it’s easy to overlook Rowles’ status as one of the most gifted and technically versatile pianists of his generation. His initial inspirations were Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, and Teddy Wilson, and he once said that he almost never traveled without several cassettes of Tatum’s playing. Rowles’ style—eclectic, understated, and unpredictable with occasional humorous flourishes—incorporated broad aspects of the “mainstream” piano style of the swing era and various idiosyncracies of phrasing and chording from the bebop that followed, even the occasional snatch of ragtime from jazz’s earliest days. With his chameleonesque adaptability and familiarity with an enormous repertoire of well over a thousand songs, Rowles was asked to work with many of the top names in jazz—leaders of big bands like Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Bob Crosby, and Les Brown, small-group leaders like Lester Young, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims, even the irascible Benny Goodman, whose prickly personality and sharp, often demeaning criticism could reduce an overly sensitive pianist to tears.
A good starting point to hear Rowles as a soloist might be the 1977 album If I’m Lucky, which pairs him with tenor-saxophonist Sims, backed by bassist George Mraz and drummer Mousey Alexander. The selections, most of them chosen and arranged by Rowles, include the title tune by Josef Myrow—one of a number of Europeans, along with Dimitri Tiomkin, Bronislaw Kaper, and others who fled the Nazis and Soviets to settle in America after World War II and write for Hollywood. The title tune of a 1946 film starring Phil Silvers, Perry Como, and Carmen Miranda, it is a seldom-heard gem. There are a pair of Harry Warren numbers—“You’re My Everything” and “Shadow Waltz”—and the 1940 favorite “I Hear a Rhapsody,” along with bandleader-composer Buddy Johnson’s bluesy ballad “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” a rocking version of composer-trumpeter Neal Hefti’s “Legs,” and the obscure “Gypsy Sweetheart,” a dreamy ballad reminiscent of “Over the Rainbow.”
Rowles was a masterly interpreter of the repertoire of Duke Ellington and his alter ego, the composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn. A single evening might well include treatments of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and “Cottontail” (a reworking of “I Got Rhythm”) together with Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” “Day Dream,” and “Satin Doll.” With his treasure trove of songs and sunny disposition, Rowles was a simpatico partner for singers, working and/or recording at different times with Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Norma Winstone, Sarah Vaughan, Kay Starr, Helen Humes, Jo Stafford, and Carmen McRae, among others. He briefly coached Marilyn Monroe in the late 1950’s at the beginning of a lengthy period of studio work in Hollywood for television and film, working on such TV shows as M Squad, with Lee Marvin; Richard Diamond, Private Detective, with David Janssen; and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with Tuesday Weld and Bob Denver, and collaborated on projects with Henry Mancini for some 20 years. Later, after spending time as Fitzgerald’s regular accompanist between 1981 and 1983, Rowles was instrumental in convincing the 19-year-old Diana Krall to add singing to her repertoire after she left Berklee School of Music and moved to Los Angeles.
He accompanied Peggy Lee a number of times, including on her early hit “Black Coffee” in 1953 (with trumpeter Pete Candoli playing some startling background obbligatos) and recorded several times with Holiday, including two of her most affecting late albums, All or Nothing at All and Songs for Distingué Lovers, both produced by impresario Norman Granz for his Verve label and recorded within a five-month period between August 1956 and January 1957. Granz, as he had begun to do with Ella Fitzgerald for her Songbook albums, encouraged Holiday to sing standards by the most accomplished composers and lyricists, and here are Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” Harold Arlen’s plaintive “Ill Wind,” Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” the Gershwin classics “A Foggy Day” and “But Not For Me,” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream,” along with Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Rube Bloom’s “Day In, Day Out,” and Ralph Rainger’s underappreciated “I Wished on the Moon,” with lyrics by Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table fame. At this point, late in her too-short life, Holiday’s voice was ragged from cigarettes, booze, and other stimulants, but she could still put over songs in a way that touched the heart, and Rowles’ sensitive chording, plus the background and solo contributions of trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and tenor saxophone giant Ben Webster, helped her carry everything off, even on “Sophisticated Lady,” with its tricky intervals a difficult tune for singers.
Jazz critic Whitney Balliett, a fixture at The New Yorker for more than 40 years and one of the most perceptive observers in the business, said of Rowles in 1974, during an appearance at The Cookery, that
his playing is extraordinarily intense, and it demands exactly as much as it offers. Every tune is multi-layered and, except for those rare times when he tires and repeats certain phrases, it has no soft spots. His singular harmonic sense governs his attack. . . . His touch is almost Tatum-light and even his rushes of hard no-nonsense single notes in fast numbers have no clamor or urgency.
Rowles told Balliett that
my playing is a matter of concentration, a matter of intensity. A jumble of things flash constantly through my mind, like peoples’ faces and what I’m going to play in the channel, and all the while the melody is with me subconsciously. I have that, and I have the chords. They’re the carpet, and my playing is like dancing on that carpet.
Yet that precious carpet of chords and melody also underlay his talents as a composer which, oddly contrary to his outgoing personality, he customarily downplayed. In addition to the novelty “Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” his many other tunes included “The Peacocks”—recorded by Stan Getz and many others—“Morning Star,” “Baby Don’t You Quit Now” (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer), “Old Orleans,” and “Looking Back,” several of which appear on his final album, the 1994 A Timeless Place, a collection of his own compositions in which he shares billing with jazz vocalist Jeri Brown. A careful listener can expect wonderful surprises: intricate melodies and unexpected harmonies, quirky lyrics. Not surprisingly, since Rowles was being and playing Rowles, it swings when and where it should and touches the soul when and where it should.
Someone very unique was lost to jazz when Rowles passed away from heart disease in May 1996 at age 77. There may possibly be a few like Jimmy out there somewhere, but they haven’t yet surfaced. He was, as the saying goes, sui generis.