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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

Jimmy Rowles: "The Guy Every Girl Singer Would Like to Work With."

Jimmy Rowles
Sy Johnson
All Music
Jimmy Rowles

Tomorrow is Jimmy Rowles's 99th birthday anniversary. The Spokane, Washington, native was quirky, unpredictable, and utterly compelling, making even the most hackneyed standard sound fresh, alive, and better than you'd remembered it. He had a unique harmonic sense that left plenty of room for surprise. He's reputed to have known more tunes than anyone else in the business, and he knew potential when he heard it. Diana Krall took lessons with him in 1983 before she enrolled at Berklee, and he (and bassist Ray Brown) encouraged her to sing.

He also coached Marilyn Monroe, and recalled their first meeting in a New Yorker profile by Whitney Balliett. "The studio sent me over to this sumptuous office on the lot where she was supposed to be and when I got there the blinds were drawn and the place looked empty. Then I saw this form asleep on the sofa. I didn't know what to do, so I sat down in a chair and lit a cigarette and dug it all. 'Here I am,' I thought, 'sitting alone in the dark with the most beautiful woman in the world.' Then I got nervous. So I cleared my throat several times and she woke up." 

Rowles, who married his high school sweetheart from Spokane, got established in Los Angeles in the early forties. He worked with Slim Gailliard and Slam Stewart, "when Slim was into his crazy vooterini talk," and played intermission piano for Art Tatum, an experience that made him feel "smothered." He told Balliett that Tatum's hands were "stubby, but they stretched like cobras," and said he traveled with "six cassettes of him." He also worked with the Spirits of Rhythm, and the combo co-led by Lee and Lester Young at Billy Berg's in Hollywood, and he toured with the big bands of Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. He said Lester was "the coolest man I ever met," and gave Balliett a detailed description of his unique use of language. Here's one example: "Everything that was good was 'bulging.' It was a telescoping of a phrase that had started out 'I've got eyes for that,' which meant, 'I like that,' and became 'I've got great big eyes for that,' and then, 'I've got bulging eyes for that.' But if he didn't like something or somebody, all he did was puff out his cheeks-- not words at all, just balloon cheeks."

Rowles recorded for Pacific Jazz in 1954 with bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Art Mardigan. This YouTube file combines "Let's Fall in Love" and "Chloe" from the session. "Chloe" is a stellar example of how subtly evocative Rowles's keyboard style could be of a big band.  He gloried in Ellingtonia and later made a superb album of Ellington-Strayhorn songs; this performance puts me immediately in mind of the Ellington Orchestra's early forties recording of the tune by Neil Moret.  That version's centerpiece is a 32-bar solo by Ben Webster, whom Rowles worked with (and played golf with) extensively in the '40s and '50s; he referred to Ben as "like a father to me, musically and personally." 


Carmen McRae said Jimmy was "the guy every girl singer in her right mind would like to work with." Among those who called on his services were Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Norma Winstone, as well as Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Hoagy Carmichael. Movie composers Bronislaw Kaper and Henry Mancini ran tunes by him, and he recorded with the jazz greats Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Benny Carter, Pepper Adams, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Al Cohn, Joe Pass, Michael Hashim, Scott Hamilton, and Gerry Mulligan. 

Between 1975 and '83, Rowles recorded eight great albums with Zoot Sims that vie with Count Basie's small group sessions as the most enduring of the pet projects that Norman Granz oversaw at Pablo Records. "Mr. J.R. Blues" features Rowles and Zoot's brother Ray on trombone.


Tony Bennett's renown as a musician's singer only grows with the nights he spends on concert stages interacting with and applauding his great touring band with Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, Harold Jones, and, of late, pianist Tom Ranier. When I noticed today on the anthology, "The Ultimate Tony Bennett," that Jimmy Rowles is credited as the pianist on "The Shadow of Your Smile," I figured Bennett must have required it be done as it's about the only sideman credit on the entire album of 22 songs. Speaking of credits, it's Johnny Mandel, composer of this great movie theme, who arranged and conducted this 1965 Bennett classic.


There's very little film footage of Rowles in performance, but he's amply showcased here in a 1981 Canadian television special hosted Oscar Peterson, who introduces the pianist @2:47 as one of the "quiet innovators." That's Ray Brown on bass; he and Rowles recorded two great duo albums for Concord Jazz, As Good As It Gets and Tasty.


Rowles worked with Billie Holiday in the mid-fifties when she played L.A., and made sessions with her in 1955 and '56 for Verve. In the Len Lyons volume, The Great Jazz Pianists, he said that he first worked with Billie when she sat in with Lee and Lester Young. "Billie and I got very close...I've always liked lyrics, been sensitive to them, and making albums with her was [when] I really learned how to accompany...The sessions were smooth, and she seemed happy. I never had any problems with her." After commenting on his work with Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, and Sarah Vaughan, whom he called "sort of the Art Tatum of singing," he referred again to Lady Day. "Now Billie Holiday was a completely different kind of singer. She didn't have a voice, really, she had a sound. It was a very natural sound like Louis Armstrong's, but it wasn't a singing voice...In terms of feeling, phrasing, and sound, Sarah and Billie are in different worlds. They have only one thing in common: they're both perfectionists."

Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rowles
Credit Pinterest
Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rowles

Here's a fascinating glimpse of Lady Day at work with Rowles on "Everything Happens to Me."  Listen for Billie telling her pianist that while everyone else has sung the Matt Dennis-Tom Adair standard "pretty," she intends to make it "funky, funky." She humorously substitutes an off-color word for "life," as in "I make a date for golf, And you can bet your life it rains." And it sounds like she's calling Rowles, "Indian." It may be only coincidence, but Rowles credited a Blackfoot Indian named Don Brown with turning him on to Teddy Wilson during his days as a student at Gonzaga University in Spokane. He said he resisted at first, but "after about four bars I said to myself, 'That's it! That's the way I want to play piano'!" Wilson, of course, was the leader of many of the all-star combos that backed Billie in the '30s.


In 1978, Rowles and Zoot Sims paid tribute to Billie on the album For Lady Day. It opens with a swinging take on "Easy Living," the Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger ballad that Billie first recorded in 1936.


Rowles's most famous composition is "The Peacocks." It was introduced on an album of that name that Stan Getz produced for Columbia in 1977. It showcased Rowles as both a pianist and singer; in the latter pursuit, he called himself Gravel Gertie. In the album's liner notes, he's quoted as saying that he drew on Ravel and Debussy in developing the Impressionistic piece that first came to him as he drove home from a late-night gig in L.A. As he told Len Lyons, "I really love that stuff...Every so often you crave something really deep."


Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.