Al Plank, a fixture on the San Francisco jazz scene for more than forty years, passed away on April 8 at the age of 70, following a battle with lung cancer.
Best known in recent years as one of the regular musicians at Pearl's in North Beach, Plank was a highly versatile, swinging pianist and a superb accompanist who often anchored house bands at Monterey and other local festivals. His love of classical music shone through in his jazz playing, which was as sophisticated as it was spontaneous.
"Al was a giving and generous musician and person," said bassist Michael Zisman, a member of Plank's group at Pearl's. "He had a quick mind, a sharp wit, and could organize his thoughts and music in a unique and truly personal way. He was always learning new things. At any given moment, his playing could reflect anyone from Teddy Wilson to Herbie Hancock, but the timing was always pure Plank."
Plank had established himself as a performer long before moving to San Francisco in the early 1960s. Born in Muncie, Indiana on November 22, 1932, Plank was playing for money before he was out of high school. After studying at the University of Indiana (and a brief stint in Chicago with trumpeter Conte Candoli), Plank was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954. Following his discharge, Plank headed for Indianapolis, where he played with the young Freddie Hubbard. Plank also worked with an early version of The Mastersounds, a group featuring the Montgomery brothers Wes, Monk, and Buddy as well as drummer Benny Barth.
Plank made the pilgrimage to New York in 1957. Over the next five years, he became a frequent performer at Eddie Condon's club, and backed vocalists such as Morgana King and Anita O'Day before joining up with Woody Herman and his Herd, which undertook an extensive South American tour with Plank as pianist. Not long after his return to the States, Plank began to desire a less hectic life. San Francisco's booming jazz scene of the era offered a lively environment without the stress of New York.
Once in San Francisco, Plank found his niche as a musical director, first on television variety shows, then in a long-running gig at the city's Playboy Club. From 1965 to 1976, Plank backed up singers and comedians at the club, along the way meeting his wife, Rita, one of the club's "bunnies" (the pair married in 1983). In more recent years, Plank could be found working his popular Plank'n'Stein duo with saxophonist Hal Stein, or in the straight-ahead trio and quartet settings that marked his years at Pearl's.
Although Plank did not record frequently, he can be heard on several albums from the past two decades, alongside vocalists such as Dee Bell, Kitty Margolis, and Cathi Walkup. He also appears on instrumental albums with Mad & Eddie Duran and Scott Hamilton.
Those who worked with him remember Plank fondly as a funny, knowledgeable, and dedicated musician. As Zisman reflected, "In my opinion, he was one of the relatively few in our society who knew and appreciated what true greatness was, and held himself accountable to that standard."
Plank made his home in Novato. He is survived by his wife Rita, two sons, and a step-daughter.