Bernard Peiffer: Formidable
In February 2001 I met with Stephan Peiffer in my office at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He handed over to me a box of approximately sixty-seven reels of tape representing more than twenty years of his father's recorded legacy. Bernard had been my friend and teacher, so the hours that were required for me to transfer the tapes, create a comprehensive discography, and select performances for a CD release were rewarding not only because of the music that I heard, but also because of the rare opportunity to give something back to someone who was a profound influence early in my musical life. With me acting as producer and Stephan as executive producer we enlisted the services of a wonderful audio engineer from NFL Films, Scott Perry, to assist in transferring, editing and mastering. Using an amazing restoration program that is employed in movie production, Scott was able to make the amateur live tapes sound like a studio recording.
As the recording was nearing completion and minor changes such as track order were being fine tuned, I began to work on my contribution to the liner notes. Although extensive segments of my notes made it into the final album, space limitations and Stephan's poignant family perspective made it impossible to include all of my research and analysis. What follows is the complete draft of my notes as written sometime in 2003. Some of the information was acquired through research of available material and some through my personal recollection of conversations with Bernard, including a story about his best friend's demise at the hands of the Gestapo. It is my intent to add to the available documentation of this historically important pianist.
It should be noted that four of the compositions were untitled improvisations at the time my notes were written and were later renamed by Stephan Peiffer. Track one, the Foxhole Café Improvisation, became "Voyage"; track four, the Cohen Studio Improvisation, became "Coccinelle"; track seven, Private Concert Improvisation #4, became "The Great Escape"; and track ten, The Warm Up Improvisation, became "Nest On The Hill."
Following the biography and background information about the music is a series of tributes from some of Bernard's former students now enjoying successful careers in music. I want to thank everyone who contributed and also note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Anyone whose music and career has been impacted by Bernard is invited to contact us for future reference.
About Bernard Peiffer
Bernard Peiffer was born on October 23, 1922 in Epinal, in the Vosges district of northeastern France. Bernard's father, formerly an army man, was a violinist and was devoted to chamber music. An uncle, Georges Peiffer, was a composer and church organist. Bernard began his music study at the age of nine; he studied piano and harmony privately with Pierre Maire (a student of Nadia Boulanger) and dazzled older students with his ability to play back extended sections of classical pieces by ear. He continued his studies through his teens at Ecole Normale de Paris, the Marseille Conservatory, and the Paris Conservatory, where he won the coveted and revered First Prize in Piano.
Attracted by the freedom and improvisational basis of jazz and influenced by the pianistic styles of Fats Waller and Art Tatum, Bernard made his professional debut in 1943, at the age of 20, with alto saxophonist Andre Ekyan. Soon after his debut he worked at the Boeuf Sur Le Toit Paris nightclub with Django Reinhardt. Bernard credited Reinhardt with teaching him the music business and Django predicted a brilliant career for the young Peiffer.
After witnessing the execution of his friend on a Paris street at the hands of the Gestapo, Bernard joined the French Resistance Movement. He was eventually captured by the Gestapo and imprisoned for over a year.
Out of the army in 1946, he resumed his music career, playing concerts for the French Hot Club at the Salle Pleyel and resuming his association with Django Reinhardt. He toured with Hubert Rostaing and Jacques Helian. In February 1948 he performed in Nice at what was probably the world's first jazz festival; it was there that Bernard's playing so impressed Ellington alumnus Rex Stewart that he hired Bernard to tour and record with his band. After working with Stewart he recorded with Don Byas, James Moody, and Kenny Clarke, and he reunited with Django for club dates and a tour.
By 1949 Bernard was a national name. Through the early fifties his career flourished: he won a Jazz Hot Magazine Award, led his own quintet at Club St. Germain and the Ringside, composed soundtracks for films, and made a series of recordings; his first as leader, recorded for the Blue Star label, won the "Grande Prix du Disque" Award in 1953. A star in the clubs of Paris, Monte Carlo and Nice, Bernard attracted the attention of visiting American musicians like Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, and Hazel Scott. Jazz critic Barry Ulanov heard Bernard perform and became an enthusiastic supporter, later writing in Metronome Magazine, "Nobody I've heard matches his skills as an improviser and his thorough knowledge of his instrument." Alain Tercinet observes, "His intuition, dazzling speed and strokes of genius served by a faultless piano technique... had no equivalent on the Paris jazz scene."
On Monday, December 20th, 1954 Bernard Peiffer left his successful career in France and immigrated to the United States. Influenced by the encouragement of his colleagues and by his own commitment to continued artistic growth, Bernard immersed himself in the American jazz scene and American culture. He settled in Philadelphia in 1954 and was soon joined by his wife Corine and baby daughter Rebecca. Frederique, his daughter from an earlier marriage to singer Monique Dozo, remained in Paris. His first American-born child, Pascale, arrived in 1956; her tragic illness and death at the age of 2 profoundly affected Bernard and is reflected in his moving "Poem for a Lonely Child." Son Stephan arrived in 1962.
During his first decade in the United States, Bernard's career included some successes. Performances at Carnegie Hall, Birdland, the Composer Room, the Academy of Music, and the Newport Festival, in addition to television and radio appearances and the release of seven albums, all indicate a measure of success. He also received critical acclaim. Leonard Feather wrote, "Peiffer is amazing. I can't recall any jazz pianist except Art Tatum blessed with such mastery." He expressed the opinion that Peiffer was, in many respects, the "greatest living jazz pianist." Unfortunately he also fell into periods of inept management and promotion, intermittent activity, and problems with record labels.
After the release of his final commercially produced album in 1965 and kidney surgery at the end of the decade, Bernard spent more time performing and teaching in Philly. He did some touring with his trio, performed at college campuses, and made a trip to Los Angeles for performances at Donte's in September of 1970. In 1974 he performed at the Newport-New York Festival's solo piano night held in Carnegie Hall. He brought the house down. "I thought Carnegie was going to explode," he later said. Bernard continued to teach and perform around Philadelphia until his kidney problems worsened in 1976. He died on September 7. He was 53 years old. His career, which started with such acclaim and promise in France, never reached the level of success in the United States that critics and fellow musicians had expected.
Ironically the years leading up to his death were filled with continued artistic evolution and brilliantly creative performances. Without a recording contract, and free of the influence of producers and commercial pressures, Bernard fiercely followed his lifelong commitment to the principle that the creative artist must synthesize his influences, and make his own statement according to his own instincts and impulses.
He said, "The musician must be free to exercise his own will. If he allows himself to be limited or permits others to restrain him to any great extent, he is denying these obligations and closeting himself off from his own possibilities." Bernard's performances around Philly were events. Devoted audiences of musicians (including a loyal contingent of Philadelphia Orchestra players), music students, and fans were consistently treated to extraordinary performances.
Since his death his music has fallen into near obscurity and much of his most creative and visionary playing has never been available. Fortunately, a significant amount of the playing that he did around Philadelphia was captured on tape by friends and associates. It is from these tapes that this disc of solo performances was compiled, a truly historic document of one of history's greatest keyboard improvisers.
The Music presented on this CD was recorded between 1970 and 1975 at concert or club performances in the Philadelphia area. Only Track 3, "The Cohen Studio Improvisation," was recorded in a professional studio. (Special thanks to Philadelphia Orchestra clarinetist Ron Reuben for preserving the Cohen Studio tape.)
Five tracks, "All The Things You Are," "Black Moon," "Private Concert Improvisation #4," "The Warm Up," and "Yesterdays" were recorded in 1971 at a small concert in someone's living room not far from Bernard's Chestnut Hill home. I was fortunate to have been in attendance, and the music sounds as fresh and contemporary now as it did when first performed. "The Warm Up" is a free improvisation that unfolded as Bernard familiarized himself with the Steinway Grand prior to the arrival of the small audience. "Black Moon" is based on Schoenberg's twelve-tone system; an earlier version appears on Bernard's 1956 release Bernie's Tunes, which features Oscar Pettiford and Ed Thigpen, making Bernard one of the first to introduce atonal improvisation to a jazz audience.
"Poem for a Lonely Child" and "'Round Midnight" were recorded in 1970 at a trio concert in New Jersey. "Poem for a Lonely Child" is a moving statement reflecting Bernard's heartbreaking loss of his mentally handicapped daughter Pascale. He said of the piece, "I wondered what kind of world those children lived in. I wondered what kind of emotions they had. I tried to express my feeling about those children, and especially about mine. It's almost completely written, and I intended it, in a way, to be like a short poem in music." "'Round Midnight" receives a beautifully lyrical treatment with a reference to Chopin's E Minor Prelude at the end. Accompaniment in the middle section comes from bassist Al Stauffer and drummer Jim Paxson, Bernard's talented trio-mates during the early 1970s.
It became somewhat of a tradition at Bernard's concerts for him to improvise a prelude and fugue based on George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland" as a finale. After a lengthy concert on November 11, 1971 in West Chester University's Swope Hall, Bernard said good night to his audience. The audience responded with cheers and requests for an encore, specifically "Lullaby of Birdland." "You dig it?" Bernard asked. "I hate it. Now I have to make up another one tonight to feel happy." And so he did.
"Foxhole Café Improvisation" and "Jitterbug Waltz Cadenza" were recorded in June 1975 at the New Foxhole Cafe in St. Mary's Church on the University of Pennsylvania campus. "Foxhole Café Improvisation" is a brilliant example of a virtuoso improviser developing thematic ideas and creating a complex formal structure spontaneously with intense emotional conviction. It's a stunning opening statement for this disc. Equally appropriate is the finale "Jitterbug Waltz Cadenza." It followed a rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" performed by the trio (Al Stauffer, bass and Billy Jones, drums) and is Bernard's tribute to Fats. It was Waller's music that first drew Bernard to jazz during his early student days in France. He shows here that in 1975 he could still play some ridiculous stride piano.
The music presented on this disc will remind those who had the opportunity to hear him perform live of Bernard's brilliance. Many will be hearing him for the first time. His playing here should demonstrate to everyone his historical importance in the world of improvised music. Of the great virtuosos active in jazz in the twentieth century (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn...) only Bernard Peiffer's music has fallen into relative obscurity. It is our intent and expectation that this disc will reintroduce Bernard Peiffer to the world.
I want to personally thank Stephan Peiffer for inviting me to be involved in this wonderful project. The tapes that he and his mother Corine preserved since 1976 are a wealth of solo, duo and trio performances and are rich in possibilities for future releases. Stay tuned!
I was an indifferent piano student when I first heard Bernard Peiffer play in Philadelphia with his trio. I was twelve years old and electrified by the music that I heard. Very soon after I became his student and Bernard was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his students to check out many different facets of music. He talked brilliantly about many subjects including the history of jazz, philosophy, and the need to work extremely hard to find your own style. He was very funny and saw the world through the eyes of an artist rebelling against the conformity of the mainstream and living life on his own terms. His style embraced many different traditions. His students went to see him play at the Borgia Tea Room religiously where they witnessed Bernard's amazing virtuosity and endless invention. Bernard's music has been unjustly neglected but now has the opportunity to be heard again.
When I was 15 years old and studying piano with Bernard, he told me "If you're going to play wrong notes, at least play them the right way!" It was the best piece of advice that I've gotten from any teacher. No one has made as much of an impact on my music as Bernard, who taught me to play with conviction and to find my own voice. He stressed musicality above all, and made few distinctions between playing jazz or classical piano. Bernard taught me to approach different types of music with equal respect, enthusiasm, and gusto, a message that I will always carry with me, as I remember him in my compositions and performances forever.
I first studied with Bernard for six months when I was in tenth grade. It was around 1967 or '68 and prior to his first serious illness. I continued my studies with him from 1971 to '73. During my final year with him I left college and took two lessons weekly, one in piano, one in composition. Study with him was rigorous, from bitonal scales in double notes to the repertoire of Beethoven, Debussy, Messiaen, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and others. The emphasis was always on using all of the analytical and technical training to pursue your own creative impulse and express a personal point of view. He was like a university unto himself. I left for North Texas State in 1973 to finish my degree and Bernard corresponded with me, monitoring my progress and keeping me informed of his activities. He was a great friend and profound influence early in my musical life.
Sometimes people come into your life for a reason. Bernard was a great pianist and teacher, but beyond that he was a wonderful person with a generous heart. Bernard had a childlike quality when it came to musiche would get so excited about something. My lessons covered the gamut from classical to jazz improvisation: he had me listen to and look at composers like Scriabin and Ravel. He had the utmost confidence in me and took me very seriously as a composer; that helped me to believe in myself. He made it clear that in order to have freedom as a player you had to get beyond techniquebut you had to have the technique to get beyond, and that only happens by practicing your buns off. To listen to Bernard play was transforming; I have never heard anyone play the piano like him. There was no way you could be with him and not be influenced. I count myself very fortunate to have been his student.
In 1974, after maybe a year's experience in playing jazz at all, I went to Bernard for lessons... It was about five years after his death that I was able to integrate his principles more into my playing. What I loved most was his commitment to spontaneity (especially his later playing), and refusal to be locked into one way of playing a tune.
Bernie's Tunes, EmArcy MG 36080, 1956
Ulanov, Barry. "bernard peiffer, le greatest." Metronome 1953
Tercinet, Alain. La Vie en Rose. Gitanes 013 980-2, 2002
Feather, Leonard. PR Review Quote for Laurie LLP 1006
Personal letter to Don Glanden, July 8, 1975
Korall, Burt, The Pied Peiffer Of The Piano, Decca DL 79218, 1960
Hentoff, Nat. Modern Jazz For People Who..., Laurie LLP 1006
Conversations with Bernard Peiffer, 1971-73
At piano (side) by Eric Nemeyer