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Burt Eckoff: A Pianist's Close Encounters With the Greats of Jazz

Idelle Nissila-Stone By

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It’s better to know three songs with a unique and recognizable approach, than try to learn too many at once. Repertoire without concept is not the way to go. —Burt Eckoff
Active in the New York City jazz scene since the 1960s, pianist Burt Eckoff played with many jazz greats, among them Howard McGhee, Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt and Archie Shepp. He is known for exceptional artistry in his work with vocalists Dionne Warwick, The Drifters, Eddie Jefferson, and most importantly Dakota Staton, with whom he had a long association. His formative years playing Rhythm & Blues in Providence, Rhode Island laid the groundwork for his career as a jazz pianist. Albums recorded as leader are entitled Tell Me You'll Wait For Me released on the Japanese label Interplay Records, and Ecology.

Formative Years in Providence, Rhode Island

All About Jazz: Was music part of your life from an early age?

Burt Eckoff: I came from a musical family in Providence. My older brother Eugene took piano lessons. There is a 12-year difference between us, so when I was young he was already pretty advanced, and almost like a young father figure to me. After practicing his lesson he would fool around and improvise, and I would climb up on the sofa and check out what he was doing. My father played violin, guitar and clarinet. He didn't improvise, but was a very good musician. He auditioned on violin for the Boston Symphony and came close, but rather than pursue that avenue, he opened a shop specializing in women's formal wear, called The Sorority House. One night he came home with an autographed photo of Dakota Staton. She had stopped in to buy some gowns. Who would have thought that, years later, I would be working with Dakota and traveling around with her?

AAJ: That's an interesting bit of foreshadowing. What got you to study piano?

BE: When I was five, my parents took me to see The Bells of St Mary's. I liked the theme song of that movie so much that when we got back home, I went to the piano and picked out the melody without too many mistakes. I took piano lessons after that, with Miss Helen Whitney in downtown Providence.

AAJ: What did you enjoy listening to?

BE: Radio was the dominant force for music in the 1940s. We didn't even have a TV until I was 9. Back then, we used our imaginations in a different way because there was nothing to look at. It was more of a hearing society. We had a radio station with a famous DJ, Carl Henry. After school, the first thing I would do was turn on the radio. When I had the money, I would buy records by Ray Charles, Joe Turner, and things on the Atlantic label. I liked Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, and groups like The Clovers. If I heard something on a record, I'd go to the piano and see what I could access on my own by ear.

AAJ: Carl Henry played a lot of up and coming young Rhythm & Blues groups on his radio program. Were you part of that scene?

BE: When I was 13 or 14, I began to notice a lot of records had guitar solos. The electric guitar was relatively new, and that sound drew me in like a magnet. A group of teenagers started a band called Little Randy and the Stompers. Little Randy was Randall Ashe, who played the tenor sax. Arthur Hazard played baritone. I once saw them perform at an assembly at school, and the principal stopped it because the two saxophones were going through motions that could be interpreted as sexually explicit. It was something that a lot of groups did back then. They had to be entertainers.

The pianist in the group was Billy Osborne, who came from a musical family. His father was a fine trumpet player who once had offers to go on the road with Count Basie. Billy Osborne was self-taught, playing and singing all the hits by Ray Charles and Fats Domino. I thought, "They don't need a pianist, but if I could get a guitar, I could become part of that." My father didn't want to be bothered. "You gave up the piano. What will you want next week, a trombone?" He didn't think I was serious enough, but I kept bugging him. Eventually I was able to get hollow body guitar with a little amp as a rental, and I took to it like a duck to water. Pretty soon, my teacher was giving me transcriptions of solos by Oscar Moore of the Nat Cole Trio. Eventually, my father got me the solid body Les Paul TV special model, back then selling for maybe $200-$300.

My featured numbers were "Honky-Tonk" and "Moonlight in Vermont." By the time I was 16 in 1957, we were playing at the Celebrity Club for people who wanted to dance. We played intermissions opposite Max Roach, with Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and Kenny Dorham on trumpet, because Clifford Brown had just passed away. We played everything by ear. Every time Fats Domino or Ray Charles would come out with something, Billy Osborne would have it, no sheet music necessary.

AAJ: When did you start to get gigs on piano?

BE: At age 17, when people saw that I picked things up quickly. In clubs like the Celebrity in the 1950s there were two songs every pianist had to know. One was "After Hours." Every twelve bars there is this—I don't want to say cliché, but there is a certain kind of activity. The coordination between the two hands is tricky. It's something you rarely hear today, but back then it was something everyone in those clubs would request, and I would knock out my own version of it on piano. The other tune everybody had to know was Count Basie's version of "April in Paris" with an extended ending. It was probably the hardest number we performed in terms of technique. But there was something about that arrangement that people loved. They went crazy, especially at the ending. Now, none of that stuff is around anymore. It went out of fashion by the 1960s.

A bassist from Montreal, Carl Palmas, played in our group for a while. Carl also played piano. One day he came over to my place and played the blues in B-flat, adding something in there that I had heard but didn't quite know how to go about doing myself. In the 7th and 8th bars of the 12-bar structure, Carl was adding activity and passing chords that you wouldn't hear in the Rhythm & Blues stuff. I started to think, "Wow, I'm going to hang out with this guy more." He had a record of Bud Powell playing "Night in Tunisia." I didn't have a clue what was going on, but it was fascinating. And then I began to hear people like Horace Silver, whose funky soulful approach was an easy stepping stone for me because it provided a transition into jazz from the basic blues I was playing.

At the Celebrity Club we weren't exactly playing jazz, that's not what we were there for and we didn't have that kind of expertise, but we were playing a form of jazz. Interestingly, a lot of major horn players were playing in Rhythm & Blues bands at the time. Coltrane played with Earl Bostic after he got out of the Navy, Sonny Stitt played with the Tiny Bradshaw band, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson played alto and sang the blues.

AAJ: Were there any artists in particular who influenced you?

BE: A fine pianist in Providence, Freddie Starks, was an early influence. Freddie was a quiet, introverted guy who never left Providence. He came to New York once and didn't like it: Dog-eat-dog wasn't for him. He had a style I would compare to Kenny Drew, Red Garland or Wynton Kelly. Starks was one of those people I used to just observe. He also played valve trombone and occasionally I would be on a gig with him as a guitarist. I used to go over to Freddie's house, look at his notebooks and copy things out. One tune I particularly liked was a version of a calypso called "Hold 'em Joe." Freddie was gracious about sharing his music. When he played I would look over his shoulder. That's how I learned some of my first jazz tunes like "Lady Bird," just by watching. Freddie started recommending me as pianist after awhile.

I have to mention Kenny Burrell, because I was still getting things to practice from my guitar teacher. In a store one day I saw the record Introducing Kenny Burrell. It was blues influenced, and the pianist was Tommy Flanagan. I found out they grew up together in Detroit. They had a rapport that was unbelievable, like a new version of the Nat Cole Trio. I also practiced piano with the record No Count, a session with horn players from the Count Basie Band with Kenny Burrell on rhythm guitar. Most important was what the saxophone players Frank Wes and Frank Foster did, riffing within the chords. That's what R&B was emphasizing. Not so much running all over technically on your instrument, but keeping the groove, the "Healin' Feelin'" going.

The first great jazz pianist I ever saw in concert was Phineas Newborn, Jr. at the Rhode Island School of Design, with Doug Watkins on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums. Phineas was from Memphis and I didn't know it at the time, but his first recordings were with B.B. King, playing hard-core blues. Phineas Newborn showed me you can have technique without losing the feel. He played "Afternoon in Paris" with just his left hand, with a harmony part as well. You would swear you were hearing two hands, he had that much dexterity and coordination. So Phineas became a favorite of mine. The fact that he had such prodigious technique was intimidating, but it was something for me to aspire to.

A Sojourn in Boston, Massachusetts

AAJ: Where did you go after you left Providence?

BE: At 19, I moved to Boston to attend liberal arts school. One weekend my cousins played me a new album, Kind of Blue, and it blew my mind. On weekdays when it was cheap for students, I would go to Storyville, George Wein's club and see acts such as Dizzy Gillespie, or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I once heard Junior Mance featured on his own composition, "Jubilation." To this day it's one of my favorite songs. More and more, piano was becoming my dominant instrument.

The hippest group in Boston was led by saxophonist Sam Rivers who had a fourteen year old drummer, Tony Williams, in the group. It was mind-boggling to hear this kid. Phil Morrison was the bassist and Hal Galper was the pianist. Through Phil Morrison I got to know pianist Walter Radcliff, who grew up with Horace Silver in Norwalk, Connecticut. Walter Radcliff got me into a regular gig at The Brown Derby with Tom Kennedy, a good alto player in the style of Earl Bostic, who would sing, dance and act as well as direct. Getting the right feel of the tunes was what it was all about, and in those days you could fine-tune your craft through repetition night after night.

In Boston in 1961 the musician's unions were segregated. Delegates would come around to gigs and ask for your card. They said, "Look son, we don't care which union you join, but you're going to have to have a card the next time we come in." Everyone in the band was African-American, so I joined their union.

I met Kenny Miller, a trumpet player from Pittsburgh. One day he said, "You don't have to know a lot of tunes. Just take the ones you know, fine-tune them and get all the subtleties." It's better to know three songs with a unique and recognizable approach, than try to learn too many at once. Repertoire without concept is not the way to go.

Just before I left Boston I met Ted Curson, a trumpet player from Philadelphia. We played for a week in Montreal and got a nice writeup in Coda magazine. On bass was Carl Palmas, the fellow who, back in Providence, had shown me chords the way Bud Powell would do them.

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