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 thisI 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.