Book Review: ‘Superstride: A Biography and Discography of Johnny Guarnieri’

SUPERSTRIDE
A Biography and Discography of
Johnny Guarnieri
by Derek Coller
pp. 253, Jazzology Press $24.95

This 6”x9” book, like the subject, is small in size but packed with good things. British author Derek Coller has done an excellent job of summarizing the life of pianist/composer Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985.) Baseball was Johnny’s sport of choice and each of the nine chapters in the book is entitled with a baseball theme.

Please allow a personal reference: Little did I imagine when I was a teenager just at conclusion of WWII and dancing to Summit Ridge Drive–small group recording at Artie Shaw’s address of same name as the tune with JG playing harpsichord–that I’d get to see/hear him perform in person in Mobile, Alabama, in 1983, two years prior to his death.

JG was born to an Italian immigrant family in Manhattan. His father was a classical violinist and musical repairman and was descendant of the famous Guarnieri family of violin makers. His father hoped he would continue in the family tradition as a violinist, but, instead, JG took to the piano with his father’s blessing. JG had small hands, which make for a disadvantage in playing stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller. But Johnny overcame the small-hands disadvantage. In the ’30s and ’40s, he had opportunity to perform with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

Johnny had poor eyesight, which got him a deferment from draft during WWII, during which time he made many recordings for Armed Forces Radio. During the ’40s and ’50s there were recording engagements, radio work as well as performances. Johnny’s personal habits were of clean-living, so he was spared some of the difficulties of drugs and alcohol that plagued many of his colleagues. He was an inveterate pipe-smoker, however. And, during those times, he could smoke on the job. One of the “tricks” mentioned in the book — and I observed it myself during his Mobile, Alabama, stay — he’d re-light his pipe with a match while his left hand played arpeggios. Unless one were looking, it would be unlikely that the ear would detect that only the left hand was playing.

There was a second marriage during JG’s New York and subsequent New Jersey residence. Then he moved to the Los Angeles area in the ’60s. It was hoped that he’d get more studio work, but it didn’t meet his expectations. However, performing and recording opportunities came his way and there was opportunity to tour both the U.S. and Europe. One long-time engagement was a restaurant-lounge on LA’s Ventura Blvd. called Tail of the Cock. The book details some of JGs regular attendees — musicians, movie-stars and others. Pianist Johnny Varro, now living in the Tampa area, was one of his substitutes when he toured. In my recent conversation with Varro, JV reported, “Yes, and Johnny G. would substitute sometimes for ME when I needed to be away from my gig for a while.”

During the Los Angeles years, JG was a frequent visitor to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (and its subsequent slight name-change). There was a special event called the Pianorama where the jazz pianists with the varying bands at the festival got to play solo piano for short periods. Sometimes JG might be the master of ceremonies or share with pianist/bandleader Bob Ringwald. As an occasional visitor there, myself, the Pianorama was a special treat for me.

The biographical portion of this book is only 125 pages, but it is packed with interesting facts and has multiple photos of musicians and bands with whom JG performed. The remainder of the book contains discography, tributes from fans and protégés including Herb Mickman, “Vinny” Armstrong and Jim Turner.

For the musical scholar, pianist virtuoso Dick Hyman has a short piece about his interactions with JG and has included some musical transcriptions as examples of JG’s expertise.

Author Derek Coller, now in his ninth decade, has produced a valuable and interesting addition to our jazz history. Somewhere up there, JG must be smiling and playing great jazz piano.