Joe Bushkin, who passed away in November 2004, was a legend in his time. A pianist, composer, arranger and vocalist of superb talents and impeccable taste. A professional for over 70 years, he started at age 15 playing gigs with Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan and Eddie Condon.
Among his many achievements, he had the distinction of accompanying Billie Holiday on her first recording, as a leader, writing Frank Sinatra’s first hit song, “Oh! Look At Me Now” when they were with Tommy Dorsey’s band, and serving as Bing Crosby’s last musical director and playing on his last recording session. In between, he also wrote songs for Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters, Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole.
After serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII, Bushkin became one of New York City’s most popular nightclub performers, frequently appearing on radio and television in the late 40’s and 50’s. Joe had also enjoyed a prolific recording career, appearing on countless studio sessions and recording dozens of albums as a leader. His series of eight popular “mood albums” with full orchestra for Capital Records in the 1950’s are among the best selling albums ever by a Jazz artist. He also found time to appear as an actor on Broadway in Garson Kanin’s The Rat Race, later reprising his role in the Hollywood movie version.
Joe Bushkin’s exuberant piano style was developed in the pioneer days of American Jazz, and he raised the roof of every club and concert hall around the world that was lucky enough to host one of his selectively rare performances.
Perhaps the best accolade was delivered by Frank Sinatra, who commented that “one of the things I missed most about leaving Tommy Dorsey’s band was the piano playing of Joe Bushkin!”
The Wit and Wisdom of Joe Bushkin
“Now I’d like to play a medley of my hit.”
“If you’re a classical pianist, you have to practice, because everything has to be precise. In jazz, if you’ve been playing as long as I’ve been playing, it’s like riding a bike.”
“I got tired of guys requesting ‘Melancholy Baby,’ and throwing up on me.”
“When I haven’t played for a while, my ideas are very fresh. If I’m playing every night – well, even a train stops.”
“I don’t listen to contemporary pianists. As for the avant-garde guys – to me, it’s like a guy who opens a shoe store with 6,000 salesmen and six pairs of shoes. I’d rather go in and have six salesmen and 6,000 pairs of shoes.”
“I used to starve because I couldn’t order anything from the menu; now I order things I don’t even need.”
“I had been crazy about learning the trumpet, so I added that to my musical arsenal. My father bought me one – a dollar a month, and lessons for a quarter. I was in the school band within three months. I loved the trumpet – just one note at a time. It’s not like the piano – that hammer is out to land once you hit the key, and you practically have to beg it to come back.”
“It was Louis’ music, as much as anyone’s that turned me in the direction of jazz. There’s a lot of Louis Armstrong in my playing. The essence of his music I’d describe as finding the simplest way to the core of a musical piece.”
“I can play everything that’s in my mind. Whatever I’m thinking comes out. As long as that happens, I don’t panic.”
“In some of the hotels we stayed in the rats were bigger than the trombone players.”
“I studied for three years, but I was a lousy student. I didn’t practice enough. I had too many other interests. I played in the 90-pound basketball team and I liked to fool around on the trumpet.”