Jazz piano virtuoso John Coates Jr., who inspired Keith Jarrett, Billy Test and Eric Doney, among other greats, while long playing in relative obscurity, has died.
Johnny left this mortal coil on Wednesday afternoon, November 22 at the Jewish Home of Northeast Pennsylvania in Scranton. He was 79.
His wish was to be cremated, which will not take place until early next week, according to his good friend Jim Connors.
There will be no calling hours or services, but through a twist of fate Johnny would appreciate, Test will be performing a previously scheduled program of his music along with Jay Rattman on saxophone and clarinet at the Deer Head Inn, Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, from 5 to 8 p.m. on Sunday evening, November 26. There is a $10 donation at the door.
In what is surely one of the greatest steady gigs in the annals of jazz, Johnny had played his unique blend of jazz and jazz-infused blues and folk music at the Deer Head -- which is the longest continually operating jazz club in America -- for nearly 60 years.
Johnny was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His father was a full-time musician and a bandleader, and his mother was a dancer and actress.
"Some of my earliest memories are just waiting for the piano not to be occupied and the record player to be turned off, so I could climb on the piano bench and see if I could pick out some of the things I heard my father doing," he said in a 2000 lecture to a Jazz Masters Seminar class at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University.
"By the time I was four years old, I was determined by my father and mother and a couple of other people that I had perfect pitch, and that's what made this fun. The perfect pitch probably got a bit less perfect over the years."
He began his formal study at age eight with Urana Clarke at the Mannes College of Music in New York City, and among his earliest influences were Symphony Sid on AM radio.
From age 11 to 14, Johnny played clarinet with his father at the Trenton YMCA Wednesday night dance, where he began learning to improvise, which characterized and suffused his later piano work.
His father began teaching him jazz piano around age 12. Jack Welgund, one of his father’s students, also influenced him and talked him into joining the Trenton musicians union. By age 14, he was playing paying gigs two nights a week and weekends. At age 17, he was playing six nights a week during the summer at the Deer Head Inn, where he lived with the proprietors, Bob and Fey Lehr.
"[Trombone player] Bob Jenney asked me if I would be interested in playing at the Deer Head in the summer because Bob Lehr had invited him to do that," he said in the 2000 lecture. It would be the whole summer, six nights a week. Bob Lehr wanted to try jazz at the Deer Head."
And so that wonderfully long gig began.
MAY 2009: COATES AND ERIC DONEY AT THE DEER HEAD
It was during the summer of 1955 at the Deer Head when Savoy Records discovered and recorded John Coates Jr. and he discarded thoughts of becoming a concert pianist, or perhaps a professional baseball player, which was an occasional childhood fantasy. He was a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan.
Johnny recorded Portrait, the first of his 15 albums, in 1956 during his senior year in high school with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Clarke. It was produced by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder.
He performed on the Steve Allen, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin television shows in support of Portrait, then toured from 1956 to 1958 with tenor sax player and bandleader Charlie Ventura, playing famous Manhattan clubs like Birdland, Small’s Paradise and the Blue Note. While attending Rutgers University, Johnny performed with a host of great musicians, including Ron Carter, Woody Shaw, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Kal Winding, Urbie Green and Pepper Adams.
After graduating from Rutgers in 1962 with a degree in romance languages, Johnny returned to the Deer Head where he played six nights a week, four alone and two as bandleader. He took a position with Shawnee Press in Delaware Water Gap as an arranger and editor and later began to rotate summers at the Deer Head and winters at Henderson’s Club 50 in Trenton where he played with Coleman Hawkins, Clark Terry, Doc Severinsen, Bill Waltrous and Phil Woods.
In 1966, Johnny moved to Mountain Lake, New Jersey and began a full time job with Shawnee Press editing during the day, arranging on his own time on a royalty basis, while also playing at the Deer Head year round where he became an early inspiration for Jarrett, who worked there as a dishwasher for a time. Jarrett, an Allentown native whose mother worked at Shawnee Press, later drummed and played soprano sax behind Coates before embarking on his own legendary jazz piano career.
Johnny's arrangement of "Amazing Grace" has sold more the 750,000 copies and remains one of the publishing company's best sellers.
From 1974, Johnny recorded nine albums for the Shawnee Press-owned label Omnisound, including live albums for them at the Deer Head, Northampton (Pa.) Community College and in Japan. Starting in 1993 he began recording for Pacific St Records. He cut six albums for the label, including two with alto sax great Woods, who had moved to Delaware Water Gap.
The late Woods, along with late trombone master Rick Chamberlain and the late Eddie Joubert, had begun The Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts in 1978. The 2001 festival was dedicated to Johnny, whose relative obscurity can be attributed to his seldom playing outside the Poconos for most of his performing career.
Although Johnny primarily was a pianist, he occasionally played vibraphone and clarinet.
Later in the 1990s, Johnny became homeless, attempted suicide, eventually moved to Coney Island and began playing again around the year 2000. He recorded his last album, Live at the Deer Head Inn, in 2014 with vocalist Nancy Reed.
"Only an experienced player with total emotional and technical control can realize the maturity, depth and total focus that John demonstrates," Woods said of Johnny, with whom he jammed many times at the Deer Head.
"John employed rich harmonies, used advanced rhythms, and spun wild contrapuntal lines seemingly at will," said the late Eric Doney, with whom Johnny played duets after he matured into a fine pianist in his own right. "He strummed inside the piano, muted the strings with music paper to get a percussive effect, and played large clusters of notes with his whole arm . . . and all of that just in the intro!"
Modesty aside, Johnny never lost that perfect pitch.
"At one time I used to be able to tune [the piano] between numbers, you know, play a tune and be very aware of which notes had gone out of tune and before the next number get them back in tune," he explained in the 2000 lecture. "I would put this wedge or mute on the string so as to make it more tolerable for me, I think in doing that I sometimes hit on some interesting sounds."
Johnny married four times overall, first to Lisa Haines in 1961. The couple divorced in 1963, but remarried in 2012.
"In the six months that John had been a guest of the Jewish Home, our hope was to get him back in playing shape, but unfortunately, that was not meant to be," said Jim and Susie Connors in a remembrance at the Deer Head website.
"Johnny died with money in the bank and all his bills paid," they said. "Thanks for all your calls, letters and visits over the last several years. Johnny was not alone!"
|CHARLES PERRY HEBARD|
FEBRUARY 2007: COATES WITH FRANK WEISS AND PHIL WOODS