The History of Jazz Piano Music in New Jersey

Due to its proximity to New York City, the world capital of jazz, New Jersey has had an interesting history with the genre. The piano as an instrument is particularly important to New Jersey’s relationship with jazz music history because there have been so many important jazz pianists who came from this state.

In the early 20th century the Jersey shore was a hip place for young people to gather and listen to new music. Because of this, the jazz pianist William Basie, later known by his nickname “Count”, quickly moved from playing in local venues around his home town of Red Bank to playing in jazz music clubs around Asbury Park. He soon decided to bring his Jersey-style piano rhythms to Harlem, which was the place to be in the mid-20’s. Basie eventually established himself as one of the most important big band leaders of the 20th century and helped popularize swing for many generations.

Throughout the 50’s jazz music was patronized by Pannonica de Koenigswater, a wealthy descendant of the Rothschild banking family and resident of Weehawken New Jersey. She was a friend of many of the most important artists in the evolution of bebop, the prevailing jazz tradition to this day. Charlie Parker, the inventor of bebop, died in the room of a hotel she frequented in the mid 50’s. Additionally, Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist widely known as the “high priest of bop”, would spend the last years of his life living quietly with his friend Pannonica in her New Jersey home. Monk’s appreciation both Pannonica and New Jersey are reflected in a few of his song titles such as “Pannonica”, “Hackensack”, and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” (the last one was a tribute to another hotel Pannonica frequented). All of these were piano jazz pieces written in the bebop style.

In addition to those musicians patronized by Pannonica, there were other bebop jazz pianists who were born in New Jersey. The first one of note was Al Haig, famous for assisting Charlie Parker in creating the genre by playing alongside him in his quartet in the mid 40’s. Haig was born in Newark, which was at that point another important center of jazz music innovation. Finally, the renowned jazz pianist Bill Evans, famous for assisting Miles Davis in the creation of his landmark album Kind of Blue, was born right in Plainfield New Jersey. Evans got his start playing locally in his brother’s band before moving on to music school and eventually playing in New York City.

There are many other jazz pianists who were born, lived in, or played important gigs in this state. While it is often overshadowed by New York City, its connection to important musicians such as Duke Ellington, Al Di Meola, and Pat Metheny in addition to the many jazz music pianists mentioned already show how important this state’s contributions to jazz history are.

Mildred K. Pearson

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