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A Resourceful Pianist in Jazz and Studio SettingsCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Don Abney was an excellent accompanist as well as a refined jazz performer, and was comfortable in both mainstream and more modern styles. He enjoyed a lengthy dual career as a jazz pianist and a busy studio musician, in the course of which he performed with a number of leading jazz figures, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Benny Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, and Dinah Washington.
He was born John Donald Abney, and played French horn in an army band before turning to piano as his first instrument, initially with the Buddy Johnson Band in Baltimore in 1946. He moved to New York the following year, and studied at the Manhattan School of Music while gigging with musicians like Eddie Gibbs, Snub Mosely and Wilbur de Paris, and performed as a solo pianist at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel in the late 1940s.
He recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1951, and worked with Ella Fitzgerald from 1954 to 1957 and again in 1961, including appearances in the films Pete Kelly's Blues and Cinder Ella, and played on many of her recordings for Norman Granz's Verve label, as well as touring with Granz's celebrated Jazz At The Philharmonic road shows. His other associations of the period included working with trombonist Kai Winding (1951) and drummer Louis Bellson (1954), and accompanying singer Carmen McRae in 1958-9.
He joined the staff orchestra of the National Broadcasting Company in New York in 1960, at a time when it was still rare for a black musician to be featured on air in such a setting. He moved to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked with saxophonist Benny Carter, and played in concert with Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra, as well as continuing his successful career as a studio musician.
He led his own trio from 1969-71, and worked with singers Rosemary Clooney, Pearl Bailey (including a concert at the White House), and Jack Jones. Following a visit to Japan in 1979, he settled there near Tokyo in 1980. He returned to America only four days before his death from a heart attack.