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Pianist, composer and trumpeterby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Veteran pianist Joe Bushkin, the last survivor of the Eddie Condon era, died in Santa Barbara, California, on November 3, 2004. He was four days shy of his 88th birthday.
Bushkin inherited his love of music from his father, a cellist who came to America from Russia in 1909. He took piano lessons from the girl upstairs, and at 13 he began playing trumpet as well. Over time his piano playing took on an irrepressible swing feel, influenced by Earl Hines and Fats Waller. In his teens Bushkin began playing at some of New York's better nightspots, including the Roseland Ballroom and the Famous Door. In 1935 he joined the band of Bunny Berigan, with whom Bushkin shared an apartment and love for the bottle. The two men, along with Artie Shaw, backed Billie Holiday on one of her earliest records. From 1936 to 1938 he worked with Eddie Condon and Joe Marsala, before rejoining Berigan for one more year. In 1939 he made some retro-jazz records with Muggsy Spanier's group which remain some of the most appreciated Dixieland-revival recordings.
In 1940 Bushkin joined the Tommy Dorsey band, where one of his principal duties was to rehearse new music with young Frank Sinatra. In the span of about one year Bushkin made over one hundred records with the Dorsey band. "Oh Look At Me Now" hit the top of the charts in February 1941. Following four years of military service, Bushkin entered the studio life under composer David Rose. He worked with Benny Goodman for several months in 1946 but couldn't get along with the irascible clarinetist and left.
In 1949 Bushkin wrote the music for Garson Kanin's Broadway show "The Rat Race". The following year he reunited with Sinatra at the Paramount Theater, and also began a long association with The Embers club. Among the musicians with whom he worked in that time were Louis Armstrong and Buck Clayton. Bushkin recorded for Columbia and Capitol in the 1950s and 60s, lived in Britain from 1969 to 1970, and in 1971 he retired to breed horses in Santa Barbara. Bing Crosby managed to lure Bushkin out of retirement in 1975 for a European tour and a run on Broadway, in which Bushkin sang and played some of his own compositions. Afterwards Bushkin performed now and then at some of his favorite spots in New York, encouraging younger players like Warren Vaché, Jr.
Joe Bushkin is survived by his wife, Francice, and four daughters.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.