Jazzman

Johnny has always had the refreshing ability to laugh at himself and at life, along with his incredible talent at the keyboard. He and wife Jeannie spend five months a year in Indian Wells, California, where he’s considered a celebrity in the land of celebrities. “You must go out there to play golf,” people say. “No,” he tells them, “I go out there to play the piano.” Sometimes this is followed by: “You don’t just do that, do you? What do you do to make a living?”

Answer? Play the piano, whether in concert with Herb Jeffries, who was Duke Ellington’s first famous singer (“Flamingo”), or with cornetist Ed Polcer at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs or solo at exclusive country clubs such as the Vintage in Indian Wells and Morningside in Rancho Mirage.

The rest of the year, the Morrises are home right here in New Canaan, where many evenings you can listen to him over your sautéed foie gras at the Roger Sherman Inn. Weekends he’s at Bernard’s in Ridgefield — Friday nights he does a jazz duo there with Bobby Short’s longtime bass player Frank Tate.

It all began, as things naturally do, with his mother. But in this case, a mother who played ragtime piano. His father, a builder and true Irishman, liked to sing. But as one of fourteen children, he had never had money for lessons. He did, however, hire a church organist to teach piano to his own children. “She was a wonderful lady, but not the right kind of teacher for me,” admits Johnny, who at age eight was reprimanded when he’d try to show her a boogie-woogie piece he’d picked up from the radio. Bach and Mozart were meant to come first. “She wasn’t capable of teaching me what I really needed to know about things like harmony. That came through trial and error, and a lot of listening.” The teacher had more success with his sister Dorothy, now a classical musician.

From Immaculate Conception in Tuckahoe, Johnny went on to Stepinac High School in White Plains. (“Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school,” he notes. “That’s why I’m such a good boy.”) Then, after graduating as a piano major from the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York, he took the safe route — teaching general music in a junior high. “I was able to stand about a year of that,” he admits. Most frustrating, during this time he turned down several opportunities to go with big bands like Woody Herman’s. What he was cut out to be, he had realized, was a performer, in spite of all the warnings from his father’s friend who played the piano for Guy Lombardo. Looking back reminds Johnny of the song “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” except it was “Don’t Put Your Son on the Music Stage, Mr. Morris.” The friend talked about the poor pay; frequent traveling; and wine, women and song. But at Johnny’s tender age, it didn’t sound all that bad.

So in 1960 he joined “Mr. Nice Guy” Buddy Rich, the “undisputed best drum soloist in the world,” and toured the globe in his quintet with vibraharp player Mike Mainieri, flutist Sam Most and Erroll Garner’s former bass player “Bull” Ruther.

During their tour of South America, a pesky local musician kept waking him up in the morning to show him the sights of Rio and pick his brains about the music business. Johnny finally agreed to come hear him play solo piano at a nightspot. His jazz technique was not impressive, but he had a natural feeling for Latin music, so Johnny encouraged him to go in that direction. He also advised him against taking on all the singers and percussionists he had in mind to join him. It was easier to get bookings with a small group, said Johnny sagely. Eight years later in a music store, a familiar face on a record jacket jumped out at him. It was the “pesky” Sergio Mendes, whose unique blending of Brazilian, jazz and American pop tunes in  Brazil ’66 had made him an overnight sensation.  

Some of those two years were spent in India and the Middle and Far East with the Joey Adams Variety Show, entertaining sheiks and shahs as part of President Kennedy’s cultural exchange program. The money raised by these unofficial goodwill ambassadors was donated back to the countries where they played for flood relief and other causes.

In Thailand the musicians recorded a royal jam session they had with King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was a clarinetist and avid Benny Goodman fan. How well could he play? “Pretty good for a king,” Johnny quips.

Joey’s wife Cindy, a writer who still appears on television, was having a feud with journalist Dorothy Kilgallan, who kept talking about all the money being wasted on this tour and how Joey was decidedly the wrong person to represent our country. “She was right,” Johnny notes. “He was always asking for gifts and touching people, like patting the king on the back. Things you’re not meant to do. In Thailand you have to face the king all the time.”

During Johnny’s travels he came to realize that everything his father’s friend had said was true. There’s definitely a downside to this business — the hardest part is keeping a family together, not being home when your children are growing up. “You earn more respect and money if you do the jazz festivals in France and England and so on. Also record companies want you to do extensive tours and sell CDs,” he says. “But I was lucky enough to avoid most of the bad choices and make some good ones as well.”    

He feels the best part of his traveling experience was the exposure he had to many of the world’s greatest musicians — Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, André Previn, Erroll Gardner, Count Basie and others. “I stole from the best,” Johnny admits.

Back home in New York, he played with Buddy at Birdland, where tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (who introduced the world to the bossa nova and “The Girl from Ipanema”) would sit in with them. (Johnny ended up giving lessons to Stan’s three children.) Mel Tormé would drop by, too, to sing and sometimes play the piano, drums or guitar. “He was a very versatile musician,” notes Johnny.

For seven years he worked as house pianist with trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Spanky Davis and Ruby Braff at Jimmy Ryan’s, Manhattan’s oldest jazz club (now closed). “Our trombonist was Bobby Pratt, and when he’d take off, he’d send in Bobby Pring,” Johnny recalls with a chuckle. “The owners really liked this because they only had to change three letters on the sign out front!”

He played Eddie Condon’s, the Rainbow Room, the Carlyle, the Waldorf-Astoria, the Pierre — all the top music venues in the city. And there’s a story attached to each one.

At the Plaza Johnny got to know Victor Borge. “He was so naturally funny,” he recalls, “that when you’d sit and talk with him, he wasn’t trying to be funny.” One evening Victor sent over a note that was typical. It read: “John: I’ve been sitting listening to you play for the last two hours. What a lovely piano.”

Van Cliburn came regularly to the Oak Room at the Plaza for dinner when Johnny was playing — often bringing the Marcoses and all their security guards with him. Cliburn said he wished he could play jazz and show tunes like Johnny could.

At the Playboy Club, Johnny did a party for Sammy Davis Jr., whom he found to be a very nice guy. (He was a friend of Buddy’s and used to come to Birdland a lot.) There was a big sign that said: “Don’t Get Bunny Fever.”  Even so, Johnny couldn’t get over the fact that half the execs and managers were dating bunnies and the bunnies were actually “escorts” to some of the celebrities who came there. “That was a seedy thing,” he says, shaking his head. “It really was.” 

At a private party at Delmonico’s, a woman named Arlene introduced herself to him, saying she was a clarinetist married to an actor. Later the hostess said: “I see you’ve made friends with Arlene. Do you know who she’s married to?  Alan Alda.” Arlene kept his card and later asked him to come to their home in Watermill, New York, to play at their daughter’s wedding.

Weddings have afforded many memorable moments. At one ceremony the bride fainted. The groom caught her and carried her outside to get some fresh air. Johnny was stunned and at a loss for what to do until a fellow musician suggested playing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia.” At another, the best man, who had been doing a bit of early celebrating, kept bumping into the priest, then, as the bride and groom were about to kiss, passed out. The men in the bridal party carried him off. “Again, I was at a loss as to what to play,” says Johnny. “Later I realized it should have been ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home.’”

Johnny remembers how hard he worked preparing to play with George Shearing’s guitarist and Dave Brubeck’s bassist at the wedding of composer Frank Loesser’s daughter. He went to Schirmer’s, brought home about ten pounds of music including Guys and Dolls and Most Happy Fella, and burned the midnight oil for weeks. Then, at the reception, when he started off with “If I Were a Bell,” one of the guests came over and said, “Mr. Loesser does not want you to play any of his music.” Mr. Loesser, in fact, “was a very nice man,” says Johnny, “who didn’t want to show off. He wanted to give some of the other composers a chance.”

As you might suspect, Johnny has made his share of television appearances — be it on the Today Show with Ruby Braff to promote a Kool Jazz Festival concert, on the Joe Franklin Show talking up his latest location, or playing jazz tunes on the Playboy Penthouse Show with Buddy Rich, who had become friends with Hugh Hefner.

Mr. Nice Guy never lost his sense of humor, Johnny recalls. Shortly before he died in the early ’80s, the doctor giving him an injection asked if he was allergic to anything. “Yes,” said Buddy. “Country and western music.”

As for Johnny’s own preferences, he loves the music of Jimmy van Husen, who wrote “Here’s That Rainy Day.” (It was Johnny Carson’s favorite song, the one Bette Midler sang to him on his last show.) He loves Harold Arlan, who, besides “Over the Rainbow,” wrote “You’re Clear Out of This World” and other wonderful songs. He loves Cole Porter — “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Night and Day” and “I Concentrate on You.”  Then there are Rogers and Hart and Michelle LeGrand.

The songs, thousands of them, are all in his head. He doesn’t use sheet music because he likes to add his own style to a piece, and when he’s sitting at the piano at Bernard’s, he doesn’t have a little cheat sheet in his pocket either. One tune will suggest another. Or he looks at the age of the audience and figures what they’ll enjoy. Or if he gets a response to a particular song, he’ll play more of that vintage.

He does arrangements for music magazines and composes for the prestigious Steinway Library of Piano Music. Then there’s “In My Coloring Book,” a number he wrote for Big Bird. Oddly, that assignment came about with a phone call meant for another Johnny Morris (they have since met and become friends) asking our Johnny to conduct summer stock in Massachusetts. Johnny recommended his friend Dave Conner, who got the job and would later become longtime musical director of Sesame Street. It was Dave who asked Johnny to write for Big Bird.

No doubt about it. Johnny Morris leads a crazy life, which includes booking groups for everything from corporate events to a recent New Orleans–style funeral. “I felt like I was playing for the man who died and also for the city itself,” he comments. For brides who prefer to mix old and new, he has a guitarist who plays rock and contemporary songs. “My specialty,” he says, “is keeping everybody happy.”

According to Steinway, “Johnny is one of the busiest pianists we know on both the East and West coasts of the USA.” “Well,” says Johnny with a twinkle, “the reason I’m always working is that when they cut down the band, the piano player is usually the last to go!” All this means that the clock strikes twelve before he gets to bed every night, but since Jeannie is a night owl, too, that’s just fine. She still has the stamina to study ballet and tai chi and chase around her grandchildren, two of whom live in Darien. Of Johnny’s three children, two took up instruments — his daughter, now a pediatrician, the piano; and a son, an engineer, the drums. “He didn’t turn out to be the world’s greatest drummer,” says Johnny, laughing, “but he was by far the world’s loudest.”

People ask how he does it, how he remembers all of those songs. “It’s my thing,” says Johnny Morris with a shrug. “It goes back to having a good ear and understanding harmony. I’m amazed how people can remember all these facts about history or people who are great mathematicians, and they’re just as amazed at what I do. But it’s really a God-given gift,” he concludes, adding, “the truth is that you can’t take credit for it.”

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