Diversion: Johnny Wittwer

During my early development as a listener, I was immersed in the works of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Miles Davis when along came Johnny Wittwer. Wittwer was a Seattle pianist who had been been important in the traditional jazz revival on the west coast in the 1940s. Early in that decade he had a trio with clarinetist Joe Darensbourg and drummer Keith Purvis. Later, he was active in San Francisco and worked with Kid Ory and Wingy Manone, among others. In the dialectic of the absurd but deadly serious 1950s division between boppers and moldy figs, most boppers regarded him as hopelessly moldy. Too bad for them. Wittwer was a superb pianist who knew everything there was to know about Jelly Roll Morton. He could explain and demonstrate Jelly to a faretheewell. Although he chose not to play it, he also knew what modern jazz was made of. As an exercise in whimsy or irony, he would toss off a few bars of an uncannily accurate Horace Silver impression.
For a whippersnapper, hanging out with John was not only a fine education but also great fun. He was as hip to English literature as he was to Jelly Roll. Discussions with Wittwer helped me with my class on the Victorian novel. All of that came to mind when I stumbled across this Wittwer solo recording from 1945. It’s good to hear him again.

Wittwer once suggested that he and I write a Broadway musical together. He would do the music, I the words. It would star Pat Suzuki, whom we both knew. I went in the Marine Corps and the collaboration never happened. Pat went on to star in The Flower Drum Song.

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  1. Bill Crow says

    Thanks for taking me back to the year I graduated from high school! Wittwer was one of my favorites, and I was proud that he was from the Pacific Northwest. I had a couple of his 78s.

  2. Garret Gannuch says

    I loved that, thanks for posting it. Wittwer is new to me. I love it when I find out there is a great pianist out there that I never heard of. Moldy or not, this kind of piano is so satisfying to play and listen to.