The pianist and singer Joyce Collins died recently in Los Angeles following a long illness. She was 79. Highly respected in jazz circles, Collins played with a sensitive touch and subtle use of chords. Her singing was an outgrowth of those values, with attention to interpretation of the meaning of songs and, as Marian McPartland put it, “…deep feeling, a way of lingering over certain phrases, telling her story in a very poignant way.” Collins’s recorded debut as a leader had Ray Brown on bass and Frank Butler on drums. Earlier, she worked with Bob Cooper and Oscar Pettiford, among others, later toured and recorded as a pianist and vocalist with singer Bill Henderson and played with Benny Carter. Collins’s following included many musicians who sought out her gigs, which became increasingly rare in recent years as she depended increasingly on teaching for a living. Most of the recordings under her own name and with Henderson have become collectors items going for elevated prices on Amazon or as bargain LPs on eBay, but one of her best, Sweet Madness, with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Ralph Penland, is still in print.
Collins was born in Nevada and went to college in northern California, but not for long, for a reason I explain in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
…Joyce Collins, like Desmond, was a musician not majoring in music. Dave Brubeck heard her in 1947 playing in a bar in Stockton, where she was a student at Stockton Junior College. He thought she was too good a musician for Stockton J.C. and recommended that she move to San Francisco and study with his piano teacher, Fred Saatman.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “since I didn’t know who he was, but I took his advice. I went to San Francisco State, enrolled as a liberal arts major, called up Fred Saatman and started with him.”
She found herself in two classes with Paul Desmond, one on Shakespeare, another on the American novel.
“I’d go plugging along, never missed a class, studied hard. Lucky to get a C. He rarely came to class. He’d breeze in, always looking sleepy. Literarily brilliant, but sleepy. And of course he got A’s. I was so shy and so in awe of him, I was tongue-tied. It was hard for me to make conversation, but I always used to say to him, ‘We’re the hare and the tortoise.’ He was so witty. He was talking to a girl and I kind of overheard him, and he said, ‘There’s a vas deferens between us.’ I thought it was the wittiest thing I’d ever heard. It went around. People quoted that.”
For more about Joyce Collins, including a rare piece of video, see Bill Reed’s blog, The People vs. Dr. Chilledair.
Gordon Sapsed says
Thanks, Doug, for this piece about Joyce. I was never able to see her perform, but have the album with Jack Sheldon and also exchanged e-mails with Joyce before her passing.
There is at least one more video of Joyce on YouTube – shot in Italy with top Italian jazzmen- Joyce comping at the piano.
RUTH OLAY says
Joyce and I have been friends since l956. I was working at YeLittle Club and had hired Buddy Motsinger who was a close friend of Joyce’s in San Francisco. That is how I got to meet Joyce.
Buddy and I worked together for 11 years and he, I and Joyce would gather at one place or another and just talk, they would play and we
were all very close. We were confidants and treasured our time together.
I loved Joyce’s playing and there was one exceptional song she did that was written by the Bergmans..called “The Job Application”. Nobody that I know
has ever recorded that song.. she did it to perfection and it was always requested.. The contents of the lyrics are so very moving that often there are a few seconds of silence when it’s over until people start to applaud..
All of her friends loved, admired and enjoyed Joyce.. her wit, her intelligence and sensitivity.
I love you and miss you.
bill mays says
I just this morning heard news of Joyce’s passing. She was a dear person, whom I met shortly after moving to L.A. in 1969. She (Terry Trotter, as well) was studying “legit” piano with Victor Aller, and recommended him to me (I studied with Victor for a year or more). I used to hear Joyce at many of the L.A. clubs and loved her taste, timing, sensitivity.
Dick McGarvin says
Like those who have posted comments, and so many others, I was a fan of Joyce’s and saw her perform many times. (Thanks to Ruth Olay for reminding me of THE JOB APPLICATION, every bit as moving as Ruth says.) Another favorite of Joyce’s was Ornette Coleman’s TURNAROUND, which she did often.
Joyce was also a fine composer. Two of the songs on her SWEET MADNESS album are hers – the title track and VERMELHO.
Something else about Joyce: She was the piano coach for one of the Bridges brothers for the move “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. She told me which one, but I’ve since forgotten. I’m thinking it was Beau. I do remember she said it was great experience and that she really enjoyed doing it.
Joyce was very nice and talented lady and, so far as I know, the only jazz musician that Battle Mountain, Nevada has produced.
Liz Kinnon says
Just a note that the video (mentioned in one of the comments below) was with some of the top Brazilian musicians, and was recorded when she went to play in Brazil (not Italy).
I met Joyce in 1981 at the Dick Grove School of Music. We connected immediately and became very close, sharing so much music, so many stories, and many, many laughs over the years.
I will miss her terribly, but I’m very grateful for the wonderful gift it was to know her.
Bill Holman says
I’ve known Joyce for over fifty years and have seen her through her trio, her marriages, her friendships with Jimmie Rowles, Jeri Southern, and me, and her enthusiasm for her teaching. She was so appreciative of the efforts of others, and occasionally would admit to liking something she had done.
Joyce produced and arranged a CD for Wilfred Brimley, the actor, who loves to sing; though the band was a trio plus a horn, she took it very seriously, and would call now and then with a question on arranging, being careful to not impose.
A great lady, earthy yet proper. A sweetheart.
Rebecca Bonney says
I met Joyce at the Dick Grove School of Music as I was one of her students. I was pretty much a beginner and I loved Joyce’s quote “where you are is where you are”. I treasured her Jazz Keyboard Classes and became good friends with her, Liz Kinnon, and Jennifer Russell (another Groover). We called ourselves the Ladies Who Lunch.I had a brief music career but can thank Joyce that I even had a career! I loved listening to her stories about musicians, men, and life. She made me laugh and I will miss her terribly. She was the hippest older woman I ever knew.
Michael Cullen says
Joyce was my friend and teacher since 2000. The best teacher I ever had and a delight to be with. She had a great fund of jokes/jazz stories and a session at Joyce’s was always over 2 hours.
I miss her already
Ted Hughart says
The unforgettable Joyce Collins — my first steady gig after arriving from Minnesota in 1965 was with Joyce at the Carousel Theatre bar in West Covina. It was about 100 miles round trip every night and we always drove together — Her edgy wit usually sparked some hysterical conversations about our marriages, both of which were failing at the time — but the most memorable thing to me was her powerful time groove. This was a piano/bass duo and trumpeter Larry Maguire, who was in the pit at the Carousel and listened to us most nights, offered a great compliment when he said, “when you guys are playing, I can always hear the drums.”
Thanks for the ride, Joyce!
Bill Reed says
To the best of my knowledge, obits for jazz photog Ted Williams, who died last October, appeared in neither (LA or NY) “Times.” Same thing, recently, with Joyce Collins. Ironically, and mercifully, not the case with great guitarist Jimmy Wyble. Go figger? In the instance of Collins, there was an effort made by the family to get the L.A. Times to respond, but to no avail. Guess it helps to be a washed-up, drugged-out kid star.
Kathy Joyce Waterbury says
Joyce was my first cousin and I could hardly wait for her to come to Reno where she would sit at our piano and play “Malaguena” when I was a little girl. That is my first memory and I never forgot it. Heard from a relative and I am so sad.
Bob Day says
I just finished listening to her 1981 LP on Discovery (bright yellow cover; bought it at the late Tower Records Picadilly in 1989 for 1.99 pounds). I actually bough it because I’ve always enjoyed Jack Sheldon, but JC was a revelation… What a fine way with great songs.
Bill Benjamin says
Although familiar with her recordings, I only heard Joyce Collins live once. It was in the late 1970s at Rick’s Cafe in Chicago. It was Bill Henderson’s gig, but true to form for Bill, he shared the stage equally with Joyce and Dave McKay. Joyce was a truly special artist…a wonderful singer with piano chops to match. It’s a shame that artists of her depth are virtually unknown by the general American public.
Tina Stevens says
I was cleaning out my Favorites on my computer and came across Joyce’s website. When it didn’t come up, I knew….
I moved here in 1978 at age 25, eyes wide open, and saw Joyce in a club and took a vocal piano self accompaniment weekend class with her at Dick Grove in the early 80’s (which my Mom in Ohio paid for). Enjoyed it immensely even though it was early on Sundays. Saw her with Wilford Brimley – loved it. Such a sweet human being. Sensitive, soft. I use what I learned in her class with every gig (I’ve been playing in a club for 19 years every Wed.) and thank the universe for sending me to her. I bet she’s really getting it on now…. Cheers to music!