Gene Rizzo's 'Greatest Jazz Piano Players'

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Jazz journalist Gene Rizzo discusses his book The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All-Time.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Today we focus on some of the giants in jazz history. From ragtime to modern fusion, jazz music has always relied on one staple instrument: the piano. Gene Rizzo's book "The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time" ranks the masters and looks closely at each artist's indelible mark on the world of music. The list is based on a survey of jazz experts and fans. Rizzo and his assistants included three basic criteria in the poll.

Mr. GENE RIZZO (Jazz Journalist and Author): We looked for originality; we looked for command of the instrument and the degree of influence on others.

GORDON: When I picked up the book, I thought of a particular person that I thought was going to be number one, and he actually falls, I believe, number four on the list here, and that's Art Tatum.

Mr. RIZZO: Let me talk to you about him. I agree with you. He was one on my list. When this questionnaire went out, Art Tatum was number one on my list. He does not appear to--apparently that's not in accord with all the others who contributed to this polling. I think Art Tatum was just the supreme alpha pianist--jazz pianist of all time, probably will remain so forever. And he sounded like three guys playing together at the same time on the same wavelength; an incredible technician.

(Soundbite of piano playing by Art Tatum)

GORDON: Curious, number three, someone I think probably most people outside of people who follow jazz may not have heard of this name, unlike the other three we'll be talking about, and that's Bud Powell.

Mr. RIZZO: My goodness, they should know who Bud is. Bud is the template for jazz piano, following Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. You couldn't have anything that you could call remotely modern jazz piano without Bud Powell setting that template.

(Soundbite of piano playing by Bud Powell)

Mr. RIZZO: Before bebop, which is the period Bud Powell established in 1945, you had what we call stride style--you know, the um-pah left hand--base note, chord; base note, chord. It's very happy music, wonderful music, but the music had to move on from there, and Bud showed us how to do that.

(Soundbite of piano playing by Bud Powell)

GORDON: And then number two, Bill Evans.

Mr. RIZZO: OK. When I started coming up as a young jazz pianist in the '50s--and I'm giving my age away here--Bill Evans was the only guy on the scene who did not play in the tradition of the prevailing trend, which was hard bob gospel weird stuff. He waited it out. When that trend ended, roughly in the early '60s, he had nine million acolytes wanting to play like Bill Evans, and it's still that way to this day.

(Soundbite of piano playing by Bill Evans)

GORDON: And the man who tops the list, the great Oscar Peterson.

Mr. RIZZO: Oh, yeah. Oscar Peterson, my goodness. An incredible technician. You know, but the thing I like is the swinging; the incredible capacity to swing. That's his real talent to me. The way that he puts all those fast chops together and makes them swing is just something to marvel at recording after recording.

(Soundbite of piano playing by Oscar Peterson)

GORDON: You have some other great names on the list: contemporaries like Herbie Hancock; of course, the great Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, who falls at number 38, we should say, on the list. And here's someone who many people don't know for his proficiency on this instrument, and many say he was a better piano player than he was a singer, and that's the great Nat King Cole, who falls number 24 on this list.

Mr. RIZZO: Yes, and I'm one of those guys that thinks he was a better pianist than he was a singer. But he certainly made a lot more money as a singer, which is why he put the piano away, sad to say.

GORDON: Well, the list to be debated--and as many of these kinds of lists are--is "The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time." The author is Gene Rizzo. And Mr. Rizzo, we thank you for your time today.

Mr. RIZZO: Thank you, Ed.

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