September 5, 2011 in City

Jimmy Rowles is home at last

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Jimmy Rowles – Billie Holiday’s favorite pianist and the piano man on “The Pink Panther” – has finally returned home.

No, he is not living in Spokane, although this is where he was born and grew up. Rowles died in Burbank, Calif., in 1996. But thanks to his son, Gary Rowles, a little bit of Jimmy Rowles is back in the Inland Northwest for good.

First, I may need to refresh your memory about Jimmy Rowles, one of the great jazz pianists of his time, beginning in the 1940s.

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music says he was “the favorite of every singer he ever backed, including Peggy Lee, Julie London, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, etc.”

“Billie Holiday used to come over to our house when I was a kid,” said Gary Rowles.

Jimmy was also the piano man for Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Ray Brown, Hoagy Carmichael, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Les Brown and Woody Herman.

But you don’t have to be a serious student of jazz history to revere Rowles. Pop music fans in the ’60s and ’70s heard plenty of Jimmy Rowles, even if they didn’t know it. He recorded dozens, if not hundreds, of film and TV scores with composer-arrangers including Nelson Riddle and Neal Hefti.

That’s Rowles on Hefti’s hit “Batman” soundtrack, for instance.

Meanwhile, he was Henry Mancini’s piano player for many years.

The “Pink Panther” soundtrack? That was Rowles on piano.

The “Peter Gunn” theme music? Rowles was on it.

The jaunty calliope on the Mancini hit, “The Baby Elephant Walk”? Rowles.

Meanwhile, Rowles was a top session man both in L.A. and, later, in New York. You can hear his piano in the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Age of Aquarius” and on songs by Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and even the Four Freshmen.

Throughout it all, he played and recorded his own critically admired music with his own small combos.

And it all began when he was a kid in Spokane and heard a recording of Teddy Wilson playing the piano with the Benny Goodman Trio. Rowles, a student at Lewis and Clark High School and a star tennis player, fell in love with jazz piano. Before long he was playing at clubs for local bandleader Don Eagle.

Like another Spokane jazz legend before him, Bing Crosby, Rowles attended Gonzaga University for a couple of years before heading off to California to be a professional musician. His Spokane connections didn’t hurt – he recorded with Bing and played on Bob Crosby’s nationwide radio show. Yet it wasn’t long before he was one of the most sought-after jazz players in Los Angeles.

He came back to Spokane often for visits. He was married to a North Central High School graduate, Dorothy Paden, and in many ways they felt as if Spokane was still home.

He once met Don Eagle at the airport and complained that his schedule as accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald was “killing” him. They were jetting all over the globe, from Berlin to Boston to San Francisco. All he really wanted to do, he said, was “stay in Spokane and crawl into a hole somewhere.”

Which brings us to Rowles’ most recent “visit” to Spokane. Gary Rowles has been in possession of his parents’ ashes for many years now. Gary, a professional guitarist who now lives in Lebanon, Ore., had been giving plenty of thought about where to scatter those ashes.

The answer, he said, became obvious. His dad had wonderful memories of growing up in Spokane, playing tennis at Manito Park and going on summer vacations at Eloika Lake. So, when Gary and his wife, Tanis, came up to Spokane last week for a little vacation, they brought his parents with them.

“I’m a real believer that there are touchstone places on Earth,” said Gary. “Places that people can come in times of crisis to reconnect with who they are.”

The Inland Northwest, he said, was that place for his dad and his mom. So, while Gary and Tanis were here, the plan was to – well, let’s just say, return a small part of Jimmy and Dorothy Rowles to their roots. Welcome home.

Reach Jim Kershner at jimk@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5493.

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