Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner (born 1948) is a jazz pianist who currently leads The Bonner Party, a jazz quartet.

He studied at Virginia State College, but indicates he learned more by musicians he worked with. He counts among his influences McCoy Tyner and Art Tatum. He is known for doing hard bop and modal jazz.

On April 20, 1948 Joe Bonner made his first appearance in Rocky Mount, N.C. Born to a musical family, an epic journey has led him to Denver, Colorado, to a life profound brilliance at the keys. "My mother sang in the church choir, so did my father. My grandfather was the janitor of the church. He would take me to work with him every day and crank up the organ so I could play while he worked. I played the organ for my people in the Baptist church from the age of four. My feet couldn't reach the pedals so I didn't learn how to use them until I was eight."

It was in that eighth year that Joe fell in love with his third grade teacher. "She brought me a Downbeat,” Joe says. "It was 1955 and there was a picture of Charlie Parker; he had just died." Joe still has that copy of Downbeat.

The senior Joseph Bonner was a railroad man. His mother, Tennetta Gaye Bonner, had a master's degree in special education. "My mother bought me a trumpet but it gave me a headache from blowing, so I asked her for a tuba. I played that all the way through school." When Joe was 11 he moved to Harlem to live with his aunt. "135th Street and Madison Avenue, the clean part of Harlem in a well-to-do Black neighborhood," he says. "I attended Benjamin Franklin School. "At lunchtime we would skip school and go smoke reefer and play basketball," he says. "I wanted to be a basketball player but I wasn’t tall enough."

Life in Harlem was rich in Black culture. "I saw Sugar Ray Robinson everyday. I would sneak into the back door of the Apollo Theater every Saturday. That's where I met Joe Lewis, Lena Horne...I met Moms Mabley and Nipsey Russell when I was 11 years old. I met Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie…and I would sneak into the theater at midnight and see James Brown. I grew up seeing the Black heroes of Harlem."

Despite his street-running ways, Joe was a straight-A student. In 1960 Joe was awarded a four-year music scholarship to Virginia State College at Petersburg where he majored in tuba. He had intended that the piano would be the focus of his musical studies, but he had a personality conflict with the piano instructor. "He couldn't play jazz and he was telling me about Bach and Beethoven and I had to learn Chopin...I couldn't stand it. I liked Hindemith, I learned Bach two-part inventions, and Beethoven sonatas I liked very much, but, no, I don't like Chopin. Maybe because his expressions aren't masculine enough. I played the piano since the age of four and because of that all the boys I played basketball with thought I was a sissy. I had a psychological fixation about the masculinity of the music I played." Joe was by no means a sissy. He remembers falling in love with Mrs. Reeves, his piano teacher. She would give him his piano lessons for free and he would squander the money his parents gave him for the lessons. "I was a little dog."

Joe did well in his other studies at the university. He excelled in philosophy, chemistry and biology, "But I flunked math!" He earned straight-As in all his music classes. I also did cadet teaching in college, teaching seven and eight year olds kids to play and putting on recitals for their parents.

"When I graduated from college my father was so happy and so proud that he gave me his car keys. He cried and said, 'I know you love your jazz, so here, go to New York man.'” "I took his car and drove straight to New York City. I was 22. I moved in with Harold Vick," says Joe. "He was living next door to Max Roach." This was in a building at 102nd Street and Central Park West, where Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins had lived years earlier. "Bird had lived in that building and Chan was still there. She was working as a waitress in a club. "Harold Vick was a very worldly person," says Joe, "He was what you would call 'being in the life' meaning he had women working for him. I was his protégé; he took care of me. And we were playing music all day long. "I found out that Max Roach was from North Carolina, too. He was going to my uncle's church in Brooklyn every Sunday and he still goes to that church." Joe's first paying gig came about when he was hired by Roach to perform at Crawford's Grill in Pittsburgh for $400 a week…"I was 22-years-old and making $400 a week. I'm not making that much now!" The bass player was Jimmy Merritt, and the saxophone player was Billy Harper. "I was well protected and I played anything I wanted." Joe stayed with Roach for about six months, "He kept calling me and using me again. There was just so much jazz…Now's the Time, Lonesome Lover...there were just so many tunes that Max was the master of."

"My sister took me Count Basie's Club at 137th Street and Seventh Avenue. Chick Corea had just left Roy Haynes’ band and Roy asked me to sit in. He called me ‘Joe College.’ I played two songs, I think it was Con Alma and Stella By Starlight. Max came in that night and watched me play with Haynes. Haynes gave me $80 and asked me to come back tomorrow. So, I had me a little gig. That was a hot seat because Chick was a great piano player. I was 23-years-old and thought 'What can I do that Chick Corea can't do?' Well, Haynes said, 'I got a good feeling and you got a good feeling. Come back tomorrow night.'" Joe played that whole summer with Roy Haynes for eighty-bucks a night. "I'm not making that much now!" "A lot of gigs. I was lucky. These are the giants I was working with. I was fortunate to go to New York working, rather than to go there just bumming around. After that Freddie Hubbard and I became friends. He's a wild genius. He said, 'Come on down and meet Louis Hayes.' It was wonderful. Through Freddie I met flute and saxophone player James Spaulding. Freddie invited me to play Slugs one night and we swung and he like me and invited me to play at the Village Vanguard." Joe joined Hubbard on a tour of the midwest. "Freddie never recorded me. But he's more of a genius than I am. I really idolize him. Harmonically and theoretically he knows his stuff. But, he does have an ego. Trumpet players all have a super-ego and can be very brazen. He's a cat." When Kenny Barron left Hubbard's band in the late '60s, Joe took his place. "I was with Freddie all over the planet." Drummer Louis Hayes kept it all together for Joe during the two-and-a-half years that Joe was a member of The Quintet. (Yes...THE Quintet.) "I want to let you know that I shook hands with John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard ten days before he died. It was so beautiful meeting Trane. I smelled his aura when I walked through the door. I could sense his presence. He hypnotized me. He was so spiritual. "While I was playing with Freddie I went down to Slugs one night and met Pharoah Sanders." Pharoah gave Joe his number and invited him home to dinner to feast on his wife's Eastern cuisine. "Pharaoh and I developed a camaraderie. I was in love with Trane and I wanted to play free. I wanted to play that kind of jazz. Freddie wasn't free enough for me. "Pharoah was another entity. He was more spiritual, more aware of himself; worldly yet an introvert. He took me into himself spiritually." Joe spent evenings at Pharoah's home eating spicy curried food, playing music and gaining spiritual enlightenment. "My first professional recording was with Pharoah, Black Unity (re-issued on MCA). I made eight recordings with Pharoah including Rejoice. I stayed with him for the longest time. I think I was pretty lucky to have such a rich career. After that Joe met Thad Jones and the Mel Lewis band, "The greatest band in the world! Mel Lewis called me to do a Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Roland Hanna was the piano player and he had left for Africa to study and get his master's degree. Mel Lewis called me to fill in for him. The music was difficult. Ten pages that you had to look at. Letter A, letter B, letter A1, letter B1, letter C, letter E1, I mean I was turning pages and playing and turning more pages and playing. The music was tough. DeeDee Bridgewater was singing with that band. Jerome Richardson was in the band as was Billy Harper. Billy liked my voicing and my sound on the piano and he invited me to come on a European tour; $400 a week and all expenses paid. When I saw Europe I saw the real world of jazz, true enlightenment. The Europeans eat up jazz music. They really have a respect for jazz artists. I was treated like an artist. Over here in America I have to live a jazz life on the streets. "We played Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, but I really fell in love with Copenhagen. I guess because they had so many good bass players. Niels-Henning rsted-Pedersen was the number-one bass player and consequently all the bass players wanted to follow him. So I stayed in Copenhagen and made eight CDs on SteepleChase Records. It was just a coincidence that Joe landed in Denver. When he returned to New York from Copenhagen, pop and rock were big and jazz was in a lull and he wasn't working much. "I just wanted to take a trip so I delivered a car to a couple in the Denver suburb of Westminster." He was paid well for the trip so he stayed to look around and he liked the area. "Apartments on Denver's Capitol Hill were cheap back then. I walked around and met some musicians." Pianist Bob Palmer showed him around. Saxophonist Ray Iverson was manager of the Piano Warehouse Outlet and he would let Bob and Joe work-out on the pianos and Ray found Joe a gig at the Ramada Inn on West Colfax. "I was playing solo piano five days a week and making money so I decided to stay in Denver for a while. In 1975 Joe met drummer Tom Tilton. "Tom's good at getting gigs and private parties. He's a hustler." Joe returned to Copenhagen for a couple of years. "I had these big band arrangements for 18-pieces for John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. A big band in Copenhagen performed it live on the radio." His arrangements cover Bob Gable's Cape Horn, Take Another Look by Gary Burton, plus 15 originals. Joe is seeking an NEA grant to put together an orchestra to record these charts. "I did a big band one night at Mount Vernon Country Club thanks to Peter Clampitt. The band belonged to Lou Fisher.

"I've seen Denver go from one thing to another. I was making good money at the Ramada Inn. El Chapultepec said I was too loud and they fired me. A lot of those stories that people like to tell about me aren't true. People think that because I came here from New York that I must be arrogant,” Joe says. "I'm not arrogant, I just play good." "There is no one else who has had the impact and presence of Joe Bonner," says Tom Tilton. "He is by far the most influential jazz musician in Colorado. His impact extends throughout the world. He is a phenomenon, brilliant in his ability to bring the music through from a pure place of spiritual inspiration." Tom feels that Joe functions extremely well in light of his gift. "Joe Bonner is a monumental figure in the entire idiom of jazz. In a way he exiled himself from the (New York) music scene because of his uncompromising allegiance to principal. "He should have already received a couple of honorary degrees from the University of Colorado and Denver University just for the contributions he's made to music education in this area." Boulder chanteuse Barbara Paris, concurs. "His music and his character are so generous," she says. "He believes that music comes from a spiritual source, and that spiritual source is an abundant source. It doesn't come from his head or his way of thinking. He really feels that he is connected to a spiritual source musically. That is why he is generous. "In jazz you have legendary sources of music that carry it on, a process. A process that blesses people who come from that level of jazz. It is his purpose in life to make music. Joe is one of our community elders. He is like the umbilical cord of jazz for this community. He has provided an abundance of knowledge and support to many musicians. He really teaches the community the "whole sense" of the family in jazz. "And," says Barbara, "Joe is content to be here. If he wakes up and plays music every day he's happy." – written and published by Michelle Mobley - Sugardaddy Jazz & Blues News - April 2000– submitted to Wikipedia by Michelle Mobley 2007

External links

* [ The Bonner Party's site]
* [,,406233,00.html#bio Artist direct]

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