Remarkable jazz pianists in the late 1940s seemed to be everywhere in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The list included Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Al Haig, Teddy Wilson, Earl “Fatha” Hines, John Lewis, Erroll Garner, Hampton Hawes, Lennie Tristano, Duke Jordan and Oscar Peterson to name just a dozen. But if you move the needle slightly toward the jazz-pop realm, you’ll find just as many accomplished pianists who specialized in a more restrained and moodier form. Since jazz fans outnumber those who dig jazz-pop, many of these pianists have remained virtually unknown. [Photo above, Bill Clifton]
Singular among the mood pianists was Bill Clifton, who straddled both jazz and pop just as the recording industry entered the LP era. Clifton was an early influence on pianist Bill Evans [above], according to Dick Katz in the liner notes to Mosaic’s now out-of-print Columbia Jazz Piano Moods Sessions. Fortunately, Michael Clifton, Bill Clifton’s second cousin, hasn’t forgotten about his late relative and is releasing his recordings.
According to Michael, Bill Clifton (1916-1967) was based in New York and played with a number of top swing-era bands. He also accompanied some of the top vocalists of the day. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Clifton began piano lessons at age 7 at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music [above]. He was exposed to the music of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington in his high school years, and began to consider a career as a professional musician.
After graduating high school, he joined the Cliff McKay Band, a Canadian group, before moving to New York in 1939, where he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. In the years that followed, he played with Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Ray Noble, Bud Freeman and Abe Lyman. Clifton also performed or recorded behind Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket) and Ilene Woods (the voice of Disney’s Cinderella, pictured above).
Clifton soon became a radio and TV studio musician at the NBC and CBS networks, and was a regular guest on the weekly Piano Playhouse radio program during its run on NBC from the late 40’s to the early 50’s. He also worked with the Tony Mottola Trio, which pioneered live music accompaniment for early TV. Clifton appeared in several films, including The Laugh Maker (1954), starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.
In 1950, Clifton recorded one of the earliest long-playing records as part of the Columbia Records “Piano Moods” series. Ten years later he arranged, conducted and played piano on Ilene Woods’ album It’s Late (Jubilee). Clifton died at age 50 while performing aboard the S.S. Argentina on February 26, 1967.
Clifton spent many years touring and playing on live TV and radio, so he didn’t record much. His recordings for Keystone Transcription in 1947 had a jazz swing but was more highly skilled super club music—an interesting genre, since many pianists in that space like Clifton were both classically trained and exposed to jazz. On Piano Moods (Columbia) in 1950, Clifton brings a lushness to familiar tunes, and you can hear what Bill Evans admired—a smart pedal tone in the left hand and elegant chord clusters up top to express the melody along with a respect for space. His arrangements for Ilene Woods are superb—again, a perfect sifting between pop and jazz sensibilities. Though the singing and charts seem as if they would have been more comfortable eight years earlier, the album remains a delight.
You may be unfamiliar with Bill Clifton, but his music was gentle and endearing—and essential listening for any Bill Evans fan. For years the music was lost. Now it’s finding its way into the digital era.
JazzWax tracks: Bill Clifton’s Keystone solo piano transcriptions in 1947 can be found on Bill Clifton: Red Shadows (Cliftone), which has been newly mastered for CD and available at the Bill Clifton tribute site run by Michael Clifton here. You can hear samples here.
Unfortunately, Piano Moods, Clifton’s finest album and one that had an influence on Bill Evans, is not available in digital form. Years ago, the tracks were part of Mosaic’s now out-of-print box The Columbia Jazz Piano Moods Sessions (7 CDs).
Fortunately, Ilene Woods’ It’s Late, with Bill Clifton arrangements, is available at iTunes here.
JazzWax clips: You’ll find Clifton’s Love Is the Sweetest Thing from Piano Moods (1950) here.
Written by Marc Myers, copyright © by JazzWax (Marc Myers LLC www.jazzwax.com)