Oscar Dennard: Phantom Pianist

Precious little is known about Oscar Dennard. A gifted pianist with octopus hands and superb time, Dennard made far too few recordings and wasn’t alive long enough to be fully appreciated or interviewed for articles or album liner notes. Now, with the release of The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier (GroovinHigh/Sunnyside), we have a rich new find. The first CD in the two-CD set features a previously released album—The Legendary Oscar Dennard, which was recorded in July 1959. The second CD features Dennard performing earlier that year at a party at Quincy Jones’s New York apartment. More on this new set in a moment.

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Dennard was likely born in 1928, perhaps in or near Memphis. In the 1940s, he was working at the city’s Mitchell Hotel. In Preston Lauterbach’s book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, we get a glimpse of the young Dennard: “At the Mitchell Hotel on Beale and Hernando in Memphis, the club seldom shut its doors. So owner Sunbeam Mitchell employed numerous house musicians to rotate throughout the days into nights. The head-cutting never stopped. Phineas Newborn Jr., then a teenage prodigy, dominated the piano. ‘Phineas cut me,’ fellow tinkler Ford Nelson admitted. ‘The only one that ever got to him was a fellow named Oscar Dennard.’ “

Dennard began his recording career in New York in January 1956. On the session for the obscure Henson label, he was backed by bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Osie Johnson—two studio stalwarts. Strangely, the recording was never released. In most cases, the decision not to release recordings rested with the session producer or label. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with the results. Or perhaps Dennard was unhappy with the playback.

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Weeks later, Dennard joined Lionel Hampton’s orchestra and went on tour with the band to Europe. Dennard was on Hampton’s recordings throughout 1956, including A L’Olympia, Vol. 1 & 2 and Hamp In Hi Fi (both recorded in Paris); the precious Jazz Flamenco (recorded in Madrid); and Lionel Hampton And His All Stars 1956 (recorded in New York). As jazz critic and author Dan Morgenstern wrote in editor Sheldon Meyer”s Living With Jazz, Hampton “had a wonderful unsung pianist in the late Oscar Dennard who never was sufficiently featured.” Dennard continued to tour and record with Hampton throughout 1957 and ’58.

In October 1958, Dennard appeared on A.K. Salim’s brilliant Blues Suite album on Savoy, and sometime in ’59 he played on Jesse Powell’s album Blow Man Blow. It’s around this time, in March or April of 1959, that Dennard was at a party at Quincy Jones’s apartment in New York as a member of the Idrees Sulieman Quartet. His piano performance that evening was captured on tape by bassist Jamil Nasser just before the quartet headed off to tour in Europe and the Middle East.

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In July 1959, Dennard was on tour with trumpeter Idrees Sulieman’s quartet, featuring Dennard on piano, Nasser on bass and Buster Smith on drums. One of their stops was Tangier, Morocco, where they remained for several months installed at the city’s Casino. They recorded a studio album in Tangier, which was eventually released on Japan’s Somethin’ Else label and is part of this new set. The music is breathtakingly elegant. Sulieman remains unheralded as a masterful arranger and trumpeter with a strong, open tone akin to Donald Byrd’s and Kenny Dorham’s. [Photo above, from left, of Oscar Dennard, Idrees Sulieman and Jamil Nasser, at Club Africana in Zurich in 1959 by Hr. Hugentobler]

In his liner notes for the original Japanese release and the new two-CD set, reissue producer Jacques Muyal writes that the quartet on tour had played in Marseilles (France), St. Gallen (Switzerland), Tangeir and then Cairo (Egypt), where Dennard was stricken with typhoid fever. He died in 1960 and was buried in Cairo at Zan Eldin cemetery. Dennard was only in his early 30s.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier (Groovin’ High/Sunnyside) here. The sound on the studio CD is sterling while the live sound on the second disc is a bit coarse. But for me, the less-than-perfect fidelity can be overlooked given the rare and profound insights into Dennard’s playing. Someone should track down the tapes for that first Dennard studio date.

JazzWax clips: Here’s Oscar Dennard with Idrees Sulieman (tp), Jamil Nasser (b) and Buster Smith (d) from The Legendary Oscar Dennard (the first disc on The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier set) playing All of You


And here’s Dennard playing Invitation from the second disc, recorded at Quincy Jones’s apartment in March or April 1959, just before Dennard’s fateful trip abroad…