Floris Nico Bunink, Restless Bopper Advised by Bill Evans

by
Werner Herbers

[Editor’s Note: Oboist Werner Herbers, veteran of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Netherlands Wind Ensemble, led Amsterdam’s acclaimed Ebony Band, which played music by neglected 20th-century classical and jazz composers, such as Erwin Schulhoff and Bob Graettinger – the latter on City of Glass conducted by Gunther Schuller, and Graettinger Live at the Paradiso which includes much newly heard music (both on Channel Classics). This translation by Stephen Taylor, edited by Kevin Whitehead, is based on the original Dutch article and sidebars which ran in Nederlands Jazz Archief Bulletin #120 and 121.]

Be concerned with nothing but music. Take care of music and all other things will follow.

These words, jotted down on a notepad for him by Bill Evans in the 1960s, sum up the philosophy of Floris Nico Bunink (1936-2001): the pianist best known outside his native Netherlands for his 1959-1960 stint with Charles Mingus, a pianist striking enough to prompt Evans to give him advice – even if his name still gets misspelled Bunick sometimes.

Nico Bunink grew up in the Amsterdam quarter known as de Pijp, in the Diamant neighborhood of stylish new Amsterdam School housing for the working class. At 13 he witnessed the death of his father, who fell and hit his head on the corner of a table, and bled out because the local doctor couldn’t be found. It was so traumatic Nico could never talk about it, and it changed something in him. Once an outstanding student, he dropped out of secondary school. Music would be his salvation.

On Wednesday 20 April 1955, at age 14, I was in the AVRO radio studio in Hilversum for a youth orchestra rehearsal – playing the triangle. Heading to the cafeteria during a break, I discovered a jazz concert in progress in another studio. As a young jazz fan of course I looked in. It turned out to be the final round of the AVRO Jazz Competition, and there in action was the Nico Bunink Quartet, with my old Hilversum schoolfriend Ruud Jacobs on bass (and Cees See on drums). Little did I suspect that one day I’d become friends (and even play) with Nico Bunink. Nor did I suspect what a fantastic pianist he’d become – albeit one sometimes denigrated in his homeland.

Bunink, just turning 19, had won the preliminary round of the AVRO competition in the “modern style” category. “For us the Nico Bunink Quartet was really the surprise of the evening,” the jurors reported on that occasion. They needed only a little more polish, and for tenor saxophonist Enno Spaanderman to get in tune. Broadcaster/juror Michiel de Ruyter introduced Nico as a new find, but in the jazz magazine Rhythme in May, he lamented the band’s performance in the finals wasn’t their best, calling out that shaky tenor. The Quartet finished third, behind saxophonist Tony Vos and the year’s other new piano find, Pim Jacobs. But it was enough to propel Nico into the wider world.

Early in 1957, Bunink moved to Paris where he made an album (his first) with tenorist Barney Wilen and bassist Pierre Michelot, who later that year would play with Miles Davis on the Ascenseur pour l’échafaud soundtrack. In Paris, Nico also met jazz fan Henry “Harry” Ogden Phipps, immensely rich heir to a Chicago steel fortune, six years older than Nico, married to a chic Viennese countess. He offered Nico a huge joint, and a place to live in his castle on the Île Saint-Louis, in the Seine in central Paris. There Nico could play a grand piano on which Chopin was said to have performed.

When Phipps returned to his Florida villa at the beginning of 1959 he took Nico along. He had a few gigs with Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims, but life in Palm Beach didn’t suit him, and he grew restless. At the end of summer Bunink decided to try his luck in New York.

One of the first jazz clubs he visited was Minton’s Playhouse, the onetime bop incubator on 118th Street, where top musicians still turned up to jam. There Charles Mingus heard Nico and immediately invited him to a rehearsal, which led to his first recording with the bassist, a session for the album Mingus Dynasty on 1 November 1959. (That’s his ripping, Bud-inspired solo on “New Now, Know How.”) Meanwhile Phipps had left his winter residence in Palm Beach for his Central Park West apartment. As Nico told it later, when he informed Phipps he’d got a regular gig with Mingus, his patron flew into a jealous rage, calling him a disloyal dog. (Two years later, the Daily News reported on Phipps’ demise in a residential hotel where he’d been living for months, under the headline “Hint Drugs in Socialite’s Death.”)

After a second recording with Mingus on October 20, 1960 (a tentet with Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Charles McPherson, and Jimmy Knepper for the Candid LP Mingus) their collaboration abruptly ended. In April Nico had met the wonderful Elena Manzano, whom he married at the end of October. They were still honeymooning a month later, when Mingus asked the pianist to play Vancouver with him, but Nico wouldn’t budge for the $250 on offer. Mingus blew his top – “I’m gonna kill you” – and Mingus’ wife and drummer Dannie Richmond both followed up, but Nico remained adamant.

In the meantime another problem had cropped up: the State Department declined to extend his tourist visa, despite a letter dated 1 July 1960 arguing for his permanent residency status signed by 11 prominent jazz musicians including Mingus, Zoot, Max Roach, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman – signatures collected during the Newport Rebels alternative festival Mingus and Max organized that summer. Nico lived illegally in New York for some months until his marriage with Elena got him a green card. He got a scholarship to that summer’s Lenox School of Music directed by John Lewis, faculty including Max, Jim Hall, Kenny Dorham, Bob Brookmeyer, Gunther Schuller, and Bill Evans. But now without a patron, Nico needed work. In New York, he played with such eminences as Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham, and Stan Getz. He also accompanied various women singers and toured Japan with Dutch jazz and pop singer Ann Burton.

At the end of 1961 Nico and Elena and their young daughter Pascale moved to California. A second child, Percy (named for Percy Heath), came along soon after. Artistically and financially, the move was not a success, although Nico did play regularly with notables including Milt Jackson, a young Charles Lloyd – and Sonny Stitt, who occasionally picked the Bunink kids up at school, to the consternation of racist fellow students. Nico also became friends with Bill Evans, who (as Bunink would recall it) was staying with a friend on the coast, hoping to control his drug habit. They hung out a bit – Nico kept a photo of a smiling Evans playing ping-pong in Sausalito. This may have been when Evans wrote out that advice we will get to.

After seven years out west the Buninks returned to New York in 1968. Nico got a regular gig at Casey’s, an evidently fashionable club where he met among others Jack Nicholson and painter and saxophonist Larry Rivers. In 1970 Nico joined a Vietnam War protest tour led by Jane Fonda; a year later he recorded with Charles McPherson. But with the War raging on, Nixon in the White House, and the eternal challenges of raising kids in New York, Nico grew tired of the States. He got out when he received a lucrative offer to be musical director at a jazz club in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, but that only lasted about half a year. In 1974 re-settled in Amsterdam where he was born.

The reception he got was not so warm. The local scene was then dominated by pushy free jazzers like Willem Breuker who viewed bebop as “the Dixieland of the 1970s.” Nico did play at the opening of the Bimhuis in 1974, but there was little work for old-time boppers. He in turn expressed skepticism about free improvised music: “Total freedom without limitation usually produces nothing but junk, unless you’re completely on the same wavelength and know each other through and through. Then it might sometimes take off.” His hero was Sonny Rollins: “He does the craziest things, but always on a foundation that the educated listener is aware of and can follow.” (His favorite Rollins was The Bridge.)

Even in the Hague where bebop purists like pianist and Royal Conservatory jazz-department head Frans Elsen held sway, Bunink was not welcome. Was it his haughty “Don’t try to tell me” attitude, his American accent, or his intuitive and sometimes whimsical style that scared them off? Mightn’t it have made sense to offer a workshop or master class to someone who’d worked and tangled with Mingus, accompanied Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington, and could articulate what distinguished Mingus and Dannie Richmond’s feel from Paul Chambers and Philly Joe?

If Nico Bunink wanted gigs, he’d have to organize them himself, the way the free jazzers had. Amsterdam was no New York, with myriad places to play or jam, so he put together his own network of venues: the artists’ club De Kring, Theater Odeon, the Felix Meritis theater, the cafe Pilserij, and elsewhere. (And, in fairness, he did occasionally play traditional jazz venues: Amsterdam’s Kroeg, Cafe Alto, De Engelbewaarder, Paradiso – and the Bimhuis, which he played a couple of dozen times, sometimes backing American stars like McPherson, Knepper, Frank Rosolino, Hal Singer, and Teddy Edwards.) He often played in trio, or even duo, but with his critical attitude and impulsive behavior, he burned through a lot of bassists and drummers.

My friendship with Nico Bunink arose through Dutch TV satirist and writer Kees van Kooten, who had met him at De Kring. He didn’t know Nico was a jazz pianist, but was impressed by his deep knowledge of American humorists. (We know about the Bill Evans memo because Nico shared it with Kees.) Nico was a flamboyant man and an enthusiastic raconteur, but he was also a show-off, a “personality,” with that ostentatious American accent. I believe this pose stemmed from frustration that his American experience failed to earn him respect back home.

On the lookout for accompanists, Nico sometimes asked me to back him on doublebass. I almost always declined, having a busy schedule, and not being that good a bassist. But I do recall playing at a chic restaurant in Neercanne Castle in Limburg, where the Belgian alto saxophonist Jacques Pelzer turned up – Pelzer who, as a pharmacist, kept Chet Baker supplied for years. Fortunately, in the early 1980s Nico bonded with the talented bassist Jan Voogd while he was still a conservatory student, giving him an extracurricular education. And Bunink was always happy to play with prominent Dutch musicians such as trumpeter Ack van Rooyen, saxophonists Ferdinand Povel and Piet Noordijk, and bassists Frans van der Hoeven and Hein Van de Geyn. When American stars came over Nico would try to snare them for gigs, which is how Max Roach would up playing at the Amsterdam Memphis Hotel.

 

***

 

As pianist, Floris Nico Bunink was an autodidact. Leaving aside a short spell of lessons at age nine, he learned to play jazz primarily by listening and watching other pianists – like Bud Powell, at Paris’s Club Saint-Germain in 1957. According to Nico’s wife Elena, he always practiced a lot, even including Czerny etudes. But he was not a great sight-reader, which made him less suited to studio duty. Many musicians who worked with him describe his playing as “intuitive” and sometimes out of this world (Saxophonist Ferdinand Povel: “Just like Bud Powell”), or in the tradition of Tommy Flanagan or Kenny Drew. But there was something of a hippie quality about it: less respectable, less by the book, rough not smooth. Drummer Martin van Duynhoven: “I always sat up straight when he began to improvise. He could put an original spin on melody, harmony and rhythmic tension – while always honoring the jazz tradition.” Jan Voogd speaks highly of Nico’s broad knowledge of the repertoire (including many obscure pieces) and the way he’d accompany vocalists, giving them plenty of space.

His intuitive approach took him into unexpected territory. He didn’t memorize solos, unlike some great jazz musicians. There’s a 1983 concert recording where he plays an A-major lick over bars 8 and 9 of a B-flat blues chorus: wrong notes he makes sound right, whether they were preconceived, the inspiration of a moment, or a slip of the fingers. It’s as if, walking in the woods, he suddenly takes a short cut, only to rejoin the main path a little further on. Granted, Paul Bley, for one, went further in the same vein on 1963’s Sonny Meets Hawk! But for someone whose DNA consisted mainly of Bird and Bud, Nico had an explorer’s spirit. Another “trick” Bunink employed can be heard on the first chorus of a 2000 recording of Horace Silver’s “Ecaroh” on Nico’s CD En Blanc Et Noir 5 (Daybreak): He repeatedly anticipates the next chord change, playing notes from a chord scheduled to arrive a few beats later, jumping the gun. Polytonality again lends tension to the solo.

In such moves one hears that his intuition draws on a deep reservoir of ideas; he rarely repeats himself. His imagination is rich, and he stays true to his esthetic. He studied Indian and Bulgarian music, and was impressed by Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and by Weather Report, but carried on with his old-school swinging, jazzy timing and ghost notes. He was not the man for the esthetic baloney heard on some ECM records.

Listening to him live or on record, I also noticed something else. Nico Bunink was a melodic bopper: not too many dry, nervous, dotted motifs, but frequent melodious lines and leaps with their own expressive power. You can hear as much on that opening chorus of “Ecaroh.” Every note contributes to the structure of the solo. I can picture him playing such licks, leaning slightly back, with a straight spine and stretched arms, quietly humming or growling along when something unexpected issued from his fingers.

The atmosphere was good in the studio the day that “Ecaroh” got waxed. Another later recording was made under odder circumstances. In October 1995 Nico asked me if he could come by one morning to play my Blüthner grand, in duet with bassist Pablo Nahar. I had to go to a rehearsal in the Concertgebouw. When I came back for lunch Nico and Pablo were still busy, recording themselves with a Walkman lying under the piano. They were in the middle of “Along Came Betty” and Nico signaled me to get out my oboe and join in. From Arnold Schoenberg with Boulez to Benny Golson with Bunink ... It was quite a shock for me when Nico’s producer and friend Fred Dubiez decided to put this impromptu session (oboe and all) on Bunink’s posthumous En Blanc Et Noir 8.

But we get ahead of our story. By the late 1980s, with work mostly scarce in Amsterdam, Nico was depressed – having a late midlife crisis, in his 50s – and kept thinking about the good old days in Paris. So when someone offered him and Elena an apartment there, they took it. But while living there, he was diagnosed with hepatitis. Fortunately, Elena received an inheritance that let them buy a small house in Niort in the countryside of western France, an ideal spot to recover. And there was a music school with an improvisation class which was pleased to benefit from his knowledge. The Buninks planned to stay there for some ten years, but when the improvisation class came to an end they returned once more to Amsterdam, where friends had opened the jazz cafe Pompoen. (A newspaper story mentions him hanging out there with Holland’s top bop drummer Johnny Engels at a Michael Moore gig in December 2000.) For Nico the joy of this last homecoming was short lived; he began showing symptoms of a brain tumor, and died on 26 December 2001.

Floris Nico Bunink: a colorful man, overflowing with ideas and initiatives, and (in jazz terms) “a real motherfucker” of a pianist. If you asked him whether he ever met Thelonious Monk he would say: “Yeah man, I used to play ping-pong with him!”

 

***

 

And finally, there’s that eight-page handwritten memo from Bill Evans, which Nico described as “many pearls of wisdom.” Bunink was insecure about his musical background and Evans, seeing him as “a friend in need” wanted to put some courage into him. So he supplied Nico with a handwritten list of tips: music to listen to, things to know. Later, Nico claimed Evans had written it all out while on a break at the Village Vanguard in 1961. But in a 1979 note to Nico, Evans recalled writing it 15 years earlier – when both pianists were in California.

Here is the misspellings-and-all text, as best we can make it out:


 

 

 

[1] Bach – 18 short Preludes + Fugues (Little Preludes + Fugues), two + three part inventions
Bartok – Mikrocosmos Vol I-IV. Also – folk songs, dirges etc. (Browse)
Scriabin – 5 Preludes Op. 73 (short, not too difficult but gems of insight into the thinking of the man who represents the gateway to “modern” music.

[2] Beethoven – 2 sonatas opus ? but are called “Two Easy Sonatas”
Scarlatti – sonatas – also in a “Shirmer” collection of pre-Bach or post-Bach collections
Schoenberg – 6 Little Pieces for klavier, op. 19
Mozart – Fantasia D minor / also many movements of his piano sonatas and Haydyn
piano [sonatas]. Browse for difficulty within possibility

[3] Any other composer like Debussy – Ravel–Satie etc., look for difficulty within ranks [?]
Ex. Debussy – Children Corner Suite,
Ex. Ravel – “Sonatine” for piano
Ex. Satie – “Five Gymnopaedies” (quite easy reading + the key to French impressionism was major influence on Debussy + Ravel etc.
Hindemith – great contemporary composer in class with Brahms, Bach? etc. (over)


 

 

 

[3b] [Hindemith] 1st piano sonata (difficult but musically worth investigation. Same with collection called – “Ludus Tonalis” Also composer “Milhaud
There are also inexpensive collections of composers like Stravinsky, Ravel, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, etc. that are easily worth the investment – altho difficult. Offers much to musical insight

[4] Primary Rule or disciplining oneself in the art of sight reading music.
1. Maintain time (tempo) (Not necessarily metronomic if the music is not that way but to maintain the thought flow in perfect time regardless of what must be left out)
(a) leave out whole measures if necessary to maintain flow.

[5] (b) The reason is that the eye (minds eye also) must develop a pace of absorption wherein in a relaxed way the eye absorbs “sounds” at a glance and while this is being played, the next glance is taking place. So you can see the importance of maintaining the musical time. In this way also the music


 

 

 

[6] is experienced as music and this is a pleasant not a disjointed mess leading to neurotic rebellion. Again it is important that the music be not too difficult if sight reading practice is the objective; rhythmic maintainance becomes too frustrating or impossible.
So remember the primary rule

[7] I probably forgot a lot but the essential is there.
1. Have a good piano
2. Play whenever moved to whatever moved to (keep piano open and always receptive to impulse)
3. To develop outside of reading etc. it is much better to get into one tune deeply than 3 million tunes superficially. (over)

[8] Be concerned with nothing but music. Take care of music and all other things will follow (such as recognition, work etc.)
Anyhow give me a call 332-3896 and if you’re interested we’ll talk about this more

 

With thanks from Werner Herbers to: Egbert de Bloeme, Elena Bunink-Manzano, Pascale Bunink, Fred Dubiez, Martin van Duynhoven, Frans van der Hoeven, Kees van Kooten, Bart van Lier, Jan Menu, Jan Voogd, Ferdinand Povel, Bert Vuijsje, and Ditmer Weertman.

 

© 2022 Werner Herbers

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