Born in Joliet, Illinois, August 14, 1903, our Jack Gardner began piano lessons at the age of eight. In his Hot Box obituary for Down Beat George Hoefer wrote: "His unmusical parents were amazed when his talent on the piano began to emerge .... when he started lessons with George Stahl, an old German music master." When the family moved to Denver, Colorado, the youngster worked in a music store and, this was 1921, played in a band led by Benny Goodman - a violinist. Next came a job with Doc Becker's Blue Devils at the Coronada Club, followed by a stay with a Boyd Senter group which included Glenn Miller.
Returning to Chicago he was in George 'Spike' Hamilton's band (with Glenn Miller, Pat Pattison and Bob Conselman) for a no doubt short-lived engagement at the Opera Club. There was a spell with Fred Hamm's orchestra and Brian Rust lists him on a Victor session recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1925. Three titles were made, one of which was a rejected Hangin' Around. Later, in the summer of 1926, he worked with violinist Art Cope's band at the Vanity Fair cafe on the northside. Eddie Condon was also in the band for a spell and historian George Hoefer has referred to "the then infamous Condon-Cope-Gardner singing trio". Condon, in We Called It Music, recalled the floor show, with dancers, singers, comedians and chorus girls, that the job lasted ten months and that he dated the bass player, Thelma (Coombs) Terry "all that winter".
Gardner told Down Beat writer Sharon Pease: "I benefited mostly by working and listening to the Chicago boys, but I believe I was most influenced by Jimmy Noone, Earl Hines and good old Zutty Singleton." In the same paper, four years later, he told John Lucas that his two top pianists were Earl Hines and James P. Johnson.
According to John Steiner Gardner was working for a music publisher in Chicago in 1924 and 1925 and about this time began writing songs. His first tune, Hangin' Around, was recorded by Merrit Brunies for OKeh in 1926, but his big hit, in partnership with Spike Hamilton, was Bye, Bye, Pretty Baby. Among those who recorded the song in the 1920s were Abe Lyman, Jan Garber, Nathan Glantz, Joe Herlihy and Jack Hylton, while Benny Goodman did so in 1947. Vic Dickenson sang it on one album. Other songs were You're Wonderful, recorded by Nat Shilkret, and My Baby Came Home, recorded by Red Mckenzie.
Early in 1927 Gardner became a leader at Chicago's Commercial Theater. This has been reported as a nine month engagement, with Floyd O'Brien, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon and Dave Tough included in the personnel during that time. Hoefer told how this booking ended: "They played between shows and during the newsreel. The gig came to an abrupt end during a jam session on Clarinet Marmalade while on the screen Marshal Foch was laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was Dave Tough's drums that did the trick."
There was a short stay with Jean Goldkette in Detroit and a theatre tour with vocalist Gene Austin, an association which was to be revived twenty years later. (That the Goldkette stay was very brief is confirmed by John Steiner's comment: "If there was a Goldkette connection he did not mention it to me during the several years we lived together".)
Gardner's first recording date, though he is hardly heard, was with Wingy Manone's Club Royale Orchestra - a quintet - in Chicago on April 9, 1928; Downright Disgusted and Fare Thee Well (Vocalion 15728) were made, with Wade Foster, clarinet, Bud Freeman, tenor, Ray Biondi, guitar and Gene Krupa, drums.
Interestingly, clarinetist Bill Reinhardt, of Jazz, Ltd. fame, also recalled a recording with Manone and Gardner: "It would have been between 1928 and 1930 that I recorded with Wingy Manone, in an old Brunswick studio on South Wabash Avenue, with Jack Gardner, piano, and a fellow named Floyd Hinkley, alto saxophonist. I don't remember anybody else. I was playing North Side Chicago, some chop suey house, with this Floyd Hinkley and Art Hodes playing piano."
In the early 1930s Gardner was with Phil Spitalny at the Century of Progress and in 1933 at the Cafe De Alex with violinist Maurice Sherman. This was a Dixieland group which included Carl Harris on trumpet and Rosy McHargue on clarinet. Down Beat for September 1934 shows Maurice Sherman leading his octet at the College Inn, in the Sherman Hotel, still with Gardner and McHargue, plus Joe Rushton.
The August 1935 issue continues to show Sherman at the College Inn and still with Gardner and Rushton. Hoefer also lists a Joe Hooven as a member of the band, which "used 36 arrangements originally made for a group Jimmy McPartland had at the Beachview Gardens".
When, in April 1936, corporation lawyer, capable amateur pianist and jazz enthusiast Squirrel Ashcraft organised a Decca recording session the band was Jimmy McPartland's Squirrels. The personnel was McPartland, cornet, Joe Harris, trombone, McHargue, clarinet, Dick Clark, tenor, Gardner, piano, Dick McPartland, guitar, Country Washburn, tuba, George Wettling, drums. The titles were Eccentric, Panama, Original Dixieland One Step and I'm All Bound 'Round with the Mason-Dixon Line. Gardner is Sullivan-esque on Dixieland One Step and has a couple of other acceptable solos.
Hoefer says that Gardner went to New York in 1937 and early that year he was working at the Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., in a band led by violinist Sande Williams. (The tenor player in the band was one Jack Tarr!) The accuracy of these dates is uncertain; a Down Beat report stated that Gardner left the Williams group to join Harry James, and that would have meant he was with the violinist for nearly two years.
In January 1939 Harry James left Benny Goodman to form his own orchestra and Gardner was a founder member, remaining with the trumpet star for eighteen months, until he was fired for drunkenness. He told John Steiner that he complained when James sacked him, "but I didn't throw up".
Peter Levinson, in his biography of Harry James, Trumpet Blues, writes: "Al Lerner joined the James band on June 30, 1940. He was hired to replace Jack Gardner on piano, but ... Harry had neglected to give Gardner his two-week's notice. On Lerner's arrival for his first gig the bandstand was set up with a piano at either end with Gardner seated at one of them." Gardner passed out during a show at the Paramount just as guest Bea Wain was starting her signature tune and Lerner had to fake the piano part.
The James band recorded many titles between February 1939 and July 1940, the best known featuring Gardner being the two-part Feet Dragging Blues. Because of this association with James he was voted into 15th position in the pianist section of the 1940 Down Beat readers' poll.
Other titles from the Brunswick and Columbia recordings by the James orchestra are also worth hearing for, among others, his raggy solos on Sweet Georgia Brown and Comes Love, a short but neat solo on I Found A New Baby, a Basie-ish introduction to two versions of Flash. He is into eight-to-the-bar for Back Bay Boogie and Two O'Clock Jump, and is similarly effective in his long introduction to St. Louis Blues, from a 1939 Hotel Sherman broadcast. Cross Country Jump on the same airshot also has a good solo. Note too his accompaniment on the Harry James quartet version of Sleepytime Gal.
At times one wonders if Gardner's playing really fits the swing style which Harry James was presenting, but it does introduce a touch of earthiness into the polish and brassiness of the band. And the many James' recordings do offer a rare opportunity to appreciate Gardner's ability.
There is a "More Informal Sessions" album, MIS-3, which includes titles recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft's over a number of years. One number from 1939 is What Is This Thing Called Love, on which Gardner plays a satisfactory solo, alongside Bill Priestley, cornet, Wade Foster, clarinet, Joe Rushton, bass-sax, and Hank Isaacs, drums. One assumes that the Harry James orchestra had an engagement in Chicago at the time.
One Gardner story is told in the notes to the 1980 Princeton Bix Festival album. The tune Jelly Roll is dedicated to the memory of Jack Gardner. "It was his favorite tune and always reminds us of his reply to a request he wasn't anxious to fill. When asked if he could play the Barcarolle, Jack's answer was, "No, but I can play Jelly Roll and it's every bit as good."
Returning to Chicago, Gardner, as George Hoefer put it, worked "solo jobs and occasional stints with Dixie combos, as well as in groups playing behind strippers, where he could improvise freely and experiment". For the rest of his life Chicago continued to be his base, with occasional forays to other locations where there was work, as the next few paragraphs show. Some of these jobs are known from brief and occasional mentions in Down Beat.
About July 1941 Gardner took a band into Nick's in New York, with Gordon "Rip" Thornton, trumpet; Milton Fields, tenor; Marty Blitz, bass, and Billy Exiner, drums. This was not a typical Nick's personnel. Could it have been a short engagement or as a Monday night band?
In December 1941 he played with a big band led by Bud Freeman and organised for a four-night booking at the College Inn, plugging a gap between engagements by the bands of Woody Herman and Alvino Rey.
According to a John Lucas story in Down Beat (September 15, 1944), Gardner, after leaving James, worked with Joe Marsala at the Hickory House, with Ray Conniff at Nick's, and Marty Marsala at the Band Box. The article also reports that "Jack's best kick came when he played a March of Time broadcast in place of Count Basie." One can surmise that these engagements were during the 1942/43 period, before he signed with C.R.A. as a single act about mid-1943.
Towards the end of 1943, following the demise of his big band, Muggsy Spanier played a number of gigs in the Chicago area with a sextet. It is likely that Gardner played some of these dates as he was pianist for three titles which Spanier recorded for World Transcriptions on November 15, 1943 - Three-Twenty-One Blues, I've Found A New Baby and Baby, Won't You Please Come Home. Fellow Chicagoans in the personnel were Bud Jacobsen, clarinet, and Pat Pattison, bass, plus Warren Smith, trombone and Frank Rullo, drums. Gardner has solos on the first two tracks, with that on the blues particularly worthy.
In April 1944 Jack Gardner was at the Dayton Hotel in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and around October of that year he was leading a trio, sax and drums, at the Silver Palm on Wilson Avenue, on the North side of Chicago. George Hoefer reported: "The trio plays on a raised platform back of a zig-zag bar where a string of stripteasers perform". And on June 30, 1944 John Steiner recorded three titles by Red Nichols, backed by Gardner and Vic Engles, drums - Cheerful Little Earful and I've Got A Woman (She's Funny That Way), issued on Steiner-Davis 507, and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (unissued). The piano solo on I've Got A Woman (on CD on Vintage Jazz Classic VCJ-1009-2) is flowery yet in context.
Also for Steiner in 1944 were three piano solos. Doll Rag, with Baby Dodds on drums, recorded January 31, and Bye, Bye, Pretty Baby, and Rolling Around The Roses made June 30. The first two titles were on Steiner-Davis 508, but Rolling Around remains unissued. Doll Rag, Gardner's interpretation of Paper Doll, generates a vigorous swing when he moves into up-tempo, with Bye, Bye, Pretty Baby not far behind.
Two takes of Jelly Roll, no doubt from the Steiner collection, were made in October 1944 by Bobby Hackett and Jack Gardner, with good piano solos on both. He also recorded two tracks with Rosy McHargue, playing well on Indiana and stomping away on the medley of My Baby Just Cares for Me / I Got Rhythm.
In April 1945 Gardner made at least two appearances at Boston Jazz Society meetings, on the 9th with George Hartman, Johnny Windhurst and Danny Alvin, and on the 23rd as soloist with Charlie Vinal's Rhythm Kings. John Steiner reported that Gardner had recorded with the Milt Herth Trio, with whom he played months, but had been unable to find these as issued records. Perhaps working with Herth explains the "long absence" mentioned in Down Beat for November 15, 1945, "Jack Gardner returns in the Loop after a long absence, at Elmer's."
He appeared with Jack Teagarden in February of 1946 at a Hot Club of Chicago concert, when the impressive trumpet section was Sterling Bose, Charlie Teagarden and Muggsy Spanier. He recorded with Bud Freeman in September 1946, issued on Steiner-Davis and Classics 975, playing a long, basic but effective blues-y opening solo on Ontario Barrel House (SD-506). With altoist Bill Dohler added, Gardner also makes satisfactory contributions, both solo and accompanying, to Taking A Chance On Love/You Took Advantage Of Me (SD-504) and Ribald Rhythm (SD 506).
In Tell Your Story Eric Townley says that Gardner was sharing an apartment with Steiner on Ontario Street at this time, but Bob Koester recalled Steiner telling him that Gardner lived in a basement apartment that Koester once had at 102, E. Bellvue. Steiner was in 104. However, John Steiner also told Tor Magnusson that he had lived for a long time in a studio-laboratory at 1637 N. Ashland Avenue and that this "had many rooms, as you can correctly suppose". Gardner was one of those resident at 1637.
1947 began with a four-week engagement at the Grandview Inn in Columbus, Ohio, and in July he briefly replaced Don Ewell at Jazz, Ltd., before spending August and September, presumably as a soloist, at Polly's, "new jazz spot on North Michigan boulevard". During October and November he was the pianist at the Blue Heaven in Las Vegas, a casino owned by Gene Austin.
He played the final three weeks at Tin Pan Alley before it closed, in October 1948, then "filled in with Doc Evans' Bee Hive unit temporarily," as Down Beat put it. In November 1948 he was in clarinetist Johnny Lane's band at Rupnecks, leaving in January 1949 to work as a single at the Cipango Club in Dallas. Presumably this was a month's gig as in February he was back in Chicago, at the Hi-Note, working opposite Max Miller's trio, followed in April by the Tower on N. Wabash. At the end of 1949 he was reported to be playing as a single at the Clayton Hotel.
On March 21, 1949 Gardner recorded three titles (St Louis Blues, Cherry, Embraceable You) for John Steiner, with Johnny Lane, clarinet, and Jack Goss, guitar, but these are undistinguished. He recorded again for Steiner on June 20, 1950. Pee Wee Russell, passing through Chicago, had called on Bud Jacobson and the pair visited Steiner in search of a drink. The titles were Blues (a piano solo), You Took Advantage Of Me (a trio with Jimmy James, trombone, Bud Jacobson, clarinet), and Louise (quartet, the trio plus Pee Wee Russell on clarinet).
Starting in 1950 Bill and Crickie Priestley helped Ashcraft revive the 'Sessions at Squirrel's', with four or five annual weekend sessions being organised. Two titles (You Took Advantage of Me, Poor Butterfly) with Gardner in the personnel, come from July 1950 and were issued by John Steiner on his 10" Private Issue 2. The album labels state 'Informal Session at Squirrel's : The Sons of Bix's". Poor Butterfly is a feature for bass saxophonist Spencer Clark, but Gardner plays a long introduction to You Took Advantage of Me which is worth hearing, although he is heavy on the bass. Spencer Clark told collector Paul Burgess that he thought Gardner played drums on some of the other 1950 titles,
From July 4, 1952 Pennies from Heaven is a piano solo, nearly five minutes of sustained improvisation, included on Paramount CJS-108. It is a recommended sample of his playing. Gardner is listed as 'Jarvis Farnsworth" on this issue and, to quote John Steiner, "the pseudonym was used to avoid conflict with Musicians Union policy about unauthorized recordings with non-Union men. He chose the name".
Writing about the Priestley sessions, Herb Sanford in his book, "Tommy and Jimmy: The Dorsey Years," says that Ashcraft called Gardner "one of the very greatest of the full pianists. Arthur Schutt was one of his heroes, and Teddy Wilson told me that his first real conception of tenths bass came to him from listening on radio when Jack was playing with Maurie Sherman at the College Inn in Chicago".
Gardner played with George Brunis at the 1111 Club in August 1952, though his stay with bands rarely lasted long, as if he preferred to find work as a soloist. Chicago collector Jim Gordon recalled: "I used to hear Jumbo Jack Gardner at a place near Rush Street called New York Bar. Jack was solo there and I heard him play some wonderful stuff. He was a great pianist". (One of Jim's visits was on New Year's Eve of 1953.)
Collector Merrill Hammond said: "I knew Jack Gardner very well .... I would rate him as an outstanding orchestral jazz pianist, although I cannot rate his solo work as high. He was a very personable fellow and extremely devoted to jazz."
In his tribute to Jack Gardner in Record Research (No. 17, March-April 1958) John Steiner recalled that "Jack had lived with me for five of the past fifteen years" and described him as "one of the truly lusty pianists of our era.". He concluded the tribute: "The stories of Jack's sweetness and whimsy are unending. A new one from the hospital where they were draining fluid from his distended tummy a few days before his death goes like this: An intern who had become intimate (and everybody quickly did with Jack), held up a beaker of the yellow stuff and asked, "Have a nip, Jack?' To which Jack replied, 'No, I guess I'll pass this one - as long as I am to be on tap for awhile."
Pianist and organist Les Strand was active in Chicago in the 1950s and met Jack Gardner when "he was playing solo piano in some lounge here in Chicago". Writing in 1991, Strand recalled Gardner's style:
His piano style was very interesting to me in that he would deliberately phrase tune in a way that suggested an incorrect number of beats within the segments of melody, but he always readjusted so that the beat count came out right in the overall presentation. This made for some very interesting listening. Not once did he ever fail to rescue the overall melodic and rhythmic shape of the piece but he kept one in suspense, anticipating disaster than never occurred.
Jack had an excellent harmonic sense; he was not a bopper but didn't sound old-fashioned at all. He was fun to hear! He was a very unique pianist; not a technical marvel, but with all the ability to do what he wanted to really express himself, which is what counts, in my opinion.
Gardner was undoubtedly a forceful and swinging pianist. He could be heavy-handed at times and flowery, perhaps over-busy, at others, but as his recordings with Harry James and for John Steiner show, at his best he deserved his place in the gallery of Chicago jazz pianists.
Jack Gardner moved to Dallas, Texas, towards the end of his life, the city where he died on November 26, 1957.