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Bernard Peiffer: Forgotten Piano

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Pianist Bernard Peiffer began recording in 1943, during the German occupation of Paris. By 1949, he was recording in Paris with touring American musicians such as Don Byas, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet, James Moody and Kenny Clarke. With the formation of Barclay Records by Eddie Barclay in the early 1950s, Peiffer began recording with a trio. In 1954, he moved to New York.

Peiffer's first album in the States was Bernie's Tunes (EmArcy), a showcase for Peiffer's extraordinary ability that merged Bud Powell's influence with modern classical training. On five of the tracks recorded on April 11, 1956, Peiffer was accompanied by Joe Puma on guitar and Oscar Pettiford on bass. The second five sides featured Puma on guitar, Chuck Andrus on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. A string of albums for Decca and Laurie followed.

Despite Peiffer's extraordinary talents, he never became a household jazz name in the States. He didn't record enough in the 1950s to establish his reputation, and what he did record tended to have classical overtones. The language barrier also was likely difficult. Then he faced some tough family issues and health problems.

Peiffer was born in 1922. As a teenager in France, Peiffer studied classical at the Ecole Normale de Paris, the Marseille Conservatory and the Paris Conservatory. At age 19, he won the Premier Prix d'Excellence, a coveted music award. Then he was ruined by Fats Waller, whose recordings were so hypnotic that he began to imitate the American pianist. His passion for Waller soon led to Art Tatum, with Peiffer picking up on Tatum's complexity and dexterity.

Peiffer began recording in 1943 at age 20 and was soon working with Django Reinhardt. After his best friend was executed on the street by the Gestapo, Peiffer joined the Resistance. He was captured and escaped, joining the French Army in 1944. He was discharged in 1946. Peiffer performed at the first jazz festival in Paris in 1948, impressing trumpeter Rex Stewart, who hired him for his touring band.

By 1949, Peiffer was well known in France, with few rivals in Paris, according to critic Barry Ulanov. His move to New York came after the self-stated realization that he would not be able to get the jazz feeling he was looking for in France. Peiffer settled in Philadelphia, with his wife joining him soon after. Their first child, a daughter, died at age 2. His son Stephan was born in 1962. Following kidney surgery mid-decade, Peiffer performed and taught in Philadelphia.

In 1970, Peiffer was in Los Angeles, where he performed at Donte's. Reviewing the performance for the Los Angeles Times, Leonard Feather wrote, “Bernard Peiffer doesn't just play the piano. He conducts hit-and-run commando raids on it ...fellow pianists from Roger Kellaway to Hampton Hawes sat open-mouthed."

Problems with Peiffer's kidney worsened in 1976, and he died that year at age 53.

JazzWax tracks: Eight albums by Peiffer are available as downloads here. Bernie's Tunes is available on CD here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Lover Come Back to Me in 1956 (several tracks from Bernie's Tunes are up on YouTube)...

 

Here's You Make Me Feel So Young in 1958...

 

Here's Easy to Love in 1958...

 

And I didn't want you to miss 'S Wonderful from Bernie's Tunes in 1956.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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