Walter Bitner

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Ella Fitzgerald, late 1970s ~ photo by Gai Terrell

Ella Fitzgerald, late 1970s ~ photo by Gai Terrell

One night when I was a child – this would have been sometime in the 1970s – I was in bed but had not yet fallen asleep when my mother came to my room and got me to come see something important that was about to be shown on television.

This was back when all television was broadcast: before streaming, before cable, before Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, or Beta. There were 3 commercial networks and PBS had only been broadcasting for a few years – so if something came on TV and it was important or interesting, you had to set aside time to watch it then or you would miss it, with no chance to see it again. In those days, many people organized their lives and made plans around the scheduled broadcasts of programs or events they wanted to see.

So I shuffled down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, peering up at the small black-and white TV set that sat on a shelf high on the wall. (What seemed to my young eyes and ears like) a dowdily dressed old black woman in coke-bottle glasses stood in front of a piano trio and proceeded to astound me with the most outlandish and virtuosic singing I had ever heard. At first she sang what seemed to my limited experience to be a pretty conventional rendition (of a song I did not know – in my memory she sang How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in this broadcast but I don’t know if that’s accurate as I’ve been unable to locate a video on the internet that syncs with my memory of this moment) but then she closed her eyes and started to make strange movements with the hand not holding the microphone as she sang what become obvious to me was not the song but just something wild she was making up, singing nonsense.  My mother told me this was called scat singing. I thought that scat was another word for poop but I didn’t say anything, I just sat there mesmerized, listening intently until it was over. I’d never heard anything like it.

It was Ella Fitzgerald of course. My father said something about Ella being the greatest jazz singer in the world, and it was clear to me (they got me out of bed to see this, after all) that to my parents – who seemed to regard this television event with the same weighty regard they had given to astronauts landing on the moon or President Nixon resigning from office – this crazy old lady was something special – anyway, she was on TV, and that was important in it’s own right. I went to bed when it was over, but sitting in my parents room that night watching Ella sing on TV made a strong impression on me, and I never forgot it.

It is my first “jazz” memory.

In the last year here on Off the Podium I have been attempting to lay out each of the threads of my musical life over the last fifty years, in hopes of beginning to weave them together into a cohesive fabric. Anyone who has been following this attempt will have noticed that nearly all of my other posts concern “legit” music – whether it’s mainstream classical or music from earlier periods – or music education topics, with only a few exceptions.

And yet jazz has been such an important part of my musical life that I can’t continue to ignore it here, although I feel very uncertain about how to begin writing about it other than autobiographically.

scatLike many white American men who grew up in the 1970s, I grew up listening to what is now called “classic rock” on the radio, and when I became interested in playing music with my friends in junior high and then high school, this is the genre of music I got started out on.  I had taken piano lessons for years, so I played keyboards in “garage bands” (they were called this because traditionally they were so loud that parents refused to let them practice in the house) covering songs by bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lynard Skynard, The Doobie Brothers…

Rick Wakeman being way cooler than I will ever be, sometime in the 1970s

Rick Wakeman being way cooler than I will ever be, sometime in the 1970s

…eventually I became more interested in what we called “art rock” back then – most people call it “progressive rock” today – bands that featured keyboardists as prominently as guitarists and whose music transcended radio-friendly formulas. By the time I was 15, Yes and Genesis were my favorite bands, and I had spent many, many hours learning to play solos by Rick Wakeman and Tony Banks by ear, scratching up many a LP from repeatedly picking up the needle and playing the same passages over and over again to “get it right”. Later I would apply the same process to learning jazz solos.

By the time I was 17 I had mostly lost interest in playing rock, was finally buckling down (so late, so late) to serious classical piano study, and had at the same time discovered jazz and set about trying to teach myself how to play it. When I was 18 I found (true story!) the nearly complete pages of a tattered copy of The Real Book scattered across a field adjoining the campus of Pitzer College in Claremont, California on my way home from work one morning, which I gathered up into a binder and used over the next few years – with the help of my father’s record collection – to learn how to play jazz.

Both of my parents grew up in a time when jazz was America’s popular music, not the esoteric genre or museum artifact it seems to have become. My mother sang jazz when she was in high school and my father played trumpet. He had a small collection of LPs from the 1950s that I listened to a lot when I first began trying to learn how to play: records by artists like George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis.


Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette

I’ve never studied jazz formally in any way. I’ve never taken a class on a jazz topic nor a “jazz” piano lesson, although I studied jazz on my own intensively alongside my classical studies for many years, teaching myself how to play from fake books and assimilating style from recordings.

As I’ve written about here briefly, I was already familiar with and greatly admired the music of Keith Jarrett, who was in the early years of his thirty year run with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette as the Standards trio – these musicians more than any others have informed and inspired my own playing.



But there are many others of course. Most of what I know about jazz I learned from listening to recordings; I have most of the recordings Miles Davis made in my CD collection (in addition to most of Jarrett’s discography) and a wide range of recordings from most of the major jazz artists who were active up until the late sixties when Miles released Bitches Brew and unleashed a Tower of Babel on the jazz world. Some of my favorite artists besides Keith and Miles include Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz…I am less well-informed about jazz after the advent of fusion, as by the time I began to play jazz I had pretty much stopped playing electric and electronic keyboards altogether in favor of acoustic piano.

improvisationI’ve been a jazz pianist since I was in my late teens, and for a few years in my early 20s I performed jazz regularly both as a soloist and in small combos. I led two piano trios in the 1980s, one in Tampa, Florida from 1985-1987 simply called “Swing” with John Meats on bass and Gavin Foster on drums, and The Third Avenue Trio in Gainesville, Florida in 1988-1990 with drummer Spencer Leffel and a changing cast of bass players. For nearly two years in Gainesville I also held down a steady gig as the house pianist at a local restaurant every Friday and Saturday night for four hours each night! I learned a lot on that gig, and although occasionally I would play a Scarlatti sonata or a Chopin waltz, most of those long, long gigs were spent familiarizing myself with the so-called American Songbook.

I think what I find so amazing and attractive about jazz is that, beyond the simply astonishing music itself – there is simply nothing else like it and the history and genres of jazz encompasses a great variety of music-making at a very high level of artistry – are the improvisational aspects of the art form. Improvisation is at the heart of the impulse to make music – any kind of music. Although it has largely been extirpated from mainstream classical music, improvisation was once a huge part of any musician’s repertoire of activities, and composers like J.S. Bach and Beethoven were famous for their abilities to improvise, for instance: conceive and execute a fugue or a cadenza on the spot! One of the aspects of historical performance I found so attractive when I began to really delve into the study of renaissance and baroque music was that the less exacting/demanding notation practices of earlier times left more decisions about performance in the hands of the performer, with the expectation that some aspects of the performance (e.g. ornamentation) would be improvised.

recording at Ocean Way with Tracy Silverman and MCYO, May 3, 2009

recording at Ocean Way with Tracy Silverman and MCYO, May 3, 2009

By my late 20s I had set aside jazz ambitions and had immersed myself in the study of renaissance and baroque music, but I have continued to listen to jazz and even play a bit from time to time. When I was music director of Music City Youth Orchestra I collaborated with Tracy Silverman to bring some arrangements of jazz classics for string orchestra to the ensemble over the years, including writing a few myself. But over the years my focus shifted away from my own performing to concentrate more on teaching, and although I love jazz and made efforts throughout my teaching career to share with students about the great American art form, my work was largely oriented towards training and skills development, for the most part within the classical tradition.

*       *       *

So it is with great delight that I find myself playing jazz again regularly, after a hiatus of about 25 years.

My son Holden, who is a classical cellist, also played (both upright and electric) bass in the amazing Silver Jazz Band at Hume-Fogg High School here in Nashville under one of the finest music educators I have ever met, Dr. Richard Ripani. Rich’s band and jazz programs are justly famous not only in Nashville but throughout Tennessee, and the Silver Jazz Band competes regularly at a national level. When Holden went off to college he missed playing jazz, so he found an old upright on Craig’s List, and a couple of years ago we began reading through Real Book charts when he was home from school. This fall we found Andrew McVey – a terrific drummer – who joined our trio, and we began to rehearse regularly and play in public. The rest is, well it’s not history – let’s say it’s the future.

Bitner Finest Ales at Flying Squirrel, Chattanooga, Tennessee, November 1, 2015

Bitner Finest Ales at Flying Squirrel, Chattanooga, Tennessee, November 1, 2015 ~ photo by Lily Wilder

The band is called Bitner Finest Ales and you can peruse a selection of recordings from our first gig this fall here.

The feeling of “coming full circle”, which has been occurring rather frequently for me over the last year since I came to work at the symphony, is not lost on me, nor is a deep sense of gratitude and joy at being able to continue to make music with my son, yet in a completely new and unexpected way.

And how wonderful to come back to playing jazz again, after all these years, and find that I still have something to say.


  1. Jay Bitner says:

    At times, I wish your memory was not so good, however, I remember many things I regret as well as the learning from those mistakes. I am amazed at your creative writing ability to weave together all your life experiences into a gradually unfolding story on a subject with such detail, humor, wit and importance to the story happenings. Good job, Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Carol-Margaret Bitner says:

    Hi there,
    I am amazed at your memory and, yet, I have crystal clear memories of my own at the age you were then…I suppose I am envious that I was not two years older and pulled into the bedroom to watch Ella on television!
    Thank you so much for sharing this autobiographical piece… which I plan to share with Raphaël.
    I agree with Dad, this story and ‘happening’ is so important to share…keep sharing, please.

  3. […] do this until I was 20 years old. By then (the mid-1980s) I had become more interested in playing jazz than rock and increasingly more serious about my classical piano studies. My last gig as a […]

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