I don’t play the piano. I tried to learn once but gave up on it. But one thing I do remember is how difficult it was to make my fingers cover all the territory they needed to — and I have big hands. That made it even more amazing to me when I learned that Johnny Guarnieri, who was for many years one of the best jazz pianists around, was known for his surprisingly small hands.
John Albert Guarnieri was a native New Yorker who began working professionally when he reached adulthood in the mid to late 1930s. Classically trained, he had transitioned to jazz (although he sometimes combined the two in later years) and had also become proficient in stride piano* in the style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. It wasn’t long before his talent earned him work in some of the many big bands that roamed the land at the time, leading to a gig with one of the biggest, Benny Goodman‘s. Over the next few years Guarnieri made his name while working with Goodman and then Artie Shaw, another superstar bandleader of the era. In fact, it was his association with Shaw that led to one of his unique accomplishments — the first musician to play the harpsichord on a jazz recording.
During the 1940s Guarnieri led his own group for a while and also spent time with Tommy Dorsey’s band. He made some of his best records during this period, teaming up with stars like Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Byas. As the decade drew to a close he landed a position with NBC, which provided him with a base on the musical side of radio and TV, and plenty of opportunities to freelance too.
During the 1950s and 1960s Guarnieri solidified his position as one of the most-respected pianists around, eventually settling in California and finding plenty of work in TV and nightclubs while continuing to make records, including several with the Henri René Orchestra backing Eartha Kitt. As the years passed he also made several successful tours, appearing in Europe for appreciative fans. He stayed active until his death at age 67 in 1985.
* Guarnieri explains ‘stride piano’ at the beginning of the video below.