Bob Zurke collapsed while playing his regular gig at the Hangover Club in Los Angeles sixty-seven years ago today. Alcoholism and the worst excesses of life on the road had taken their toll on the pianist, culminating with pneumonia and his death the following day. While most photographs show a much older man with a worn down face, Zurke had just turned thirty-two.
What photographs don’t highlight are the hands behind the wild pianism Zurke left behind on records. Born to Polish immigrants on January 17, 1912 in Michigan, by sixteen Boguslaw Albert Zukowski was professional pianist “Bob Zurke,” whose small hands and short fingers didn’t lend themselves to the wide intervals of stride piano. Blessed with talent, imagination and a genetic dispensation to go his own way, Zurke would spin wildly intricate independent lines on the keyboard, as though separating both hemispheres of his brain and then instigating a fight between the two of them.
Gunther Schuller describes a “dynamic hurricane-like force…light years removed from the polite babbling of most 1930s band pianists.” To be fair, when compared to the swinging polyphony on “Diga Diga Doo” with the Bob Crosby orchestra, any pianist would sound reserved:
The bulk of Zurke’s all-too-brief career was spent with like-minded musical individualists in the Crosby band, which brought the warmth and stomp of New Orleans into the Swing Era. Zurke’s best work with the Crosby group combines brassy exclamations reminiscent of Earl Hines, the rich counterpoint of the Baroque and the sheer “wow” factor of virtuosos and athletes alike. On the usually twee “Tea for Two,” Zurke adds a childlike sense of mirth, like a kid superimposing dirty limericks onto a nursery tune:
Features with the Crosby band such as “Little Rock Getaway” and “Yancey Special” show him to be a uniquely room-rumbling boogie woogie stylist. Yet ironically Zurke’s most impressive, and personal, boogie on record (and coincidentally his last recording) is the accompaniment for the 1944 cartoon “Jungle Jive” (enjoy the music and avert the eyes from the dated, offensive visuals):
Zurke’s solos would occasionally start to ramble, and his intricate lines weren’t always well served by the recording techniques of his time. Musically that was about all all he had in common with most of his colleagues. Unfortunately Zurke did share many musicians’ taste for living hard and fast. After leaving Crosby and briefly leading his own big band, Zurke gigged around Chicago and Detroit before settling, and falling, in Los Angeles.
Crosby bandmate Bob Haggart recalled “You could hear only a bar or two, and you’d know it was Bob Zurke.” The late George Shearing admitted “He always amazed me,” and Dick Sudhalter said Shearing was capable of an “uncanny” imitation of Zurke’s piano. Yet an early death, modest discography and idiosyncratic style don’t always allow much of a legacy or influence beyond collectors and specialists. Unlike some other alcoholic martyrs of jazz, Zurke’s story just seems sad, not romantic: a one-of-a-kind voice, destroyed by his vices and largely forgotten.
And then there’s the music. Is there anything those hands couldn’t do?
For more about Bob Zurke, check out Bill Edwards’ well-researched, loving biography of Zurke here.