[JPL] RIP Ross Tompkins

Doug Crane dcrane at comcast.net
Fri Jul 7 03:56:29 EDT 2006

The Independent
3 July 2006
Steve Voce

Ross Tompkins, pianist: born Detroit 13 May 1938; married;
died St Augustine, Florida 29 June 2006.

The pianist Ross Tompkins was one of the horde of immensely
gifted jazz musicians that moved to Los Angeles to take
advantage of the abundant work in the film, radio and
television industries concentrated there. The studio work
was dull, but nights were free and there was, in the good
years, a multitude of jazz clubs. Because the musicians were
so gifted, standards in the jazz groups were exceptionally
high. The result, during the Fifties and Sixties, was that
bandleaders like Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich or Bill Holman
had an unlimited choice of great soloists.

Moving to the city in 1971 Tompkins came late, but soon
became ubiquitous. He was both an outstanding soloist and a
tasteful accompanist who could play any kind of jazz. He was
drawn into jazz when he heard Louis Armstrong; his piano
playing then became influenced by that of Duke Ellington,
Earl Hines and Fats Waller.

His family moved from Detroit to Florida when he was young
and he was brought up there. He studied music at the New
England Conservatory in Boston and moved to New York in
1960. There was no shortage of good pianists in New York,
but Tompkins found his niche and worked in clubs with giants
such as Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman and Wes Montgomery.
He had a regular job with the Kai Winding Trombones from
1960 to 1967, making exhausting tours to play at clubs and
college campuses.

When Winding accepted a job as musical director of the
Playboy Clubs, the touring slowed down and amongst his other
work Tompkins became the pianist of the Clark Terry-Bob
Brookmeyer Quintet and that of another quintet led by Al
Cohn and Zoot Sims. He worked with Benny Goodman during 1968
and managed to get a much-sought-after job in the New York

On moving to Los Angeles he joined the orchestra of The
Tonight Show, a television programme presented by Johnny
Carson that had a huge audience across the United States.
Tompkins stayed in the band from 1971 until 1992 when Carson
left the show. He became the first-choice pianist for many
local musicians, notably the guitarist Herb Ellis and the
trumpeter-comedian Jack Sheldon.

Tompkins began recording albums under his own name in 1975,
but mostly recorded for other people. He was co-leader on
albums with the violinist Joe Venuti (1977) and with Red
Norvo (1979) and worked often in the big band and small
groups led by the drummer Louie Bellson. In 1979 he appeared
at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Herb Ellis.

In New York Tompkins had been a key member in the quintet
led by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and he was delighted when Zoot
Sims came to Hollywood to record in 1976. Sims chose
Tompkins as his pianist on the album Hawthorne Nights,
recorded for Norman Granz's Pablo label. Another of his old
bosses, Al Cohn, came from New York in 1978 to work briefly
on the West Coast orchestrating music for the 50th
anniversary of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Tompkins
took the chance to book a season for the two of them to play
at Donte's, then a jazz bistro in North Hollywood where
Tompkins played regularly with the guitarist Herb Ellis.
Cohn joined Tompkins's regular trio to make the album Ross
Tompkins and Good Friends for Concord in 1977.

Throughout the Eighties Tompkins worked mainly with the
bands of the trumpeter Bill Berry and with his friend Jack
Sheldon. "We hit it off," said Sheldon:

I've always wanted to work with just a piano. It really is
intimate. And Ross is so good. He can do anything and he
knows every tune. Every tune I've ever called, he's known,
and I know quite a few.

Tompkins made his last album of piano solos, Younger Than
Springtime, for the Arbors label in Florida in 2000. 

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