Joe Bonner was a brilliant jazz pianist who collaborated with some of the genre's legends and developed a worldwide reputation for his moving style. He passed away in his sleep on November 20 from heart disease. Bonner moved to Colorado in 1976, when he was 28 years old. By then, he'd been playing professionally for a decade; his résumé included performances alongside Freddie Hubbard and Roy Haynes's Hip Ensemble and a three-year stint touring and recording with legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He quickly established himself in Denver, playing weekly stints at the Mercury Cafe and a run of sets at the Bay Wolf between European tours.
"When he first came here, people would listen to him play the piano, and I would look out into the audience and their mouths would be hanging open," says Tom Tilton, who played drums with Bonner. "The conversation would stop. To experience what this guy could do on the piano was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. He would captivate audiences. It was incredible what he could do on the piano. And I was sitting on the drum set trying to keep up with him."
Bonner, like fellow jazz great Thelonious Monk, was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He moved to Harlem at age eleven, and when he got older, he started playing around New York City with such luminaries as Thad Jones, Harold Vick, Mel Lewis, Leon Thomas and Max Roach.
One night at the Village Vanguard, Vick introduced Bonner to Monk. Bonner related the story in the liner notes of a solo piano album called Monkisms, which he recorded later in homage to the legend.
"My mother had just sent me a white-and-blue-plaid wool overcoat from Rocky Mount," he wrote. "[Monk] had on the same exact coat!
"He said to me, 'Yeah, Joe! I heard so much about you from our homeboy Harold Vick. You're wearing my same jacket! I just got this one from my mother in Rocky Mount, NC.' Then he danced for me. Strange guy!"
The year he moved to Denver, Bonner went on tour with saxophonist Billy Harper to Copenhagen. He returned to that city many times over the next two decades and recorded a handful of albums there, including Parade, Devotion, Suite for Chocolate and The Lost Melody, for the Danish imprint SteepleChase.
Copenhagen was also the inspiration for his most popular album, Impressions of Copenhagen, which was recorded in Boulder in 1981. It features local bassist Paul Warburton and Tilton, who produced the album in addition to playing drums on it.
Impressions of Copenhagen sold 35,000 copies in its initial run, enough to top nationwide jazz charts for several weeks. Bonner's expansive catalogue will get its final installment with Cherry Sound Studios' upcoming release of a gorgeous solo piano album called Current Events. A performance scheduled for December 19 at the Living Room to celebrate the work will instead serve as a memorial for the late pianist.
One of Bonner's greatest influences was McCoy Tyner, who was a member of John Coltrane's classic quartet. But in Tilton's estimation, the younger player eventually eclipsed the master in many ways.
"Joe Bonner has all the power of McCoy, he has all the capability of McCoy, but he's so much more romantic," he says. "I mean, I've been there time after time where there were tears running down people's faces when he would play a ballad. He could captivate a room like nobody I've ever experienced before."
• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS •
- 50 Photos That Prove Red Rocks Is the Most Beautiful Venue on the Planet
- Photos: Musicians Buying (Legal) Weed in Denver
- The Ten Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock
- 50 Ways to Support Your DIY Music Community
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!