Born John Donald Abney in Baltimore, the pianist Don Abney certainly left his fingerprints all over jazz history, or at least on the ivories of various pianos used to accompany artists such as Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter or the great jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, and Pearl Bailey. He was omnipresent on the secondary level of obscure or struggling artists as well, playing on dozens of sessions for not only jazz, but rhythm & blues, pop, and doo wop performers. He even made it out to Hollywood to play piano in the film Peter Kelly's Blues, backing up Ella Fitzgerald. Tommy Flanagan was Abney's replacement in her band, just to give an indication of what kind of talent had to be brought in to replace the man. An unusual aspect of his career is that in its final decade, he decided to settle in Japan, where he had initially found quite a receptive audience on tours. Tokyo's Sanno Hotel grand piano became his musical sushi bar three times a week for several years, after which he worked the Japanese scene on more of a freelance basis, playing saloons and supper clubs throughout the city, as well as concerts or entire tours accompanying visiting jazz artists. Vocalist Anita O'Day did a remarkable tour with him in the early '80s, one of the shows captured on a commercially available video and described as a complete change in her style. But perhaps his greatest musical achievement, at least in the ears of the serious jazz buff, would be his brilliantly understated accompaniment to bass virtuoso Oscar Pettiford on that artist's solo album entitled Another One. The title tune is sometimes considered to be dedicated to the jazz buffs themselves, so accurately describing what they are going to windup acquiring in terms of recordings. Players can have the thrill of having Abney back them up in the privacy of their own homes by checking out vintage Music Minus One projects on which he is part of rhythm sections that include masters such a Pettiford and the swinging guitarist Jimmy Raney. There is no better way to practice jazz, that is unless hearing these pros at work makes one want to completely give up playing.
The pianist studied at the Manhattan School of Music and doubled on French horn, which he wound up playing in an Army band. Following his military service, he gigged with luminaries such as clarinetist Wilbur de Paris; the swaggering trombone duo of Bill Harris/Kai Winding and their combo; advanced guitarist Chuck Wayne; bandleader and arranger Sy Oliver; and pounding, rolling drummer Louis Bellson. He also toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe and was one of the organization's most adaptable accompanists who could light fires or put them out, depending on what was needed. He also spent time on the West Coast, where he was steadily employed for a period as the Universal Studios/MCA musical director. His death almost immediately followed his decision to return to the United States in early 2000. He had been on kidney dialysis for some time, so he was taken to the hospital by his family after he had complained of flu symptoms. He had a heart attack at the hospital, losing consciousness. Abney was fitted with a pacemaker and had an angioplasty to open arteries, but neither procedure was able to keep him alive.
- by Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group