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Johnny Varro: Swing 7

Swing 7


  • Johnny Varro: Piano and Arrangements
  • Randy Sandke: Trumpet
  • Dan Barrett: Trombone
  • Phil Bodner: Clarinet, Alto Sax
  • Harry Allen: Tenor Sax
  • Frank Tate: Bass
  • Joe Ascione: Drums


New York, NY
28-29 Jun 1994


Arbors ARCD 19138


"The music has a propulsive, swinging, lilting charm that is the hallmark of great chamber jazz. Johnny´s charts have an intricacy that can be thrilling, ever witty now and again, and that confirms a devout conviction that most of us share that, among its many enchantments, jazz can be beautiful.“ - Charles Champlin, the longtime and now retired arts editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times.

Here is what the critics have to say:

Selected by Al Van Starrex as a 1996 Writers Choice in the January/February 1997 issue of Coda


  • Disc Jockey Jump
  • What Am I Here For?
  • Maxine
  • Beale Street Blues
  • If Dreams Come True
  • Black and Tan Fantasy
  • One Morning in May
  • Coquette
  • Shiny Stockings
  • Then I´ll Be Happy
  • High on You
  • Foolin´ Around
  • The Earl
  • Just Friends

Commentary by Charles Champlin

Those glorious musical decades, the '30s and '40s, brought us the big band, with its choirs of brass and reeds and its soaring soloists. But those years also gave us chamber jazz — quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets offering the same blending of ensemble playing with great improvisations. But the small groups had a bouncy, lilting intimacy that was all their own, and suggested what Mozart and Haydn might have done if they'd had syncopation in their vocabulary.

There was the Alec Wilder Octet and the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. And, above all, there was John Kirby and his Orchestra, which was actually a sextet with Kirby himself on bass. The group is best remembered for swinging the classics in a repertoire that ranged from "Anitra's Dance" to Beethoven's Seventh.

One of the admirers of the Kirby sound was a budding young pianist named Johnny Varro, now a jazz celebrity in his own right. A few summers ago, Johnny was teaching at the excellent summer music camp run by the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. He wrote some charts for the young musicians (high schoolers and early collegians) who were improving their jazz skills. "The arrangements were in the Kirby tradition," Johnny says; "the kids were wonderful and the music sounded great."

He was so impressed he went back to Los Angeles and over the next months wrote a whole book of arrangements and recruited some of his West Coast pals to try them out. I first heard what Johnny had decided to call the Swing 7 at a rehearsal in the dining room of his home in Canoga Park. (This was before the great earthquake of 1994, which the Varros cleverly avoided by moving to unshakable Florida only a few months earlier.)

I liked what I heard. No: I loved what I heard. It is a more robust and open sound than Kirby's, in part because Johnny added a trombone to the trumpet, two reeds and piano, bass and drums. He also allows more room for all the players to shine individually. The music has a propulsive, swinging, lilting charm that is the hallmark of great chamber jazz. (In the '50s and '60s, it rose again as the almost-boppy West Coast sound as arranged by Shorty Rogers, Marty Paitch and others.)

Johnny's charts have an intricacy that can be thrilling, ever witty now and again, and that confirms a devout conviction most of us share that, among its many enchantments, jazz can be beautiful.

The original Swing 7 made some early appearances at the annual Labor Day weekend L.A. Classic Jazz Festivals. It was an immediate hit, and caught the attention of Arbors Records' Mat Domber, who asked Johnny to recruit an East Coast ensemble and record a Swing 7 album in New York. Both Randy Sandke on trumpet and Dan Barrett on trombone had toured with Benny Goodman and Peanuts Hucko and had worked frequently with Johnny at festivals. Harry Allen, a young tenor man, and Phil Bodner on alto and clarinet are busy New York musicians Johnny had long admired, and so were the members of his rhythm team of Frank Tate on bass and Joe Ascione on drums.

"We got along terrifically from the first count-off," Johnny says. The Kirby heritage can be heard, most delightfully, in "Maxine," known by that name in the Kirby book, and also recorded as "Boogie-Woogie Maxixe" by Bob Crosby.

Inevitably the music is driven by Johnny's dazzlingly fluid piano — rippling arpeggios that recall Art Tatum (which is not a bad recollection at all), other more linear melodic lines that suggest Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole. They are all pianists Johnny admired from early days, along with Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines and Billy Kyle, who was the pianist with Kirby and whom Johnny came to know as a friend in later years. Hines is honored in the album with "The Earl." There are touches of stride and barrelhouse to be heard as well, but the signature is somehow always and uniquely Johnny Varro.

Why a youngster grows up to be a star-class pianist instead of a very good Certified Public Accountant is not always easy to figure. But in Johnny Varro's case there was a certain inevitability about it. His father, Frank, did not play but loved jazz and knew a lot about it. His mother, Josephine, played "a little piano," which meant there was a piano in their house in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. She gave Johnny a few lessons and then sent him off to a local teacher (the fee was a dollar a week), where it became instantly clear that his right and left hands worked together very well indeed.

One day Frank brought his son a Commodore 78 recording by the trio of Jess Stacy on piano, Bud Freeman on sax and George Wettling on drums, and it removed any lingering doubts about the kind of music Johnny wanted to play.

As Johnny told Warren Vache, Sr. in an interview for The Mississippi Rag, his father also brought home books on theory, chords and improvisation, including a classic work on how to play ragtime breaks and endings. His father also began to take Johnny to the clubs and dance halls where he could listen to Joe Sullivan and Willie "the lion" Smith and other jazz giants. Then, as an older teenager, Johnny started going with a friend to jazz clubs, including the Stuyvesant Casino, where Johnny was invited to sit in (Max Kaminsky and Tony Parenti were in his first set as an unpaid regular).

Frank was a short order cook at the Cromwell drug store in the RCA building in Rockefeller Center, where, as fate would have it, Bobby Hackett and other musicians often had breakfast. "My father would give Bobby an extra egg or a double hamburger ... and remind him, remind anybody who would listen, about his kid who played piano," Johnny says, laughing. Thanks to Frank, Johnny was a teenaged legend and his name was kept alive during the two years he was in service. "Friends like Yank Lawson and Bobby Hackett would ask about me," Johnny says.

He spent two years as a radio man in the Signal Corps during the Korean War. But Frank kept everybody posted on what Johnny was doing and, shortly after Johnny was discharged, Bobby Hackett asked him to join his quartet for a tour in the Midwest. The Varro career was launched. Later he became intermission pianist at Condon's (with Buzzy Drootin on drums) and then a regular with Condon's band. He also played at Nick's, The Metropole, The Embers, Jimmy Ryan's and the other top New York jazz spots. Following this he worked the Jackie Gleason Show, toured with the Dukes of Dixieland, spent several years in Miami working at a hotel with his own trio, tried New York again briefly and in 1979 moved to Los Angeles. He did a long solo stint at a restaurant called Gatsby's (long gone) and it was there I first became a Johnny Varro fan, and a friend.

With L.A. as a base Johnny did foreign tours abroad with Wild Bill Davison and his all-star band, and played many of the cruises and jazz parties which have become important venues as the jazz clubs decline in number. After more than a dozen years in California, Johnny concluded that the real jazz action seemed to have flown south-east to Florida and he and his wife Miki and their daughter Heidi, both fine jazz singers, and his son Todd, joined the great migration.

The fourteen tunes on the album reflect Johnny's taste and the remarkable range of his Swing 7 arrangements, from the lead-off showcase number for all the players, the Gerry Mulligan tune "Disc jockey Jump," to the Kirby homage on "Maxine," to the rousing trad feeling of "Beale Street Blues," to the Duke Ellington classic "Black and Tan Fantasy." No one, I think, has a prettier way with a ballad than Johnny Varro, and there's a characteristic assortment of them, from the poignant "What Am I Here For?" to Hoagy Carmichael's "One Morning In May." "If Dreams Come True" and "Just Friends" reflect the sounds of the Dave Pell Octet of the '50s. Quite beyond his fine opening statements of the melodies and his amazing solo work, Johnny provides strong and sensitive backing for the ensembles and the swinging work of his six colleagues.

It is mainstream sound at its widest, timeless best, expert, imaginative and lovely to listen to, again and again.

– Charles Champlin, November, 1994 (Charles Champlin is the longtime and now retired arts editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)

A personal note from Johnny Varro

The Swing 7 was organized by me about two years ago in Los Angeles, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to have a band that would play and encompass all of the music I have loved and appreciated all my life.

The Swing 7 plays the music of John Kirby from the '30s and '40s, the music of Duke Ellington from the Cotton Club days on, the music of Count Basie during the '50s and the styles of Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn and others of the '60s. Plus all of the music in between.

The band has played at every major jazz club in the L.A. area and has been featured twice at the L.A. Classic Jazz Festival. It was also featured in Midland/Odessa for the West Texas Jazz Society, at Van Wezel Concert Hall for the Sarasota Jazz Society, and in Fort Lauderdale for the Gold Coast Jazz Society. Last year the Swing 7 opened the festivities for the New Jersey Jazz Society at Waterloo Village as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. This is the same group that appears on this recording.

The music of John Kirby is represented on this CD by three selections, Maxine (or Maxixe as recorded earlier by Bob Crosby), Coquette and Then I'll Be Happy. Black and Tan Fantasy and What Am I Here For? are from the Ellington library and Shiny Stockings salutes Count Basie. The Earl acknowledges Earl Hines and, of course, Mel Powell who wrote the song. Disc Jockey Jump is a Gerry Mulligan tune originally written for Gene Krupa, High on You is by Al Cohn and One Morning in May is a Hoagy Carmichael tune.

One last personal note. The interpretation of these arrangements and the sensitivity of the soloists is something special. I couldn't ask for more and I thank each of them with all my heart.

Johnny Varro, February, 1995

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