Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Guitarist Jimmy Bruno
Listen to any of Jimmy Bruno’s records and the lyricism, the feel, that full, round tone guitarists kill for, and that articulation—those notes live rich, sustained lives. It all presents as something that comes so easy. But it’s taken Bruno lots of years, and several stops, for it to sound that way.
A pro at 16, by 20 he’d toured with Buddy Rich. And yet, from that point, it’d be nearly 20 more years before the man honored as one of DownBeat’s 75 greatest guitarists ever would release his first jazz album as a leader.
Raised on Hollywood Street in South Philadelphia, the son of two musical parents, a neighborhood wisecracker might say Bruno was destined for stardom. “My mother was the chick singer in the band, and my father was the guitar player,” Bruno said. “And that’s how they met.”
As an adolescent, Bruno thought he might become a doctor. His father, hip to the hardships of the music business, encouraged the idea. “Have music be something you do for fun,” his father advised, “you know, on the weekends.”
So it was settled; Jimmy Bruno became a professional musician.
He began working with local bandleader Bobby Block and soon proved himself so valuable that Block bought him a car so that he could get to and from gigs, mostly weddings and bar mitzvahs. “There was one caveat, though,” Bruno recalled. “Bobby said, ‘you have to pick up the saxophone player.' " The saxophone player was Buddy Savitt, a legendary Philly session player who’d played alongside Gene Ammons and Jimmy Giuffre in Woody Herman’s “Second Herd.”
“I was 16, and all these guys were seasoned musicians. I learned so much from guys like Buddy Savitt, Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes. That’s really how you learn this music, from older people.”
Bruno’s education would continue in earnest when, at 19, he auditioned for Buddy Rich’s big band and dodged enough flying drumsticks to make the cut. The learning curve was steep; Rich’s charts were notoriously complex, his tolerance for anything less than perfection notoriously low. And, according to Bruno, his reputation for being a bully wasn’t unwarranted; nor was his reputation for being a genius.
“He would see how far he could push you, especially the new guys,” Bruno remembered. “But there will never be another drummer that good ever again. Never. I used to watch his left hand every night; it would blur.”
Fresh off touring with Rich, Bruno was ready to become a jazz sensation. The universe had other plans.
After a few restless years back in Philly where he overcame any lingering romantic notions of starving artisthood, he and his wife moved to Vegas. For six years (’74-’80), he played for big-time bandleaders like Don Vincent, Doc Severinsen, and Jimmy Mulidore and backed stars like Sinatra, Anthony Newley, and Lena Horne, first at the Sands, later at the Hilton.
“There were only four of those jobs in all of Vegas; I had one at the Hilton. If it hadn’t been for that gig and [later] gigs in L.A., I’d have had no musicians’ pension, I’d have no social security.” When the business of Vegas started to change—“Bean counters started running those hotels”— Bruno left Vegas to pursue studio work in L.A. Soon, he was working regularly with prominent film composers like Lalo Schifrin.
“They were good times, lots of money. More than Vegas. But that ends, too,” Bruno said, referring to film studios’ belt-tightening and growing penchant for synthesized music by the late ’80s. “I was 35, and I said to myself ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m gonna go back to Philly.’”
Back in Philly, organist Trudy Pitts and her husband, drummer Bill Carney (Mr. C), helped Bruno land gigs at neighborhood spots like Chris’ Jazz Café and Jack Prince’s JJ’s Grotto. Prince couldn’t believe what he was hearing—and couldn’t believe that Bruno wasn’t a household name. He became Bruno’s greatest champion.
“Jack liked jazz, and he taped me every night,” Bruno recalled. “I said, ‘Jack, what are you gonna do with these things?’ “He said, ‘I’m gonna get you a record contract.’”
And he did, with Concord Records.“[Prince] tortured [Concord founder] Carl Jefferson to death until he listened to this tape,” remembered Bruno, laughing. “Then [Jefferson] called back and said, ‘Do you have more of this?’”
Being a Concord artist would take Bruno around the world, and over the next decade he’d release nearly a dozen records on the label, playing with guitar heroes like Frank Vignola, Howard Alden, and Joe Beck; saxophone colossi like Bobby Watson and Scott Hamilton; and ascending stars like Joey DeFrancesco and Gerald Veasley.
After decades in the profitable-at-times but always grueling music business meat-grinder, Bruno, by 40, had arrived. “I got to play music that I really liked to play,” Bruno said matter-of-factly. “Before that, I was just a carpenter; the guitar was like my hammer.”
At 67, Bruno no longer needs to use the guitar as a hammer. But nearly four years ago, an accident threw a wrench into everything. He fell in his home recording studio, hit his head and was in a medically induced coma for eight weeks.
“At one point, every organ failed…and I was on a ventilator. I couldn’t play at all, nothing.” After a year of rehab, he was ready to play again. The only issue there was some had actually presumed him dead. “There was this big thing in the Inquirer, and they made it sound like I’d died. I called my booking agent in New York and he said, ‘Jimmy, I’m so glad to hear from you; I thought you’d died last year!’”
Bruno not only returned to playing gigs at his favorite New York haunts— Birdland, Mezzrow, Smalls, the Blue Note— but right before the pandemic, he went abroad and played Blue Note locations in Italy, Beijing, and Shanghai.
When the pandemic hit, Bruno thought he’d retire from playing for audiences and just teach online, something he’s done since 2011. Maybe compose a little, listen to more classical music—he loves Stravinksy, Ravel, Debussy, and “of course, Bach,” whose music he calls “jazz written down.”
Still, players play. So while we all quarantined, Bruno hosted well-patronized livestream concerts for 28 consecutive weeks with Philly jazzers Dylan Taylor (bass) and Mike DeMonte (drums). But to Bruno, the music he plays isn’t truly jazz without a live audience.
“That feedback, that vibe is really important for this music,” he said. “It can’t be art if you’re playing in your basement. You have to have an audience, otherwise you’re just practicing.” Bruno should know; he’s been at this since 16, from the work-a-day world of musical “carpentry” to being considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists to ever plug into an amp.
“I’ve been so lucky to learn things you just can’t learn in school,” he said. “I think most of it is luck. I really do. You have to have talent and practice so many hours, but it takes luck.”
If a big part of luck is being at the right place at the right time, much of Bruno’s good fortune might be chalked up to his being a Philadelphian. Philly legends helped him on his rise—Bootsie, Larry, and Buddy Savitt taught him how to be a pro; Mr. C and Trudy Pitts helped him re-establish himself on the Philly scene; and Jack Prince didn’t quit until Concord Records heard Bruno play.
Philly’s jazz community was also there for him when he fell.
“When I got sick, we ran out of insurance and things were bad,” Bruno said. “But Jazz Bridge and [vocalist and Jazz Bridge former Executive Director] Suzanne Cloud got a lot of money for my wife while I was still in the hospital. And that’s good stuff…. So I guess good stuff does happen here.”