Joe Bonner -Jazz Pianist

Joe Bonner – 1948-2014 – “Jazz is not a racist, people are!” (Joe Bonner)

Many famous musicians died in 2014: Pete Seeger, Paco de Lucia, Bobby Womack, Johnny Winter, Jack Bruce, Joe Cocker, but also the lesser-known pianist Joe Bonner.

Joe Bonner was born on April 20, 1948 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, died of a heart disease on November 20, 2014 in Denver, Colorado, where he lived for the last thirty years of his life. He was the pianist of the local jazz scene. Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) also comes from Rocky Mount. Bonner participated in more than 50 recording sessions.

I had Bonner’s record “New Beginnings” in hand and so I wanted to know more about his career. Pharoah Sanders and  Woody Shaw were booked at festivals here, why not Joe while he was available in Europe for the North Sea or Montreux Festivals, among others. Did he ever play at Jazz Bilzen? Or in the Hnita Hoeve at Juul Anthonissen? I did find Bonner on 12 May 1983 in the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, on 13 March 1986 in the Botanique in Sint Joost ten Noode in Brussels. He also played for a year in a Brussels Hilton Hotel and had girlfriend Cathy while in our country .. No further concerts in Belguim?

It is strange that a pianist who performed with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Diana Ross, Randy Crawford is unknown here. In Joe Bonners music you hear influences of Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and he played basket with Herbie Hancock. Barbara ‘Perea’ Paris helped me with his bio, a singer who worked from 1991 to 2012 with Joe Bonner. Barbara Paris has a recording company, Perea Productions L.L.C.. ( On her record from 2016 “Nine Decades Of Jazz” she sings with pianist Billy Wallace (from Clifford Brown, Bunky Green)a  composition “Ode To Joe” dedicated to Joe Bonner. They had met during conversations about Paris France, where Barbara had performed and met Claude Tissendier with Saxomania.

Scott Yanow for All Music: “Bonner is an underrated talent and this is one of his finest recordings,” according to the “Impressions of Copenhagen” from 1978. On all his records, Bonner shows his talent for improvisation, music and his Rocky Mountains as his spiritual source.

Bonner grew up in a prosperous musical family: father Joseph Leonard Bonner Sr. and mother Tennetta Gay Bonner, mother’s brother Harry Gay – Joe’s uncle – whom he learned “The Nearness of You” at age 4. His grandfather Richard C Gay was a Cherokee and born on a reservation.

Joe became wiser in the Booker T. Washington Senior High School with a degree in 1966. Bonner learned the piano and tuba and obtained a “Bachelor’s Degree in Music” in 1968 at Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia. When he was 7, Joe played the organ in Mount Zion Baptist Church with books and pillows under his body so he could reach the keys.

His dad allowed Joe to play ‘gigs’ with his music teachers as long as they took Joe home and brought them back.

The family regularly visited the family in New York: Aunt Alice Galloway and an uncle, family with many recordings of Billie Holiday and jazz greats. As a child, he was allowed to attend Billie Holiday’s funeral on July 21, 1959 at the St. Paul’s Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York. Sister Carrie Bonner-Taylor still lives in New York. A source mentions that Bonner was 11 when he came to Harlem for a family visit. When he was a  bit older, he met Thad Jones, Harold Vick, Mel Lewis, Leon Thomas and Max Roach in New York. He is also from North Carolina. Bonner was allowed to perform with Max Roach at Crawford’s Grill in Pittsburg, stays with Max Roach for 6 months. Then joins the Roy Haynes Hip Ensemble, it was Haynes who called in Bonner to replace Chick Corea in Count Basie’s club in Harlem. Shooting in 1971 with Pharoah Sanders, in 1972 with Richard Davis. At the 1971 Newport Festival with Hubbard, in 1972 with Sanders. Replaces Kenny Barron with Freddie Hubbard (1971-72), with Pharoah Sanders (1972-74). With Harold Vick recordings in 1973-1974.
Because New York could not satisfy Bonner’s musical desires, he moved and turned up in Copenhagen in the summer of 1976. At the time he was on tour with Billy Harper in Italy in 1975 and a recording in Paris. In Copenhagen, Bonner played with Thad Jones, Kenny Drew, Sahib Shihab from the Danish capital to Munich and with Mal Waldron, to Perugia, Pori. In late 1978 he came to live in Westminster, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, with a view of the Rocky Mountains. As for  Copenhagen, Bonner was there “on-again off-again”! Touring returning to New York and Denver.

He lived in Copenhagen from November 1986 to August 1988. Recording for the Danish SteepleChase Records, founded in 1972, as a refuge for jazz musicians who didn’t get a chance with the majors (Jackie McLean, Joe Albany, Duke Jordan, Kenny Drew, Tete Montoliu, Walt Dickerson, Brew Moore, and dozens of others). He stayed in Europe for about 12 years and from Copenhagen he traveled with Americans in transit, including a tour with Billy Harper in 1978. 

In New York, Bonner was a rehearsal pianist for Aretha Franklin. Touring back and forth for recordings to Denmark. He also lived in Brussels for a year. Back in April 1989 to his native North Carolina. Correct data about his stays and back and forth journeys are uncertain.

From 2000 to 2013, Joe Bonner did educational workshops at at East High School on behalf of saxophonist Keith Oxman eight hours daily to demonstrate jazz for students aged 16-18.

In 2003, Milt Cannon, president of the Prescott Jazz Society in Arizona, arranged a 6-month contract. Bonner played with drummer Bobby Cottonwood and often solo piano.

At the turn of the century he formed the Bonner Party, a kind of cooperative of some Denver-improvising musicians with saxophonist Prasanna Bishop, bassist Artie Moore, drummer Charles Ayash,many recordings are available at Akashic Jazz. In the late 80’s Joe Bonner held Sunday sessions in Denver at Coyotes including musicians Artie Moore, Vince Wiggins, Barbara Paris, Keith Oxman, Mitch Chimara, Nat Yarboro, Kevin Smith, Fred Wesley, Dirk Dickson and many others from the jazz scene … In Denver, at Dazzle Jazz Club, Javon Jackson joined with Joe Bonner and Barbara Paris.

Bonner died suddenly on November 20, 2014. He had previously asked his sister Carrie not to transfer him to North Carolina to bury him there, he wanted to be cremated, and drummer Tom Tilton has Bonner’s ashes to be scattered in the mountains of Colorado. Now at Mercury Café there is now a  photo of Joe.

On December 14, 2014 a “Memorial Vespers” was organized with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Denver as a tribute to Bonner by drummer Tom Tilton with pianist Jeff Jenkins, saxman Keith Oxman including many artists that Joe had inspired and influenced. A month after his death, Bonner’s latest album “Current Events” was presented in the “Living Room” on December 19, referring to the fact that Joe read the newspaper every day, from front to back, about current affairs!

PS Thanks to musicians Barbara Paris, Tom Tilton, Keith Oxman and librarians Eric Baker (Denver), Jessica Abbazio (Minneapolis) and Richard Anderson (Ontario).

(Erik Marcel Frans) (25.10.2019)

Erik Carrette, Ruiselede, Belgium

JazzFlits Review included Full Discography Pages 13,14,17,18