Local jazz pianist John Coates Jr. dies at 79
TIMES-TRIBUNE FILE Jazz pianist John Coates Jr. died Wednesday at the Jewish Home of Eastern Pennsylvania in Scranton at 79.
“ Alone and Live” at the Deer Head by John Coates Jr.
Former Scranton Mayor Jim Connors once asked legendary alto saxophonist Phil Woods what he thought of jazz pianist John Coates Jr.
“People don’t know how good John Coates is,” Woods told Connors, who confirmed Friday that Coates died Wednesday at the Jewish Home of Eastern Pennsylvania in Scranton.
Coates was 79.
Widely regarded as one of the jazz world’s finest pianists, Coates remained largely unknown even among jazz aficionados because he never consistently played outside the Poconos, said George Graham, the longtime WVIA-FM music show host, who featured Coates on the station’s “Homegrown Music” program.
“He is definitely the best piano player people don’t know,” said Bob Mancuso, co-owner of the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap where Coates played regularly from the 1960s until about 2010.
Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Coates began studying music at 8 years old, traveling to the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He also learned to play clarinet because famed big band leader Benny Goodman played it. Coates performed with his father once a week at Trenton YMCA dances from age 11 to 14, according to an online biography. By age 16, he played six nights a week during the summer at the Deer Head.
Savoy Records, a well-known jazz label, discovered him and had him record an album, “Portrait,” in 1956.
He performed on national television programs including “The Steve Allen Show” and toured with jazz band leader Charlie Ventura, playing Birdland and the Blue Note in New York City, and other noted jazz clubs.
Coates worked in the 1960s and 1970s as an arranger and composer for legendary big band leader Fred Waring, who settled in the Poconos after his career ebbed and set up a music publishing house.
Coates’ regular gigs at the Deer Head helped establish a Poconos jazz scene. His work there and at a Trenton night club regularly attracted famed jazz musicians, who either joined him on stage or just came to listen. They included Woods, Coleman Hawkins, Clark Terry and Stan Getz. Keith Jarrett, an Allentown native, drummed behind Coates for two years at the Deer Head before embarking on a legendary jazz piano career himself.
“Word got out, it was just a regular thing,” Graham said. “People literally traveled from Japan to see him.”
Coates hugely influenced Jarrett, who lifted a Coates melody and used it on a live recording, Graham said.
“He was very innovative,” Graham said. “He had a distinct left-hand technique, very swinging, a combination of swinging left hand and a very melodic way of writing pieces. His tunes, you could go and hum.”
In addition to Jarrett, jazz innovator Dave Brubeck counted Coates as an influence, according to a 1982 Baltimore Sun story.
In 1974, Coates finally recorded again, producing “The Jazz Piano of John Coates Jr.,” the second of at least 15 recordings between then and 2014. In the 1990s, Coates developed a “pretty serious depression,” he told The Allentown Morning Call in 2000. At one point, homeless and almost bankrupt, he tried to kill himself in New York City before recovering and resuming his career.
Connors said Coates suffered from “a whole series of medical problems” and had lived in Scranton since October 2015. Coates always had a fondness for Scranton and its musicians, and played here frequently over the years, including venues like the long-closed Wine Cellar, Connors said.
“He was a humble man, possibly the most humble person I have ever met, despite his incredible talent,” Connors said.
Coates will be cremated, with Miller Bean Funeral Home handling the arrangements. He said a memorial service is in the works. Read his obituary on Page B8.
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Posted by The Deer Hear Inn
Friends of Johnny Coates,
So sorry to inform you that our dear friend Johnny Coates passed away quietly Wednesday, November 23, at 2:30 pm at the Jewish Home of NE Pa.
He didn't suffer.
Johnny's wish was to be cremated and arrangements are by the Miller Bean Funeral Home, 436 Cedar Ave, Scranton, PA 18505. Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, cremation probably will not take place until early next week.
There will be no calling hours or service in Scranton, however, ironically, Jay Rattman, sax, and Billy Test, piano, will be performing a previously scheduled program of John's music at the Deer Head Inn, in Delaware Water Gap Rt 611, this Sunday Nov. 26, 5:00 to 8:00 pm, donation $10. Last years' performance, as well as a Bob Dorough concert which Johnny attended, were rousing successes.
In the 6 months that John had been a guest of the Jewish Home, our hope was to get him back in playing shape, but unfortunately, that was not meant to be.
Johnny died with money in the bank and all his bills paid.
Thanks for all your calls, letters and visits over the last several years. Johnny was not alone!
Jim and Susie Connors