Joe Bushkin, a wisecracking, musically graceful pianist who performed with many of the greatest jazz and big band musicians and singers of his era, died of pneumonia Nov. 3 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 87.
In a career spanning 70 years, Mr. Bushkin played with Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw, as well as Judy Garland, who once said he's a "musician's musician, but he plays awfully pretty for the people."
In 1941, when he played piano in Tommy Dorsey's band, Mr. Bushkin co-wrote "Oh, Look at Me Now," the first hit song for Dorsey's male singer, a young unknown named Frank Sinatra. Years later, when Mr. Bushkin would perform the song, he would joke, "Now, I'd like to play a medley of my hit."
His happy-go-lucky approach to life -- and practice -- belied a serious musical mind and a seemingly effortless talent that continued into old age. He often sat sideways on his piano seat to banter with the audience as he played.
"If you're a classical pianist," he said, "you have to practice, because everything has to be precise. In jazz, if you've been playing as long as I've been playing, it's like riding a bike."
Mr. Bushkin, who was born in New York, was largely self-taught. He was performing in bands by his early teens. He also became a capable trumpeter.
He almost made his recording debut at 14 with Benny Goodman, but Goodman's regular pianist, Teddy Wilson, showed up at the last minute. Wilson was one of Mr. Bushkin's musical models, as were Earl "Fatha" Hines and Fats Waller, all of whom he knew well.
By 18, he was a regular in New York jazz clubs. In 1936, he played piano on Holiday's first recording under her own name. During the '30s, he also worked with guitarist Eddie Condon and trumpeter Muggsy Spanier, but he might have been best known as a sideman with Bunny Berigan, the brilliant but erratic trumpeter who died at 33 from alcohol abuse.
Mr. Bushkin developed a serious drinking habit of his own for some years, but it never seemed to affect his playing, his productivity or his penchant for bawdy storytelling.
In 1940, he joined Dorsey's powerful band, considered by many to be the finest of its era, and performed on more than 100 recordings. Mr. Bushkin was drafted, spending World War II directing musical revues and playing trumpet in an Army Air Forces band. He also wrote "Hot Time in the Town of Berlin," which became a minor hit for both Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
After the war, Mr. Bushkin worked with Goodman and Sinatra and became a mainstay at the Embers, a New York jazz club. In 1949 and 1950, Mr. Bushkin appeared as an actor in the Broadway play "The Rat Race," for which he wrote the music. He toured with Louis Armstrong's All Stars in the 1950s and recorded several easy-listening records that sold well enough to enable him to buy a horse farm in California, to which he retired in the 1960s.
"I got tired of guys requesting 'Melancholy Baby' and throwing up on me," he said.
He lived in England briefly but couldn't stay retired for long. He kept returning to the bandstand, often at the behest of Crosby, who retained Mr. Bushkin as his pianist until his death in 1977.
"When I haven't played for a while," he said, "my ideas are very fresh. If I'm playing every night -- well, even a train stops, you know."
At the piano, Mr. Bushkin had an easy, flowing approach, marked by melodic improvisation, that remained unapologetically rooted in the jazz and swing styles of his youth.
"I don't listen to contemporary pianists," he once admitted. "As for the avant-garde guys -- to me, it's like a guy who opens a shoe store with 6,000 salesmen and six pairs of shoes. I'd rather go in and have six salesmen and 6,000 pairs of shoes."
Mr. Bushkin appeared throughout the 1980s at the Carlyle and St. Regis hotels in New York. He continued to perform occasionally until recent years, always returning to his Santa Barbara ranch, where he could watch his horses run.
Survivors include his wife, Francice Bushkin; four daughters; and six grandchildren.