In Memoriam: Gary Schunk 1953–2021

The jazz world was shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of pianist, composer and arranger Gary Schunk on April 2 at age 67. Schunk had developed a wider-ranging career as a versatile pianist who could fit well into any context, from church music to Motown groups, the pit bands for traveling theatre shows, the Detroit Symphony, and of course the top jazz clubs in the area, from Baker’s Keyboard Lounge or the Dirty Dog Jazz Café to the old Bird of Paradise. Gary Elwin Schunk belongs in the long line of Detroit keyboard virtuosos from Willie Anderson to Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Johnnie Allen, Bess Bonnier, Roland Hanna, Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, and Geri Allen.

Schunk began his musical life as a classical pianist who also studied the organ, with a 1975 degree from Michigan State University followed by private lessons from the renowned Gyorgi Sandor, a student of Bela Bartok’s, who was then teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Other classical music students who knew him at the time were in awe of his talents and thought that he would carve out a career in classical music, but during the seventies he moved into playing jazz and was able to apply his prodigious piano technique to that end.

He quickly carved out a multifaceted career as a studio and performance musician and became one of the top pianists in the area. His ability to play various electric keyboards and organ allowed him to fit into many different contexts and in jazz he was able to work in mainstream as well as fusion groups. He was much in demand by band leaders and in jazz clubs, where he was called upon to accompany visitors such as Sonny Stittt, Pepper Adams, Anita O’Day, or Mark Murphy. Schunk was a regular accompanist whenever former Detroit baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams came to town from New York. They played together at Baker’s for a week in 1980 (with Ken Kellett on bass and Pistol Allen on drums) and another week in 1982 (with Tony Pia on drums). The same group gathered for the Montreux- Detroit Jazz Festival in 1982 and the Frog Island Festival in June of 1983 (recorded by WEMU‑FM). He appeared on the 1983 Grammy nominated Mark Murphy Sings the Nat King Cole Songbook in heavy company alongside guitarist Joe LoDuca and bassist Bob Magnusson. In 1995 the first album under his own name, the trio date The Key Players with Jack Dryden on bass and Tom Starr on drums appeared. He often played with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a relationship documented on Live at Kerrytown Concert House with Tommy Flanagan, Geri Allen, Gary Schunk. The trumpeter very much appreciated his art and skill, summing it up as “Gary Schunk is probably one of the greatest pianists around, because he can do it all. He’s really studied the music and every aspect of it; he doesn’t shirk any responsibilities of the music…he keeps me on my toes.”

His busy schedule never let up, even after a car accident sidelined his for a few months. He kept up his performance and recording duties, appearing on, among others Douglas Halladay’s Serenity in 2015 and working regularly with Vincent York’s JAZZistry. His Detroit Music Factory CD Kayak in 2014 is probably his major artistic statement. It is a trio date with bassist Ray Parker and world-renowned drummer Peter Erskine. The trio had performed at the Michigan Jazz Festival a year earlier and they really jelled on this recording. The collective nature of the enterprise is also seen in the repertoire: three originals by Schunk, two by Erskine, one by Parker and two credited to all three. Schunk shines throughout, but particularly on the opening standard, “I’ll Take Romance” which is a hard swinger where Schunk’s lyricism is in full bloom. It is sometimes said that lyricism is one characteristic of Detroit piano players.

Gary Schunk leaves behind a daughter, Natalie. A memorial mass will be held at St. Bonaventure on Mt. Elliott in Detroit on Saturday, June 19 at 11:00 a.m. Donations in his name can be made to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.