Pianist Alex Bugnon Grew Up Among The Greats
Alex Bugnon, who played the Gem Theater with trumpeter Cindy Bradley this week, hails from Montreux, the Swiss town at the foot of the Alps. And in that setting, he was close to the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival.
“You had the entire world of jazz and rhythm and blues that would descend on this small city every year for a month,” Bugnon recalls. “It was very accessible for us to see everybody and meet them walking in the streets. It was a blessing, to be exposed to the best of what this music has to offer.
“I saw Miles Davis when I was 14. My first show was Aretha Franklin when I was 6. I saw everybody — McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, the Crusaders — the list goes on and on. All that before I was even 14 years old.”
And young Alex was uniquely positioned in Montreux as a nephew of jazz great Donald Byrd.
“Our house was always filled with visiting musicians. Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Nathan Davis, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, they used to be at our house all the time.”
Bugnon, now 54, grew up playing classical piano, “not because I wanted to, but because in Europe at the time it was the only way to start your musical education.”
He took off for the Berklee College of Music in Boston when he was 18 and fell in with an “incredible wave of people who were there at the time — Branford Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Jeff Watts, people who are friends to this day. The practice rooms were filled with serious playing every evening.”
After Berklee, he hung around Boston for a couple of years, then headed for New York. A job with soul singer Freddie Jackson gave him a small career boost, and a job with sax man Najee gave him an even bigger boost.
“From that gig with Najee I got the exposure to get my first record deal. I recorded ‘Love Season,’ and it sold about 300,000 copies the first year. Very successful! After that, it was just up to me to keep up.”
Keep up he has, with even bigger successes. “Love Season” from 1989 was followed by others that racked up impressive numbers, including “107 Degrees in the Shade” in 1991 and “Tales From the Bright Side” in 1995.
Then troubles with his record company pushed Bugnon off the charts for a while. He just kept playing. There was a resurgence in his record sales in the late 1990s, and another lull corresponding to the music industry’s general slide since about 2002. He’s since taken control by releasing his own albums; a new one is coming soon, he says.
Meanwhile, he’s on the road, pleasing his established audience and converting some new ones as he goes.