b. 16 July 1925, Somerville, Massachusetts, USA, d. 10 June 1992, Los Angeles, California, USA. After studying and playing in local bands in his home state, Pierce worked with a handful of name bands, including Larry Clinton’s, then briefly led his own band in 1949-51, instigating what is commonly regarded among fellow musicians as being the birth of the so-called ‘rehearsal band’ concept. In 1951 he joined Woody Herman, in whose band he played piano, arranged, and acted as straw boss until 1955. Thereafter, he arranged for several bands and singers, including Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. In great demand as a session musician, he made countless record dates, on which he played with almost everyone who was anyone in the upper echelons of jazz. In 1957 he appeared in the television programme The Sound Of Jazz, on which he was responsible for several of the arrangements, including the classic performance of ‘Dickie’s Dream’ that featured Basie, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Joe Newman, Vic Dickenson and Gerry Mulligan among many others.
In the late 50s he led a band that included Buck Clayton and that had the dubious honour of being the last band to play at Harlem’s ‘Home of Happy Feet’, the Savoy Ballroom, before it closed forever. Also in the late 50s he worked with Pee Wee Russell, Quincy Jones, Fitzgerald, Hawkins and others. In 1960, he returned to Herman for a brief spell as road manager and was back again the following year, this time in his former capacities, remaining until 1966. In the early 70s Pierce relocated to the west coast where he played in several bands, including those led by Louie Bellson and Bill Berry. In 1975 he joined Frank Capp as co-leader of a big band that mostly played his arrangements, many of which were in the Basie/Kansas City tradition.
This band, which became known as Juggernaut, continued to play through the 80s and on into the 90s. Pierce also continued to write for other musicians and to appear on record dates. He toured extensively, appearing in the UK and Europe with several Basie-alumni bands and other concert packages. A superb pianist in his own right, Pierce’s eclecticism was such that at various times he appeared at the piano as substitute for three of the best-known piano-playing band leaders in big band history: Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. In small groups he proved the lynchpin of the rhythm section, swinging with unflagging enthusiasm. As an arranger, especially for big bands, Pierce made an invaluable contribution to jazz, effortlessly creating swinging charts that underscored the 60s success stories of both Herman and Basie. Apart from his performing and arranging, Pierce was also a major source of information on many aspects of jazz history, a history that, through his personal dedication and extensive contributions, he helped to create.