There was once a boy named David Jones who had a new saxophone. He called the local jazz pro, a renowned baritone sax player named Ronnie Ross, and said, "Hello, my name is David Jones, and my Dad's just helped me buy a new saxophone and I need some lessons." The jazz man did not normally give lessons but, impressed by the boy's enthusiasm, he taught the boy how to play saxophone for three months.
Years later, the saxophone player was hired to play on a rock session for Lou Reed during the early seventies. After Ronnie finished recording the solo on "Walk on the Wild Side", the producer, a tall, very thin young man wearing makeup and a fiery red wig, came over to talk to him. The young man asked the jazz man how he was doing, and then asked, "Do you remember me?" The saxophone player was sure that he didn't ("Uh, you're that Ziggy Stardust aren't ya?"), until the young man replied, "See if you remember this: 'Hello, my name is David Jones, and my Dad's just helped me buy a new saxophone....'"
The jazz man was astonished (exclaiming "My God!" upon the initial revelation) and delighted to recognize his old pupil and to see how far he had come, later telling him, "You should've kept at [the saxophone]; you would have been alright."
As a freshman in high school, there was a period where I listened to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" every day before gym class. (There was some spare time between classes after we changed clothing.) I think it had a lot to do with how I couldn't believe how the song could be so sad and so beautiful at the same time, or how someone could capture the *feeling* of drifting through space in a pop song and feeling so small next to the Earth. It's astounding to look back at the musicians who all contributed to that track: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster, Rick Wakeman, Tony Visconti, and Gus Dudgeon! Elton John loved the sound of the record so much that he enlisted Buckmaster and Dudgeon to arrange and produce his best albums of the 1970s.
When I heard "Starman" for the first time (as part of my introduction to the Ziggy Stardust album), I listened to it so many times in 24 hours that I couldn't listen to it for a couple of months afterward. There was something so close to pure joy in the line "There's a Starman waiting in the sky; he'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds." One of the first things that I taught myself to play on the piano (as opposed to by reading sheet music or with a teacher) was Bowie's solo piano version of "Lady Stardust" from the same album.
With every phase of my life, I've grown more astounded at how endlessly creative Bowie was. At first, I couldn't understand why he diverged from his early Glam Rock formula and Ziggy Stardust persona, or why he claimed that he was "done" with his hits after the Sound and Vision tour. (He said soon afterward: "I'm not rational...I could change my mind tomorrow.") Atonal piano solos? German Electronica? Tape loops? Jungle? 1999-era acoustic pop? Noise-rock? Likewise, I couldn't understand how he could just walk away from performing 12 years ago.
It wasn't until I got older that I realized how he could never stand to do the same thing from year to year, much less throughout his entire career. Like Miles Davis, he was always avoiding repetition and searching for a new sound, past acclaim, critics, peers, and even fans be damned. Bowie always managed to sound uniquely like David Bowie, with the caveat that "David Bowie" was an ever-changing idea in itself. I think that even being "David Bowie" grew tiresome in its own way when compared to the adventure of spending time with his wife and children away from the stage.
Bowie worked with three* keyboard players during the 1970s, and all of them added their own flavor to his compositions.
Rick Wakeman played Mellatron (an early, tape-based ancestor of the synthesizer) on "Space Oddity" and piano on several tracks of the Hunky Dory album. Wakeman was never a member of Bowie's band, but he played on Bowie's recordings as a session pianist. His work on "Changes" and "Life On Mars?" is one of the defining elements of the early "Bowie" sound, combining sensitive, dynamic accompaniment with gorgeous, classically trained runs and arpeggios. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v--IqqusnNQ) Wakeman made one more appearance after Hunky Dory, playing harpsichord on the relatively obscure "It Ain't Easy" from Ziggy Stardust. By then, Bowie was using members of his own band on piano and Wakeman was cutting back on his session work to join the classic-era lineup of Yes.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a unique album for many reasons. In addition to its artistic and musical accomplishments, it is the one Bowie album to feature Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson in a dual role as the band's pianist. Ronson was not as technically gifted as Wakeman, but his playing had a great "feel" that was perfectly suited to each individual track. He played rock and roll rave-up on "Suffragette City" and "Star," stately, Billy Preston-esque chords on "Five Years," and he saved his best, most delicate work for the lovely "Lady Stardust." Ronson was later praised as a "great" pianist by his band mate and successor Mike Garson - no small compliment given Garson's own considerable talents at the keyboard.
Bowie's band did not employ a dedicated pianist for live performances during the Hunky Dory-era, instead using Ronson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6pqktwv8-s) or Bowie himself to play piano where necessary and dropping the keyboard parts altogether for most songs. By the time the band prepared to perform in support of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's Glam Rock sound had progressed sufficiently that he needed an additional keyboard player (presumably enabling Ronson to play electric guitar full time). Enter: Mike Garson. Garson was established jazz pianist who was versed in some of the most modern and avant-garde jazz trends (specifically Free Jazz) of the era. He met Bowie while accompanying experimental singer Annette Peacock and joined the Spiders from Mars soon afterward. Garson was ideal for Bowie in that he had the technical ability to play both Wakeman and Garson's piano parts, but he also contributed jazz influences and improvisational chops that kept performances fresh on a nightly basis.
Garson's best known work emerged during his first album with the band, Aladdin Sane, where Bowie encouraged him to employ free jazz and atonal techniques despite Garson's fears that doing so would cost Bowie fans in the process. His extended solo on the title track, "Aladdin Sane," is probably the first atonal solo to appear on any mainstream Rock or Pop recording, and it's still impressive today. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2y9inP4CqE) Garson worked with Bowie for 19 albums over 30 years, and he remained an indispensable member of Bowie's live band right up to Bowie's final public performance in 2006. His virtuoso, solo piano accompaniment to "Life on Mars?" was a staple and highlight of Bowie's final years of touring (preserved on VH1's Storytellers and the live recording of Bowie's Reality tour, as well as a televised, one-off recording during New York's Fashion Week in 2005.)
*Bowie was the fourth pianist during the early era, playing piano occasionally on a handful of tracks and live performances, most notably on "Oh, You Pretty Things!" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBQ-S6njQQw) The demos of songs he composed on piano, such as "Changes" and "Lady Stardust," also served as the basis for the more well-known piano arrangements on his studio recordings.
"If you're sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie." - @jesuisdean