Bernard Peiffer was born on October 23, 1922 in Epinal, in the Vosges district of northeastern France. Bernard’s father, formerly an army man, was a violinist and was devoted to chamber music. An uncle, Georges Peiffer, was a composer and church organist. Bernard began his music study at the age of nine; he studied piano and harmony privately with Pierre Maire (a student of Nadia Boulanger) and dazzled older students with his ability to play back extended sections of classical pieces by ear. He continued his studies through his teens at Ecole Normale de Paris, the Marseille Conservatory, and the Paris Conservatory, where he won the coveted and revered First Prize in Piano.
Attracted by the freedom and improvisational basis of jazz and influenced by the pianistic styles of Fats Waller and Art Tatum, Bernard made his professional debut in 1943, at the age of 20, with alto saxophonist Andre Ekyan. Soon after his debut he worked at the Boeuf Sur Le Toit Paris nightclub with Django Reinhardt. Bernard credited Reinhardt with teaching him the music business and Django predicted a brilliant career for the young Peiffer.
After witnessing the execution of his friend on a Paris street at the hands of the Gestapo, Bernard joined the French Resistance Movement. He was eventually captured by the Gestapo and imprisoned for over a year.
Out of the army in 1946, he resumed his music career, playing concerts for the French Hot Club at the Salle Pleyel and resuming his association with Django Reinhardt. He toured with Hubert Rostaing and Jacques Helian. In February 1948 he performed in Nice at what was probably the world’s first jazz festival; it was there that Bernard’s playing so impressed Ellington alumnus Rex Stewart that he hired Bernard to tour and record with his band. After working with Stewart he recorded with Don Byas, James Moody, and Kenny Clarke, and he reunited with Django for club dates and a tour.