Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Pianist Ralph Earl Sutton, was born on November 4, 1922 in Hamburg, Mo, was known as the master of stride, a demanding form of piano jazz, which grew out of ragtime in the 1920's. Its essence is a left hand that strides rhythmically across the bottom half of the keyboard while the right hand handles the melody.

He fell in love with stride piano at 9 when he first heard Fats Waller, a master of the style, on the radio. He went on to play with some of the greatest jazz musicians and pursued a solo career that took him to concert halls and clubs around the world. He made more than 40 recordings on many labels.

André Previn, the conductor, once referred to Mr. Sutton as one of the few jazz pianists who had complete mastery of his instrument. The New Yorker called him ''a piano specialist of astonishing skill.'' Milt Hinton, the great jazz bassist, who died in 2000, once said, ''I'm glad to have passed through this life just to have met Ralph Sutton.''

In part Mr. Sutton represented a link to an important jazz tradition. Writing in The New York Times in 1991, Peter Watrous said, ''In his pieces, motion and movement signaled a type of freedom, and the spiky, abrupt right-hand interjections, working as melodies, exemplified the new musical vocabulary that developed in the early decades of this century.''
Dick Hyman, musical director of some of Woody Allen's movies and a stride pianist himself, insisted that Mr. Sutton was more than an archivist. ''Jazz had to be your own invention or it isn't jazz,'' he said. ''What Ralph did was do his own improvisations on the older music. It wasn't just note-for-note re-creations.''

Ralph Sutton played with no sense of irony but directly and proudly to audiences eager to hear his forceful take on Waller and other stride greats, like James P. Johnson and Willie Smith, known as the Lion.
''When he would get going on something like 'Honky-Tonk Train,' he would have people leaping out of their seats,'' said the clarinetist Kenny Davern.

Though known as a soloist, he played with big bands early in his career and in many combos later. ''He'd get that style going on any tune that was romping along, but he had the sensitivity to be a good backup,'' said Ed Polcer, the cornet player and bandleader.
Ralph Earl Sutton was born in Hamburg, Mo., on Nov. 4, 1922, and was raised in the nearby town of Howell. (Both towns were taken over in 1940 by the federal government, which bought them out to build a dynamite factory.)

As a boy, he played the organ in the Presbyterian church. His father, who had learned to play the fiddle at night after working on construction jobs, let him play the piano in his country band.
When the legendary trombonist Jack Teagarden came through town in 1941, Mr. Sutton, then 19 and attending what is now Northeast Missouri State University, reluctantly agreed to play for him. Mr. Teagarden immediately invited him to join his band in New York.

Two months after joining the band, he was drafted into the Army, where his assignments included playing the glockenspiel in the 104th Infantry Band in the Mojave Desert.
After being discharged, he played at a club in the red-light district of East St. Louis, Ill., before being asked to rejoin Mr. Teagarden's band at the Famous Door on 52nd Street in New York. In 1948, he began an eight-year run as intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's jazz club on West Third Street.

One of his major large-group jobs was as a member of the World's Greatest Jazz Band, a all-star mainstream band with Bob Haggart and Yank Lawson as headliners, from 1968 until 1974. He went on to perform around the world at jazz parties and concerts. Since this October, he has performed in Switzerland, Alabama and Texas.

Sutton was seldom without a gig, but life was not always easy. In the 1970's, he was so poor he did not own a piano, according to an article in The Rocky Mountain News. In 1978, friends chipped in to buy him one.

He never stopped making records, often to good reviews. His last album was a piano duet with Johnny Varro, ''A Pair of Kings,'' released by Arbors in the fall of 2001.

Ralph Sutton passed away on December 2001.

Ralph plays "After You've Gone"

Reference - American Jazz

No comments: