Features and Reviews
Ralph Sutton - "The King of 'Stride' Piano" (1922-2001)
By Floyd Levin
"The distinctive 'stride' bass, adapted from left-hand patterns of ragtime, represents only one of the infinite virtuoso demands of the style, which, in general called for fast tempos, full use of the piano's range, and a wide variety of pianistic devices -- some from the classical repertory in which many Harlem pianists were trained." The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz - Second Edition
"When I try to explain what 'stride' is, I tell them it's got a swingin' left hand that you walk with -- but then I have to explain what 'walkin' with it means.... it's just swing piano!" Ralph Sutton, "Loose Shoes." Jaynar Press 1994
On Sunday, December 30, 2001, a phone call from Jim Shacter shattered the cheerful holiday spirit with his announcement that famed stride pianist Ralph Sutton died that afternoon. He was 79 years old. Shacter, author of the definitive biography, "Loose Shoes, The Story of Ralph Sutton," was relaying the dreadful news he had just received from Ralph's wife, Sunnie Sutton.
Despite the ominous title above, this is not an obituary. It is a personal memoir of a warm friendship that began half a century ago, and it will reveal a few obscure facets of Ralph's long career. Our relationship was not unique. Ralph responded amiably to fans and colleagues throughout the world, and each possesses tender personal memories of him. After the shocking phone call, my thoughts were immediately focused on our first meeting. It was in Cleveland, Ohio about 1952. I was returning to my hotel after a business meeting. A huge snowdrift blocked the taxi driver's direct access to the hotel, and I was dropped off about half a block away -- in front of the Theatrical Grill. A small sign by the door read: "TONIGHT - RALPH SUTTON!" An icy blast from nearby Lake Erie prompted me to enter the Grill for a warming drink -- and a chance to hear the great pianist.
The walls inside the restaurant were covered with photos of previously featured artists, including Muggsy Spanier, Wild Bill Davison, Jack Teagarden, Dorothy Donegan, etc. I knew I was in the right place. It was early, and just a few patrons were there. I followed the strains of "Honeysuckle Rose" and found a table near the piano. I was immediately impressed with his Harlem stride style and his impeccable rhythmic sense.
Sutton was then about thirty years old and had already achieved fame as intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's club in New York, stints with Jack Teagarden, and concerts in England and Switzerland. He eventually received world wide acclaim as a master of stride piano.
Noticing that I was a new patron, he came to my table when the set ended, and I invited him to have a drink with me. I had recently started writing about jazz, and told him that my monthly column appeared in England's Jazz Journal. He was aware of the young publication and knew the editor Sinclair Traill, so we had a lot to talk about. I spent the entire evening in the Theatrical Grill. I visited with Ralph during intermissions, had a late supper with him after the show and returned each evening until I left Cleveland.
Since then, as our friendship developed, I watched the Sutton career flourish. His fame grew when he made several West Coast appearances at the Club Hangover in San Francisco, the London House in Chicago, and annually participated in Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Parties. In 1968, he became a founding member of the World's Greatest Jazz Band and remained with them until 1974.
I invited Ralph to participate in the 1975 edition of "A Night in New Orleans," a concert series I co-produced with Barry Martyn. He shared the "Keyboard Giants" billing with Jess Stacy, a pianist he greatly admired. I recall a wonderful afternoon seated in Jess's back yard in Laurel Canyon listening to the two great pianists chatting amiably for several hours.
Based on the success of our Los Angeles concert, we took Ralph with us when the show toured Europe the following year. Our cast also included Benny Carter, Barney Bigard, Red Callender, Cozy Cole, Clyde Bernhardt and Barry Martyn's Legends of Jazz.
Every night, in a different European city, I introduced Ralph as "The King of Stride Piano!" After a concert in a giant Munich beer hall, when a young Fraulein approached him for an autograph, she said, "Until I saw you tonight Mr. Sutton, I always thought 'stride piano' meant playing the instrument with a leg on each side of the bench!"
When a Japanese producer asked me to recommend a stellar American pianist to appear in his annual Tokyo jazz concert, I immediately suggested Ralph. He was so successful, the producer has invited him back every year since. I have received a series of attractive Japanese post cards from Ralph during the past dozen years - each thanking me for the gig!
He eventually made annual tours of England, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand — usually accompanied by his beautiful wife, Sunnie. My file also includes a stack of colorful post cards with Ralph's warm greetings from those foreign lands. Although he never met Fats Waller, he was the foremost interpreter of his music. In Ralph's hands, Fat's "Jitterbug Waltz" became an emotional experience-- a pianistic concerto. I wrote the following paragraphs many years ago. They are still accurate assessments of Ralph Sutton's tremendous skills.
"Sitting almost sphinx-like, the implacable Ralph Sutton extracts a fervent swing from his keyboard. When the tempo rises, his grin broadens as he bolsters the rhythm with an exhilarating stride that provokes a throbbing pulse. He has played 'Honeysuckle Rose' a zillion times, yet he finds a freshness that makes Fats Waller's masterpiece always seem new. Sutton transforms the familiar bridge ('So sweet when you stir it up') into a launching pad that explodes into a romping chorus."
I am proud to be included among the countless friends and fans throughout the world who will miss Ralph's boyish grin, his affable manner, and his lifelong efforts to perpetuate the music of his mentors, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith, the originators of stride piano.
This year's March of Jazz, the annual jazz party sponsored by Arbors Records, was scheduled to celebrate Ralph's 80th birthday. Arbors' President, Mat Domber, has announced that the event will instead be a celebration of his life. Over 50 world class musicians will appear during the weekend of March 15, 16 and 17 at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater, Florida.