Monday, June 2, 2014

Memories of a Jazz Journalist - Part Six - Ralph Sutton

Here is a continuation of a series of entries that come from an article that George wrote in 2004 entitled Memories of A Jazz Journalist.

One of the most amusing of the 147 "Yankee Jazz Beat" columns I have submitted to the Mississippi Rag concerned stride pianist Ralph Sutton.

The Sherborn Inn, Sherborn, Massachusetts, has a grand piano, and when I asked Ralph who made it, he said it was a Yamaha.

I quipped, "Doesn't Yamaha make motorcycles?"

And Ralph replied, "It plays like a motorcycle.

Ralph Sutton was born in Hamburg, Missouri on November 4, 1922.

Sutton grew up in Howell, Missouri and was trained in classical piano. At the age of 11 he was playing in his father's dance band and by 1936 he was playing piano around St. Louis. As a teenage he would listen to the Harlem Rhythm radio show which first introduced him to "stride" piano; the style he would play for the rest of his life.

Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden heard Sutton play around 1940 at a college and recruited him for his band. Sutton played with Teagarden until he was drafted into the Army in 1943.

After the conclusion of World War II, in 1945, Sutton returned to St. Louis and worked with the Joe Schirmer Trio as well as working at radio stations in the area.

Sutton then journeyed to New York rejoining Jack Teagarden's band for about about a year until becoming the intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's where he soon gained a following as he playing ragtime and stride. He garnered a regular slot on the This is Jazz radio program which furthered his notoriety.

In 1952 Sutton was asked to London to play the Royal Festival Hall. This was the start of his many European tours which would continue until his death.

Earl Hines, 1947
He and his family moved to San Francisco where he subbed for Earl "Fatha" Hines at the Hangover in the fall of 1957. He then joined Bob Scobey's dixieland band.

He was invited to play in Colorado where he met his second wife who ran the Rendevous Club. Sutton along with Milt Hinton, Gus Johnson and occasionally Ruby Braff turned the club into a jazz center. His friendship with Braff lasted 52 years and they would record together occasionally.

Ralph Sutton traveled the world and played many of the old masters tunes, such as James P. Johnson, "Fats" Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Jazz writer Scott Yanow called him, "one of the greatest stride pianists ever." 

Sutton died at the age of 79 on December 30, 2001 in Denver he was survived by his wife Sunnie and three sons from his first marriage.

Ralph Sutton plays Scott Joplin's Cascades in 1960.

Ralph Sutton plays Honeysuckle Rose in Italy on May 17, 1979.


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