BOILERMAKERS, FRENCH FRIES, AND SORROW

Let us remember, mourn, and celebrate Richard McQueen Wellstood in three ways, for he was too expansively singular to be contained in one alone.

The first is a blessing — the man himself — on a 1981 BBC video, the program called Pebble Mill At One,” where Wellstood plays AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and RUSSIAN RAG, then we have the immense happiness of Dick, Kenny Davern, and Kenny Clare for A PORTER’S LOVE SONG and BLUE MONK:

The second is prose — what my briefly-known friend, the late Leroy “Sam” Parkins, reedman and thinker, called “random mutterings” wrote about Dick in 2002:

Dick Wellstood, pianist / catalyst, died in 1987.  Died of boilermakers, french fries, and sorrow.

In somewhat over 50 years of playing this music, there’s only been two accompanists that gave me the vitamins I need.  Roger Kellaway . . . and Dick. On 6 of the 9 records I’ve made – well – let’s take it from wherever the top is.  Oh yeah – the boilermakers. Tapered tall glass of Guinness Dark, and a 3 oz. glass of Wild Turkey.  Repeat ad libitum . . .

Some random mutterings about Dick.  The basics.  Law School; Editor, Columbia Law Review [that’s what he told me.  His biographer says NYU]. Folks, that’s big time.  Passed the bar exam, went right back to the Metropole to play with Red Allen.

Brilliant.  Funny.  Fast forward. Late in his life, with considerable saloon burn-out, he took up an offer from some customers from a Wall St. law firm to join them at work.  The first thing he learned was that lunch was billable time.  You don’t do lunch.   They put him to beginners’ shit work, but he was so brilliant that after about six weeks got the class stuff.  Hated it.  After eleven months he returned to Hanratty’s and his beloved piano.  Dick Sudhalter went to visit him real soon at the club.  Wellstood said, sitting down at the piano, “The law don’t take no fucking brains.  This [plays piano] takes brains.”

One weekend night that summer of ’86 I stayed to the end and closed the joint. Remember it’s six nights a week.  He got paid. $500.00.  For the week.  Got it? This is a superstar in Europe, the tippy top of his craft, raved about in newspapers in 5 languages. Making 1/10th – wrong – make it 1/20th – of what he would have been making by then in law . . . .

Third, Wellstood in an excerpt from a 1977 CBC documentary, THEY ALL PLAY RAGTIME, offering CAROLINA SHOUT and his own SNATCHES.  At several points in the second performance, his left hand is a blur:

I think we only intermittently understand ourselves, so our comprehension of what is going through another person’s mind and heart can be at best empathic guesswork.

So although I prize Sam Parkins’ recollections of Dick Wellstood, friend and hero, I hope Sam was wrong.

I hope that Wellstood, someone who created so much joy — a joy that continues now — was not sorrowful, that there was not a direct causal relationship between the low pay and insufficient recognition and his too-brief life.  But only he could tell us, and he might not even have known it fully for himself.  His ebullient quirky music and his singular personality remain, and they are too large and too beautiful to be quantified in any small way.  He gave generously of himself, and that lives on.

But there’s always more than just one truth.  Dan Morgenstern, who’s lived with the music in ways most of us — no, all of us — haven’t, wrote this to me [on April 6] about Dick.  It is worth a careful reading.

Since Dick was a dear friend–first met him in 1947!–I was a little unhappy about that screed from Sam (whom I didn’t know quite that long, but also well, back to when he was Leroy P.). Funny thing, they were both brilliant minds and fine writers with interests ranging far beyond music (about which they also went beyond jazz boundaries). But Sam, clearly still upset about Dick’s sudden death, as we all were, paints too gloomy a picture. Dick’s encounters with the law began when, having fathered a bunch of daughters and pretty certain that jazz would not provide a good road to support, he decided to get into the legal field, upon which he managed to get a BA and pass the bar within record time (it was NYU).

He then hung out his shingle (at the time he and his wife Flo lived on the East Side, off Lexington). The work he was offered was in the main divorces and minor matters not even nearly as interesting as what you can see on Judge Judy, He soon despaired and next time I visited, the shingle hung in the bathroom. It would be quite a while before he used his legal skills, this time after they’d moved to City Island, where Teddy Charles had resided for along time, running his boat. Teddy knew half the population and got the bright idea of creating some extra income for Dick by turning paper work (tax matters and such) his way, something that only requires minimal personal contact.

That ended when Dick and Flo split up–after a while of bachelor life in a cozy basement apartment on Second Avenue, where he introduced me to the classical piano magic of Josef Hoffman and other rarities, and his excellent Lentil Salad (think I still have the recipe somewhere), as well as the wonderful gospel of the Davis Sisters. (He was not a record collector, but everything he had was a gem).

Next phase was life in New Jersey, with that steady gig on the jazz Ferry Boat in Brielle, a new marriage, and the deep friendship with neighbor and fellow ferry man Kenny Davern. The final legal stage, the one Sam writes about, did not come from some Wall Streeter, but from a lawyer fan; by now, Dick and new wife Diane lived right near Hanratty’s, where Dick not only had gigs. but selected the piano and did most of the booking–not surprisingly, of a high order. This legal work did require the wearing of three-piece suits (soon too tight) and yes, social imbibing, which came too easily. And Sam is right that Dick really disliked it. But this marriage was a good one, and of course he didn’t put the music on the back burner.

Last time I visited, not long before that awful news, Dick had some of his usual salty things to say about life, but also seemed at peace with things, and cooked up a great stew. What did him in wasn’t depression or anger. A good doctor could have weaned him off too much booze and too much unhealthy eating, gotten his blood pressure under control, and this unique and wonderful man might still be with us…..Edward Meyer’s “Giant Strides” bio is a
good read.

May your happiness increase!

12 responses to “BOILERMAKERS, FRENCH FRIES, AND SORROW

  1. Torstein Kubban

    Michael, thank you for reminding us of Dick Wellstood. He was indeed very special. He redefined stride piano. (Yes.) I wished I had experienced him live. Luckily we have the recordings… Absolutely outstanding musician.
    Thanks a lot for your blog. I follow it and it gives me, yes, increased happiness! Hope to see you again at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party in November! Regards, Torstein (Norway)

  2. Bill Gallagher

    “Brilliant” doesn’t even begin to describe this guy. Lovely film.

  3. Joanne Horton

    Remember that Wellstood & Bob went back a long time.He came into Bechet’s to hear ‘The Legacy’The band played’ Polka Dot Stomp’-aftewards Dick said “its was hard in 47 & its still hard”!!
    A great guy,A fabulous musician & a great loss for jazz music!
    Bob & Pug Wilber
    PS Remember ‘The Wildcats’!!!!???

  4. I believe that Dick went to NYU undergrad, and then New York Law School, finishing both one year ahead of schedule. With most other jobs, one would go to night school, while working to support oneself during the day. Playing the piano allowed one to do the reverse. Not sure where he found time to study, unless he did not need to sleep. Come to think of it, Dick was such a smart guy, he probably did not require that much time to study either. We would have both deep, and far ranging discussions when I heard him at Hanratty’s.
    Dick knew that I was a medical student, so his health , as well as that that of James. P’s would often come up. Dick had high blood pressure, and he was convinced that some day he would go the route of James P. and die of a stroke.
    When it came to his own craft, Dick’s favorite piano colleagues were Dick Hyman, Don Ewell, and Johny Guarnieri, all of whom he recommended for gigs at Hanratty’s. In fact, the first pianist who I ever heard at Hanratty’s, was Don Ewell, Dick’s partner for chess through the mail. One of the first things that Dick wanted to know about me was my US Chess Federation ranking. I let him know that we didn’t need no stinkin’ badges, but, he wasn’t buyin’ it. We never played chess. Of course, he would have cleaned my clock, as I had peaked at the age of six.
    As we were both history buffs, this was often a topic of conversation. Turns out one of his frequent visitors at Hanratty’s One was Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a Professor of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital, around the corner from the club, where Dick was also a patient. At that time, Dr. Geiger was a prominent member of an organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility. During the the Reagan defense build up, billed as urgently needed to save our land based missles from a ” Window of Vulnerability ” against an attack from overwhelming Soviet numbers ( another fabricated crisis of national security, much as the ” Missile Gap ” and the” Bomber Gap ” had been in an earlier generations , which Dick and I would also discuss) Geiger was in the vanguard of trying to decrease the chances of a nuclear exchange. Dr. Geiger viewed this as the ultimate public health issue. Another of Dick’s fans was William F. Buckley, Jr., of course an ardent Reaganite, who was all for the defense build up. One night, Buckely and Geiger wound up at Hanrraty’s at the same time, and, with the latter apparently aided by ample amounts of alcohol, got into something of a spirited discussion, before he managed to stumble out of the restaurant..
    As far as Dick’s politics were concerned, I was not sure. He had apparently not been a liberal in his youth. Dick wrote a letter to Buckley saying that WFB’s writings had cured him of that particular affliction. This did not mean that Dick had been converted into a Buckley conservative. Most folks who are this smart and reflective are impossible to pigeonhole, and Dick was no exception. On abortion, Dick was clearly pro choice, and he maintained a nuanced view of the world. He read the New York Review of Books, and even got me to do so, so I could keep up with him. I.F. Stone was an intellectual whom he would quote. I remember one discussion about Stones’ revisionist thesis that, behind the scenes, Eisenhower was far more in control of his presidency than his grandfatherly, golf playing public image would have indicated. Fortunately, this was an intellectual current with which I already had some familiarity, so we got into it pretty well together, and I was able to keep up. I think that this must have impressed Dick.
    All told, I must have heard Dick around 20 times during my 5 year stay in New York for medical school, and one year of internship. He knew me my name, and when I walked into the restaurant, would often play James P’s ” After Tonight “, knowing that it was one of my favorites. I have such fond memories of those times. A true intellectual, a genuine stride pianist and jazz musician, who’s writings on the subject were as erudite as any who have ever attempted it. Dick was the subject of a New Yorker profile by Whitney Balliett, as well as a full length book by Edward Meier: Giant Strides: The Legacy of Dick Wellstood. His articles for the Jazz Review, as well as his ( albeit heavily edited ) album notes for the Time Life / James P. Johnson Giants of Jazz album, and the Donald Lambert Pumpkin recordings, as well as his articles for ” The Jazz Review “. along with Mike Lipskin’s conributions to numerous record albums, are the best extant writing on the subject of stride piano, and essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the genre. Many are produced in the ” Files ” section of the Facebook page: Friends of James P., Fats & Current and Past Stride Piano Masters.
    One of the saddest days of my life remains the time I heard of Dick’s unexpected passing. It was via a call from James P. Johnson’s biographer Scott Brown. I had once suggested to Dick that the 2 of us together should write a biography of James P. At the time, none existed. I had done a large amount of research for a 7 hour radio program devoted to James P which I had broadcast on KZSU., while I was a Stanford undergrad, and, of course, Dick had also done a fair amount of writing. Dick informed me that one was already in preparation, and had begun as the senior thesis of one Mr. Brown, then Yale pre-med ! So it was Dick who first alerted me to the existence of this other Jewish doctor, born in 1960, and a Sting Baby, who was also a passionate fan of James P. Johnson. It turned out to be something of a passing of the torch, as Dick died shortly after I moved back to California. It was 1987, and I was training in Los Angeles, when I heard from Scott that Dick had died. He had been playing a gig at the Peninsula Jazz Party at the Hyatt in Palo Alto, just down the road from where I had gone to college. Scott and I have now been friends for 30 years, and last year, went together to the final Jazz Connaissuer International Stride Piano Summit, where Louis Mazeter, Bernd Lhotzky, Stephanie Trick, Chris Hopkins, Rossanno Sportiello, and Paolo Allderighi are carry on the legacy of James P. and Fats, which had been continued in the subsequent generation by Dick Hyman, Neville Dickie, Don Ewell, Johnny Guarnieri, and Dick Wellstood.

    Mark Borowsky. April 3, 2015
    Copyright and alll rights Reserved

  5. Wonderful! But what is a Sting Baby?

  6. I’ll be there in November. Bring yourself, your microphones, and your cornet!

  7. Sordoni III, Andrew

    Many thanks for keeping the flame of Dick Wellstood’s memory alive with your eloquent reminder. Although I didn’t know him well or see him frequently he was always kind, patient and relevant. My debt to him is inspirational (I listened carefully to what he said and plated) as well as tangible (he connected me to Bob Wilber who, in turn, introduced me to Hank O’Neal). Andrew Sordoni

    Sent from my iPad

  8. I bought a CD several years ago by Dick Wellstood and I fell in love! When I learned that he had passed away it saddened me deeply, for obvious reasons Another genius at the piano gone, but by no means forgotten. He played stride with a capital “S.” I watched and listened to the videos you’ve posted, and they are so great. What joy he still gives,,I wonder if somehow he knows. I hope so! Don’t shut your eyes and listen to these videos. Watch his hands. Amazing. Thank you so much Michael for this more than just wonderful post. I always read your blog, and the comments. I truly enjoyed the short story “Stridedude” gave us. Thank you Mr, Mark. Much love to you, NM.

  9. I saw him play once in a small club of some sort many moons ago in Brattleboro, Vermont.

    How or why I do not recall but he opened with a stride version of “Giant Steps”. His back facing the audience (it was how the piano was situated) he would turn around after each number with a big grin and with great sincerity thank the audience, such as it was.

    A player, and human being, truly “beyond category”.

  10. Amen!!! Great Article & Comments!
    I too whizzed through law school (GWU on full scholarship) but could never bother studying for or passing that bar exam– too busy working at top-level without a license! Ended up back in engineering, but I couldn’t hold a candle to Wellstood on any of my horns or that keyboard.
    …which only serves to remind me that the TON of records and airchecks I have of him ain’t nearly enough– need 2 tons!!! Requiescat in pace.

  11. Is there a chance that some of Mr Wellstood’s jazz witings and liner notes might be collected and published some day? I have been trying to search down a quote, attributed to Mr W, for a while, about stride piano…something like…how James P did the chords, The Lion made it pretty, Duke created harmonies and Count picked the skeleton. Just a vague memory but I would like to get to the source. And a liner note on Earl Hines quoted by Whitney Balliett about his “wild Irish melodies”. Any chances?

  12. Thanks so much for all of the great material about Dick Wellstood. I never got to hear him in a club — he was just a name credited in a recording played on the radio until I saw and heard these videos and read the comments of so many who loved him. Thanks to you all.

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