The pianist Ralph Sutton, who recorded so expansively for more than fifty years, should be better known. But I suspect that since he was typecast as a particular kind of pianist — a “stride pianist,” which he was, splendidly, he was expected to provide a predictable menu of standard tunes, Fats Waller compositions, and up-tempo dazzlers, and listeners forgot just how superb he was as an improvising musician, a magnificent pianist, and an ensemble player. Although Ralph played with great dramatic range, he led a calm life and his artistry was so consistent that there was little for journalists to fasten on: no personal disasters. Too, there are the deplorable labels affixed to pre-KIND OF BLUE jazz, even by the fans of such music. Unlike his contemporaries, the erudite Dick Hyman and the whimsical Dick Wellstood, Ralph did not expend much energy on “show” or wooing an audience. The performance that follows shows him a craftsman, concerned with little else than the extraordinary sounds and rhythms he could create at the keyboard. But it is a rare document of his art, and since he made no commercially issued recordings in 1980, it is especially valuable: a master at work. Of course, I say wryly, it was recorded for European, not American television.
In the first segment, Ralph plays ECHO OF SPRING (Willie “the Lion” Smith) / ALLIGATOR CRAWL (Fats Waller) / LOVE LIES (Terry Shand) / VIPER’S DRAG — interpolating LULLABY IN RHYTHM (Fats // Clarence Profit) / HONEYSUCKLE ROSE / GIN MILL BLUES (continued in the next segment):
and GIN MILL BLUES (concluded) / EYE OPENER (Bob Zurke):
In a more equitable jazz world, bereft of labels and hierarchies, Sutton would get his due. But then again, so would a thousand other remarkable artists. Do your bit: share this video with your daughter’s piano teacher, your friend who admires Horowitz, and so on. Let’s launch a peaceful Sutton Revolution.
May your happiness increase!