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
May your happiness increase!