Tag Archives: Roger Kellaway

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!

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CLIFF LEEMAN’S SOUND LIVES ON

Drummer Cliff Leeman had a completely personal and identifiable sound, a seriously exuberant approach to the music.  You can’t miss him, and it’s not because of volume.

He’s audible from the late Thirties on in the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, then most notably in Eddie Condon’s bands, later with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Bob Crosby reunions, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood, and Soprano Summit.  Cliff died in 1986, but his slashing attack and nearly violent exuberance are in my ears as I write this . . . including his trademark, the tiny splash cymbal he used as an auditory exclamation point.  He spoke briefly about his approach in this interview for MODERN DRUMMER magazine.

In case Cliff is someone new to you, here he is on a 1975 television program with Joe Venuti, Marian McPartland, and Major Holley, elevating CHINA BOY:

In spring 2008, Kevin Dorn and I paid a call on Irene (Renee) Leeman, his widow, then living comfortably in New Jersey.  I have very fond memories of that afternoon, hearing stories and laughing.  Until recently, I thought that those memories were all I had.  But a recent stint of domestic archaeology uncovered the small notebook in which I had written down what Mrs. Leeman told us.  Here are some of her comments and asides, shared with you with affection and reverence (and with her permission).

But first: Cliff on film in 1952 with Eddie Condon . . . the epitome of this driving music.  Also heard and seen, Edmond Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey:

Some words from Mrs. Leeman to go with all those good sounds:

I first met Clifford at Nick’s.  I didn’t go there by myself, but because of a friend who had a crush on Pee Wee Erwin.

Roger Kellaway always asked for Clifford.

He wore Capezios on the job.

He had a colorful vocabulary and didn’t repeat himself.  He thought Bing Crosby was the best, but Clifford was always very definite in his opinions.

He came from a Danish-Scandinavian family where the men didn’t hug one another.

Clifford once asked Joe Venuti, “How do you want me to play behind you?” and Venuti said, “Play as if I’m five brass.”

He worked on THE HIT PARADE with Raymond Scott, who timed everything with a stopwatch, “The hardest job I ever had.”

Clifford was the drummer on Bill Haley and the Comets’ Decca recording of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, and when the session ended, he said, “I think I just killed my career.”

Sidney Catlett was Clifford’s idol.  Jo Jones, Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers and Clifford loved each other.  They all hung out at Hurley’s Bar, Jim and Andy’s, and Charlie’s Tavern.

Clifford played piano — not jazz, but ROCK OF AGES and MOTHER MACHREE, as well as xylophone.  And he could read music.  He was always surprised that other musicians couldn’t, and would come home after a gig and say, “Do you know _____?  He can’t read!”

Clifford was left-handed but he played with a drum kit set up for right-handed drummers.

He thought the drummer was supposed to keep the time and drive the band and pull everything together.  Clifford listened. He was fascinated with rock drummers he saw on television, and would tell me how bad they were.

“Cliff is the best timekeeper,” Billy Butterfield said.  Billy was so cute.

He loved his cymbals.

He was hard on himself, and on other people, but he loved working with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart.  They had a good time.  They respected each other. They thought that music should be fun. Yank and Bob used to rehearse the band in Lou Stein’s basement in Bayside, New York.

Kenny Davern!  Kenny was a challenge to the world and a thinker. He was an angry young man who became an angry old man.  He and Clifford were a comedy team wherever they went.

Clifford didn’t embrace the world, and he could be abrasive if people bothered him.

Clifford played with Bob Crosby and Louis Armstrong on one of those Timex television jazz shows.  He was so proud of working with Louis you couldn’t stand it.

I have always liked musicians as a group, and never had a 9 to 5 life. Because of Clifford, I got to meet Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa.  In those days, rhythm sections stuck together, so I knew a lot of bass players and their wives: Milt Hinton, Major Holley, George Duvivier, Jack Lesberg.  I was lucky to have known such things and such people.  How fortunate I was!

We are all fortunate to have lived in Clifford Leeman’s century, and his music lives on.  And I thank Mrs. Leeman for her enthusiastic loving candor.

May your happiness increase!