There was a time when you could hop in a cab in New York and give the driver a shout to “take me to the Street,” and he’d know exactly where you wanted to go. You’d wind up on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 52nd Street was a paradise for jazz. Art Tatum played intermission piano at the Famous Door, Coleman Hawkins was at Kelly’s Stables and Willie “The Lion” Smith could be found at the Hickory House. Marquees lit up the night—the 3 Deuces, the Onxy Club, 21 Club, Jimmy Ryan’s Bar, Leon & Eddie’s. In cramped, smoky rooms behind the closed doors— Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, Oscar Pettiford, Jack Teagarden, J.C Heard, and Count Basie played “the Street.”
They called 52nd Street, the “Street of Dreams” or “Swing Street.” Late nights in New York was known as “the Street that Never Slept.” After a night of club hopping on 52nd Street, if you still wanted more, it was only a short cab ride down to Eddie Condon’s in Greenwich Village where you could hear this week’s special guest Ralph Sutton on the piano.
In 1948 Ralph Sutton had returned from New York to play a gig with his trio at the Barrel Bar in St. Louis; one night he got a phone call on the job. It was bandleader Eddie Condon calling from New York inviting Ralph to join him at his club in the village as intermission pianist. Ralph made the move to New York. For eight years he worked at Condon’s every night of the week except Sundays. From 9:00 PM to 4:00 in the morning, Ralph played solo piano, trading sets with the band every half hour. Jazz artists of all stripes stopped by Condon’s to hear Ralph Sutton play. Swing era bandleader and Billie Holiday’s long-time accompanist Teddy Wilson said, “Ralph is the only jazz pianist I know who plays the whole history of jazz—ragtime, Bix, Fats, Willie ‘The Lion,’ James P. and on up to the present. He’s a complete musician.”
Nurtured in the New York “stride” piano tradition, on this edition ofRiverwalk Jazz, Ralph talks about his friendships with Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, both ‘founding fathers’ of the East Coast Stride style. Ralph regrets that he never had an opportunity to meet Fats Waller, who died in 1943 while Ralph was in the Army. In tribute to his jazz heroes, Ralph performs three tunes, each associated with one of these remarkable players.
“Alligator Crawl“ is a well-known virtuoso stride piano piece by Fats Waller.
Willie “The Lion” Smith composed the lyrical “Morning Air.”
Drenched in humorous innuendo, “Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid“ was written by James P. Johnson.
Notes on Music featured on this Radio Show:
While Ralph was the intermission pianist at Eddie Condon’s nightclub in Greenwich Village, he took part in an historic recording session in 1956 led by guitarist Eddie Condon. A spectacular rendition of “I've Found a New Baby“ features a high-powered band with Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Peanuts Hucko on clarinet. Here, we playback an historical recording of that track, then cross-fade live to the stage of The Landing for a performance with Ralph Sutton and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
Every Tuesday was ‘Jam Night’ at Condon’s nightclub. You never knew who would show up and sit in. Jack Teagarden might drop by with his trombone to play duets with Ralph. Heard on this broadcast, “Love Lies“ is a tune very much associated with Teagarden, and it’s a special favorite of both Ralph Sutton and Jim Cullum.
“My Honey's Lovin' Arms“ is another piece Ralph played and recorded frequently during his time in New York.
“Liza“ comes from the 1929 Broadway musical Show Girl by George Gershwin. Our version this week is a piano duo (two pianos and four hands) with Ralph and Cullum Band pianist John Sheridan.
“Echoes of Spring,“ composed by Willie “The Lion,” is heard in a solo rendition by Ralph Sutton.
“Clothes Line Ballet“ is a spectacular Fats Waller’s solo piano showpiece, performed here by Ralph Sutton.
“There'll Be Some Changes Made“ and “After You've Gone“ are jam session standards featuring the entire Jim Cullum Jazz Band with Ralph Sutton.
Photo credit for Home Page: Ralph Sutton with Jay McShann. Photo copyright Paul J. Hoeffler, Toronto.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2000