Ralph Sutton was a consummate stylist with a complete technical command of his instrument, an individual style, and a wide-ranging musical vocabulary which went well beyond his roots in stride piano.
His characteristic style, heavily influenced by the stride pianists of the 1920s and 1930s, led by Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, was probably best appreciated in solo performances, but he was equally at home in a group setting throughout his career.
He was born Ralph Earl Sutton in rural Missouri, and played the organ in the Presbyterian church as a young boy. From the age of eleven, he played piano in a country band run by his father, who played fiddle and ran his own construction business. His lifelong love for stride piano was sparked by hearing Fats Waller play on a radio programme, Harlem Rhythm, broadcast from St Louis.
He was studying to be an osteopath when trombonist Jack Teagarden heard him play in 1941, and offered him a place in his own band in New York. The association lasted only two months before Sutton was drafted into the army, where he played in military bands.
He played at a club in the red-light district of East St Louis on his discharge from the services, then rejoined Teagarden in New York in 1945, remaining with the trombonist until he broke up his band to join Louis Armstrongs All-Stars in 1947.
Suttons reputation was boosted by broadcasts he made for Rudi Blechs This Is Jazz radio show from 1947, and he spent eight years as intermission pianist at Eddie Condon's jazz club, beginning in 1948. The musicians who congregated around Condon had a reputation for hard drinking as well as hard swinging, and Sutton earned his spurs in both departments.
He worked with Condons band on radio and television, and also recorded with the guitarist. He made his own recording debut in 1949, and went on to make many albums over the ensuing decades. He made his debut in Britain in 1952, finding a loophole in the Musicians Union regulations at a time when appearances by American performers were a rarity. He made annual tours to Britain from the mid-1980s onwards, interrupted only by a stroke in 1994.
He ended his stint at Condons club (where the often boisterous clientele had sorely tried his patience) in 1956, and moved to San Francisco, where he became intermission pianist at Club Hangover, and worked with a variety of local musicians, as well as leading his own bands.
When the jazz-loving millionaire Dick Gibson began hosting his "jazz parties" for paying guests in Aspen, Colorado, in 1963, Sutton was one of the core musicians involved. He moved to Aspen, where he played regularly at Sunnie's Rendezvous. Its owner, Sunnie Anderson, became his second wife.
He was a founder member of The World's Greatest Jazz Band in 1968, a group which was modelled on Bob Crosbys bands, and featured two of Crosbys former mainstays, trumpeter Yank Lawson and bassist Bob Haggart. The band became one of the leading attractions on the traditional jazz circuit around the world.
Sutton remained with them until 1974, when he left to work with clarinettist Peanuts Hucko for a time. A biography, Piano Man, written by James D. Shacter, was published in 1975 (a revised version appeared in 1994 under the title Loose Shoes), and toured regularly in Europe, Australia and Japan, either as a solo artist or in a small group setting with players like cornetist Ruby Braff or clarinettist Kenny Davern. He also toured with pianist Jay McShann in a duet under the banner "The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players".
He is survived by his wife, Sunnie, three sons from his first marriage, and seven grand-children.
Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]
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