When people ask pianist Ed Clute if he has been blind his whole life, he answers, “Not yet.” Ed is quite possibly the hardest-swinging stride player that you’ve ever heard. Based high in the hills of Watkins Glen — a community far better known for wineries and auto racing than for excellent musicianship — he’s been entertaining steadily in the New York’s Southern Tier for more than 50 years.
Ed was born sightless in 1943 but into the locally prominent and prosperous Clute family. Ed’s grandfather was Warren W. Clute, president and general manager of the Watkins Salt Company, which for many years was the largest privately-owned salt company before being sold to Cargill.
Music pervaded the Clute home. One of Ed’s earliest memories is of his mother sitting him in front of the Victrola. Frankie Carle’s flash and dexterity at the keyboard was a major influence from the beginning. A variety of popular and jazz pianists –Carle, Carmen Cavallaro, Buddy Cole, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson– helped build Ed’s musical vocabulary.
Ed began picking out tunes on the piano as a toddler, “mostly Christmas songs.” His mother, Elizabeth Clute (née Johnston), majored in music at Virginia’s Sweet Briar College and taught him basics from age 3. The first song he remembers learning to play under her tutelage is “The Very Thought of You.” Ed began taking formal music lessons when he was 6 years old.
While still a child Ed demonstrated his remarkable knack for being able to play almost anything by ear. (“But that was giving me headaches so I started using my hands,” he jokes.) He denies any suggestion that he was a prodigy, despite his ability to instantaneously recall and perform any of many thousands of selections. Owing to his musical versatility, Ed began filling in on jazz gigs during his teens.
Though his ability to play and harmonize without written music is an invaluable skill, at length Ed decided it was necessary to know how to play serious music as the composer intended. He learned to read Braille music at the Batavia School For the Blind. From 1964 through 1968 Ed was enrolled at the Amherst Summer Music Center where he studied Music History and piano under Edwin Hymovitz. He performed the Schumann Piano Concerto as a guest artist with the Amherst Summer Music Center Youth Orchestra.
In 1968, Ed graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied classical piano performance under Howard Goding (1893-1981). He spent the next three years as a student of Jean Casadesus in Binghamton and at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. While in France Ed also studied with Jean’s father, Robert Casadesus, and received instruction from the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger. Ed recalls playing six-handed piano with both Jean and Robert. One time he was persuaded to drive his teacher’s car, stalling it out in the middle of the village. His studies in France ended with the tragic death of Jean Casadesus in 1972
After continuing his classical training back home with Ithaca College professors Ronald Regal and Joseph Tague, Ed got the chance to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue numerous times with the Ithaca Chamber Orchestra and other civic ensembles.
Ed’s love for jazz, however, remained strong. Since the 1970s he has played at the Finger Lakes Jazz Festival in Hector and the Suncoast Jazz Classic in Clearwater, Fla., where he’s featured both as a soloist and as a member of the Red Garter Jazz Band. In 1980 he sat in with Benny Goodman and played with Turk Murphy when his band visited the Southern Tier in 1978. There he met Turk’s pianist, Pete Clute (no relation to Ed, in spite of their shared surname and instrument of choice). He has also led Ed Clute’s Dixie Five Plus, a favorite throughout Central and Western New York.
In 1973, Ed married Nana Elliott with whom he spent “32 wonderful years.” Nana (which she pronounced “NAY-nuh”) traveled with Ed to Old Time Radio conventions where she would look out for music cues and prompt Ed when he provided accompaniment for Old Time Radio re-creations. Her contribution was such that she received equal billing as accompanist on the convention programs. In 2004 he produced a CD of solo piano selections, I Feel a Song Comin’ On, dedicated to Nana. The Frankie Carle influence is quite audible in Ed’s playing on the album, though in more recent years he has built a formidable stride technique.
He also amassed a vast record collection, having saved 78s from his childhood. He has accumulated an impressive array of player piano rolls for his Mason & Hamlin reproducing piano. As a piano technician and aficionado of piano tone, Ed prefers the Mason & Hamlin instruments–he owns three–over Steinway.
In 2010 and 2011, Ed served as accompanist for the New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp under the direction of Banu Gibson. The New Orleans chanteuse first heard Ed play piano on a jazz cruise on which she was performing and was “impressed by his mastery of jazz piano and his vast repertoire of classic American popular song.” According to the jazz camp’s website, “Mr. Clute is a wonderful accompanist for vocalists. No matter the key, Mr. Clute is there to provide the perfect musical support.” While in New Orleans he played piano for trumpeter and vocalist Wendell Brunious at the Satchmo SummerFest.
These days, Ed maintains a busy performance schedule, working with the gypsy jazz band Djug Django on Wednesday nights in Ithaca and playing solo piano gigs at clubs such as The Colonial Pottery & Creamery in Watkins Glen, The Village Tavern & Inn in Hammondsport, and the Hill Top Inn in Elmira. But he is ever seeking more engagements to entertain and demonstrate his amazing talent.
Ithaca-based vocalist Diana Leigh said, “Ed is a delight to work with. He knows thousands of songs and can play them in any key. He really enjoys working with singers and doesn’t hesitate to express his appreciation. He often makes song suggestions to me, and they are usually delightful lesser-known gems, which I’m glad of the chance to learn and add to my repertoire. He’s happy to rehearse, as he just loves getting together and making music. On top of all that, Ed has quite a sense of humor and is always punning around. He’s just so talented, and a lot of fun!”
Ideally, Ed Clute wants to be seen and heard by as many people as possible. “I’d like to appear on national TV to show people what I can do.” Ed’s talent is already amply displayed on YouTube, most notably in A Bright Note with Ed Clute. He also regularly appears on Larry Gassman’s webcast Music & Memories, playing live music over the Internet on his impeccably-tuned Mason & Hamlin at home.
“A blind person can do anything he puts his mind to,” Ed says. “I believe in sharing my talent with people. One of my aims in life is to make people happy. I like to lift people up if I can.” Ed Clute is living proof that there’s no such thing as a disability when it comes to playing hot, swinging jazz.