Ralph Sutton’s Last Hurrah

Last month, I included a partial list of discontinued festivals in my column. Performing at these festivals provided me with memories that make me smile to this day. One was my 30-minute set duetting with piano legend Ralph Sutton during the Sunday afternoon session of the 2001 Summit Jazz Festival in Denver, CO. Every second of that amazing opportunity still resonates.

The Summit Jazz Festival combined elements of a traditional jazz festival and jazz party. It was a single venue event; acts performed once each on Friday and Sunday and twice on Saturday. Alongside the top traditional jazz bands of the day, the directors featured a hand-picked “All-Star” group comprised of musicians more often found on the Jazz Party circuit. The quality of music was nonpareil: the atmosphere serious but convivial. Bands played at their top level at this event; guest artists thrived and delivered some of the best performances of their career.

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Fronting a legion of dedicated board members and volunteers was the team of Alan Frederickson (trombonist, founder of the Queen City Jazz Band and propagator of gay badinage; in terms of appearance and personality a cross between Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street and Barry Fitzgerald in…oh, anything) and Juanita Greenwood Frederickson (stately promoter and fan of hot jazz; firm friend of jazz musicians for over 50 years; in terms of appearance and personality she could be considered the Margaret Dumont of the festival circuit). Both were dear friends of mine and so many other musicians as well.

For several years during that time, promoter Barker Hickox—financier of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band and countless recordings featuring bands and solo jazz artists—provided two grand pianos for the festival. The stage was big enough that one piano was stored at one side out of the way until needed; when it was time for a 30-minute piano duet set, all it took was wheeling both pianos to the front of the stage and the show could begin. This provided a timbre change from the full band sound and gave all the musicians (excepting the pianists in the “hot seats”) a break.

In 2001, four pianists performing at the festival were invited to play in duo sets with each other. They were: Hank Troy (pianist with the Queen City Jazz Band; versatile practitioner of many styles of music; musical educator), John Sheridan (pianist with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band; star arranger for that band, his own stellar “Dream Band” and many others who had the honor of enlisting his peerless pianistic and arranging artistry), Ralph Sutton (legend of the keys, master of solo stride, swinging trio and band pianist styles, a veritable demigod of hot jazz piano) and…gulp…me…(fill in your own description here, but please be kind).

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I’d duetted with John and Hank before; I’d heard Ralph live and corresponded with him via letter (yes—the hand-written kind so currently out-of-fashion) but had never played with him. I was a bag of nerves. I somehow finagled it that the session he and I would share would be scheduled on Sunday so I could first observe his duets with the other two key-ticklers.

Sheridan and Troy came prepared with lists and ideas, determined to make the most of their chance to play with Ralph. By 2001, Ralph had considerably slowed down; his wit was intact and he played beautifully that weekend, but not with the spark and fire we had heard in the past. No one knew at the time he had only had two months to live. We were all aware of his flagging energy and I believe that is why John and Hank played a dominant role during their duets with Ralph; they were helping him conserve himself for the other sets he had that day or evening. They programmed their duet sets with Ralph and with few exceptions played solo intros to set the pace and tone of each tune. Ralph played a secondary role during their sets with him and seemed content with that. Indeed, their sets still resonate in my mind as filled with lovely moments as master pianists shared ideas across the stage.

From left: Jeff Barnhart, John Sheridan, Hank Troy; seated: the great Ralph Sutton
From left: Jeff Barnhart, John Sheridan, Hank Troy; seated: the great Ralph Sutton

Sunday arrived and it was now my turn to share music with the legend. I sat down with him about a half-hour before our scheduled set and asked him how he was feeling. He said he was rather tired but enjoying himself. I suggested there might be some tunes he had not yet played that weekend that he’d like to do and asked if any popped into mind. He programmed a beautiful selection of tunes, mostly slow-to-medium standards. The exception was “I’ve Found a New Baby” as the closer.

When we took the stage and our places, I nodded to Ralph, inviting him to bring us in. He perked up at that and started a characteristically swinging and original 8-bar intro and we launched into the first tune. Having observed the previous duet sets Ralph had done—and, truthfully, because I was defecating Basalite playing with him—I stayed in the backseat of the musical bus and played a subservient role throughout the first tune and most of the remainder of the set. What I witnessed was breathtaking: Ralph got stronger, more authoritative and closer, with each note, to resembling the Ralph Sutton each of us, musician and audience member, remembered and knew was still in there!

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When we reached our final tune, I decided to pour it on a bit more. By now, Ralph was playing in top form, even for him, and he TORE into the intro for “I’ve Found a New Baby.” This was take-no-prisoners, let’s HIT it time. So, as the first chorus was finishing, he thrust his chin at me to indicate I should solo first on this one. I put everything I had into my solo and looked up toward the end of my chorus only to see Ralph looking intensely at me and chin-thrusting once again for me to take a second chorus. I hurled myself into chorus two, throwing everything including the kitchen sink into my playing; I tried (AND executed) complex ideas that had previously never come out of my fingers and looked up triumphantly at Ralph four bars before my solo finished, and his was to begin, only to see…

…Ralph staring impishly at me with a big smile. He waggled both eyebrows at me twice and proceeded to decimate me during his two-chorus, 64-bar ride. How do I know I wasn’t the only one witnessing jazz history? Four bars into his second chorus the entire 250+ crowd had leapt to their feet en masse, clapping and cheering. He slaughtered me and I can’t recall, then or now, ever being happier. I learned more in that minute-and-a-half than I had in the previous 20 years I had been playing professionally and will forever be grateful for that experience and to have known and PLAYED with, that magnificent musician. Thank you for everything, Ralph Sutton: every day I, as do we all, live out the wish with which you ended your written correspondence: “Keep Breathin’!”

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Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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