Reflections of Ray Skjelbred

At the West Coast Ragtime Festival last November I met for the first time Ray Skjelbred (pronounced SHELL-bred in case you haven’t heard it before), pianist, poet and teacher who should be familiar to this paper’s readers. He has been the leader or participant on over 50 CDs. He was featured about three years ago in a two-part article, and he has been on the scene—mostly on the West Coast—for over 50 years as a musician. Not recalling what had been written about him before in these pages, I asked if he would consent to an interview. When he reminded me of the ink he had previously received, I was not discouraged. Because of his history I knew he had much interesting information to impart, so I asked him to suggest a topic.

He did not recall talking about his film in the earlier pieces, and he was interested in talking about the young musicians he likes. So those will be the topics of this treatise. Ray graciously sent me the following report/reminiscence, leaving nothing for me to add to enhance the piece. I am deeply grateful to Ray for, again, sharing his formidable knowledge, experiences and love and respect for this music and the people, past and present, who are performing and preserving it.

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BH: Let’s talk first about your film. Your website has no mention of it.

RS: A couple of years ago, with the support of my friend and producer John Ochs, we made a film about my development as a piano player and my focus on Chicago style, which is dear to my heart. And if I think a little more about what was going on in my head during that film, it’s really easy to connect thoughts I have about learning to play jazz with some of the younger musicians I have seen perform in the last few years. It all seems to go together. I can see the same important elements in their lives.

In my jazz beginning I was 19, living in Seattle, and I knew I wanted to learn to play piano and play jazz as I was hearing it then. And I was very lucky, in many ways. First I bumped into some other musicians my age who became jazz explorers with me. Mike Duffy on bass and Bob Jackson on cornet were two partners in music. We played records and experimented playing music and hoped for the best. But we also met older jazz friends who knew the territory and led us to musicians, bands, records, songs and styles of playing that we listened to very carefully. We were intense and it became obvious that if we were going to play as we dreamed of, we had to plunge in fully to develop the “self” and at the same time, remove the “self” from the learning experience. We had to listen to others—words and music. Learning from others was most important.

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Then I met Johnny Wittwer, a major jazz pianist on the West Coast who was just beginning to give lessons. We approached piano from many directions: direct traditional lessons, harmonic adventures, sheet music, duets and thinking “What would Joe Sullivan do now?” It went back and forth with me often asking, “How do you do this?” Or, “What’s he doing there?” as we played records of piano players. The first hand connection with a piano master was crucial. And, of course, this story is in the film.

From a visit to San Francisco around that same time, I met the great pianist Burt Bales, and for many years thereafter, I listened and we talked. Eventually I was able to listen, talk and learn from great masters like Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Art Hodes and Earl Hines—watching, listening, talking all the time. And it wasn’t just piano. I was lucky to know and learn how to accompany blues singers like Victoria Spivey and Barbara Dane. And all the others, people like clarinet legend Darnell Howard and all the musicians I knew on many instruments in San Francisco who played music, connected with me, taught me how to fit in, what was good taste and ensemble musicianship—people like Bob Mielke, Bob Helm, Bill Napier, Richard Hadlock, Jack Minger and so many others. It was a tribal connection of learning and support, a connection that would keep teaching forever. All of this—this is the force that made my film.

Our friend Bob Morgan did the music sound for the film, which was called Piano Jazz: Chicago Style. I know it is available for viewing by typing in that title plus my name and “YouTube.” It is also available as a you tube attached to the online Puget Sound Traditional Jazz Society newsletter, and on Michael Steinman’s blog, if you click on my name when you get there. Ochs wanted to create a film with narrative and music that would show how my playing developed through a blend of talk and piano samples. I had had experience with a similar idea when the great Chicago pianist Art Hodes published his book Selections from the Gutter with University of California Press. Richard Hadlock and I were co-hosting Annals of Jazz on KQED radio in San Francisco at the time and UC press thought it would be a good idea for Hodes to come to my house and be recorded while sitting at the piano, playing some songs, and talking about his life in music as a way to introduce his book. I also remember a good film with Earl Hines in a night club, sitting at piano and playing and talking about his music. So we had some guides. My film goes through the connections that I mentioned earlier—the personal desire, meeting helpful—friends and musicians, listening to records, advice from elders and the general sense of a lifetime of conversation with a variety of thoughtful people. It would be a mix of stories and musical examples.

My favorite story from the film comes from the night my three friends Jim Goodwin, Dan Barrett, and John Smith spontaneously decided to drive to Jess Stacy’s house and pay their respects. They knew he and I were friends so they thought that would make it OK. Well, Jess came to the door in his pajamas and three big guys he doesn’t know are standing there, and he invites them in, gets them drinks and plays records for them. To me that was a real tribal exchange of trust, warmth and connecting! The next day Jess called me and said, “Those nice boys came to see me last night. Those friends of yours.” He was a sweet guy and all parties involved had the right instinct.

The film goes on with piano examples and stories about Johnny Wittwer, Burt Bales, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Earl Hines and others. And the film won the 2018 New York Jazz Film Festival award for documentary/history.


So where does this lead me? I want to consider the tribal connections with some young musicians I know, who in their own way have discovered some true things about music, who have been intense in pursuing the art of music and who have listened outside of themselves in conversation with others who have absorbed records, research, and peer community. It involves a sense of direction that combines the inner self and the outer world. When these two things happen simultaneously there is a spirit of cooperation that comes from a trust in others and a spirit of personal responsibility, that comes from a trust in yourself.

I think of Ramona Baker, who has support from both parents. Clint and Alisa are musicians, they know jazz history, they provide clues about what to listen to and they create a world of good taste in music. She has had the good example of elders and with her connections with other young pianists in ragtime, she also has had the support of a community of peers in a very particular field. Ramona’s involvement in early syncopated music is not slight. She is completely absorbed in it, she has the knowledge of it and she can display it in her piano playing. She has listened well and she knows others listen to her.

Ray Skjelbred (photo courtesy Seattle Artists)

Her brother Riley is also an amazing young man and musician. And maybe the most wonderful thing is how Ramona, Riley, and Clint all go somewhat different directions with the musical ideas they have chosen to develop. When I first knew Riley, he was becoming a serious musician, he was playing the tuba, but then he added drums and I played one festival with him. And he added string bass, then he added trombone. Like his father, he seems to be able to pick up any instrument and it becomes his—with intense work and listening and discovering good models of good taste and bandsmanship. It is a deep commitment. When I heard a trombone arrangement Riley had written, I asked him if he had heard the trombone choir arrangements that trombonist Benny Morton had done. Of course he had. His thinking grew into something because he grew from something.

And I think of Nathan Tokunaga, a remarkable high-school-age musician who has committed himself to playing clarinet in a sensitive, knowledgeable and skilled manner. Nathan has listened attentively to records by jazz masters, he plays with other musicians his age, and he also has thoughtfully and attentively listened to Clint Baker and many other wonderful musicians in the Bay Area who now count Nathan as one of them. He has studied clarinet part playing, learned how to develop a beautiful tone and he is an excellent listener on the bandstand where the miracle of spontaneity never stops.

And I think of Will Perkins, an enormously talented pianist who has listened thoughtfully to an ever growing variety of pianists who came before him. He has been influenced by Dick Wellstood, a major pianist who is partly forgotten these days. And I was thrilled to hear him play Joe Sullivan’s “My Little Pride and Joy.” He is extending his thinking in new directions all the time. Of course he has learned from sheet music, but the sensitive way he touches the keys is partly something innate and partly something that came from listening to others. Will is also part of a world of other young piano players who have been enthusiastic in their support of each other.

And that includes Vincent Johnson whose piano skill is solid but whose knowledge of music comes from those same elements of listening to those who came before, studying records and talking with his friends about how to approach the act of playing music. Vincent knows about the artistry and eccentricities of the marvelous pianist Arthur Schutt, a listening knowledge that helps shape his playing. Finding out about Schutt is not something you discover on the surface of music. You have dig in. It has to be part of the center of who Vincent is.

At the 2022 West Coast Ragtime Festival I met Eve Elliott for the first time. She is a solid piano player, a person and musician of great wit and energy. I have heard her play Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls” and can sense everything about her playing and thinking as she shows a careful consideration of how the composition unfolds but at the same she charges in with her own variations and a combination of power and sensitivity. Eve has listened well and is now part of the community of young, intense musicians.

Of course there are more. John Reed-Torres is a fine pianist with a sensitive touch and he is an important part of that musical tribal community. And others too, but I won’t go on more. The creative musical world these musicians inhabit came about for many reasons, but trusting others and trusting yourself is at the heart of it. Of course I am now old enough that almost any other jazz musician is a “younger” musician, as I once was. And all the older but younger players who have creatively developed their true selves as musicians have been intense in finding that inner self and good listeners and tribal members of a sensitive and knowledgeable musical community. And my good fortune is that I can always learn from them. We learn back and forth, younger and older. I always have something to learn from Clint Baker, and Katie Cavera and Jeff Hamilton and Jacob Zimmerman and all the other wonderful people I have known. My hands on piano keys can only reach so far, but I hope my mind keeps stretching as far as it can. And that is the excitement.

BH: Thank you so much, Ray. I wasn’t wrong in my introduction (written before I received your account) that I would have nothing to add.

Visit Ray Skjelbred online at

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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