Correspondence: About Wellstood

The Frishberg, Sullivan, Wellstood item in the next exhibit brought quick responses from two men who knew Wellstood well. The first was Ted O’Reilly, the Toronto broadcaster who produced a few Wellstood recordings.

Wellstood was one of the brightest men I ever met, never mind how great a pianist he was. And great he was, and not afraid to play the way he did: as a stride/swing player in the bop era, and do it so well! (I’ve thought of him as the Ruby Braff of the piano…) I think I made more records with Wellstood at the piano than anyone else — two with reedman Jim Galloway, two solo releases, and Stridemonster, piano duets with Dick Hyman. I’m glad I knew him, and wish he were still around.

Dave Frishberg wrote:

Freishberg 2.jpgDid you know Wellstood? I did, although our paths crossed only infrequently. In the early ’60s, my wife Stella (whom you met in New Orleans) and I stayed with Kenny Davern for a couple of days in Brielle NJ, where he and Wellstood played on a boat. One morning, Dick and Kenny and I played with gloves, bat and ball on a big athletic field. All three of us threw our arm(s) out. That was the day I got to know Wellstood, watched him play the piano at his cottage.

Wellstood was always one of my idols, although I never tried to play like him. He was a schooled pianist who could play Chopin, Bach, etc. One night I took Ben Webster (who was a piano freak) to hear Wellstood play solo at a jazz club around the corner from the Metropole. Ben was knocked out, gave Wellstood an enthusiastic hug and many shouts of approval. Also in the audience was Louis Armstrong (!) and party, and I was introduced to him twice at his table by both Wellstood and Webster. A memorable evening for me. I think the club was in the 40s between Fifth and Seventh Aves, a jazz club that popped up and soon disappeared.

Dick was a brilliant guy, brilliant like Dick Sudhalter, and undoubtedly among the best writers of all jazz musicians, a humorist on a very high level. You must have that Jazzology 2CD set of The Classic Jazz Quartet, and you probably remember the liner notes that each of those guys wrote: Joe Muranyi, Marty Grosz, Sudhalter, and Wellstood — they all write beautifully. Wellstood’s writing reminds me of Woody Allen and SJ Perelman. By the way, that’s a recording I go back to listen to pretty often. There’s another CD on Arbors of Dick playing solo in Dublin that I think is Wellstood at the top of his game.

Now that Dave asks, yes, I knew Wellstood. We became acquainted through the mail. In the 1960s, he sent me an indignant and very funny post card about my review of one of his records, quoting the offending line. By return mail, I pointed out that he had misread and misquoted the line. He then sent a letter of apology, also funny.

Wellstood.jpgWe got together occasionally during my New York years in the first half of the seventies. After the late newscast, I frequently went to Hanratty’s on Second Avenue to hear him. Once, I took Paul Desmond. Desmond was delighted by his playing. Wellstood was surprised and flattered that Desmond came to hear him. Dick came to our table during his breaks. I anticipated scintillating exchanges between two world-class wits, but they just sat there complimenting one another.

During a listening session one afternoon, I played Gerry Mulligan the Wellstood album called Alone. Mulligan was impressed by Dick’s composition “Dollar Dance” and his playing on it. I suggested that the two of them should record it together. Mulligan liked the idea. So did Dick, and for a while it seemed that they were going solve contract issues and find a way to make a duo album. That was my one venture into musical match-making. The date never happened. I can still hear in my mind how the two of them would have hit if off.

Wellstood Dig.jpgAs Frishberg indicated, Wellstood was a gifted pianist who could handle the classics, and jazz up to, through and beyond bebop. He could play anything. He preferred traditional styles.  He was the first stride pianist, maybe the only one, to take on John Coltrane’s modern harmonic obstacle course “Giant Steps.” He recorded it in 1975, when it was still mystifying much of the jazz world. He tore it up. It’s on his CD This Is The One…Dig! 

I’m with Ted O’Reilly. I wish Wellstood were still around.

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  1. says

    I met Dick Wellstood in 1979 when I did my first album as an arranger, MUSIC OF FATS WALLER AND JAMES P. JOHNSON, for the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings. (The band comprised Wellstood, piano; Dick Hyman, piano and organ; Bob Wilber, reeds; Jimmy Maxwell, trumpet; Jack Gale, trombone; Major Holley, bass; and Panama Francis, drums.) We recorded much of the album in concert one night at the Smithsonian, and after the concert was over and the audience gone, there were some additional takes. I happened to be standing in the back of the auditorium with Wellstood, and he casually mentioned, for no reason I can recall, that he wanted to have a medal struck to commemorate the American soldier who had shot Webern. This was my first exposure to his sense of humor.
    When I moved back to New York in 1980, Wellstood was very helpful to me in getting established. I used to go to Hanratty’s to hear him play solo; one night, he did a medley of Wayne Shorter’s “House of Jade” and Fats Waller’s “Handful of Keys”. Who else would have thought of doing that?
    We talked of getting together and playing–he wanted to learn some new tunes. I regret that this never happened.

  2. says

    As a huge fan of Wellstood, and probably one of the only ones under the age of 20, I’d just like to say thank you for the nice letter about him! I found this via a google search, seeing as I am preparing to give a 1-hour seminar on Wellstood, Don Ewell, and Ralph Sutton at the 2011 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, Ca. I’ll admit, of the three, Wellstood has captured my heart the best. I hardly listen to anything else. His entire persona seems so ridiculously unique – everything, from his crazy off-hand remarks, to his strange habits and sense of fearlessness on the piano. Dick Wellstood is one of those men that I strive to be like in many ways – except of course, the drinking habits. I hate knowing that he died before I was ever even born. From one Jazz fan to another, Thank You.