Dick Wellstood has been on my mind. Maybe it’s because I heard Dave Frishberg play the piano the other night at The Seasons. Frishberg was in concert singing his inimitable songs and accompanying himself, but he opened up plenty of space for piano solos. Before he became famous for performing his songs, Frishberg worked with Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Ben Webster, Jack Sheldon and Carmen McRae, among other demanding leaders. He was, and is, a versatile and idiosyncratic pianist who wraps several jazz eras into a style of his own. A couple of times on Saturday night, he pulled off stride passages that Wellstood would have appreciated.
In the mid-1940s when Wellstood was a young man working toward a career as a pianist, he was under the spell of Joe Sullivan (pictured). Sullivan (1906-1971) came from Chicago and
began recording in 1927. By 1933, he was Bing Crosby’s accompanist and established as one of the brightest of the young pianists influenced by Earl Hines, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He in turn influenced Wellstood, who had cards printed that read, “Perhaps you can help me to meet Joe Sullivan. My name is Dick Wellstood.” He distributed the cards in musicians’ hangouts. Finally, the cornetist Muggsy Spanier told Wellstood where Sullivan lived. According to clarinetist Kenny Davern’s account of the meeting, quoted in Edward N. Meyer’s Giant Strides: The Legacy of Dick Wellstood, the pianist knocked on Sullivan’s apartment door well after midnight.
Soon this disheveled figure in slippers and a bathrobe comes shuffling through. Joe opens the door and says, “Yeah?” Dick says, “Hi, my name is Dick Wellstood and Muggsy Spanier said to say hello.” And Joe Sullivan said, “Tell Muggsy Spanier to go f___ himself,” and slammed the door right in Dick’s face.
Nonetheless, Wellstood remained a steadfast admirer of Sullivan. Here is one reason, Sullivan’s 1933 recording of “Gin Mill Blues.”
There is little video of Wellstood performing, but this clip from a concert in Germany in 1982, five years before he died, catches him in full stride, concentration and swing.