Little Rock Getaway: the piano of JOE SULLIVAN
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
Gin Mill Blues (3:53) (Joe Sullivan)
That’s a Plenty (3:06) (Lew Pollack)
A Room with a View (3:23) (Stillman – Swan)
Sweet Lorraine (3:28) (Parish – Burwell)
Hangover Blues (2:23) (Joe Sullivan)
Little Rock Getaway (3:13) (Joe Sullivan)
Honeysuckle Rose (3:13) (Razaf – Waller)
Summertime (3:38) (Ira and George Gershwin)
Fido’s Fantasy (2:12) (Joe Sullivan)
My Little Pride and Joy (3:28) (Joe Sullivan)
I Cover the Waterfront (3:25) (Heyman – Green)
Farewell to Riverside (2:35) (Joe Sullivan)
Think about piano players. Not some local talent you admired last night, some new flash who’s sweeping the country, or some obscure primitive who can be dimly heard only on rare and battered old discs. Think of men who developed the several patterns of traditional jazz piano, whose skills are unquestioned and whose reputations are long-lived and solidly established: men such as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson. And when you turn to white pianists, you’ll probably come up immediately with name of JOE SULLIVAN. It would be hard to find another name that so clearly belongs in that distinguished company.
The big, bespectacled, mild-looking Irishman, born on Chicago’s North Side in November, 1906, has been playing blues, pop tunes and Dixieland standards for a good many years, always with a firmly driving beat, considerable sensitivity, and unwavering affection for traditional jazz. He has played in all manner of clubs, bars, concert halls and the assorted odd spots where jazz is heard; in big band, with small groups, and – with increasing frequency during the past two decades – as a solo performer.
The selections that make up this album are a fair sample of what might be heard from Sullivan on any one or more of his frequent good nights at clubs in, say, New York or San Francisco, where he has specialized in raising what in lesser hands is known as “intermission piano” to the status of a major attraction.
His later emphasis on solo work expanded his horizons to include the sort of lyricism-tinged-with-moodiness to be found in numbers like Summertime and I Cover the Waterfront¸ which are not exactly tunes you could hope to get to play with a Chicago-style or Dixieland band. Half the repertoire here consists of Sullivan originals, including fresh versions of his most famous tunes; the romping Little Rock Getaway and the lowdown Gin Mill Blues. Of the other four, My Little Pride and Joy dates back to 1935 and the birth of Joe’s first son, while Farewell to Riverside (the reference is to the California town, not to this label) was written in 1942. Fido’s Fantasy (dedicated to a friend’s dog!) and Hangover Blues, named after the San Francisco club were written in the early ‘50s.
Joe Sullivan, youngest of nine children, became involved with music about as far as back as he can remember. There were lessons in school, at home, at the Chicago Conservatory (“twelve years of classical”). Then, as a high school boy, it became a way of making a living (his first job: playing lunch-time dance music for Montgomery Ward employees). Jazz seeped in early;’ Joe recalls standing outside South Side clubs he was too young to enter, listening to Jimmy Noone or to the Dodds brothers. At a summer resort job he met young George Wettling, and there was the night they went to hear the cornetist all the musicians were talking about: Bix Beiderbecke.
Sullivan was much impressed by Bix then, and even more so later, when they jammed together at all-night sessions with such as Bud Freeman and Frank Teschermacher. But despite his early white-Chicago associations, Joe has noted that he was always strongly aware of there being two main paths in jazz beetween which he had to choose. “There was Louis Armstrong and there was Bix, and all that each of them stood for. To this day I love Bix like I love my right arm. But I go by way of Louis.”
Actually, Joe always did much of his playing with men like Eddie Condon, Freeman and Wettling, the ones who were “drawn to Bix and had made up their minds to follow him.” But for Sullivan, as for a musician like Muggsy Spanier, Negro jazz itself had more meaning and impact than any white derivative form. “I discovered that my heart was set with the colored musicians … Sitting in with the Kelly’s Stable band – Johnny and Baby Dodds – to me was such a thrill that I was afraid … when I was first feeling my way around after that classical training, I felt on the defensive, felt I wasn’t worthy of playing as they were used to. It was only when they accepted me that I got the confidence I needed. Whatever I owe, I owe to those guys.”
Two pianists whose influence Sullivan quickly admits were around Chicago in the mid-1920s; Jelly Roll Morton and Earl Hines. And when Joe decided to move on to New York later in the decade, “Earl told me to be sure to look up Fats Waller. I had already heard him play, liked his playing, and later became very friendly with him. Not that he tried to teach me anything. But I listened – and learned.”
For the next few years there were road tours and speakeasy jobs, including a solo stand as probably the first entertainer at the first of the series of clubs on New York’s 52nd Street to be known as the “Onyx.” Then in the second half of the ‘30s came what is best described as Sullivan’s “Crosby’s period”: a year and a half on the West Coast, working principally on Bing’s radio show and in movies; then on to New York to begin the first of two hitches with the Bob Crosby band, interrupted by a touch of T. B. After recovery came more movie work and another stint with the Bobcats, a tough grind of road tours, recording and radio during the pre-war big-band heyday. He was in New York, mostly on 52nd Street, during World War II, and thereafter shuttled between the two coasts and many places in between. His long and crowded career had established him, lastingly, as a major figure among jazz pianists. The selections heard here were recorded in San Francisco in 1953 and are, in the main, solo piano efforts (on some numbers Sullivan is accompanied by Dave Lario on bass, and “Smoky” Stover, drums). They certainly offer vivid testimony that time has certainly not robbed Joe – who was 47 when these were recorded and at this writing (a decade later) is still going strong – of any of his vast store of inventiveness, sensitivity and spirit. ORRIN KEEPNEWS
Other notable piano recordings in Riverside’s “Jazz Archives” series include –
Young Fats Waller: transcribed from piano rolls (RLP 103)
The Amazing Mr. Waller: piano, organ and voice (RLP 109)
James P. Johnson: transcribed from piano rolls (RLP 105)
“Backwater Blues”: James P. Johnson, Vol.2 (RLP 151)
The Golden Age of Ragtime (RLP 110)
Ragtime Piano Roll Classics (RLP 126)
Jelly Roll Morton: the Classic Gennett solos (RLP 111)
“Mr. Jelly Lord” (RLP 132); Jelly Roll Morton Plays and Sings (RLP 133; and Jelly Roll Morton:
Rags and Blues (RLP 140) – three volumes of selections from the Library of Congress recordings
“Yancey’s Getaway”: Jimmy Yancey (RLP 124)
Re-mastered 1962, at PLAZA SOUND STUDIOS,
Album design: KEN DEARDOGG
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCITONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York City 36, New York