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Giant Strides: The Legacy of Dick Wellstood

Dick Wellstood knew, understood and sometimes used bebop harmonies, but when he became a professional in the 1940s he was a James P. Johnson pianist in a Bud Powell world. He stayed in that time warp throughout his career, cantankerous and uncompromising, his brilliance as a musician ignored or misunderstood by people who hear in categories. Musicians, particularly pianists, knew Wellstood for what he was, a monster improviser, categories aside. With absolute justification, he and Dick Hyman billed their two-piano partnership as Stridemonster.

Wellstood, Bob Wilber and The Wildcats were a group of teenagers from the toney precincts of Westchester County and southern Connecticut in love with traditional jazz and determined to play it. Their story has been told many times, but not often with the frankness that Edward Meyer brings to it. “Occasionally one or more of them would be invited to sit in at the Central Plaza, Nick’s and Ryan’s,” he writes, “usually because one of the regulars wanted to take a nap or was too drunk to continue.”

His public-even some of his most loyal fans-tended to think of Wellstood as a Fats Waller imitator. He was not. In what he called his “elocutious” moments he would parse the differences between Johnson and Waller, James P.’s student. Wellstood considered Waller an entertaining pianist, but inferior to Johnson. James P. and Joe Sullivan were his early heroes. When he grew up he didn’t imitate them, either. He was an original, in large part because of his chords; no other stride pianist took harmonies so far out. He objected aggressively when anyone compared him with his contemporaries, or when he thought they did. In a rave review in Radio Free Jazz, which is what this magazine used to be called, I mentioned in passing that for a few bars he used a walking bass left hand rather like Dave McKenna. I got a scathing-and typically funny-letter from Wellstood asking me how I dared to suggest that he played like McKenna. It took three further exchanges to get him to admit that I hadn’t said that at all. I cannot find those letters. That is a serious loss, because Wellstood had almost as many moments of wit and inventiveness at the typewriter as at the piano. “You see, there are really two musics,” he once wrote, “-the one the musicians think they are playing and the one the audience thinks it is hearing.”

Meyer does a straightforward job of telling Wellstood’s life story, and he brings to it a richness rare in many biographies. Meyer is a lawyer, not a professional writer. Perhaps because of his lawyerly powers of observation and detail, he knows how to provide context. He addresses the phases of Wellstood’s life in their settings of societal change, demographics, economic trends, fluctuations in popular music, the real estate market-dozens of factors that govern real lives in real ways. He is not a musical analyst, but he blends accurate impressions and descriptions of Wellstood’s playing into his tracing of the pianist’s career. Wellstood’s father died when the only child was three years old, and his mother raised him as best she could in reduced circumstances, refusing help from her husband’s prosperous family. Meyer introduces just enough psychobiographical theory to be helpful about how his odd upbringing influenced Wellstood’s personality, which was private, maddening, captivating and ultimately endearing.

One playing partner and friend, clarinetist Kenny Davern, called him “a genius in hiding.” Another, guitarist Marty Grosz,

told Meyer that in his playing Wellstood “was always doing these little things that were going against the grain.” A third, cornetist Dick Sudhalter, said that “this almost capricious perversity” was an integral part of Wellstood’s personality, on and off

the stand.

The book is packed with anecdotes about Wellstood’s lifelong swim upstream to play it his way. The reader is left shaking his head one moment in frustration at how difficult he often made his marriages, his career, his life, and the next with admiration for his individualism, his finely milled mixture of pride and insecurity, and the joy he found in making music.

Among the musicians Wellstood played with: Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page, Jack Teagarden, Django Reinhardt, Joe Venuti, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Zoot Sims, Red Allen, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Buster Bailey, Danny Barker; a few names on a long list. Meyer’s book makes me want to hear every record in its 47-page discography. There are few biographies that succeed as well as Giant Strides in giving a true glimpse of what the creative life in jazz is about and why supremely intelligent people like Wellstood beat themselves up so badly to live it.

Originally Published