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Ralph Sutton Dies at 79

Pianist Ralph Sutton, a modern master of classic stride piano, died Sunday, Dec. 30, after suffering a stroke the previous day. He was 79. Sutton collapsed at a restaurant in Evergreen, Colo., near his home in Bailey.

Sutton was born in Hamburg, Mo., on Nov. 4, 1922. He first heard stride music as a nine year old when he heard Fats Waller on the radio. It was Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith who influenced Sutton,

and he, along with Dick Wellstood and Dick Hyman, kept the stride-piano tradition alive and pure for generations to hear well after its heydays in the 1920s to 1940s.

Jack Teagarden gave Sutton his first break when the popular trombonist-bandleader asked the then 19-year-old Sutton to join his band in New York City in 1941. But Sutton was drafted into the army, where he played with the 104th Infantry Band, only two months in to his stint with

Teagarden. After he was discharged, he played in East St. Louis, Ill., for a short period before Teagarden summoned him back to 52nd St. In 1948 Sutton began an eight-year stint at Eddie Condon’s club as intermission pianist.

Sutton recorded frequently as a solo artist throughout the 1950s, and less so in the 1960s and early 1970s, but from 1968 to 1974 he was a member of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, and he continued to perform at jazz

parties and concerts around the world. But by 1978, despite working regularly, Sutton was so poor he didn’t even own a piano; friends rectified it by anteing up and buying him one. It was during that time that Sutton’s

recording career picked up too, recording 11 albums for Chaz Jazz between 1979 and 1982. Sutton continued to record regularly for a variety of labels, including Sackville, Nagel-Heyer, Chiaroscuro, Storyville, Gaslight

and Arbors, and mainstream jazz fans.

Sutton is survived by his wife, Sunnie, and three sons from his earlier marriage to Charline Pelly, which ended in divorce. He is also survived by his sister, Barbara Sutton Curtis, and seven grandchildren.

Originally Published