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Ronnie Mathews

(12.2.35 – 6.28.08)

Ronnie Mathews

Ronnie was a well-respected and much-beloved figure on the scene. It’s hard for those of us who have known him as long as we did to believe that he’s gone.

I met Ronnie in 1958, a few years after I moved to New York. Ronnie had been a medical student for a while and then he changed over to music and fell in love with jazz. His parents had earned enough to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn by working in the subway token booth, both of them. I remember going over to his parents’ house back then. They had a pool table in the basement and a small piano down there, and a grand piano on the first floor. And we used to all go over there because the welcome mat was always out. His mother loved to cook for the musicians. In fact, I rented a room in there. She used to rent out rooms to those of us who needed places to stay cheaply, with a bathroom down the hall. And we could eat there if we wanted to. So that was great … room and board. Especially in the house of someone whose son was a musician.

Ronnie was a great player who had a special affinity for Monk’s music. In fact, he put out books [through Hal Leonard Publishing] in which he was meticulous in recreating Monk’s textures and everything. Ronnie’s books were a very valuable asset to the literature of jazz piano.

I remember seeing Ronnie play often at Bradley’s, which was a fertile scene for piano players. The great saxophonist Paul Desmond bequeathed his piano to the club and from then on it was really a pleasure to play there. Bradley Cunningham and I got to be good friends. He played piano himself and he would always hold court there after hours, way past four in the morning. And the crowd that hung out there was like a who’s who of jazz. It was a sad day when that place closed up. Ever since then, people have imagined different places being “the new Bradley’s.” But it can never be replaced. I guess Smoke comes the closest, but it’s in a different part of town with different clientele. Bradley’s was a moment in time and Ronnie was a very significant part of that whole scene back in the ’70s and ’80s. He made a significant impact on all the people who saw him playing duets with Ray Drummond at Bradley’s.

But he also played all around town over the years in different situations. And he was often in the company of Johnny Griffin out on tour in Europe, Japan and the States. He brought Kenny Washington into that band. Kenny credits Ronnie with teaching him how to keep up with those fast tempos that Johnny liked to play. There were all sorts of roles that he played. Ronnie worked constantly and it was just sort of taken for granted that he would always be around.

I like to equate Ronnie to a great character actor who may be well known in the business but not so well known outside of the business. If you go back, you could equate him to actors like Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet. They were always around but not in the forefront so much. And the time that they had on the screen made an impact. That was Ronnie. He may have been underappreciated by the general public, but I’ll certainly never forget him.

(As told to Bill Milkowski)

Originally Published