When I listen to Dick Wellstood play the piano, I feel happy – engaged, energized, entertained – as I do when I listen to Armstrong, Bechet and James P. Johnson. (Go here to sample their music and that of their confrères). In some quarters this is a shameful admission, like saying you don’t enjoy the sound of Albert Ayler’s horn, but life is too short for music that torments my ears.
Wellstood’s Live at Hanratty’s (1981) has been in the CD player for a week. He was a modern stride player, retooling a piano style he called “late Eastern ragtime,” but was more than a revivalist or peddler of musical nostalgia. He matured late as a musician. If his early models were Johnson and Fats Waller, he later learned from Basie, Monk and Bill Evans, but his style was never attention-gettingly eclectic. Live at Hanratty’s includes standards and almost-standards by Berlin, Porter and the usual hyphenated brokerage firms – Razaf-Brooks-Waller, Brecht-Weill, Arlen-Mercer.
By all accounts, Wellstood was urbane, witty and well-read, and made for splendid company. He wrote excellent liner notes, even for the likes of Earl Hines. When Wellstood died in 1987 at age 59, Whitney Balliett wrote in The New Yorker “He was a good, piquant writer,” and cited this example from the notes Wellstood wrote for a Donald Lambert album:
“In a world full of pianists who can rattle off fast oom-pahs or Chick Corea solo transcriptions or the Elliott Carter Sonata, there are perhaps only a dozen who can play stride convincingly at any length and with the proper energy.”
In a 1978 profile of Wellstood (“Easier Than Working,” collected in American Musicians), Balliett describes him waiting in a club for a tuner to finish mend the piano:
“He looked as if he were sitting in his East Side apartment, which is small and is lined with Smollett, Aldous Huxley, Robert Musil, Samuel Johnson, Nabokov, Meredith, Hazlitt, Gibbon, Chesterton, F.R. Leavis, and Thomas Love Peacock.”
A stride player with a taste for Musil and excellent English prose? Knowing this about Wellstood adds another layer of “piquancy” (Balliett’s word) to his version of, say, Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Balliett’s profile includes the usual lengthy quotations from his subject, including this:
“Audiences are rarely on the same wavelength as performers. In fact, two very different things are going on at once. The musician is worrying about how to get from the second eight bars into the bridge, and the audience is in pursuit of emotional energy. The musician is struggling, and the audience is making up dreamlike opinions about the music that may have nothing at all to do with what the musician is thinking or doing musically. If audiences knew what humdrum, daylight things most musicians think when they play, they’d probably never come.”
This ought to be humbling to critics and civilian listeners alike. While truest of music, the most potent art but the one with the least “content,” it applies as well to the less sublime literary arts. I think Wellstood is not complaining but merely reporting reality. A saxophonist I knew confirmed that while performing, his thoughts were not elevated. Usually he was thinking about “humdrum, daylight things” -- or an attractive woman in the audience.