Jingle Bells by Dick Wellstood

December 15, 2011 at 1:06 am (Christmas, jazz, Jim D, music)

One thing I disagree with Richard Dawkins about (see previous post): I think ‘Jingle Bells’ is (potentially, anyway) quite a good tune – at least when it’s in the hands of good jazz musicians. Fats Waller did a wild version back in 1936. More recently (1985) the best post-Waller stride pianist Dick Wellstood, had a go:

Wellstood died in 1987. Here’s what the late Richard M. (“Dick”) Sudhalter wrote, in a heart-felt eulogy,  shortly afterwards:

Virtuem videant intabescant

que relicta

(Let them look upon virtue, and pine that

they have lost her forever)

Persius (AD 34-62)

The Satires

The call came in around two, right after lunch. It was Joe Muranyi

“Hey Sud,” he said. “You hear about Wellstood?”

Something unusual in his voice, something not good, put me on my guard. “No.” A pause.

“What’s he done now?”

“He died.”

What do you do when the roof falls in? When pieces of  what just five minutes ago looked, seemed, so lasting and solid up there come raining down on your head, shard upon shard of broken glass, each a dagger.

Scramble for purchase, for traction, on some wildly careening slippery slope. Throw up your arms. Shield your face. Babble into the phone. “What? What do you mean? That can’t be. He’s fine – I talked to him yester – “

“He’s dead, Sud. He went out to the Coast, San Fransisco, to play some jazz party. Checked into his hotel room, but didn’t show up for dinner. Kenny Davern found him sitting at the desk. He’d hung up his coat, sat down and – my guess his heart just stopped.”

Richard MacQueen Wellstood, age almost sixty, of Greenwich, Conneticut. Jazz piano-player, lawyer, thinker. Student of Chesterton, Capablanca, James P. Johnson and Willie Hoppe.

Equally versed in Latin, German and the truck-stop country music of Red Sovine. Suddenly past-tense? Absent without leave? Defunct?

However much we come to terms with death, acknowledge its reality, I don’t think we ever truly accept it. All that stuff about death-as-release and redemption, the light at the end of life’s dark tunnel, has always struck me as mostly grand rationalization. We fall mortally ill and – once there’s no choice, no other option  – we embrace death. Body and mind wither, decay, and after a while the thought of surcease, whatever its form, holds a certain satisfaction.

But don’t try telling me we’d feel that way if we didn’t age, didn’t fail, didn’t diminish. Life is precious, limitless in its possibilities. And when a Wellstood – I never thought of him as anything but Wellstood: not Dick, not Richard, certainly (as my family took to calling me early in the ever-more-distant past) Richie – dies before his time, there is no solace.

And it was, make no mistake, before his time, In common with so many other musicians of his generation, he was finally coming, magnificently, into his own. People were noticing him, paying court to him, gathering to hear and watch and make the ooh-and-aah noises he’d been deserving for close on thirty years. Wellstood himself realized it, though characteristically resisted making much of it. “I’m getting better as I get older, I think,” was his comment to Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker profile.


  1. representingthemambo said,

    This comment has nothing to do with this article, sorry!
    I have no way of contacting you, and I was just wondering if there was any chance you could cross post our piece on the Russian Comunist Party on your blog, you have a much bigger audience than we do! For now…… : )

    Many Thanks

    The Mambo

  2. Emily Wellstood said,

    I am touched by this eulogy. I don’t know you but you are one of the lucky ones. One of the chosen who knew Dick Wellstood and one who is lucky enough to have been his friend; to have spoken to him the day before he died. I was not so lucky. The time I spent with him was far too little but every second a treasured memory. Thank-You for reminding me of those precious memories.

    I found out about his passing when my Mother called me and said “are you ready?” “Yes,….what Mom?”

    “Your Father’s dead.”

    The words hit me but I couldn’t understand. Dead? As in I’ll never see him again? As in I’ll never get to tell him how much I Love him? I couldn’t grasp it and I have trouble to this day. My Father. My Dad. My brilliant, shining star of a Father who I loved so much but saw so little. I search for his recordings so I can hear his voice. Sometimes I hear myself and I sound like him. The older I get, the more I look like him….

    I just bought one of his albums on Ebay because it was signed by him……”to Joe Brighton with all Thanks for letting me play for you, Dick Wellstood, Meadville (!) 1980.”

    Lucky, lucky Joe Brighton.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Hi Emily: what I put in that post was excerpted from a tribute written by Richard (Dick) Sudhalter in the notes to the Challenge CD “Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood: Never In A Million Years” (CHR70019); it’s well worth getting hold of that particular CD because not only does your dad play brilliantly alongside his close friend and musical comrade Davern, but he also talks at some length on two tracks.

    You may have misunderstood my post above: I (sadly) did not know your dad, and only once saw and heard him perform in person: I was quoting Sudhalter (also, now, dead). But I was – and am- a great admirer of his playing, as well as his witty and wise writing and recorded speech.

    I’ll gladly make you a copy of the CD and post it to you (in fact, it would be an honour) if you wish. Just send me your postal address offline, at jimcftu@yahoo.com

  4. Emily Wellstood said,

    Thanks for giving me another dose of Dad! I feel very fortunate in that although he is gone I am able to hear his voice through recordings like these and interviews as well. I miss him, but he’s still with me and always in my heart-and every time I look in the mirror!

    I used to dance to his music when I was a very young child….there was an old recording of “When The Saints Go Marching In” on a 45 rpm with “Pink Elephants” on the flip side which he recorded with a Dixieland Band. We (my sisters and I,) used to have a blast dancing to those recordings and those were the first recordings I’d heard of my Dad. I thought then that all Pianists sounded the way Dad did, after all, that sound, that musical voice, those phrases, were all I knew…..how wrong I was! I still dance to his music, happily, and, if I do say so myself, I have great style and a keen sense of rythym! Have a great day!

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Glad you enjoyed the CDs, Emily. Your Dad was a great musician and by all accounts a remarkable, wise and witty man as well.

    I only heard him playing live once – with the Lawson-Haggart “Worlds Greatest Jazz Band” in about 1975. I was expecting it to be Ralph Sutton on piano (another fine player as well as a friend and exact contemparary of Wellstood’s) and was pleasantly surpised to find your Dad “depping” for him. I could have heard Wellstood play a solo gig a year or two later but for some reason I now forget I didn’t attend. One of those things you come to bitterly regret (my other main musical regret is not bunking off school to hear the Ellington Band, still with Johnny Hodges, when they came to Britain in 1971). Oh well: as you say, we have the records.

  6. Robert R. Calder said,

    Some of Dick’s friends have reported him in possession of a quantity of tapes by one or two veterans pretty well unrecorded otherwise. It would be of considerable interest — and surely in keeping with Dick’s wishes — that these tapes be traced and lodged in a place of safety with prospects of being heard by more people.
    Anybody who knows about that would be welcomed by numerous admirers.
    including the delightful gentleman now reviving the website

    who also has some nice pages on Dick

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