Dick Wellstood: Wellstride
January 24 2011
The Pianobabbler ranks him as one of the pantheonic greats.
Richard MacQueen Wellstood. Dick Wellstood. If you love piano, if you love jazz, know the name.
Dick Wellstood. Stride piano (see Pianobabbler 52). The Harlem style of rhythmic, oom-pa, driven, joyous, virtuosic pianism. The greater names- Thomas "Fats" Waller, Willie "the Lion" Smith, James P. Johnston. The lesser ones- Donald Lambert, Luckey Roberts, "Baltimore" Joe Turner.
Dick Wellstood emerged in the second, mostly white, generation of striders- Don Ewell, Ralph Sutton, Dick Hyman. With the latter, Wellstood formed the monster stride duo Stridemonster.
He broke from the pack with the today invention he brought to yesterday music. Sure, he could play the canonical standards- Handful of Keys, Carolina Shout, Sheik of Araby. Ragtime too, yesterday's yesterday music. More than familiar, these works in Wellstood's symphonic hands remained familiar yet became entirely new. Dick Wellstride, some called him.
He also poured new songs into old forms. Coltrane's Giant Steps and Wonder's You are the Sunshine of My Life were all transported back to stride piano's future. Wellstood rebuilt each song with a higher intelligence not usually found in the blend with the visceral pleasure they brought.
Fortune let the Pianobabbler see Wellstood perform several times. Tailor-made for the adjective rumpled in person, Wellstood was a full-bore pianist. Control. Facility. Dynamics. Each song emerged as a shared exploration, finding the new in the familiar, and the familiar in the new. The audience became a collaborator. Smart. Witty. Wellstride indeed. Wellspoken too. His patter, filled with those whangy New England curves, delighted as much as the music.
Work had dried up in 1985 to the point that it drove Wellstood to finally use the law degree he'd got from Columbia in 1958. Playing lawyer came to Wellstood as naturally as piano, with his fine mind and language facility. The law life never suited him. He lasted in practice for 10 months. They would have kept him longer, but he had to return to the stage when the work began returning to him.
The work included a 1987 jazz party in Palo Alto. Wellstood was far from his Manhattan base, at the other geographical and archetypal end of the USA, but entirely in his musical element. Full of life, rejuvenating the music others were declaring dead of old age. Oom-pa. Left hand well-striding, pulsing as strongly as ever. Not his heart. 59 years old.
On some glorious recordings, Dick Welstood's playing beats on.
The Pianobabbler has babbled.
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