The story: In the mid and late 1970s, I was fortunate enough to make several trips to New York City with the specific purpose of trying to hear as much music and see as many jazz musicians as possible. My love for good jazz is boundless. I had a friend who was somewhat more musically inclined than I, who fortunately was also very interested in this kind of musical exploration. So we eventually made three or four trips to Manhattan together.
The mid-summer Newport-New York Jazz Festival, as it was then called, was always the main attraction for us, but we explored many other jazz venues as well. We always stayed at a small hotel on West 55th Street, directly across from the old Mecca Temple (now the New York City Center), which was then called the Gorham. (It has since been turned into an apartment building.) On our first stay at the Gorham, we arrived on a sweltering July afternoon. Immediately upon entering our room on the south wall of the hotel, I opened the window. To my surprise, within plain view below were two jazz clubs on West 54th Street: Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s. The attraction at Ryan’s was the great Roy Eldridge. Roy had always been one of my heroes. I knew his recordings with Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, and Artie Shaw from the swing era, and had a few of his later records as well. I considered Roy to be a bona fide giant of jazz. I immediately resolved to go to Ryan’s that night to listen to Roy. When I told my friend about this, he was very agreeable. (NOTE: Although the sign on Ryan’s front awning/sign read “Dixieland,” I can assure you that the music played there by Roy Eldridge and his band was swinging mainstream jazz. Roy’s nickname, “Little Jazz,” came about because of his small stature, and the fact that he was all about jazz.) (Above left: Roy Eldridge – late 1970s. Photo by Nancy Miller Elliott.)
Before we went to Ryan’s, we attended a performance of the Jazz Fest which I cannot now recall. We then trekked over to Ryan’s.Outside the door was a short, stout, fleshy-faced man of about 60, who was wearing a door-man’s uniform, including what resembled a police officer’s cap on his head. He had a well-chewed stogie in his mouth. He eyed us and quickly concluded that we were two young hicks without money, then said to us: “Yizzl have to move on.” With that he shunted us into the club.
The band’s hours at Ryan’s were brutal: something like 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. When we entered, we were pleasantly surprised to find the place packed.This was approximately at midnight. Ryan’s was on the south side of West 54th, with Condon’s on the same side of the street but a couple of doors east. Ryan’s was probably 50 or 60 feet long from the front door (which was a couple of steps down from the sidewalk), to the back wall, and about 25 feet wide.The bar, which was to the right as you walked in, was probably 30 or 35 feet long, and was patrolled by a pleasant man whose name I soon learned was Matty Walsh. Walsh’s attire that night and every night we returned to Jimmy Ryan’s was: charcoal gray slacks; white, long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and black necktie. Just beyond the bar, on the same side of the club, was the bandstand. Its dimensions were maybe 15×15 feet. (Above right: John Keveanos and Matty Walsh outside of Ryan’s at 154 West 54th St. NYC – 1980.)
In the late 1970s, Roy Eldridge was in his mid-sixties. He was about five feet six, but still had a rather athletic build. He was very handsome, but by then had salt-and-pepper hair worn in a short Afro, and wore thick glasses. His smile, which he flashed often, was dazzling. Roy and company were in full cry that night. I was amazed that he still could pop out those piercing high notes, but he did, with frequency. When he went upstairs like that, I worried about his health, because the veins at his temples would bulge alarmingly. Nevertheless, he seemed unfazed by the strain, and played the balance of the night with great abandon. I noticed that he used the bluesy riff from Artie Shaw’s “Summit Ridge Drive,” (1945 aircheck version, as opposed to the 1940 Victor record version) as his “chaser,” closing each set with a few bars of it.
Roy was a very genial leader, and he featured his sidemen generously. His band consisted of Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Bobby Pratt on trombone, Ted Sturgis on bass, Eddie Locke on drums. I can’t recall the pianist for sure, but it may have been Dick Katz. Roy often mentioned the names of famous musicians he had played with over the years when he spoke between tunes on the bandstand, but he was especially fond of Coleman Hawkins. He would also talk freely with the patrons between sets, and while the other musicians were playing solos, he would often leave the bandstand, mingle with patrons, and let the guys do their thing for a while.
That first night, we initially stood behind the people who were seated at the bar, but eventually were able to move up to the bar as people left. We then stayed put at the bar for about two-plus hours, drinking in the happy, swinging sounds, as well as Matty Walsh’s surprisingly inexpensive liquor. Roy would play for around 45-50 minutes, then take a 10 or 15 minute break. Although he always had a glassful of something with him on the bandstand, he was never impaired in any way when I saw him perform. The number of patrons at Jimmy Ryan’s that night gradually diminished after 2:00 a.m. As closing-time approached, only a few die-hards remained. At 3:00 a.m. Roy played his blues/theme, and he and the band then disappeared fast. (Above left: Roy Eldridge – late 1970s.)
The next night, we returned to Ryan’s, checking-in about midnight. Again, we encountered the peculiar little man outside the door. Before he directed us into the club, I said to him: “Hey, who are you, fella?” With considerable edge, he said, “I know who I am. Who do you think I am?” I thought for a second about saying something to him about Halloween, but I kept quiet. “Well, then yizzl have to move on” he said as he thrust us gently into the club. We again had to stand behind those who were crowding the bar. Matty Walsh soon asked us what we wanted to drink, and we ordered. When he came back with the drinks, I said to him: “Who’s the old gent in the uniform?” He laughed and said: “That’s Gilbert Pincus, the Mayor of 52nd Street.” This response was meaningless to me, and a bit confusing, as Ryan’s was on 54th. I assumed that Walsh was putting me on, so I decided not to inquire any further. Sometime later, I learned of the history of Gilbert Pincus, doorman-supreme, going back to the glory days of jazz clubs on 52nd St. in the 1930s and 40s. He was indeed the Mayor of 52nd Street then – only by the late 1970s, he was working two blocks north, and his uniform was a bit threadbare. (Right: Pincus in the 1940s.)
On this night, Count Basie’s legendary drummer, Jo Jones, came into the club, looking disheveled. He also appeared to be a bit buzzed. He peered menacingly at Roy from near the bar, and then buttonholed him as he stepped off the bandstand. He then began to talk agitatedly to Roy about something, but Roy, with a big grin, deflected any ugliness, and eventually Jones departed.
There were also a number of people there that night (and on other nights) with their instruments. Roy seemed to welcome everyone. I never saw him refuse to let anyone sit-in. I assumed that Roy had established his version of amateur night at the Apollo, because he graciously allowed all comers to play at least one tune. Most of these “musicians” were completely incapable of playing jazz, though they usually had fairly good control of their instruments. Roy let one trumpet player “lead the band” by calling the tune of his choice in the key of his choice. The resulting mish-mash had Roy, who was seated at someone’s table talking and listening while this was going on, flashing his thousand-watt smile. Matty Walsh, who I assumed was the owner of the club,(*) was not amused however. Roy sensed this and at the conclusion of the “tune” quickly shouted out – “play another.” Immediately, Matty Walsh rounded the bar, went to Roy and said: “Roy, please! This guy wouldn’t know how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Get him outta here before he chases away all the customers!” In reality, the audience was highly amused by the embarrassed stumbling about this poor fellow had gotten himself into, and cheered him loudly when he finished the second tune. Roy then resumed the bandstand and said into the mike, “Ladies and gentlemen, please give, …what’s your name again?…. give…..a big round of applause! Folks, you won’t believe this, but.…is in the insurance business. Man, you should get out of insurance right now, and get yourself a band!” The audience laughed, and then Roy blasted off with something loud and swinging. By 3:00 a.m., we had again heard a lot of good jazz, despite Roy’s amateur night hijinx. At least that had provided some laughs, and some rest for Roy’s chops. Nine to three, six hours, is a long gig.
Since Ryan’s was so close to our hotel and was open so late, it became our nocturnal headquarters after we had finished our other musical activities each night. Roy became aware of our repeated visits, and always said a few words to us each night after we finally worked our way to seats at the bar. I don’t think we missed a night there during the week or ten days we were in New York, though we would sometimes also slip over to Condon’s for a set or two. Cornetist Ed Polcer led the band there, and they always played excellent music. One night trumpeter Clark Terry led another band at Condon’s, and they were great. I specifically recall an especially fine pianist with Clark that night: Norman Simmons.
One night something very different happened at Ryan’s, however. The place was packed, as usual. Instead of trying to get a seat at the bar, we took a seat at a table. Very soon, a short, skinny young man came in carrying a sack of some kind. He was probably about 20, with long brown hair that was wrapped around his head almost like a turban. He spoke to no one, and stood against the wall opposite the bandstand. I did not notice if Roy was even aware of him until he intoned into the mike: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real treat for you this evening. A young man from Providence, Rhode Island is here, and he will be joining us for a few tunes. His name is Scott Hamilton, and he is a very fine tenor saxophone player.” While this introduction was going on, the young man was assembling his saxophone, which he had taken out of the sack in pieces. I didn’t know if this was another of Roy’s jokes, or if this young guy was for real.
I quickly sensed that he was for real when he got on the bandstand, and Roy and all of the other musicians stayed there with him. From the downbeat of the first tune, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” (**) which they played at a blistering tempo, musical lightning was flashing all over the place. This tune must have lasted 10 minutes, with everybody taking full chorus solos, and Roy setting up riffs behind each soloist. The climax came with Roy and Scott trading eights, then fours, then twos, then ones. By then, the club was in an uproar. Scott Hamilton was indeed a very fine saxophone player with complete command of his instrument, a profound sense of swing, a sound that reminded me of Chu Berry (an early associate of Roy’s), and stimulating jazz ideas which he executed with ease on his horn. At the conclusion of this first tune, there was an ovation. The musicians then played a very warm version of Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed,” and finished with another bright swinger, possibly “Blues Up and Down,” or “Bernie’s Tune.” Roy then segued into his bluesy theme and took a break. A number of people gathered around Scott Hamilton and asked him a lot of questions, which he seemed very uneasy trying to answer. As soon as possible, he moved away from this noisy group of patrons, quickly disassembled his saxophone, put the pieces back in the sack, and left. (Above left: Scott Hamilton – late 1970s.)
By then, we had moved up to the bar, where an exuberant Roy was holding court, and sat next to him. Matty Walsh was shaking his head, and with his marvelous New York accent said: “Roy, that young man can really play. He reminds me of Jewajee Ooold (Georgie Auld) when he was a kid.” Roy then said: “Yeh. He’s a real swinger. He’s going to go places in the music business.” (Which he most certainly has.)
Roy then took a sip of his beverage, turned to me, flashed his smile, and said: “Hey man, have you got your axe with you? If you do, would you like to sit-in?” Didn’t I wish then, and haven’t I wished a thousand times since. (At right: Mike Zirpolo – 1979.)
The music: I am presenting two examples of Roy Eldridge’s artistry. First, his bravura solo on “Rockin’ Chair” with Gene Krupa’s big band, and then his tart and tasty playing on “Scuttlebutt,” with Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five.
Composed by Hoagy Carmichael; arranged by Elton Hill.
Recorded by Gene Krupa and His Orchestra for Okeh/Columbia on July 2, 1941 in New York City.
Gene Krupa, drums, directing: David “Roy” Eldridge, solo trumpet; Norman Murphy, Torg Halten, Graham Young, trumpets; John Grassi, Jay Kelliher, Babe Wagner, trombones; Mascagni Ruffo, alto saxophone; Sam Musiker, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Walter Bates, tenor saxophone; Sam Listengart, baritone saxophone; Milt Raskin, piano; Remo Biondi, guitar; Ed Mihelich, bass.
This is a miniature trumpet concerto, adorned with all of Roy’s stylistic elements. First of all, we hear his commanding trumpet sound – it was brilliant, indeed radiant. Then there is his masterful use of glissandi, rasps, shakes. Last, is his great sense of drama and musical construction. All of this is delivered with total confidence, and a deep sense of swing.
Composed by Artie Shaw(***); head arrangement by Shaw and the Gramercy Five.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five live at Fort Ord, California on September 19,1945.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass, Lou Fromm, drums.
This live broadcast recording is a part of a series of broadcasts Artie Shaw made from military installations along the Pacific coast in the fall of 1945. Shaw’s 1945 Gramercy Five was a very strong performing unit that, like all of his bands, was rehearsed to a level of perfection. What made this small band special however were its soloists. The two young firebrands in the group, pianist Dodo Marmarosa and guitarist Barney Kessel were among the best young jazz soloists of that time. (Marmarosa’a solo here is excellent.)The two veterans in the group, Shaw and Roy Eldridge, constantly played off each other, and in the process inspired great playing from the other. Roy’s swaggering melody exposition stimulated a great jazz solo from Shaw, who in turn prompted superb, exciting jazz from Roy.
The radio announcer who introduces this tune is Johnny Olson, who went on to a long and successful career in television.(See discussion and correction below.)
(*) It appears that Matty Walsh was a co-owner of Ryan’s, with John Keveanos.
(**) Here is a link to Count Basie’s classic recording of “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/08/28/jumpin-at-the-woodside-1938-count-basie-and-lester-young/
(***) The name “John Carleton” appears with Shaw’s as a co-composer of this tune. “John Carleton” was a pseudonym that Shaw used on occasion when making composer attributions. “John Carleton” and Artie Shaw were the same person.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.