What I did remember, was, being surprised to hear such a complex arrangement of chords and cartoon music churning out of the cranky old school piano. Magic music from a strange man dressed in a gray suit who looked more like a school principal (or maybe Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman) than a famous jazz musician. Kevin said that the jazz concert inspired him to become a musician. Me, not so much.
And the vague memory fragment of that concert goes a long way in explaining why my classmate Pete Sutton's best friend, Steve Tristano, was standing on the piano bench banging out a rollicking Boogie-Woogie on the piano at recess. We were all rockin' out. That music was so radically different than the somber proscribed chords of the America, the Beautiful. The teacher, hearing the infernal ruckus, came bursting into the classroom, apoplectic. We were all so busted.
From this incident, I learned that certain types of music was forbidden, therefore delicious. I also feared our 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Burge, was going to have heart failure right in front of us. I'd never seen such a show of emotion from our right-proper 50s school-marm teacher.
There was always a lot of counterculture going on in the San Geronimo Valley in the late 1950s, and early 60s. But we were so young and we knew no other life—living out so far from the towns and the growing suburbs. Many famous musicians and artists and writers took refuge in The Valley as the Marin Beat scene havens, including Mill Valley and the former fishing village of Sausalito, were beginning to erode into the effluent of mainstream acceptability.
Steve was born with his musical talent. Our 2nd grade Boogie-Woogie champ was the son of another famous jazz musician, Lennie Tristano. But great jazz musicians were also absenteé fathers—always on the road—or more notably playing the clubs in New York, where the real action was.
So to see Ralph Sutton was unusual as it was to see the blind piano player, Lennie Tristano. People often lumped Sutton & Tristano's names together, and said that they were famous jazz musicians in New York. But in retrospect, I can't imagine such a synthesis as they were both such very different musicians.
A bit of San Geronimo Valley apocrypha: Scott Joplin (with whom I share a birthdate) was said to have visited the Valley in the 1890s, and allegedly wrote Maple Leaf Rag at Frank "Speck" McAuliff's bar in Lagunitas.
Don't know if there's any truth to the story—other than countless would-be ragtime piano players have banged out that archetypal ragtime hottie on every available piano in the Valley. But chances are pretty good Scott Joplin hammered out a rendition of it at Speck's. What was the bar called before Speck McAuliff bought the place since this was before his time—Lagunitas Tavern & Livery?
Before you go, Whoa there, Nellie! Teddy Roosevelt had a cabin in Lagunitas—Argentina House—and used to water at the Lagunitas trough when he got all hot and bothered. And Joplin was no stranger to The Valley. (Nor were José Revere (Paul's kin), or Alexander Graham Bell—who set up the first telephone in the Dollar barn on Dickson Ranch.)
Teddy Roosevelt liked The Valley for its wildness and isolation. He famously exclaimed, "When I am in California, I am not in the West, I am west of the West."
Another Boogie-Woogied classmate, Adair (Lara) Daley once dubbed The Valley in her SF Chronicle column as The Valley that Time Forgot. Growing up in West Marin, we were all so far west of the west, we met ourselves coming and going. Often shunned by the townies, we were our own universe.
Then in the late 1960s and early 70s, it became cool when the rock musicians began moving out to the Valley. The Other Joplin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, you name it. But that's another story.
Because of meeting Lennie Tristano and another local piano player, Kent Weaver, at a tender age, I had this odd notion that all good piano players had to be blind. So when a kind intending neighbor offered me a piano and piano lessons, I yelled NO! I took up the guitar and played it rather badly. I regret passing up that rare opportunity to have real music lessons—for we were far too poor to afford them.
Lennie Tristano invented free jazz or free improvisation and a chord progression style of playing. Like Sutton, he played and recorded with the jazz greats: Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and was a pallbearer at Parker's funeral.
There's a growing list of Lennie's recordings on YouTube. Back in 2007, when I wrote a review for AmieStreet, there was almost nothing available on the internet on Lennie Tristano. Certainly nothing on YouTube. I had to do some serious dust jacket sleuthing to find much by way of pertinent bio. Lordy, how times have changed.
For more info on Lennie Tristano, you also might want to check out my AmieStreet News review, Cool Jazz Rooms. Sadly AmieStreet was bought out by Amazon in 2010 and the AmieStreet News site was deconstructed. I've included a link to an earlier reminiscence of the jazz men, also from 2007, here: "Tristano & Son."
Pete's dad, Ralph Sutton was known as the best stride pianist to come out of WW II. Alone in his generation, he played in the tradition of Fats Waller. He played in Jack Teagarden's band, and in many Dixieland bands; he moved to San Francisco for a brief time (that would be an oblique mention of us in that minor historical footnote). He died in 2001 and was posthumously inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 2002.
Ralph Sutton's YouTube search list is becoming quite extensive, thanks to avid fans. I find I like listening to the old video clips. I must've been bored at the live concert when I was young. And alas, no, I never heard Lennie Tristano play live. But I probably wouldn't have appreciated it then either. I had to grow towards jazz as an adult. But I did see him being led to the Lagunitas Store, a blind man led by a gaggle of blind men.
I guess their jazz greatness trickled down and affected us all like a good spring soak. Weedlings sprouted in all directions from this wild, unintended garden of childhood. Pete's brothers, Jeff and Nicky Sutton, and Steve Tristano all became fine musicians.
I used to catch Nick Sutton and Kevin McConnell in San Geronimo Valley's own resident hard rock & roll band, Walt Dickson's homegrown Sky Blue Band at the Forest Knolls Lodge (aka The Papermill Creek Saloon).
The Sky Blue Band is a good drop-in band that rarely feels a need to go "over the hill" into town to be heard. Musicians from all walks of life tend to find our homegrown band. Tony Bennett's drummer Harold Jones, saxman Phil Woods (who studied with Lennie Tristano) & and other musicians have sat in with the band—sometimes even Elvin Bishop (Butterfield Blues Band) would drop in on a set.
At times like this, I am grateful for the internet and YouTube for restoring lost bits of information. An offhand fragment posted by a friend uncovered a long-lost memory of childhood. As Adair Lara once wrote: the shortest distance between two points may be a detour. When I begin to write these memoirs, I've no idea where the story will go. Nor do I have much by way control over the order of flotsam and jetsam as it arrives unbidden. I weave and write. Weave and pull on Ariadne's skein of thread a bit. And hope I don't get too tangled up in the process. What a long and strange detour it's been.
Thanks to Kevin, cow jazz guitarist with the Lonestar Retrobates. And a special thanks to Pete Sutton who posted a YouTube video of his dad playing a joyous 8-handed Maple Leaf Rag with Dick Wellstood, Eubie Blake, and Hoagy Carmichael.