Joe Sullivan, Short-Lived All Stars Pianist

Today's post is one I've wanted to write for a while, but it took a blizzard and a few friendly Facebook requests to make it happen. Unlike most of Armstrong posts, which seem to explode from joy, this one will be a sad one as it will examine the short-lived All Stars tenure of piano great Joe Sullivan.

I wish I didn't have to provide much backstory for Sullivan, but alas, he seems to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to examining jazz history. Oh, how I wish Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Red Allen, Louis Prima, Stuff Smith, Chu Berry, Pee Wee Russell and my other heroes of 1930s jazz were better known today. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to discover these unsung greats (as long as you know they exist in the first place). So let's take a 12 minute recess and listen to four Joe Sullivan piano solos, recorded in his prime in 1935: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Gin Mill Blues," "Little Rock Getaway" and "Onyx Bringdown":

Can't argue with that! As you can hear, Sullivan's playing with saturated with Fats Waller's influence, but Sullivan was still his own man, occasionally taking Earl Hines-esque chances with the time. Sullivan was the pianist of choice for many years of the Chicago school (aka Condon school) of playing, first  recording with the seminal McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans in 1927. He first encountered Louis Armstrong on the famed integrated 1929 recording of "Knockin' a Jug" and later had an uncredited reunion with him in the 1936 Bing Crosby film, Pennies from Heaven; that's Sullivan's dazzling piano playing on Pops's showpiece, "The Skeleton in the Closet".

A bout with tuberculosis halted Sullivan's tenure with the Bob Crosby band for a while, but he eventually rejoined in 1939 for some classic recordings, including this big band spin on Sullivan's composition (based on a strain of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout"), "Little Rock Getaway":

Sullivan eventually left Crosby supposedly due to bad health but it was probably the first example of his having to leave a band because he was drinking too much. Still, Sullivan landed on his feet, making scores of memorable recordings as a leader and sideman and becoming a popular presence at New York's Cafe Society in the 1940s. Also, in 1942, Sullivan backed Armstrong at a typically-Condonfied jam session at the Walt Whitman School, photographed beautifully by Charles Peterson (for the story behind the photo, click here):

Now, let's flash forward to 1951. Louis is leading the All Stars and the personnel has been solid for a few years: Pops, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. But in the summer of 1951, things began to crack. First, bassist Shaw left the band to study in Switzerland. He was replaced by a veteran, the relatively unheralded Dale Jones, in July. Next, Teagarden, Armstrong's closest friend in the group, got the itch to lead again and eventually also left. Armstrong remembered trombonist Russ Phillips, who once subbed for an ailing Teagarden in Denver, and offered him the trombone chair in September.

Finally, pianist Hines jumped ship, too. This was not a happy breakup. Hines never really wanted to join the All Stars and be a sideman again. He sulked for most of his three years with the band and finally broke free in October. Louis was angry and went to the jazz press to rant about "Hines and his ego, ego, ego!" My book has more quotes on the subject but I recently discovered some fresh rantings that Louis gave historian Bill Russell in 1953, saying, "Hines! I wouldn't use Hines again if he was the last piano player in the world. I'd get a zither or something."

It's romantic to think of that early 50s band as a happy conglomeration of some of jazz's biggest names, working together to create memorable music onstage and having fun carousing and laughing in their downtime. Naturally, it wasn't quite like that. Louis told Russell, "Soon as Hines joined the band, the got a clique--Hines, and Cozy Cole and Shaw. They decided they wouldn't sign any programs or meet the customers. Hines just hates everybody. You can't run a band like that. You're in show business. If you don't keep people happy, get out of it, Pops."

With half the sextet gone, it was time for a rebuilding phase. Louis took some time off at the end of 1951 to film Glory Alley but debuted his new All Stars with a two-week stint at the Club Oasis in Los Angeles on December 18. Jones had been playing with the group since July and Louis told friends on one of his tapes that he was better than Shaw (to my ears, he wasn't, but Jones was apparently a great showman--no films of him exist--and as the above quote illustrates, Shaw was on Louis's bad side). Phillips had been there since September and was doing his best to fill Teagarden's big shoes. But at the Oasis, Louis would showcase his new pianist: Joe Sullivan.

Louis was excited, saying of Sullivan, "Pops plays fine piano." For the first four years of their existence, the All Stars were truly ALL STARS. But now, with lesser-lights like Jones and Phillips in the band, it was probably good for business to have an established name like Sullivan at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, what was good for business was bad for music. Sullivan, by this point, was a raging alcoholic. Perhaps Joe Glaser hoped Sullivan could get his act together by joining Louis but Sullivan's disease was too far gone and had begun to affect his playing.

The All Stars spent January in 1951 in California, first at the Oasis, then the Hangover in San Francisco and then a week in Sacramento. With a solid month under his belt, one would hope that Sullivan would have gotten the hang of the All Stars book. He hadn't. As will be demonstrated momentarily, not only was Sullivan prone to making sloppy mistakes at the piano, the times had passed him by. Believe me, I LOVE stride piano more than any other piano style and Sullivan was one of the best at it. But Louis Armstrong never sounded sounded comfortable with stride backing. His music always seemed to charge forward, swinging all the way (Baby Dodds said Louis was the one who made him play 4/4 instead of 2/4). Sullivan's accompaniment rarely strayed for a deadening oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah, halting any sense of swing Jones and Cole were trying to generate behind Louis.

After the month in California, the All Stars headed north of the border for Vancouver, Canada. On February 1, they'd play in front of a nearly hysterical crowd at Kitsilano High School, an afternoon gig that was recorded by disc jockey Jack Cullen. The next night, they played the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver and again, a handful of recordings survive. Then during a string of one-nighters, Louis and the All Stars broadcast from Boise, Idaho on February 22.  The next night, a drunk Sullivan fell off the piano bench and was fired immediately.

That's it. One afternoon at Kitsilano High School, a few numbers from the Palomar Supper Club and a 30 minute broadcast from Boise. That's all the audio that survives from Joe Sullivan's tenure with the All Stars. And I can say without hesitation that taken as a whole, they make up the weakest recordings in the 24-year history of the All Stars.

Of the three, Kitsilano is still the best solely because of the reaction of the audience. These are children of World War II, the same kids who would be screaming their heads off at Elvis and rock and roll a few years later. But on February 1, 1952, they just wanted to scream at Louis Armstrong....and scream they did! I can't think of another All Stars recording made in front of such an enthusiastic crowd. (Quick shoutout to my friend Bud McNeely who has devoted many years to documenting the backstory of the Kitsilano gig in videos such as this one.) On a few numbers, Louis even sits in with some of the Kitsilano jazz band students, making for some sweet, if shaky, sounds. The funny part is the Kitsilano student pianist accompanies everything is a stiff oom-pah--and when Sullivan rejoins, he doesn't sound much better.

For example, here's "Steak Face," the 12-bar-blues drum feature that originated with Sid Catlett. The 1947 Satchmo at Symphony Hall version is the classic; I've heard Loren Schoenberg gush about the powerful swing of the rhythm section. But at Kitsilano? Not so much. For one thing, "Steak Face," like Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," starts in F and modulates to Db; Sullivan misses the modulation (he'd been in the band for six weeks already and obviously still didn't have the routine down or at least wasn't paying attention to Louis). Once he catches himself, it's oom-pah time, killing the momentum of the piece both before and after Cole's drum theatrics:

But to give credit where credit is due, Sullivan could still play when the spotlight was on him. Here he is still tearing up "Little Rock Getaway":

Now that's more like it. Sullivan would get that one feature each night to shine but the rest of the night would be pretty rough. On "Blueberry Hill" the following night at the Palomar in Vancouver, listen to the dead rhythm section, Louis tapping and stomping his foot to get them together. Sullivan even seems unsure of the changes under the bridge, which you'd hope he'd have under his fingertips after six weeks with the band:

Finally, a selection of performances from Boise, which was broadcast nationally and even recorded by Louis. Louis enjoyed studying his shows on reel-to-reel tape; I can't imagine he was thrilled with how this one turned out. This isn't a train wreck, but again, I want to include it just to give an idea of how this band sounded and how Sullivan's accompaniment, after the lively introduction and romping solo, gets rather frustrating as the performance goes on:

Now for the real train wreck: "Back O'Town Blues." Sullivan was a master slow blues player (see "Gin Mill Blues" again from 1935) and learning how to navigate the 12-bar-blues is something that beginners can master. But on this "Back O'Town Blues," Sullivan takes a meandering introduction, Louis steamrolls him....and Sullivan gets lost. Utterly, helplessly lost. He can't hear the rest of the band and continues changing the chords at all the wrong times for at least the first two minutes of the performance. I shudder every time I hear this one:

That's pretty rough but hey, it's one song, it can happen to anyone, right? (I know it's happened to me!) But the VERY NEXT SONG is Barney Bigard's romp on "C-Jam Blues" and once again, Sullivan gets stuck in Ellington's riff melody and changes at the wrong time for the first minute. Pay attention, Joe! Poor guy.

But again, Sullivan wakes up when it comes time for his feature, in this case, an exciting two-fisted romp on "I Found a New Baby":

As exciting as his features are, though, Sullivan was also hired to be a band pianist and he just couldn't cut it. After falling off the bench the next night, Marty Napoleon were hired in a hurry, just in time for Louis's first major tour of Hawaii. One of the shortest tenures in All Stars history was over.

There doesn't seem to be any bad blood between Armstrong and Sullivan. I don't think either talked much about this incident. And in one of Louis's scrapbooks housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, there's an ultra rare photo of Louis and Joe together during this period, lovingly inscribed by Sullivan.

But like a sports team, all working bands must go through a rebuilding phase at some point and the beginning of 1952 was the All Stars's most troubling period. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Marty Napoleon proved to be the most exciting pianist Louis ever hired, and someone who was able to stabilize the shaky rhythm section. Jones kept the bass chair swinging--and Louis happy--until Shaw returned, reenergized in the summer of 1952. I admire Russ Phillips's Teagarden-inspired playing but during the aforementioned Hawaiian trip, Louis ran into old friend Trummy Young and started lobbying to get Trummy to join the band, which finally happened in September 1952. Now, compare the All Stars playing "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" in Stockholm, Sweden in October 1952 (with Bob McCracken replacing Barney Bigard, who also needed a little break) with the version we heard from Boise in February of the same year; it's like listening to different band:

And there was more greatness to come! But in early 1952, the All Stars were struggling and a lot of it was because of the inner struggle of pianist Joe Sullivan. Somehow, Sullivan hung out for almost 20 more years, passing away in October of 1971. He spent those years bouncing from gig to gig, mostly out of the spotlight. It's a sad ending for someone who was a part of so many memorable record dates in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Louis never directly addressed Sullivan's stint as an All Star but in the same 1953 conversation with Bill Russell that he slammed Earl Hines, Armstrong did say, "Musician can't drink and work." Asked by Russell, "Do you object to drinking in your band," Armstrong gave the following answer, probably with Sullivan in mind: "I don't tell them anything. If they can play, I don't care what they do. But they can't play if they're drunk." The few surviving recordings of Joe Sullivan with the All Stars offer definitive proof of that.


Jim Denham said…
A very moving, and fair, account of a sad episode. Poor Joe! He was such a great pianist, and an old friend of Louis', but as you explain here in agonising detail, the wrong pianist at the wrong time for the All Stars. A few years later, Sullivan described himself as "not so much neglected, as completely forgotten."
Dan said…
Interesting that between the first chorus on "Back O Town" where Joe got lost and the second, Pops waits an extra two beats (or half-measure) to compensate and this allows Joe to get back on track (more or less) for the second chorus.
caponsacchi said…
Very strong stride pianist. How he ever missed playing the pivotal dominant chord (Ab7) that enables the modulation from F to Db (as in "One O'Clock Jump") defies explanation. Perhaps Louis, like Basie, routinely had the pianist take two 12-bar blues choruses on top, but on this night (especially given the agitated sound in his voice) he lost track of the number of times around on the opening blues choruses. To me, it's just as likely that Joe's temporary "train wreck" was Louis' fault, not Joe's. Notice how quickly Joe modulates to the right key once he realizes Louis is playing in Db. Those are not the reflexes of an incompetent pianist, to say the least. As for the other point--namely, that Joe's 2-beat style prevented the music from pulsating with a light 4/4 swing--that one is incontrovertible. When I started playing piano on jobs some 40 years ago, there were still stride-based pianists who simply did not know how to work with a bass player (which proved to my advantage). Their left hand rhythms duplicated the notes of the bass and prevented any semblance of the "walking bass 4/4" that became the basis of late 1930's and 1940s "Swing" (It still is the rhythm behind 90% of the great, most memorable solos recorded in the history of jazz.)
caponsacchi said…
That's got to be Louis' fault. Basie routinely took 2 choruses of blues before the modulation, and Louis no doubt did as well. On this night, however, he lost count and started playing in the key of Db one whole chorus early. Joe adjusts remarkably quick. As for a light swing feel, i'd agree that Joe's hard stride piano prevents it from happening.

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