Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Sitting in with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan's

Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Sitting in with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan's

Article excerpt

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 musicians as possible. Although I am not a musician, 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 made three or four trips to Manhattan together. The Newport-New York Jazz Festival, as it was then called, was always the main attraction, 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. On our first stay at the Gorham, we arrived on a sweltering July afternoon. Immediately upon entering our room, 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.

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 had on a uniform, including what resembled a police officer's cap on his head, and a well-chewed stogie in his mouth. He eyed us and quickly concluded that we were two hicks without money, then said to us: "Yizz'll 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. The club was probably 50 or 60 feet long from the front door 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; and black necktie. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled up to a point just below his elbows. Just beyond the bar, on the same side, was the bandstand. It was maybe 15 × 15 feet.

In the late 1970s, Roy Eldridge was in his mid-sixties, about five feet six, and still had a rather athletic build. He was very handsome, with 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 78 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. …

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