By Hal Smith
JOE SULLIVAN, piano
b. Chicago, IL 11/14/06 d. San Francisco, CA 10/13/71
As a young man in Chicago, Joe Sullivan befriended musicians such as Jimmie Noone and the Dodds Brothers. His pianistic influences included Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines. In 1927-28, he participated in the seminal 'Chicago Style' recording sessions with Frank Teschemacher, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Muggsy Spanier, Mezz Mezzrow, Eddie Condon, Jim Lannigan, and Gene Krupa. Sullivan moved to New York in 1928 and initially struggled to find work. Eventually he found employment with cornetist Red Nichols and appears on some of Nichols’ hottest recordings. Sullivan also recorded with a pickup band called the Rhythmakers. This group included Henry 'Red' Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Jack Bland, Al Morgan, Zutty Singleton, Krupa, and vocalist Billy Banks. The Rhythmakers' sides are some of the most highly-regarded recordings in jazz history.
During the Depression years, Sullivan worked with vocalist Red McKenzie, Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra, and made some classic recordings with Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, and Dick McDonough as well as his first solo records. The time he spent in speakeasies and after-hours joints in New York inspired Sullivan’s first major composition, “Gin Mill Blues.” His courtship and subsequent marriage to Arkansas native Mary Ann Nash resulted in another masterpiece, “Little Rock Getaway.”
In the mid-‘30s, Sullivan worked as Bing Crosby’s accompanist, and is heard on the soundtrack of several Crosby movies from that period. In 1936, Sullivan went to work for Bing’s brother in the Bob Crosby Orchestra. The orchestra and the Bob Cats band-within-a-band played a repertoire which included long forgotten songs such as “Come Back, Sweet Papa,” “Savoy Blues,” and “Muskrat Ramble,” foreshadowing the New Orleans Revival which was still a few years in the future. Some 1936 transcriptions of the Crosby Orchestra show that Sullivan was in peak form. His solos are a living history of jazz piano from Morton to Waller to Hines to Boogie Woogie. However, he was forced to exit the ensemble when he contracted tuberculosis. Ironically, his “Little Rock Getaway” and “Gin Mill Blues” became hits when recorded by Crosby with Sullivan’s replacement Bob Zurke on piano. Eventually, he recovered from TB, and rejoined Crosby’s Orchestra for a short stay in 1939. After a less than cordial departure, Sullivan settled in New York City. He led a racially-integrated ensemble at Café Society, and later at the Famous Door. Between 1939 and 1942, Sullivan made some of his best recordings with his own orchestra and with Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton. He also recorded several outstanding solos, including several original compositions, for the Commodore label.
When Sullivan’s longtime friend, the great New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton, returned from a trip to the West Coast, he suggested that the pianist might find a work around Los Angeles. Sullivan and Singleton went to Los Angeles in 1943 and for at least a while there was quality musical work to be had.
Both men recorded with the Capitol Jazzmen and Singleton appeared with a Sullivan-led quintet which recorded for Sunset. There was also a reunion with Fats Waller when he arrived in town to film Stormy Weather, which included Singleton onscreen as well as on the soundtrack. Sullivan played briefly with Jack Teagarden’s orchestra, and also recorded solo performances of beautiful ballads for Capitol.
While Sullivan was a Los Angeles resident, Bunk Johnson had stopped in town to record, and Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band was becoming more and more popular through their appearances on Orson Welles’ radio programs for Standard Oil. However, Sullivan was not yet involved with the Revival.
He returned to New York in 1945, and played intermission piano at Eddie Condon’s new nightclub. Sullivan also recorded with Wild Bill Davison and Sidney Bechet, and appeared with the All-Star Stompers on Rudi Blesh’s nationally-syndicated This Is Jazz broadcasts.
In 1951, Sullivan joined Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars for a short stint, including an appearance at Club Hangover in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Sullivan did not last long with the All-Stars, but for a brief time he led the Club Hangover house band. This group also included a veteran New Orleans clarinetist whose career was jump-started by the Revival, Albert Nicholas. Nicholas worked primarily in Los Angeles, but also played and recorded with Bob Scobey before joining Sullivan’s group at Club Hangover.
Sullivan returned to New York in 1952 and managed to scrape enough work together to get by for a couple more years. Finally, in 1955, Sullivan decided to relocate permanently to San Francisco.
Once he was established with the Musicians Union, Sullivan went to work at Club Hangover as intermission pianist for featured bands including bands led by Muggsy Spanier and Earl Hines.
He played casuals and a few clubs with Spanier, including Kid Ory’s On The Levee.
When Spanier left that establishment, Sullivan took over the band. His group included veteran trumpet man Byron Berry, an original member of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, and younger musicians as well: Bob Mielke, Vince Cattolica, Peter Allen, and Bob Osibin.
In 1963, Sullivan appeared with Spanier’s band (Mielke, Darnell Howard, Pops Foster, Earl Watkins) on Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual television program, and also filmed a solo performance for the same series, which includes a genial dialogue between Gleason and the pianist. Also in 1963, he was reunited with old friends Jack and Charlie Teagarden and Pee Wee Russell at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
From 1963 on, Sullivan’s alcoholism and failing health made it difficult for him to work regularly. However, he did play a series of solo engagements at the Trident in Sausalito and a few weeks of intermission playing at Earthquake McGoon’s. His last job with a group was with a trio on New Year’s Eve, 1964. He made one final appearance, performing as a soloist for a kindergarten class in Berkeley, then passed away on October 13, 1971.
LISTEN—Audio Samples from the Collection
To listen, click on an image below. When the audio player opens, click on the Play Button (arrow) in the top left corner of the screen.
Additional Bay Area Recordings by Joe Sullivan in the 1950s
Teddy Buckner and his All-Stars Live at the Club Hangover, San Francisco – June and July, 1955 Acrobat ADD CD 3065
Note: On the above CD, Sullivan plays four tracks as intermission pianist for Buckner’s band. One track – “Chicago” is also heard on Storyville STCD 8234.
Joe Sullivan “Gin Mill” Pumpkin 112 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Joe Sullivan “Mr. Piano Man” Down Home MGD 2 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Joe Sullivan “New Solos By An Old Master” (with Dave Lario, Smokey Stover) Riverside LP 12—202 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Joe Sullivan “Piano Solo” Storyville STCD 8234
Note: The Storyville CD includes trio performances with Lario and Stover taken from Club Hangover broadcasts in 1953, plus solos from the Hangover in 1955 and additional solos recorded at the Blackhawk and Trident clubs in 1963, which were originally issued on the Pumpkin LP.
Jack Teagarden “A Hundred Years From Today” (with Charlie Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell, Gerry Mulligan, Sleepy Matsumoto, George Tucker, Jimmy Bond, Nick Ceroli) Grudge Music CD 4523 – 2- F
Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual: Muggsy Spanier/Joe Sullivan Idem Home Video – IDVD1007
Note: The material on this DVD is taken from the television programs described in the text, above. The first four tracks feature the Spanier band. The remainder of the performances are piano solos by Sullivan, interspersed with interviews by Gleason, from a different program.
Chilton, John: Who’s Who of Jazz. Chilton Books, Philadelphia, 1970
Hadlock, Richard: Liner notes to Giants of Jazz: Joe Sullivan Time-Life STL-127 (Three LP set, 1982; out of print)
Riccardi, Ricky: What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Pantheon Books, New York, 2011
AUTHOR'S CONVERSATIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE REGARDING JOE SULLIVAN
Bales, Burt (musician); Boeddinghaus, David (musician); Dapogny, James (musician); Goodwin, Jim (musician); Grosz, Marty (musician); Hadlock, Richard (musician; writer); Heermans, Jerry (musician); Jones, Wayne (musician); Mayl, Gene (bandleader); Mielke, Bob (musician); Murphy, Turk (bandleader); Quilligan, Larry (fan; writer); Schumm, Andy (musician); Skjelbred, Ray (musician); Smith, John (musician); Tokarski, Kris (musician)