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Remembering Red Richards

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It was a smoky bar, which I made more smoky with my cheap cigar. It wasn't a bar really, but a lounge. An anteroom to a popular steak restaurant in suburban Long Island, New York. But it was where I met the jazz master, Red Richards.

Red was born in Brooklyn and died in Scarsdale. He lived and played for many years in Harlem and was given his farewell in the Bronx. How I came to know him in suburban Westbury is my part of this story.

Sometime in the early 1980s — the exact year is hidden behind a haze of Dutch Masters and Glen Livet — I discovered the Scotch-n-Sirloin restaurant on Old Country Road, not far from the famed Roosevelt Field shopping mall.

The steaks were the main course but the attraction was the quartet that played the lounge on Friday and Saturday nights, headlined by Red Richards on the piano and George Kelly on the tenor sax. I started going every weekend, with dates, with friends, with family members — whomever I could drag along.

Red and I met through a random intersection of lives, like two billiard balls careening across the table. For me, there was a subtle shift in direction, toward a growing interest in the rhythms of jazz. And I am still listening to Red's music long after the last time I saw him in the late 1980s.

They say that jazz is a complex musical form. Red was a master at complexity. He studied classical piano as a child, met Fats Waller at a house-rent party at the age of 16 and absorbed the energy of hot jazz as it surrounded him in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. He was a regular at the Crawdaddy, Eddie Condon's and the legendary Savoy Ballroom. He played like Art Tatum and sang like Louis Armstrong.

By the time I met him, Red had joined the Savoy Sultans — reincarnated by swing drummer Panama Francis in 1979 — along with Kelly.

A member of the original Sultans during the war years, George Kelly hailed from Miami, where his musical talent revealed itself early. At the age of 12, he was already accomplished enough on the piano to accompany blues singer Mamie Smith. But it was when he discovered the tenor sax as a teenager that his talent would flourish. When Kelly was 17, he formed his first band with his friend, Panama Francis. The pool balls sped across the table together.

The music, then, that emanated from that little lounge on Long Island was a treasure of heritage, history and genius. And there it was, just a few feet from my barstool. Red never left my favorite song, As Time Goes By, out of his set.

In 1987, Richards and Kelly released an album, "I'm Shooting High," on the Sackville label. I remember buying it one night for about ten dollars right from Red. Forgot to have him autograph it, though.

The liner notes explain, "The new version of the Sultans assembled only for special tours and concert dates but the exposure helped remind promoters, listeners and audiences that some of the musicians who had ignited the Savoy were still capable of generating the swinging sounds which had swept people off their feet so many years before."

Red played standards such as Sweet Georgia Brown, There Will Never Be Another You, It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing and another favorite of mine — especially now — Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans. He also had compositions of his own and enjoyed playing and vocalizing Kelly's tunes. Richards often played with drummer Ronnie Cole — a comparative youngster, born in 1937.

To my knowledge, Red Richards' last album was recorded the year before he died. Also released under the Sackville label, "Echoes of Spring" is a live performance from January 16, 1997 at the Nick Vollebregt Jazz Cafe in Holland. 

Richards toured Europe and Canada, played California and Kansas City and Columbus, but his heart, like mine, never left New York. Ultimately, though, time did go by for him. On a Thursday night, March 12, 1998 (coincidentally, the 72nd anniversary of the opening of the Savoy Ballroom), at an Italian restaurant in Westchester County, he simply slumped over the piano during his second set and died. He was 85.

George Kelly passed away just two months later.

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