A Skyscraper Jazz Luminary
This is about Chuck Folds, one of the finest jazz pianists that I ever heard, who passed away last month with barely a sound.
Chuck was one of the last of the stride piano “professors,” in a direct line from James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, through “Fats” Waller, to Joe Sullivan, Ralph Sutton and Dick Wellstood. He played with — cliched, but it’s true — just about everyone: Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Buck Clayton, Wild Bill Davison and, for twenty-five years, Doc Cheatham, until Doc’s death in 1997.
Chuck possessed an encyclopedic erudition regarding the American popular songbook; he could summon a tune on a dime, wrap it in the improvisatory richness of his all-encompassing pianistic style — rooted in the octave-wide Waller-esque strides of his left hand — yet never ever obscure the fundamental melody. Melody, for Chuck, was sacrosanct
He played for twenty-five years in the lobby of the Park Avenue Plaza building here in NYC, just opposite my bookstore, Chartwell Booksellers. Jazz and Manhattan’s skyscraper skyline may seem synonymous in spirit but great jazz has rarely been made inside a Manhattan skyscraper. The corporate straightjacket of steel and glass is not a convivial setting for soulful playing. The trick, when afforded the rare opportunity to hear jazz in a skyscraper, is not to give this unromantic notion a second thought.
I know that I didn’t over thirty-five years ago when I phoned a jazz bandleader I greatly admired named Vince Giordano and asked him to come play with his Nighthawks orchestra at Park Avenue Plaza, a then-nearly-new midtown skyscraper where my altogether new bookstore, Chartwell Booksellers, had recently opened. Somehow, I’d managed to convince Park Avenue Plaza’s bemused owners that their cavernous lobby was a fit setting for the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, and company. The time was Christmas 1985. I dubbed Vince’s gig: “Holiday Tea at Three,” conceiving of it as an afternoon “tea dance” (yes, with free tea served). Park Avenue Plaza, as one would expect, has boomy skyscraper acoustics. Still, Vince and the Nighthawks mastered them.
And so, an incongruous jazz-in a-skyscraper-lobby tradition was born. Holiday Tea at Three would carry on for many December Saturdays, fronted by Vince and, on occasion, other swell big bands, including Buck Clayton’s. This was supplemented in 1989 by Saturday Afternoon Tea Dances year-round; more jazz played by a wide range of distinguished small group quintets on the third Saturday of every month.
Our lobby thus gained a piano, permanently, a baby grand that sat idle through the week – which seemed a shame. In 1989, I asked Vince if he would recommend someone to play that piano weekdays from noon to three. The musician he proposed, Bobby Pratt, was a veteran of Jimmy Ryan’s, an old-school jazz club on West 54th Street that had closed in 1983. A trombonist and a pianist with his own vast sense of the American popular songbook, Bobby proved the perfect choice for the job. He filled Park Avenue Plaza with lunch hour piano jazz for three-and-a half years before dying much too soon in 1994 at the age of 67.
During Bobby’s waning months of illness his regular sub was a piano player I quickly came to love, a buddy of Bobby’s named Chuck Folds. Making jazz in a skyscraper lobby is not easy. Like Bobby Pratt before him, Chuck evinced a musicianly gift for blending our piano into the burbling lobby din while simultaneously penetrating and conquering that din with a mixture of touch, tone and effortless swing. Moreover, Chuck was — rarity of rarities — a bona fide stride pianist, one who clearly knew at least as many great songs as Bobby did. Still, who would have imagined that a stride pianist would become the pulse of a midtown skyscraper on into the 21st Century. Across the marble expanse of our Park Avenue Plaza lobby, bike messengers bopped, investment bankers sashayed, ladies who lunch strolled, and secretaries skittered to Chuck Folds’ striding left hand. It really was something to behold.
Chuck Folds was born on May 4, 1938 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire, and then Evanston, Illinois, with a mother who played classical piano at home, a father who taught art history at Phillips Exeter Academy, before chairing the Art Department at Northwestern University, and a brother, David, two-and-a-half years his junior.
Chuck received formal piano lessons right through high school but his jazz pianism was largely self-taught, derived from records his father, a jazz lover, gifted to him, and old 78s that Chuck dug up at Salvation Army outlets and used furniture stores. His first taste of stride piano came from a James P. Johnson Blue Note recording that he heard at thirteen.
Chuck worked a few local jazz gigs while still in high school, expanded his record listening to the modern sounds of Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan and Lennie Tristano, and entered Yale in 1956. There, he joined a school “Dixieland” band called “The Yale Bullpups” that, in time, featured the future jazz avant-garde-ists Steve Swallow on bass and Roswell Rudd on trombone, as well as a reedman named Ian Underwood, destined to become Frank Zappa’s cohort in The Mothers of Invention. The Bullpups gigged on and off campus, occasionally supplemented by legendary jazz guests from New York, including Rex Stewart, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate. A Dean’s List student, Chuck nevertheless began to slip away from classes and head down to New York, where he imbibed jazz widely; catching around town Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk. They opened his ears wide.
Chuck played jazz professionally for perhaps the first time the summer following his freshman year, with drummer Danny Alvin’s band at Club Basin Street in Chicago. His next two collegiate summers were spent performing on a Dutch cruise ship, The S.S. Grootebier, that brought him to Europe, where he jammed in clubs across the continent, including subbing for four nights at the Blue Note in Paris alongside expatriate bebop pioneering drummer Kenny Clarke, backing trumpeter Chet Baker. He also took over the piano for a couple of tunes at Bud Powell’s invitation in the Left Bank boîte, Le Chat Qui Pêche.
In 1960, Chuck’s dad became dean of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, after graduation, that summer, Chuck moved to New York, where he almost immediately fell in with Bobby Pratt, who showed him around the club scene. Over the ensuing decades, Chuck played…well, everywhere: The Cinderella on West 3rd Street (his very first gig), The Embers, The Metropole, Eddie Condon’s, The Rainbow Room, Michael’s Pub, The Cookery, where he was Maxine Sullivan’s regular accompanist, and Jimmy Ryan’s, in the house band fronted by Roy Eldridge. Chuck studied stride legend Donald Lambert’s left hand over many nights in the audience at Lambert’s resident piano spot, Wallace’s High Tavern in Orange, New Jersey. He toured, working with eminent trumpeters especially — Bobby Hackett in New Hampshire, Max Kaminsky in Cleveland. For three years in the late-Sixties, Chuck even worked as an editor for the American Heritage Publishing Company. (Beside being a superb self-taught pianist, Chuck also was an autodidact far beyond jazz, a voracious reader and a book lover, which made him especially welcome in my bookshop).
When we met in the mid-1990s, Chuck was holding down a regular piano slot at the the Hors D’oeuverie atop 1 World Trade Center that lasted until the Towers fell. Most significantly, he was at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village, leading the band for the ageless Doc Cheatham in what was becoming a world famous Sunday Brunch residency.
Chuck and Doc had first begun playing together in The Countsmen, a Count Basie Orchestra alumni band, from its 1972 formation by Basie’s alto saxophonist Earle Warren in conjunction with the jazz DJ/polymath Phil Schaap (whom we lost last year). All-time Basie drummer Jo Jones called Chuck, “Young Talent.” Doc and Chuck soon were performing regularly in jazz clubs throughout the metropolitan area, usually as a trio with drummer Jackie Williams, leading them finally to Sweet Basil and Jazz Brunch heaven.
Chuck recorded twice with Doc: “It's a Good Life” (1982) and “The Eighty-Seven Years of Doc Cheatham,” a widely acclaimed 1992 Columbia release that rejuvenated Doc’s career. Under his own name Chuck cut at least four discs that I’m aware of. An eponymous debut album, “Chuck Folds,” with the estimable Oliver Jackson on drums, Richard Davis on bass, and the legendary saxophonist Budd Johnson, was recorded in New York in 1974 but released on RCA in the UK only, in 1975. “Chuck Folds and His Sweet Basil Friends Remember Doc Cheatham” (2000) is a delightful commemorative ensemble record. “Hitting His Stride” (1993) and “Chasing a Dream” (2012), are all Chuck on piano. The latter three CDs were put out on Arbors Records and remain in print. They are each marvelous.
Chuck’s first marriage ended in divorce in the late-1960s, but his second marriage, to Jane Devine in 1974, was for the ages. Chuck and Jane remained inseparable through all the years that I knew them. Jane, an extraordinary artist and sculptress, had a particular affinity for marionette caricatures of the famous and infamous. She spent a great deal of time hanging out with Chuck at Chartwell Booksellers and I loved to display her work in our windows.
Both were survivors. Chuck, who had heart issues, at one point contracted sepsis while in the hospital and was written off by his own doctors. Jane simply would not let that happen. She pretty much willed Chuck back to life, and Chuck, with stunning willpower and discipline returned to the piano at Park Avenue Plaza.
The pandemic took them both — not literally from Covid, but from the destructive isolation of extended lockdowns combined with age and deteriorating health. In the end, Jane died on March 21 and Chuck on June 1.
They were a classic New York couple of another time —he, the self-taught jazzman from the sticks, who came to New York and played his way onto bandstands with the best; she, a young ad agency kid in the “Mad Men” age, who worked her way up the executive ladder but longed to become an artist in her own right, and finally did. They met at the bar at Ryan’s, as Jane was sketching the musicians, especially Chuck. It doesn’t get any better than that.
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