Obituary: Red Richards

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"A FINE pianist with a marvellous, loose, swinging style." The clarinettist Bob Wilber was in no doubt, when he formed his own band in 1950, that he wanted Red Richards on piano. "He was very doubtful and said that he didn't know anything about Dixieland jazz. I told him that I'd teach him the tunes and that all he had to do was play his own way."

Such reticence was typical of Richards. What fame he had was thrust upon him, yet he was one of the most continuously busy of jazz musicians, playing and leading many bands and, incongruously, touring in 1953 as accompanist to Frank Sinatra.

He began learning to play classical piano when he was 10:

When I was about 16 a fellow in my block started taking me to rent parties every Saturday night. Sometimes there might be four different parties in the same building that had piano players. That was how I came to meet Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Don

Lambert and Willie "The Lion" Smith. The parties were always going on, and those guys would play for days without stopping!

It was when he joined the band of the alto saxophonist Tab Smith in January 1945 that Richards began to attract notice. Smith's band was in partnership with the guitarist Trevor Bacon. They played for 10 weeks in Chicago before setting out for California via a tour of the South. Two weeks into the tour Bacon was killed in a car accident and the rest abandoned the trip. Coincidentally the Savoy Ballroom, New York's legendary "home of happy feet", needed a small band to support the resident Savoy Sultans, and Smith's group was given the job. They stayed for five years.

Richards left for Boston to join Wilber and Sidney Bechet and then came to Europe with Mezz Mezzrow's band in 1953. This was the beginning of a long series of European visits that continued until his death. The trumpeter Buck Clayton was in Mezzrow's band and his friendship with Richards lasted until Richards played on Clayton's last recording in 1979.

Another long friendship was with the trombonist Vic Dickenson. From 1960 to 1970 the two led a very successful sextet called the Saints and Sinners. In 1975 Dickenson joined the resident band at Eddie Condon's in New York and Richards became the intermission pianist. From 1979 Richards toured Europe, Asia and Australia with the Harlem Jazz and Blues Band and with the reassembled Savoy Sultans. In 1994 he visited Europe with the trumpeter Doc Cheatham and played and recorded with the Red Richards/ George Kelly Sextet.

Richards was a sensitive accompanist and a soloist with a very individual style. He had an encyclopaedic grasp of the history of jazz piano, and this, coupled to a rolling left hand, enabled him to take his place firmly in the tradition of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

He died at the piano in the middle of a job.

Charles Coleridge "Red" Richards, pianist and bandleader: born New York 19 October 1912; died New York 12 March 1998.