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They Can't Take That Away From Me - John Sheridan

John Sheridan is one of the most articulate, graceful and technically flawless jazz pianists creating music today, which is very evident in his many CDs now available. A gentle man with a keen sense of humor, he has a vast knowledge of jazz history which he incorporates into his rich and varied playing styles.

To say he is one of the finest stride jazz pianists currently performing is an understatement, for he takes that technique to new levels of entertainment, and listening enjoyment. Highly respected by his peers, he is a continuing favorite with jazz listeners all over the world who enjoy excellent performances.

John Sheridan is a master of the piano, and an articulate spokesperson for jazz music. By example, John Sheridan sets new standards of excellence for jazz piano playing.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: John Sheridan, it is good to visit with you, and an honor to interview one of the great stride pianists performing and recording today! Your CD, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," has some of the most beautiful piano playing to come down the pike in years. In fact, the title track as well as "Pete Kelly's Blues" are two of the finest renditions I have come across in years. What was your inspiration in putting together, "They Can't Take That Away From Me"?

JOHN SHERIDAN: Thanks, Lee--great to visit with you as well. As for "They Can't Take That Away From Me", Mat Domber, president of Arbors Records, had wanted me to do a solo album for the label for some time. The inspiration for the title of the album (and the title tune, by the way) came from one of my best friends, the late Charlie Thurston from Great Britain. Charlie had given me the idea for my first "Dream Band" CD for Arbors, Something Tells Me (ARCD 19182). Sadly, he passed away only a few days before the solo recording session, so I decided to dedicate the project to his memory. Many of the selections were some of his favorites, as well as mine.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: You have a fascinating background in music. Would you please share some of the highlights with your fans and the readers?

JOHN SHERIDAN: I began my career at the tender age of thirteen, with a band from my home town of Columbus, Ohio known as "The Novelaires". Jazz has always been my first love, so I've always worked in that direction as much as I could. Along the way, I've had some great experiences in other fields as well. I did a four-year hitch in the US Navy Band in Washington, DC from 1968-72; after my discharge I relocated to the Dallas, Texas area. While there, I attended graduate school at The University Of North Texas, receiving my MM degree, and was constantly busy in the local scene. Among many other great jobs, I worked as rehearsal pianist/orchestrator at Casa Manana Summer Musicals in Fort Worth, as pianist for "Pops" concerts with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, with the Johnnie "Scat" Davis quartet, and, very importantly, with Tommy Loy's Upper Dallas Jazz Band. I was with Tommy from 1973-78, and that was the job that made it possible to join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band (JCJB) in April of 1979.

Since then, I've had a lot of wonderful things happen--The JCJB began its radio show, "Riverwalk", in 1989 for Public Radio International. The series made it possible for me to play with and arrange for some of the all-time greats-- among them Joe Williams, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Benny Carter, Bob Wilber, and many others. "Riverwalk" also began a great professional and personal relationship with the great Dick Hyman. Dick and I perform as a piano duo very often. Banu Gibson, the wonderful New Orleans vocalist, and I started working together at this time too--I've recorded with her, and written many symphony orchestra and jazz band charts for her over the years. My buddy Dan Barrett was a guest on the series a few times, and he introduced me to Mat Domber at Arbors Records, which led to all the albums I've done for the label. Arbors made it possible to record with Becky Kilgore, too. So I guess that you could say that my career has had a "snowball" effect. I've been very fortunate.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: In your playing of "How Ya Baby," written by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller, you display the perfect techniques of stride jazz piano playing. What would you suggest to those young pianists wanting to learn this intricate style of piano playing? Who would you suggest they listen to, in addition to your playing?

JOHN SHERIDAN: Well, the first thing I would recommend is to listen constantly. Almost all of the recordings of the legendary performers --"Fats" Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and others--are available. So are those of the great swing pianists-- Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, Mel Powell, Joe Sullivan and Bob Zurke. Others who came later are, of course, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Gene Schroeder (who played with Eddie Condon), Dave McKenna, and Ray Sherman. What a gold mine. The most important thing of all is to listen to everybody that you can, and get the style in your ear. The sooner that you do that, you can begin to develop a style of your own.

As to my "stride" technique, one of the best bits of advice that I can give comes from an article that I once read about James P. Johnson, "Father Of Stride Piano". To paraphrase what he was quoted as saying: "If you want to play 'stride' piano, study the Bach Chorales. The bass line of 'stride' is a 'thorough ground' bass, which travels through the inversions of all of the chords, instead of just roots and fifths. It allows the left hand to create a counter melody of its own!

JAZZREVIEW.COM: You have an affinity for playing the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Who else do you like to perform?

JOHN SHERIDAN: I could really go on about this for some time, but I love all the guys who were composing in the first half of the 20th century--to name just a few: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Waller, Jimmy Van Heusen, Hoagy Carmichael & Duke Ellington. I can't really name a favorite--I love them all!

JAZZREVIEW.COM: When did you first know you would become a jazz pianist, and what were the circumstances?

JOHN SHERIDAN: I first wanted to be a jazz musician at the age of 8--I remember it as if it were yesterday. My father brought home a copy of the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert. From the moment that the needle hit the grooves, that was it! Naturally, the first pianists that knocked me out were Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy. From there, my curiosity led me to all the rest of my heroes, and I knew that I'd be a jazz pianist by the time I was 16. Incidentally, it was due to Fletcher Henderson, Benny's arranging ace, that I was bitten by the "arranging bug" at about the same age. That interest led to Sy Oliver, Bob Haggart and Matty Matlock, among many others.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: To what do you attribute the resurgence and increasing popularity of the old standards? Could it be that people what something with melody and straight-forward harmonies now?

JOHN SHERIDAN: Possibly. The standards can all be called good solid music, written by craftsmen. Let's not forget the lyricists, though--geniuses like Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Johnny Burke, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter--they were great story tellers, which is a quality sometimes sadly lacking in the music written now.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: We were discussing this at a previous time, but let me ask again for this interview.......What do you think is the enduring appeal of such old 1950s movies like Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues," among others that come to your mind? That movie is still available for purchase I have discovered!

JOHN SHERIDAN: Yes, it can. "Pete Kelly's Blues" is one of my all time favorites. I think that one of the best features about it was Jack Webb's attention to small, seemingly insignificant details, such as the mention of names like Bix Beiderbecke, Jean Goldkette, Bennie Moten, the Blue Devils, and the inclusion of some of the great standard songs of the day. An who can top the performances of "Pete Kelly's Big 7" on the soundtrack?

Some of the other "jazz pics" of the time--"The Benny Goodman Story", "The Five Pennies", and "The Gene Krupa Story, for instance-- shouldn't be discounted either. Although the story lines of most are largely fictional and ridiculous, most of the music is great. Some of Louis Armstrong's finest moments on film can be found in "The Five Pennies", for example. Another great strong point of films like these is that they're very capable of capturing the interest of younger musicians. If they follow this interest, there are a wealth of CDs, books, and documentaries where the "real" stories can be found.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Who are your favorite pianists, jazz or otherwise, past and present?

JOHN SHERIDAN: Well, I've already mentioned a good many of them. Of the guys playing today, I love listening to Hyman, McKenna, Sutton, Dave Frishberg, Eddie Higgins, Oscar Peterson and Derek Smith. I've had the opportunity to play in a duet context with all of these guys, and they're tops. I just worked with Ralph Sutton this week on an upcoming "Riverwalk" with the JCJB.

Classically--well, I was trained that way. Some of my favorites are Vladimir Howowitz, John Browning, and Arthur Rubenstein. I actually heard Rubenstein in person when I was eighteen-- I'll never forget it.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: John, when you are creating an interpretation of a song, what is the process? There is a special feel behind each song you perform, each different, each beautifully complex in its own manner. What is your secret!

JOHN SHERIDAN: Very simple--I try to memorize the song the way that the composer wrote it, including the lyrics.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: John, it has been a pleasure visiting with you! Is there anything else you would like to share with the jazz listeners and jazz readers who enjoy your excellent piano performances?

JOHN SHERIDAN: I'd just like to thank everybody for their interest in me, and wish you all the best of luck. And thanks to you too, Lee--the pleasure was all mine!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John Sheridan
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