The best Classic Jazz pianist to emerge on the West Coast, second only to Burt Bales. I doubt he’d object to that comparison because Bales was a strong inspiration.
Other influences include Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy and Art Hodes among others . . . but really all the piano literature of jazz. And Ray played decent trombone.
Photo: Ray Skjelbred, late 1970s.
Skjelbred grew up in Chicago where he contracted a lifelong case of Chicago Cubs baseball. His family moved to Portland, then to Seattle. Oddly Ray and Earl Scheelar graduated from the same high school near Portland, though a decade apart.
Beginning in the early 1960s Ray visited the San Francisco Bay Area often to jam, listen or play music. He moved to the East Bay in 1969, remaining until the 1990s. He married and owned a home Berkeley that was popular for jam sessions and music parties.
Bay Area 1969-early 1990s
Ray was very active
in the San Francisco Bay Area, visiting often during the 1960s, and residing there from 1969 to the early 1990s. Most of the finest local musicians were eager to partner with Ray: Bob Helm,
Richard Hadlock, Bob Mielke, Leon Oakley, P.T. Stanton, Earl Scheelar. They had a
lengthy association, which in the Bay Area included Ray’s longstanding
residency in Port Costa at the Bull Valley Inn. Ray eventually returned to
his hometown roots in the Northwest.
He had a long association with singer Barbara Lashley, watch for exclusive audio forthcoming.
L to R: Richard Hadlock (soprano), (unknown guitar), Ray Skjelbred, Jim Cumming (bass). Probably early 1970s
The citation in K. O. Eckland’s terse but indispensible JAZZ WEST 2 for Skjelbred is one of the longest and broadest:
Bay City; [New] Bearcats; leader Berkeley Rhythm; Castle; Down Home; Golden Age; Golden State; Good News [Barbara Dane]; co-leader Great Excelsior; Jelly Roll Jazz Band (SFO); Jubilee; Lake Spanaway; Minstels of Annie Street; Turk Murphy; New Washboard Rhythm Kings; Swingin’ A’s Oakland Baseball; Original Sunset Five; Pier 23; leader Port Costa; Rhythmakers; co-leader Speakeasy; Tom Kats, SFO Jazz Band; Hal Smith Three; Solo. Studied with Johnny Wittwer.
Albums: Ray Skjelbred, Berkeley Rhythm BR 2, 1974 Chicago High Life, Euphonic ESR 1223, 1983 Gin Mill Blues, Stomp Off SOS 1097, 1984
Early and Out-of-Print LP Albums and Rarities:
Stompin' 'em On Down Ray Skjelbred Stomp Off 1124, 1985
Ray plays not just piano music, but you can hear a whole band in his playing. His selections for the album selections reflected his catholic personal musical tastes and inspirations:
Stompin’ Em Down was a fine Stomp Off solo album reflecting Skjelbred’s eclectic personal tastes in music. It’s an excellent recording of Ray playing a Bosendorfer Concert Grand piano at a home in the Northern California redwoods.
In his liner notes Ray spoke of his musical tastes, inspirations and admiration for Chicago blues piano players: “Their notion of swing, and more significantly, their poetic conceptions have helped me find my voice as a musician.”
“Joe [Sullivan] means a lot to me. I got to know him through Richard Hadlock back in the late Sixties and discovered that he was just the kind of man I expected him to be: fiercely independent as an artist, though somewhat helpless with the problems of life. He was proud of his conceptions yet terribly concerned about his abilities. I am pleased we were friends, even though it was brief (he died in 1971) and thankful I was able to give him a ride to his last public performance – a solo concert for Hadlock’s kindergarten class.”
“Singers Like Crosby, the Boswell’s Maxine Sullivan, Gene Autry (yes, Autry), Lee Wiley and a host of obscure blues, folk and ethnic performers mean so much to me. ON the other hand I like daring imagination, complex chance-taking and perhaps a touch of madness."
Taking a Chance . . . Jim Goodwin and Ray Skjelbred
Rhythm Master RM 101 (LP album) Produced by John Ochs
Add Hamilton Carson (clarinet) on select tracks
In the album liner notes Richard Hadlock suggests this relaxed session captured the “off-the-wall musical interplay” of the duo’s legendary 1970s Bull Valley Inn residency in Port Costa, “a ghost town-like remnant of a once busy port on the Sacramento River.”
Photo: Skjelbred, Goodwin and clarinetist Ham Carson.
He writes that Jim and Ray had been “rehearsing their act for more than twenty years,” developing, “a
seemingly bottomless bag of tunes and took delight in exchanging
‘inside’ melodic and stylistic references to earlier jazz performances .
. . all made more appealing by frequent high-risk improvisations and
plain good taste.”
“Typical Port Costa music here: old
warhorses brought to life, un-notatable cornet sounds, unexpected
tempos, off beat tunes, seat-of-the-pants improvising (with an
occasional fluff), spontaneous wit, and the blues.” As usual, Ray is a
one-man rhythm section, over which you’ll hear his personal blend of
Earl Hines, Jess Stacy and Art Hodes with a dash of Ellington,
Thelonious Monk or Chicago blues piano here and there.”
Richard Hadlock from liner notes for the LP, Taking a Chance . . . Speaking of the partnership between Goodwin and Skjelbred, Richard comments:
believe Jim and Ray are happiest when working together, with occasional
drop-ins by musicians who can scramble well within their informal but
quite intense musical setting. For a good part of the 1970s they worked
just such a duet job in Port Costa.” “Best of all, I
think, is the . . . off the wall musical interplay, always a delightful
ingredient of the duo’s work. On can’t help thinking of Hines and
Armstong in 1928 as these two friends develop one another’s ideas.”
Hadlock highlighted the positive impact these two Portlanders had on Northern California jazz:
settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the same week of 1969 and both
were soon in demand for all sorts of jazz jobs.” Both were admired for
their “drive, swing and original ideas. The arrival in the Bay Area of
Goodwin and Skjelbred was like heaven-sent fresh air from the North . .
They revived in many of us a sense of the value of really
HOT jazz, the excitement of commitment to the musical moment . . .
Together or separately Jim and Ray could lift soggy ensembles off the
Chicago High Life Ray Skjelbred
Ray’s first solo album shows the imprint of Chicago blues piano on his personal style. Chicago High Life was compiled for a small independent label from from live performances.
The repertoire is notably eclectic, including music from piano pioneers and stylists like Eubie Blake and Earl Hines and a smattering of American masters: Gershwin, Berlin, Carmichael and Handy. Ray chose two compositions by his friend and inspiration Joe Sullivan, "My Little Pride and Joy," and "Onyx Bringdown."
In liner notes to the album, Chicago High Life, Richard Hadlock unpacks some of Ray’s background and outlook:
“Like any good Chicagoan he always plays hard for right now, not for the ages . . . Although he is not a copier, Ray’s approach to a given tune is often flavored by the work of one or more pianists whose music he has absorbed. Many of these pianists, not surprisingly, are associated with Chicago. All of them possess strong, individual styles, which blend muscle and wit.”
“I met Ray around 1962, when he arrived in San Francisco for one of his annual visits from Seattle. He had been playing piano for less than three years at that time but I was struck by his feel for the blues and by his bandsmanship. He listened and responded to other musicians with extraordinary sensitivity.”
“Ray decided to switch to piano upon hearing Burt Bales records on a Tacoma radio program. In 1960 he began studying with Johnny Wittwer in Seattle. As did the Chicago musicians of the Twenties, he learned by soaking up the spirit of the other players, not by imitating their solos. Wittwer took him through a wide range of pianists, from Jelly Roll Morton and Meade Lux Lewis to Erroll Garner and Ellis Larkins.”
Chicago High Life Euphonic Sound Recording Company, ESR 1223
Ray's first album was recorded by the late Mike Duffy, mostly at Bull Valley Inn, Port Costa, CA issued on a small independent label.
Tracks recorded at: Bull Valley, Port Costa = BV Berkeley Square, Berkley = Berk Sq Red Rooster, Walnut Creek = RR
P.T. and Friends Recorded in Berkeley in August, 1972
This unique item was issued on a 33 & 1/3 rpm extended play 7” vinyl disc by Berkeley Rhythm Records (in
conjunction with Asp Records, Seattle). Skjelbred was the producer behind Berkeley Rhythm which issued a few discs in the 1970s.
Among P.T.’s most searing and mournful renditions, it’s a shifting soundscape of contrasting light and dark tonal colors. His friend Ray Skjelbred provided a somber and fitting blues-infused piano accompaniment. A wrenching, primal sob uttered in quavering growls and tortured tones.
A Stanton signature “Pastel Blue” is from a surprising source. Authored by trumpeter Charlie Shavers and bandleader Artie Shaw, it was theme song for the John Kirby Sextet, a modern swing combo c. 1940.
The association of Skjelbred with Bob Mielke was deep, wide and long. They were on several albums together in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Ray was part of Bob Mielke’s New Bearcats in the early 1990s.
Skjelbred wrote a December 2005 Mississippi Rag cover-article profiling Bob, “Exploring the Mielke Way.” Mielke said of Ray, “He is a marvelous deep jazz personality.”
Skjelbred and Mielke’s shared associations over the years included:
Berkeley Rhythm (Skjelbred leader) Skjelbred’s Bull Valley, Port Costa job Bay City Music Company (that subbed for Turk Murphy when he was out of town) Great Excelsior (co-led by Skjelbred and Mike Duffy) Bob Schultz Frisco Jazz Band
Skjelbred was part of Bob Mielke’s New Bearcats. L to R: Pete Allen, Bob Meilke, Bill Napier, Tony Marcus, Ray Skjelbred, Jack Minger, Don Marchant. Press photo, c. 1990.
(Watch this space for exclusive New Bearcats live recordings.)
Archival tapes, Goodwin-Skjelbred and Earl Scheelar Sessions:
Skjelbred (b. 1940, Chicago, IL) rarely sounded better in this session
ranging from swinging sophistication to raucous barrel house. His
nuanced piano fills and solos were picked up nicely, but only barely
adequately for his vocal on “Glad Rag Doll.” Scheelar switches to baritone horn on "Someday You'll be Sorry."
Photo: Jim Goodwin and Ray Skjelbred, late 1960s. Mielke collection.
searing horn of Jim Goodwin served as focal
point for this swinging session in the basement of Scheelar’s Berkeley
rental. All parties rose to the occasion and trombonist John Farkas was
at his very best.
was 18 the first time I saw Burt Bales playing at Pier 23 in San
Francisco. There was a small table just to the left of the piano where I
could watch his hands, especially the way his left hand and wrist moved
back and forth like a gentle sea wave.
It would be several more
years before I started playing, but I was getting the idea. I liked the
humming, fat sound of 10ths in his left hand. I listened attentively to
discover how he made round sounds by the way he touched the keys.
first I was interested in the Jelly Roll Morton and ragtime
compositions that he played, but the biggest repertoire lesson I learned
came from his interest in choosing standard ballads to allow his
deepest self expression. I remember in the first days hearing songs like
“The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” and “Darkness on the Delta.”
Photo: Burt Bales, c. late 1940s. Mielke collection
It's little-known that Ray was pretty good trombonist, and an occasional player in Mielke's Swingin' A's Oakland baseball band.
personnel was Mielke (leader and trombone), Dick Oxtot (banjo and
vocals), Bob Neighbor (trumpet), and starting their second season, tuba
player, John Moore. Various reed players included Bob Helm, Bill Napier, Richard Hadlock and others. Oxtot's notation the back of this photo:
there are plenty musicians in the Bay Area who are capable of subbing
for A's Band regulars. On this occasion, Dick Bowman subs on tuba, Earl
Scheelar on clarinet, and Ray Skjelbred on trombone."
Also seen: regulars Dick Oxtot (banjo) and Bob Neighbor (trumpet). Oxtot collection