Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for August 16, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dick Gratton: Jazz on Track

Jazz musicians, particularly vocalists, will tell

you: jazz is a tough row to hoe. But for jazz guitarist Dick Gratton,

his good paying, flexible day job as an engineer with Amtrak has

allowed

him to pursue the music on his own terms over the years. A fixture

on the Trenton jazz club scene since the 1960s, Gratton will release

his first self-produced CD this fall.

Not unlike the vocalist Little Jimmy Scott who worked in obscurity

as a bellhop in the Cleveland Sheraton for most of the 1970s, or R&B

diva Ruth Brown who worked as a nurse and a janitor in Harlem in the

1970s — both of whom have been enjoying career revivals through

the 1990s — Gratton has been able to pursue jazz music when and

how he wants to. As Trenton’s jazz club scene began to fall apart

in the 1970s, Gratton continued to play guitar, he just played less

frequently in public.

"I’m sort of a low-profile musician," Gratton explains from

his home in Allentown in Monmouth County. "Sometimes musicians

and festival booking agents will hear about me through other

musicians.

Sometimes I get lucky in that respect."

The Hamilton Township-raised Gratton, now 59, and many of his fans

from the greater Trenton area must look forward to the release of

his debut CD, "The Guitars of Dick Gratton."

"It’s been a long time coming," he says, "I’ve been

working

on it off and on for a year and a half now. A friend of mine is

interested

in producing a CD of me with just solo guitar," he adds. Gratton’s

"Guitars of Dick Gratton" includes Johnny Mandel’s

"Suicide

is Painless" (better known as the theme from M.A.S.H.), as well

as his unique, spirited interpretations, with his trio, of

recognizable

jazz classics such as Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight."

There’s a subtlety to Gratton’s playing that can best

be appreciated in small jazz clubs, and, provided the audience is

into it, Gratton says he will lay some of those tunes on the crowd

at Triumph Brewing, where he appears on Wednesday, August 23. At

Triumph,

Gratton will be accompanied by Jim McDonough on bass and Mark Pultorak

on drums. Gratton says he will be prepared for the noisiness of the

venue. "I’m going to use a little more amplification," he

says, "and we’ll probably cut down on some of the quiet stuff

I really like to do."

Gratton began playing guitar at age seven, when his father, a railroad

engineer and violinist, put a guitar in his hands. His mother was

a housewife. Gratton was introduced to performing when he was 12,

after which he never looked back.

"A friend of ours who played piano asked me to join him on guitar

up at the club in Dunellen," he says. "After that, it was

just something I knew I always wanted to do."

Gratton’s earliest inspiration came from the big band recordings in

his father’s record collection, but also the recordings of Les Paul

and Tony Mottola, and later, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass.

Perhaps being a jazz guitarist who plays in a lot of different venues

isn’t really all that much different from being an Amtrak engineer

on the New York to Washington, D.C., corridor. Gratton has worked

for Amtrak and its predecessors for 35 years now. The variables —

weather, traffic on other tracks, number of people on board —

are always changing.

"It gets really involved sometimes," Gratton says of his work

as a train engineer, "and really, that’s another thing I’m

thankful

to my father for. He was an engineer as well, and though he would

never admit it, I now know he did pull some strings to get me a job

all those years ago."

Gratton formed his first band in high school playing the rhythm and

blues and early rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

He knew in the back of his mind he’d like to some day pursue jazz

full time, but those hopes were put on hold by his job with the

railroad.

Instead, he began his dual career when he began playing in Trenton

jazz clubs in the late 1950s. "We used to have a lot of clubs

to work in, Front Street alone was loaded with four or five

nightclubs,"

he recalls. "It’s one big parking lot now, but they had all these

little clubs and live music all over the place. We’d take breaks and

go over and hear what the other guys were playing, and then they’d

come over and hear us during their breaks."

Of all of those clubs that were around in the 1960s, only Joe’s Mill

Hill Saloon remains as an enduring venue for live jazz. But now, with

the Trenton cultural scene inching its way back to life, Gratton finds

himself playing new venues like the Urban Word Cafe.

Gratton says the Trenton-area jazz pianist Dick Braytenbah was a great

source of inspiration for him and a good mentor as well. "Years

ago, in the mid-1960s, I would go into clubs and listen to him. He

was doing what I wanted to be doing, and I just listened to all the

things he was doing and tried to take as much home in my head as I

could," he recalls. "Eventually I sat in with him one night

and then started working with him from time to time."

Gratton has also worked many times over the years with saxophonist

and Trenton native Richie Cole, who has carved a national reputation

for himself with his various Alto Madness orchestras.

"Since those days, most of the rest of it is work I’ve been

getting

on my own," Gratton says, adding he likes working in a trio

format.

He’s proud of his bassist and drummer.

"Jim McDonough is a mind reader on the bass," he enthuses,

"he always seems to know just where a tune is going and he takes

it there." Gratton’s drummer, Mark Pultorak, has the dynamics

in his playing that Gratton’s subtle guitar stylings require.

Gratton says the audience for the Triumph Brewery show can expect

a broad spectrum of jazz tunes. "There’ll be some bebop tunes

and some tunes not ordinarily played as jazz arrangements, like the

theme from M.A.S.H., and there’ll be some Latin-flavored arrangements

as well. We like to keep the tunes so that they’re still recognizable,

but do them in a different way."

— Richard J. Skelly

Dick Gratton Jazz Trio, Triumph Brewing, 138 Nassau

Street,

609-924-7855. Wednesday, August 23, 9 p.m.


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