Few things better evoke the memory of Trenton’s entertainment past than the image of folks dressed smartly for the evening and entering the doors of a nightclub that is pulsating with the sounds of a jazz trio.
These days, when Dick Gratton takes his guitar and sits down to begin his set at the Chambers Walk Cafe in Lawrenceville, he brings part of that tradition with him. Gratton, 71, has attracted quite a following. But he also remembers the old places and the talented musicians who once played around the capital city. The names come easily, and he rattles them off as though reading a hall of fame plaque.
“The Downtown Club, Club 50 on Hanover, Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon,” Gratton recalls. “I played a lot in the area starting in the ’60s. I played at the Canal House in New Hope, Rush’s Tavern on Johnson Avenue, the Eagle Tavern. One of the biggest that I worked at was the Greenwood Grille on the corner of Greenwood and Johnson. Sunday nights there were always a good time.
“Trenton has always been noted for having very fine musicians. But very few of them were nationally known, except for Richie Cole, the saxophonist,” he says.
Gratton has the easy-going manner of one who is satisfied with where life has brought him. His story is familiar to those who have heard him play over the years. His family settled in the Whitehorse section of Hamilton Township and as a young child he began playing guitar while listening to jazz and big band records in his father’s collection.
“You have to have the interest,” Gratton says. “The best time for a kid to start would maybe be about eight years old. Unfortunately, eight-year-old kids want to do other things. I started playing when I was seven. The first nightclub I played was in a bar in Dunellen, and a family friend invited me up and I played ‘Lady of Spain.’ I was 12, and I do remember being scared to death.”
As the 1960s approached his high school band was into Chuck Berry and Bill Haley and the Comets. Just when others plugged in their amplifiers and decided they were born to be wild, Gratton veered into a different direction.
“It was probably around 1962,” he says. “I went to the Downtown Club on Passaic Street in Trenton and saw Dick Braytenbah’s piano trio. He played a lot of standards and that’s when I started thinking that was something I wanted to do. It was a little more creative.”
He drew inspiration from musicians like Les Paul, Gene Bertoncini, Tony Mottola, and Wes Montgomery, and started performing in the Trenton area and in Atlantic City.
“There were a ton of clubs when I first started playing. Some are still around, but not many,” he says. “When work thins out you move on somewhere else.”
Times were good for Trenton’s cultural scene, but not good enough to make a living. Gratton’s father worked on the railroad when it was still known by its name on the Monopoly game board — the Pennsylvania Railroad. Soon the idea of a full-time income beckoned.
“I think I’m successful at what I do but I don’t think I could ever make a living at it,” he says. “Once I started working on the railroad, being a musician for a living sort of went away. I was playing in New Hope one night right before I went on the railroad and thought, ‘Man, you have to go get a real job. How much longer can you live on peanut butter sandwiches?’”
He managed to arrange his work schedule to allow regular gigs and along the way honed impressive musical chops while always playing close to home. By the time he had retired in 2002, he had acquired quite a resume: the Jazz and Blues Showcase Series in Medford Lakes, annual dinners for the American Federation of Musicians of Trenton, Trenton Heritage Days, and the Bordentown Cranberry and Iris festivals.
In 1998 he performed in a six-piece jazz group with saxophonist Richie Cole at the Trenton Jazz Festival at Waterfront Park. In addition to his work in all the area clubs, he has opened for pianists David Benoit, Eddie Palmieri, and Alex Bugnon, and he once played alongside guitarist Tal Farlow.
Now he plays regularly on Friday and Saturday nights at Chambers Walk and also at the Cedar Pub in Hamilton. He plays periodically in Princeton, Bordentown, and Philadelphia. On Mother’s Day he’ll perform during the Azalea Festival held in Sayen Park, Hamilton Square.
Playing for restaurant crowds and others whose attention may be divided is okay by him. He put out a CD in 1998 that suggests an ethereal, ambient musical approach. But he says he plays for attentive diners.
The temptation might also be to think that a railroad engineer’s music would be richly steeped in the blues, perhaps with the devil waiting at every crossing. Not so with Gratton. These days his sets at Chambers Walk feature jazz arrangements of popular songs and standards.
“Jazz players have a joke about the blues,” Gratton muses. “They say blues guitarists know three or four chords, but they play for thousands of people. Jazz guitarists know thousands of chords, but play for four people, if you’re lucky.
“I pretty much leave it up to the audience,” he says. “I encourage requests, whatever they want to hear. I get Beatles, James Taylor, and Carole King, I guess what everyone calls the Great American Songbook. Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart. I do some Pat Metheny tunes. Pretty much anything that lends itself to a jazz arrangement”
Gratton’s approach involves more than just playing. “You play in such a manner so that people would think that if there was no live music there they’d think something was missing. I try to be creative and build something with a tune. Some of the tunes I do the same way each time, but others I change them up a little bit. Some people will hear and recognize a song. Some people will comment and some won’t. It’s always a nice feeling when people are listening to your music.”
Judging by recent responses, more are listening.
“I know that people love him, and our restaurant is always booked on weekends,” says Kristen Fischer, manager at Chambers Walk. “People come here just for him. He brings us a lot of business. People call and say they want a table close to where he’s playing.”
“The guy is one of the finest jazz guitarists in the area,” says Ted Zegarski, manager of the Cedar Pub at Cedar Gardens. “When he comes in, other artists will come in and stand in line to play with him. Then when they sit down he’ll do a rendition of one of their songs. It’s just incredible. When he played here before Christmas he packed the house. When he plays everyone is quiet because they want to hear every single note.”
Clearly, Dick Gratton enjoys being such a sought-after musician, if not an important figure in Trenton’s cultural history. He could work more often, but just the same he enjoys home life with his wife, Joan. His hobby is caring for the fish they keep in large ponds on their property in Bordentown Township.
And he always enjoys telling the stories about the area music scene.
“Al Re, he was a good piano player. Bob Smith had an organ trio for years and years. He and I still get together. We used to play at these Wednesday afternoon gigs on Warren Street. The War Memorial used to have music for the lunchtime crowd five or six years ago. I played at the Eagle Tavern and at the Urban Word. It’s now called Trenton Social.”
There was the time he and the late New York guitarist Tony Romano were playing at the Canal House in New Hope. Between sets, while listening to WRTI out of Philadelphia, they heard that legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery had died.
“We sort of looked at each other and decided right there we would play Wes Montgomery songs the rest of the night,” he says.
There are also many stories about his father, like how they would blow the train whistle as they went by if they knew one or the other would be in the yard. There’s a song on Gratton’s CD that he wrote for his father based on Tom Waits’ “Diamonds on my Windshield.”
“It has to do with describing a trucker driving an 18-wheeler around the country and winding up in LA.,” Gratton says. “I describe a trip from South Philadelphia to Phillipsburg, which I used to do quite often in the 1970s. Trains don’t run that way anymore.”
The music venues that used to run in the area have changed too, but Gratton is still on track and making music.
Dick Gratton, Friday and Saturday evenings, Chambers Walk Cafe, 2667 Main Street, Lawrenceville. 609- 896-5995.
Thursday evenings, February 28, March 21, April 18, New Cedar Pub at Cedar Gardens, 661 Route 33, Mercerville. 609-587-0930.
Wednesday, April 3, Trenton Social Restaurant and Bar, 449 S. Broad Street, Trenton. 609-989-7777.
Sunday, May 12, 21st Annual Azalea Festival, Sayen Gardens, Mercer Street and Hughes Drive, Hamilton Square.