There’s a 1978 Polaroid of pianist Larry Fuller that speaks volumes.
Toledo, Ohio. He is thirteen years old, perched behind a keyboard swimming in music charts. Playing saxophone in front is Floyd “Candy” Johnson, a musician who played big band jazz like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and later taught in the public schools, creating the Toledo All City Jazz Ensemble.
Johnson, an incredible mentor and teacher, took a few talented young students under his wing to play at his own gigs. Fuller was one of those students, who began playing professionally in clubs, theaters, and restaurants when not quite out of middle school.
Now a New York-based jazz artist with a tremendous lineage, Fuller will bring his archive of mentors, talents, versatility and experience to the stage of The Side Door in Old Lyme on December 8th and 9th. Fuller, who went on to absorb the influences of such jazz greats as Ernestine Anderson, Jeff Hamilton, and John Pizzarelli, offers a cornucopia of bop, stride, swing and blues to his audiences.
The last pianist for legendary jazz artist and bass player Ray Brown before his death in 2002, Fuller was deeply affected by Brown’s music and ethos, and often plays from the Ray Brown catalogue, like this live performance of a Ray Brown arrangement of “Lament” in 2022.
Listening to Fuller’s lush, rippling command of the keys, it seems natural — even inevitable — that he would cross the highest echelons of performing in the world of jazz. But back in Toledo in the 1970s and 1980s, none of that trajectory was predetermined. It certainly wasn’t the norm, by the standards of the blue-collar neighborhood where he was raised. But Fuller, at a very young age, proved to be an attuned and fluid musician, who began learning his way around a piano when his brother lugged an upright into their family home. He remembers.
“It was an intuitive process for me at the start. It was by ear. I was just intuitively learning to hear a melody and pick it out. People from that time reflect that I could swing at a very young age. I just had a natural feeling for the music. And back then, you didn’t have apps — you actually had music sheets — and you had to pick things up by ear.”
Floyd “Candy” Johnson was Fuller’s first exposure to jazz, and his mentorship was also unusual for the racial and social climate in Toledo. While it was an area bursting with jazz musicians and venues, Toledo was still divided along color lines.
“There was still a segregation of neighborhoods. We were poor white folks. To have an African American jazz musician drive up to my house and mentor me: that was unusual, that was out of the norm. The beauty of it was the music took me out to a whole new community of people. I had so many older Black musicians that immediately made my life rich. The beauty of jazz is it’s such a diverse group of people who are in the jazz world. I was blessed to have these mentors, all the relationships you forge with people. Being a jazz musician, it enabled me to be around a diverse community of people.”
Toledo, situated at one point of a fertile crescent including Detroit and Ann Arbor was an ideal incubating ground for musicians playing a circuit of clubs, restaurants, hotels, and theaters.
Fuller later moved to Seattle, barely in his twenties, to be the musical director for vocalist Ernestine Anderson. Their musicianship spoke to each other, he recalls, in part because Fuller’s piano influences included so many pianists Anderson had worked with — Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, Gene Harris, and Monty Alexander.
“Those influences shaped my journey through jazz. Your influences shape your style — then you mesh with certain artists who have similar styles.”
Later, Fuller connected with the Jeff Hamilton Trio, and jazz great Ray Brown and his Trio. Both of these trios were high level musical outfits, known for their detailed ensemble-driven arrangements. As Fuller notes, they were “two great trios that were not led by the piano — Jeff on drums and Ray on upright bass. That was unique, but a really great opportunity to look and watch how someone is leading the band while you are in the band, rather than just leading the group as a pianist.”
Theirs ideas of trio presentation shaped Fuller’s approach to creating an evening of music.
“Every piece we play, there’s improvisational elements to it. That’s what jazz is. Having said that, the music I play — Ray Brown’s idea of trio presentation, or Jeff Hamilton’s — there’s the ensemble parts or the arrangement parts that are not improvisational. They are arrangements of music.
“Ray Brown told me that he hated ‘raggedy music.’ What he meant was that a lot of times when you hear jazz, there’s not a clear presentation. He liked to hear music that was more polished into an arrangement, with some sort of ensemble section. That’s what makes the music so exciting: there’s a real presentation of music, as opposed to just going up there and jamming on a tune.
“Not that everything has to be complicated. Some of the most simple things are the most beautiful: like Ray Brown’s arrangement of “Lil Darling” by Count Basie — what a beautiful little introduction and ending.”
Lil’ Darling by the Ray Brown Trio
At The Side Door, Fuller says to expect to hear anything from Stevie Wonder to Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery to Ray Brown, George Gershwin to Joni Mitchell. He will be joined by Lorin Cohen on bass, and Carmen Intorre (Dec 8) and Jason Tiemann (Dec 9) on drums.
Performance for Fuller is the sum of his experiences, and his own generous, instinctive capacities – intuitive, listening and being present in the moment.
“It’s something that I’m always learning more about, presenting and feeling out the audience you are getting. It might be a really high energy audience, or then sometimes it’s a more relaxed energy of audience. It’s more of an intuitive process, like when you are having a conversation with someone. If it’s a calm conversation, you are not going to jump in with something that doesn’t fit. It’s similar with music — it’s like having conversation with the audience, from beginning to end.”
The Larry Fuller Trio performs at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, December 8 and Saturday, December 9, 2023, at The Side Door, 85 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT.
For tickets, call (860) 434-2600 or visit