A Personal View of the Musicians
A Personal View of the Musicians
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the stories of several popular jazz musicians. The accounts in this chapter are from the author's personal encounters with these individuals. Some of these musicians began their career during the first years of jazz, and even helped create the genre. Other musicians became popular during the peak of the Jazz Age or during the revival years, when traditional jazz reclaimed its place as the original indigenous music of the United States. Benny Carter and Jelly Roll Morton are just two of the musicians presented in this chapter.
It has been my privilege and good fortune to know many outstanding jazz musicians personally. Some of them began their careers when jazz was in its infancy and helped to create the genre. Others came later, during the heyday of the Jazz Age, when the New Orleans sound captivated audiences throughout the nation and the world. And still others reached their prime in the revival years, when traditional jazz reclaimed its place as the nation's original indigenous music. It has been a joy for me to listen to all of these great artists—not only to their music but also to their stories. They lived an important part of American history, and their memories of long-forgotten people and places bring that history to life. Here are their stories.
While the adjectives “towering” and “monumental” are often used excessively to praise a prominent personality, they very accurately describe Benny Carter.
His contributions over the years profoundly influenced the development of jazz as an internationally recognized art form. His strong leadership—from the ′20s through the ′90s—has penetrated eight decades of jazz history. Several generations of jazzmen have been influenced by Carter's exemplary life and his great artistic skills. (p.98)
Benny generously added prestige to worthy efforts by endowing them with his personal support. In 1970 he accepted the titular chair-manship of the Louis Armstrong Statue Fund and contributed his services to the successful “Hello Louis!” production that launched the fund. By generously lending his name, he helped the statue of Louis Armstrong become a reality, and eventually a park in New Orleans was established as a home for the large bronze figure (see Chapter 8). After he authorized the American Federation of Jazz Societies to use his sculpted image for its annual Benny Carter Award, the activities of that national service organization achieved worldwide attention.
In 1995 Carter was presented with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and a Grammy for the best solo instrumental from his CD Elegy in Blue. In 1993 he received the Duke Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). He also has received honorary doctorates from Rutgers and Harvard, and acclamations from organizations throughout the world.
I am extremely proud that Benny, a friend for many years, has written the foreword to this book.
To commemorate their golden wedding anniversary in 1949, my grandparents rented a large banquet room in the old Hollywood Athletic Club. They arranged a catered dinner, invited friends and relatives, and decided to hire a band to make this a truly gala occasion. They enlisted my help in finding the musicians, and I asked clarinetist Albert Nicholas if he would get a small group together for the party. Delighted to help, he contacted bassist Leonard Bibbs, pianist Gideon Honoré, and a young guitar player by the name of Louis Gonzales (the uncredited guitarist featured on Dink Johnson's 1945 recordings for William Russell's American Music label).
We asked the musicians to arrive about 8:30 P.M., shortly after the dinner. At the scheduled time, Nicholas asked to see me in the lobby. He held a clarinet case in one hand and extended the other hand in a resolute gesture of despair. “I'm sorry, Floyd, but I've let you down,” he blurted. “Gideon had another job, and I had to grab a substitute piano player.” As I contemplated the situation briefly, Nick said, “Shake hands with James P. Johnson.”
James P. Johnson, the world's greatest stride pianist? Playing at my family's private party? I was overjoyed. Nick explained that Jimmy had just arrived in town, had nothing scheduled for the evening, and would enjoy playing for our party. I knew Nick and James P. were old friends. They had played many jobs together in New York City and were featured on Rudi Blesh's radio program, This Is Jazz, with Danny Barker, Pops Foster, Baby Dodds, Wild Bill Davison, and Jimmy Archey.
Shaking hands with James P. Johnson was an unforgettable experience. His huge fist was soft and warm, and it thrilled me to hold the powerful right hand that had produced so much delightful music. A very large man, he possessed a massive face dominated by a great lower lip that protruded sharply and glowed pink against his black features. Many would view him as ugly, but he looked beautiful to me as he waddled into the ballroom to find the piano.
The large instrument was dwarfed by Johnson's bulky frame. He seemed satisfied and settled into position, sitting with his left leg beneath the piano, his body at right angles to the keyboard. From this position he could see the audience and seemed to enjoy watching the happy crowd as they danced. I was the only person in attendance who was aware of our pianist's identity. And no one else knew that our clarinetist (p.100)
Midway through the second set, Nicholas introduced his pianist and asked Jimmy to play a medley of original compositions. As Johnson romped through several famous numbers, the guests gradually realized they were witnessing something very special. His demonstration of technical prowess on “Carolina Shout” brought thunderous applause; “Snowy Morning Blues,” played with impeccable taste, gave me a thrill (his old Columbia recording of the latter tune had always been one of my favorites); his swinging version of “Porter's Love Song” struck a responsive chord; and his “Charleston” received a wild ovation. Johnson concluded his solo interlude with “I Can't Give You Anything But Love,” and when my aunts and uncles clamored for (p.101) more, he obligingly encored with “Runnin' Wild.” Happy listeners who had never heard of James P. Johnson surrounded the piano. They recognized the tunes and shouted their praises.
This extraordinary evening occurred almost fifty years ago, but I remember it in every detail. The American Federation of Musicians contract for the event is still in my files. Scale for the band was $64, including $6 federal tax. Albert Nicholas' leader's fee was $19. Bibs, Gonzales, and James P. Johnson each received $13.
Johnson's stellar career stretched back to the 1910s. His 1921 Okay recording “Keep Off the Grass”/“Carolina Shout” still warrants serious listening, as do his remarkable duets with Bessie Smith. Johnson composed many of the blues numbers that Smith turned into hits; his piano buoyed her expressive voice and established the mournful mood. Their 1927 recording of “Back Water Blues” shows them at their best. He was musical director and arranger for Smith's 1929 film St. Louis Blues and appeared briefly during a cabaret sequence. (The famous comedian Johnny Lee played an imbibing bartender in the movie. “I sipped real liquor during the film,” he said. “I was drunk by the time the scene was finished.” Lee later played a comedy role in the film Stormy Weather, was the voice of Br'er Rabbit in Disney's Song of the South, and starred as lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun on the early television series of Amos ‘n’ Andy.)
That anniversary party at the Hollywood Athletic Club gave rise to a warm friendship. During Johnson's stay in Los Angeles, I spent many interesting hours listening to him recount the experiences that had shaped his life. He often visited our home and played with our young son. The great musician moved into our hearts. It was easy to love James P. Johnson.
In a way, he was an extremely bitter man—bitter with the awareness that the world had passed him by. Then fifty-eight years old, Johnson. knew his talent was recognized by only a few jazz fans; as a black musician in an unenlightened white man's world, he had never received great public acclaim. He had watched less talented composers gain riches and fame, while many of his own fine tunes had been sold for a few dollars to greedy publishers who, he said, considered them “coon songs.” Johnson stoically accepted this situation and maintained a moderately comfortable life with an adoring wife, Lillie Mae, on Long Island. He was proud of the large pipe organ installed in his house, despite neighbors' complaints that the instrument's vibrations shook the pictures from their walls.
(p.102) Johnson came to Los Angeles to supervise the rehearsals of a musical he had recently co-written with Flournoy E. Miller of the early vaudeville team of Miller and Lyles. Sugar Hill, which opened at the Las Palmas Theatre in July 1949, adroitly merged Miller's libretto and lyrics with several new James P. Johnson melodies. Their remarkable score included “You Can't Lose a Broken Heart,” “My Sweet Hunk of Trash,” “Peace, Sister, Peace,” and the rousing “Chivaree.” Columbia Records issued a cast album, and several songs were recorded by Nat Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.
During the several weeks the show was in rehearsal, I took every opportunity to spend time with this great man. He lived in a beautiful West Los Angeles home rented from one of the Mills Brothers (who were then on tour). The large, tastefully furnished house had a fine concert grand piano on which Johnson often entertained me and my wife, Lucille. Once, when I brought a tape recorder to interview him for my radio program, he delighted me by playing several tunes. His hands were still swift and his mind very agile. I recently unearthed those brittle old tapes and again enjoyed his private performances of “Old Fashioned Love” and “Just Before Daybreak.” When asked the name of an unfamiliar up-tempo number, he responded: “Just a rag, Floyd.” I never knew if that was the title or a description. Of another composition, he said: “About thirty-five years ago, when I played in a hole in the wall, it was originally called ‘Over the Bars’ but later became famous as ‘Steeplechase Rag.’” That was Johnson's first recorded effort, in 1917.
Occasionally I brought Fats Waller's name into our conversations. Waller, James P.'s pupil, always exhibited a strong Johnson influence in his piano playing. He had died five years earlier, and his mentor found it difficult to speak about him. Once he murmured, “I loved Fats like a son. I tried to teach him everything I knew about music. He went on and expanded his skill and became one of the world's greatest entertainers. We were close friends for twenty-five years. He was a great person.” Tears appeared in Jimmy's eyes.
As a record collector, I asked Johnson to help me identify many of the uncredited artists who played on early recordings. For example, I thought King Oliver played the cornet accompaniment on Eva Taylor's 1929 Victor recording of “You Don't Understand.” Johnson played piano on the tune (his style is easily recognizable), and he vividly recalled the recording session. The cornetist, he said, was not King Oliver but Ed Anderson.
(p.103) Johnson also disputed my theory that jazz was born in New Orleans. The Harlem pianist told me he played jazz long before any of the early Crescent City bands traveled north. Jimmy recalled hearing jazz in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Baltimore before he ever heard of Jelly Roll Morton, and he had been influenced by musical styles emerging from places like Charleston and Memphis back in 1912. He remembered the great ragtime pianists from the Midwest who introduced a new wave of rhythms that influenced much of our popular music. The great Duke Ellington, a follower of James P. Johnson's style, had spent his formative years in Washington, D.C., without the influence of New Orleans music.
If a true birthplace of jazz must be identified, I think Jimmy would claim Harlem for that honor. New Orleans pianists were showcased in brothels and barrelhouses, but Harlem's keyboard masters played at “house-rent” parties. “To advertise a rent party,” Johnson said, “we'd tie a rag to a broom handle and stick it out the window. A crowd would soon gather—sometimes a hundred in a small apartment. They paid twenty-five or fifty cents, drink beer and eat hog maws, ‘chitlins,’ and fried chicken. That helped pay the rent.” Johnson reminisced about the great house-rent pianists who conducted “cuttin'” contests and displayed their skills to establish themselves as “champions.” Those Harlem stride players created an exciting brand of music, blending ragtime with the blues to produce a rhythmic pattern that kept toes tapping during the harsh Depression. His favorite “chitterling pianists” were Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Stephen “The Beetle” Henderson, and Raymond “Lippy” Boyd. “I cut them all, Floyd,” Johnson immodestly stated.
Johnson was greatly inspired by Luckey Roberts. Early Johnson Aeolian piano rolls clearly reflect Roberts' romping influence, which Johnson developed fully as his technique matured. Those swift left-hand patterns were influenced by a Harlem bordello musician known as Abba Labba (Richard McLean).
Sugar Hill was Jimmy's final contribution to the world of music. Despite complimentary local reviews, the show never made it to Broadway. Shortly after the Los Angeles opening, Johnson returned to New York. He soon suffered a massive stroke and remained an invalid until he died a few years later.
Yes, I remember James P. Johnson. I remember hearing him play his beautiful concerto and excerpts from two complete symphonies. I remember his stories about Bessie Smith and Clarence Williams. The colorful (p.104) vaudeville tales, when he was billed as “The Outstanding Exponent of Ragtime Piano,” would interest any serious student of jazz history.
Brun Campbell and Scott Joplin
Ragtime is a form of music characterized by a syncopated melody superimposed on a strongly accented accompaniment. The world will be a better place with the resurgence of this happy music.
Brun Campbell was among the last living connections with the ragtime era and its most prominent figure, the legendary Scott Joplin. Known as “The Original Ragtime Kid” around the end of the nineteenth century, Campbell had studied with Joplin and became part of the ragtime scene in St. Louis, the genre's epicenter. He quit professional music in 1908 and came to California in 1928, where, following his father's trade, he earned a living as a barber. But he tirelessly championed the music he loved and helped preserve it as a living art form well into the twentieth century.
Campbell looked upon ragtime as America's first pop music. It initially attracted a youthful audience rebelling against the mono-rhythmic waltzes of the Victorian age. By the turn of the century it had spread throughout the nation. Printed sheet music reached every small-town piano player and every theater pit orchestra. For two decades the nation whistled, sang, danced, and strutted to these wild new rhythms. “In 1908, the year I retired from music, the rag craze had reached the peak of its frenzy,” Campbell told me. “Adeline Shepherd's ‘Pickles and Peppers’ was so popular, it became a best-selling campaign tune for William Jennings Bryan in one of his unsuccessful bids for the presidency.”
I met Campbell in the early ′50s. He was the intermission performer at Santa Monica's Rendezvous Ballroom, where Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band was featured. The young listeners, probably hearing pure ragtime piano for the first time, crowded around him, enchanted by these “new” sounds. Ory introduced us, and Campbell promptly invited me to his barber shop in Venice. The shop served as a meeting place for local ragtime enthusiasts, who enjoyed hearing Campbell's endless tales (p.105)
Sanford Brunson “Brun” Campbell was born March 26, 1884; he told me his birthplace was Washington, Kansas (his death certificate lists it as Oberlin, Kansas). The first rag he could remember having (p.106) heard was a two-step called “Mississippi Rag,” written in 1897 by Chicago bandleader William Krell. Another early favorite was Tom Turpin's “Harlem Rag,” the first ragtime piece published by a Negro composer. “His full name was Tom Million Turpin,” Campbell said, recalling the pianist's lightning-fast St. Louis style. “He operated several gambling houses, dance halls, cafes, and sporting houses in St. Louis' bawdy district. His death in 1922 coincided with the end of an era that saw the birth and development of ragtime music.”
Campbell remembered all the prominent St. Louis ragtime masters who played along Market, Chestnut, and Eighteenth Streets and could still rattle off their names. Our conversation was generously sprinkled with tales about Arthur Marshall, Otis Saunders, Sam Patterson, Charley Johnson, and Euday Bowman. He had particular praise for Louis Chauvin, a young student of Turpin's who became one of ragtime's greatest pianists. While Chauvin achieved fame primarily as a performer, Campbell thought Turpin probably incorporated several of Chauvin's ideas in his compositions. Louis Chauvin's name appears with Scott Joplin's on “Heliotrope Rag,” an indication of Joplin's appreciation for the young pianist's ideas.
Campbell held Scott Joplin in the very highest regard. He still had vivid memories of the famed composer, whom he met in about 1900. Campbell learned to play Joplin's tunes from original manuscripts and proudly noted that he was the composer's only white pupil.
I ran away from home when I was fifteen—to see the world. I got as far as Oklahoma City. There, in a music store, I saw an early copy of “Maple Leaf Rag,” written by Scott Joplin. When I played the rag in the store, I fell in love with the sound.
I was told that Joplin lived in Sedalia, Missouri, about three hundred miles away. I hitchhiked to Sedalia and found him playing in a small barroom. After hearing me play, he agreed to be my teacher. I learned his “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Original Rags,” and I learned his syncopation, “ragged time,” that is traceable to Civil War cakewalks and work songs.
Joplin was thirty-two years old, and fame had not yet come his way. He was a very black Negro, about five feet seven inches tall, solidly built, a neat dresser, musically very serious—and an excellent sight reader. I never forgot the way he played “Maple Leaf Rag”—I still play it exactly like he did.
Campbell considered his mentor the creator of a serious musical form that later became the foundation of traditional American jazz. Joplin, who was born in Texas in 1868, wrote “The Original Rags” in 1897 while attending the George R. Smith School of Music in Sedalia, which attracted many young black musicians from the Midwest. He (p.107) eventually published about seventy compositions, of which “Maple Leaf Rag” will always stand as his monumental achievement. He also wrote a ballet, “Ragtime Dance,” and two syncopated operas, “A Guest of Honor” and “Treemonisha.”
Joplin was extremely enthusiastic about “Treemonisha,” which filled 230 pages of sheet music in the piano version published in 1911, but he could not interest producers in financing the huge project. In 1915, at his own expense, he presented a single performance at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, hoping to secure backers. The opera was presented without scenery or an orchestra; Joplin personally played the entire score. The reviews were not favorable, and the show closed after the initial performance. Joplin never recovered from this great disappointment. His depression deepened and accelerated a chronic illness, and he died in Manhattan State Hospital on April 1, 1917, at the age of forty-nine.
“When he died,” Campbell said, “those few who realized his greatness bowed their heads in sorrow. This was the passing of the king of all ragtime writers, the man who gave America a genuine native music. His music was the finest. In my opinion, it deserves the same acclaim given to the old classical masters. Joplin was a pioneer who carved his music from the pulse of a new nation. He followed the guideposts of classical traditions. Joplin's creation, despite its turbulent path, may eventually eclipse even the undying prominence of the old masters he revered.”
Campbell donated his impressive Scott Joplin collection of sheet music, letters, and materials collected during the ragtime era to Fisk University, a traditionally black college. He continued sending profits from his writings and recordings to Mrs. Scott Joplin.
He was disturbed by various hybrid forms of ragtime achieving commercial popularity. Pop tunes employing “rag” in their titles contained few, if any, of the basic ragtime ingredients; Tin Pan Alley publishers had rushed into the movement with popularized versions that greatly diluted the original sound, and Campbell felt they distorted the “grace and beauty” of pure ragtime. “They completely missed the point,” he said disdainfully. In his opinion, the only legitimate descendent of ragtime was jazz: “The purest forms of ragtime found their way to New Orleans to later appear in the music of Tony Jackson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Clarence Williams. Kansas City jazz took its inspiration from the same roots, and the aura of Sedalia is evident in the works of Bennie Moten, Julia Lee, and Pete Johnson.”
(p.108) Campbell believed that Jelly Roll Morton was influenced by Joplin. For example, he claimed that in 1906 Morton sent his “King Porter Stomp” to Joplin, who augmented and arranged the piece. “In 1927,” he added, “ten years after Joplin died, Jelly Roll was a boarder at Mrs. Joplin's apartment house in New York City. According to her, while living there he thoroughly studied her husband's compositions, no doubt incorporating Joplin's ideas in his own numbers.”
Campbell also heard Joplin's influence in the work of such New York musicians as Luckey Roberts, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Jack The Bear, and James P. Johnson and in the styles of Chicagoans such as Pine Top Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons.
By the time I met Campbell, ragtime had long faded from the popular music scene. Audiences considered it “corny,” merely barroom tinklings in Westerns. Obsessed with popularizing this music and his personal hero, Scott Joplin, Campbell wrote several articles on his favorite subject for Jazz Journal and Record Changer. The July 1949 issue of Jazz Journal included his “From Rags to Ragtime and Riches,” one of the earliest published biographies of Scott Joplin. He also wrote a barrage of letters to music publishers, record firms, radio stations, and film producers urging them to make pure ragtime accessible to the public. His dream was to see Hollywood make a film about Joplin's career. (In 1976, twenty-four years after Campbell's death, Billy Dee Williams starred in Scott Joplin, with Eubie Blake playing a featured role.)
Campbell made his most important contribution toward a ragtime revival as a performer. In the mid and late 1940s he recorded several solos with technical assistance from Ray Avery and Cecil Charles Spiller. They initially were issued in 78 rpm format on the Brun label—blank on one side. (“If they want to hear two tunes, let them buy two records,” the pianist liked to say.) Long-playing versions of the recordings appeared on Paul Affeldt's small Euphonic label. Then in his late sixties, Campbell recorded “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Sunflower Slow Drag,” performing them exactly as Joplin had taught him half a century earlier. Gradually, audiences embraced the genre. Wally Rose, pianist with Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band (and one of Campbell's students), set the pace in 1942 with a landmark recording of “Black and White Rag,” and Pee Wee Hunt's Dixieland version of Euday Bowman's “12th Street Rag” ranked among the best-selling records of the 1940s.
Spurred by brilliant young players, interest in ragtime slowly increased. In the ′50s, hiding behind pseudonyms, several notable pianists (p.109) brought undistorted rags into the commercial spotlight. They were Joe “Fingers” Carr (Lou Busch), “Crazy Otto” (Johnny Mad-dox), and “Knuckles” O'Toole (Dick Hyman). Soon Max Morath, merging scholarship and entertainment, presented a deeper understanding and appreciation of turn-of-the-century American music.
They All Played Ragtime, by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, was published in 1950, adding legitimacy to an almost forgotten music. Campbell acknowledged the talents of several young players, including Armand Hug in New Orleans (“one of the greatest in this generation”), Don Ewell, Johnny Wittwer, Knocky Parker, Marvin Ash, Ralph Sutton, and Burt Bales.
In his zeal to expound the joys of Joplin's work, Campbell helped orchestrate the resurgence of this happy music. Fan clubs and newsletters proliferated; Rag Times, the Los Angeles Maple Leaf Club's publication edited by Dick Zimmerman, continues to lead the way after thirty years. In 1973, when Marvin Hamlisch utilized Joplin's music for the soundtrack in The Sting, ragtime's popularity got a substantial boost. Ragtime festivals are now regular occurrences in the United States and Europe and feature an ever-increasing roster of artists and composers.
In his definitive appraisal of Campbell in the January 1988 issue of Mississippi Rag, Paul Affeldt said, “Brun was important because he focused public interest on ragtime. It was a wonderful experience to have known a man of such dedication and excellence.”
Rex Stewart's Memories of Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton [Ferdinand Lemott] was one of the most controversial, flamboyant jazz artists that I have ever met.
I recall he chose the nom de plume “Morton” to protect his family from disgrace if he was identified as a whorehouse “professor.”
During his multi-faceted career, he was a composer, gambler, philosopher, and, last but not least, a “lover boy”—which accounts for his nickname, “Jelly Roll.” In the circles in which Morton was a self-styled king, (p.110) when the gentry spoke of “Jelly Roll,” they were not referring to cake!
Rex Stewart, in his autobiography, Boy Meets Horn (edited by Claire P. Gordon, University of Michigan Press, 1991)
William “Rex” Stewart was born February 22, 1907. He gained fame as a jazz cornetist during his successful years with the Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington orchestras. After leaving the Duke in 1945, Stewart achieved additional acclaim by writing about jazz. In his autobiography he told a number of revealing stories about Jelly Roll Morton, many of which convey facets of the great man's philosophies about life, art, and music. The following impressions have been transcribed from Stewart's handwritten notes, generously given to me by his editor, Claire P. Gordon. He wrote them shortly before he died in 1967.
“The Image,” By Rex Stewart
Music is a luxury and, as such, requires a considerable amount of applied imagination to communicate with an audience and to be salable to the public.
People have a great love and desire for music; but, with the exception of the most remote regions, there is a plethora of music of all kinds around these days. So it becomes incumbent upon the individual to create some form of image that will set him apart from the mass of competition.
The idea of communicating one's artistry, by a projecting definite image or style, is an age-old concept dating back to the days of the troubadours and the meistersingers. During the Roaring Twenties, many piano players transfixed the nearest listeners with a hypnotic eye. This was the fashion of the day, and, at the time, no one knew that the “stare” was a means of trying to communicate and thereby create an image.
Imagery was of paramount importance in the history of jazz. The old-timers, like Jelly Roll Morton, were aware of the necessity to be different in order to stand out in a crowd. In those bygone days of the piano-playing “hustlers,” one had to come up with something spectacular.
In Jelly Roll Morton's case, it was diamonds. Among the “professors” (as piano players were labeled in that era), Morton exemplified everything that I had been told about the glamorous piano players of the bordellos, where they reigned supreme.
(p.111) Jelly Roll's career spanned several generations. From Storyville in New Orleans, he started his upward climb to achieving respectability as an innovator and creator of jazz (although he did not invent the music, as he claimed).
He still clung to the older concept and to his image, which at the time I met him was “flash, diamond-studded flash!” He was a real eye-popping bon vivant of that age—always immaculately attired.
Morton was a rather tall, well-built, apricot-colored person with features that reminded me of a Spanish grandee who had become a bit jaded with life. His eyes were most fascinating as they darted from face to face, emphasizing his sometimes disputatious monologues.
Morton was a fixture at the Rhythm Club in New York during the late ′30s. He was either playing cards or, most likely, playing pool. Whatever he played, he usually was the winner. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson virtually supported Jelly trying to beat him playing pool.
When he held court, his spiel would be delivered from his customary soapbox on the S.E. corner of 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue in New York's Harlem.
Jelly Roll would be resplendent in a tailor-made suit, and diamonds sparkled from his belt buckle and his shirt front. He was never seen without the big stickpin he wore in his cravat—it glowed like a star on his chest—and a big diamond on his pinkie finger. The picture would be completed by the smaller diamond that glistened in his gold tooth.
He evidently was a lonely person, because if the weather was good you could count on him being on that Harlem corner. He always had an audience of five or ten musicians who held on to every word the master uttered. Youngsters like Jimmy Harrison, Chick Webb, and Benny Carter, among others, were spellbound by his tales and the pronouncements the great man would make.
I remember his three standard topics very well: women, baseball, and how the musicians were ruining his music—the music he had personally invented.
On reflection, Morton, with the passage of years, has become a virtual Nostradamus of jazz, at least in my mind. Many of his predictions, which we laughed at, later came true.
Outside of dwelling on how great he was personally, one of his favorite lectures was:
“You bunch of hard-headed kids, ya got no sense running around copying each other. That will get you no place. Ya gotta be different. Try something new. What the hell are you afraid of? The worse that can happen to (p.112) ya is you'll wind up digging ditches, and most of you will be digging ditches anyway!
“You will have to learn how to protect yourself. Here you sit on your donothing can, feeling high and mighty because you can blow a horn, beat a drum, or plunk on a piano. Why, you are nothing! All of you are just a bunch of dumb-ass mules, because most of you that can play, can't read music. If you can read music, you are so satisfied thinking that you are better than anyone else that you can't play!
“Look at me. I can not only read, but I invented jazz, doggone it! I owned jazz until the white man started stealing it from me. But I found out how to protect myself. How many of you are gonna listen to me and learn?
“In twenty or thirty years there's gonna be so many phonograph machines playing music there ain't nobody gonna need you for nothin'. They got a union, you say? Sure, they got a union—but they don't want you! Of course, eventually they will take you in and let you beg for jobs that you always had before they had a union. Remember that, boy!
“Remember, I'm telling you that in the early days of ragtime, we black ones played the parties, the cotillions. New Orleans, New York, Chicago, it was all the same. If it was a good-paying job, and they wanted good entertainment with their music, they called us. Of course, that was before the damn unions.
“Oh yes. There will come a day for the union. First they will stand you in the corner with your own little union. Then they will get so hungry for power, they will pull you all together into one union. But you will still stand together waiting for crumbs from the bosses' tables. Live long enough, and you will see.
“Another thing you will see, if the booze and the women don't get you first, is you ain't gonna have a place to play. I see more and more ‘Patties’ hanging around Harlem. They bring their horns; line up at the bars with you, buy you a sandwich—and as soon as they get to know you, they say, ‘Let's go jam!’ Go right ahead, you dumb SOBs. Go ahead and teach them your music so they can set up their phonograph machines, and then your children can someday read how you used to create and play music.”
I'll never forget another impromptu lecture by Jelly Roll Morton when he hauled the publishers over the coals—that evening he was really on fire. I was on my way to Big John's, a bar on Seventh Avenue, when I noticed a bigger than usual crowd on the corner. So I stopped to listen. Jelly was frothing at the mouth, saying:
(p.113) “They just ain't no damn good—none of them! I'll tell you, and you just better listen! All you young studs, and you old ones too, better learn these three rules: Write your music out. Send it to Washington to be copyrighted. And then hire a lawyer to see that you get a fair deal.
“I'm Jelly Roll Morton, and it's me telling you that none of those music publishers are worth the powder to blow them to hell! They make you promises—then they steal your stuff. You wind up begging them for a handout while they lollygag around in their big cars and yachts. Ya better wake up, ya stupid knuckleheads!
“A Negro has to be ten times as smart to get an even break in this business. Watch and see if some of those peolas [whites] don't come up with some so-called new kind of music. That's to get in the act, 'cause I ain't never heard none of them that was able to play my kind of music yet—except a couple of piano plunkers way out West.”
There again, Jelly was right. Almost so. The evolution came from his own people—more so than from the peolas.
Well, from where I sit surveying the scene, it appears that Jelly Roll was right. Despite the awareness that this is undoubtedly hindsight, still, I have the pleasure of remembering, “He told me so.”
Further, in these days of reappraisal, it occurs to me that we might examine the truths that Jelly spoke about because they exist in far greater proportions than even he dreamed of.
My position here is not to advocate specifically any examination into the inequities of the Negro in jazz. It is merely a plea for some form of assistance for American jazz regardless of who writes or performs it, so that a significant American contribution to the arts may live and flourish—not continue to dry up and perish.
Paralleling the significant decline in jazz is the loss of tradition and the legends of this American art form. It seems to me that the musicians and the public blithely follow the pied pipers of commercialism with faint regard for the music's background or the people who made it possible.
Nor do the masses understand the cultures and psychological impact this music has made on the world. It is unfortunate that our educators, for the most part, when they are enlightened enough to admit its existence, continue to cast a leering, smirking eye on the subject.
We can thank New Orleans for Jelly Roll Morton. He is a legend who enriched our culture and the lives of everyone who knew him.
Long live the memory of Jelly Roll Morton.
These cold details appear in bold black type on California Death Certificate No. 9682:
Date of Death:
July 10, 1941
Place of Death:
Los Angeles, Calif.
Cause of Death:
New Orleans, Louisiana
September 20, 1889
Mother's Maiden Name:
Such are the bare facts of the life of Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe—better known as Jelly Roll Morton, one of the most towering figures in the history of American popular music. This flawed document doesn't even hint at Morton's lasting contributions to our nation's culture—the hundreds of songs he composed, the piano style he pioneered, the many musicians he inspired. The certificate does contain a couple of noteworthy errors: Morton's actual birthdate was October 20, 1890, and his father's name was Edward J. Lamothe (Edward Morton was his stepfather).
The last name on the document often goes unrecognized, but it carries considerable weight. Anita Gonzales inspired at least two of Morton's compositions: “Sweet Anita Mine” and a subtle tango called “Mama 'Nita.” The sister of pioneering clarinetist-drummer-pianist Oliver “Dink” Johnson, she was a beautiful Creole woman whose relationship with Morton dated back many years—probably to the very beginning of the twentieth century, before his departure from New Orleans. Gonzales also played an influential role in the jazzman's life in California after World War I, a thinly documented period of his career. She was with Morton in his last days and was one of the last people to see him alive. Though she is listed as the pianist's wife, researchers have never found conclusive proof they were actually married.
(p.115) Most jazz fans are familiar with the story of Morton's triumphant emergence from Storyville's brothel parlors. He achieved great prominence and wealth as leader of the famous Red Hot Peppers, probably the most thrilling recording group in the history of New Orleans music. Never known for his modesty, Morton walked around with a stash of $1,000 bills, carried diamonds in every pocket, and proudly claimed (with considerable justification) that he personally invented jazz. His business card pompously announced:
- JELLY ROLL MORTON-ORIGINATOR OF JAZZ AND STOMPS
- VICTOR'S NO. 1 RECORDING ARTIST
- WORLD'S GREATEST HOT TUNE WRITER
During the 1920s Morton achieved unprecedented success and notoriety, but his rapid rise was followed by an equally rapid downfall. By 1930, the Jazz Age was nearing its end. Victor did not renew Morton's recording contract, and bookings for his Red Hot Peppers slowed, then stopped completely. Jazzmen struggled to compete for the few entertainment dollars available in the Depression, and by 1934 Morton was down to his last diamond, a half-carat gem imbedded in his front tooth.
That year he endured the embarrassment of playing on an inferior Wingy Manone recording date for Columbia; his uninspired piano solo is heard briefly on the tune, “Never Had No Lovin'.” Wingy neglected to mention Morton's name as he happily introduced such unlikely sidemen as Artie Shaw, Bud Freeman, and John Kirby. Columbia wisely chose not to issue the records until twenty years later, when they appeared on the company's Special Edition collector's series.
The burgeoning swing craze put a final coda to Morton's golden era, and small groups such as his Red Hot Peppers seemed dated to younger listeners. Ironically, they acclaimed the popular swing versions of Jelly's tunes and riffs beings recorded by most of the popular bands.
“F. Morton” appeared in tiny print beneath the song titles on millions of records, but the public paid no attention to the composer credits. Morton never received proper compensation for his huge-selling compositions; a disagreement with his publishers and ASCAP limited his royalties.
Morton knew he had helped create the big-band sound, but he never received due credit. Desperate, bitter, and in failing health, he resurfaced briefly in 1938, playing for a few faithful followers at the (p.116) Jungle Inn, a seedy club over a hamburger stand in Washington, D.C. His historic Library of Congress recordings led to a final Victor date in 1939, which brought a brief flurry of renewed recognition, and the General Record Company timidly released several Morton piano solos and some band numbers; but poor marketing, coupled with public apathy, severely limited the success of these offerings.
In 1940, with music still surging through his productive mind, Morton decided to move to Los Angeles, hoping to regain his health and rejuvenate his career. In Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz,” Alan Lomax described the pianist's cross-country journey. Morton made the trip in his battered Lincoln, towing his Cadillac behind on a chain. Forced to abandon the Lincoln in an Idaho snowdrift, he continued in the Cadillac, which was loaded with clothes and a scrapbook filled with faded mementos. He also brought with him a dozen new big-band arrangements that he planned to record with fellow New Orleans expatriates Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Bud Scott, Ram Hall, and Ed Garland.
After Morton arrived in Los Angeles, Garland assembled this illustrious group and rented the Elks Hall on Central Avenue for rehearsals, but the pianist's physical condition had seriously deteriorated. He valiantly attended the sessions but had his former pupil, Buster Wilson, stand in for him at the piano. But if Morton's body was failing, his musical mind was as sharp as ever. “Jelly's arrangements were very interesting,” Ed Garland told me. “He knew that the popular swing bands were playing his songs. Benny Goodman's record of ‘King Porter Stomp’ and Hampton's ‘Shoe Shiners Drag’ were heard daily on the radio. He wanted to show those bands how his music should be played.”
Unfortunately, the recording date never took place; Morton died on July 10, 1941. The golden era of our music heard the last of Jelly's creativity—and the world hardly noticed.
An ironic twist of fate denied an opportunity for me to own the arrangements Morton wrote for his anticipated record date. His handwritten scores remained in Buster Wilson's front room for almost a decade. They were in a large trunk draped with a silk shawl on which stood a tarnished brass lamp. Buster promised to sort through the trunk “one day” and offered to give me those old manuscripts.
I repeatedly reminded him of his offer, but he never managed to open the trunk. After Buster's death, I informed his widow, Carmelita, of his promise. I discreetly called her several times, but she seemed reluctant to let me have the arrangements. The phone eventually was disconnected. (p.117) Carmelita moved. She apparently left the city, and I was unable to contact her again.
With that I gave up all hope of ever locating these historic scores, and they remained lost for decades. They finally resurfaced in the 1990s, as reported by Phil Pastras in Dead Man Blues. The thirteen-piece big-band arrangements were found among the huge catalogue of material left by Bill Russell to the Historic New Orleans Collection. An orchestra assembled by Don Vappie performed four of these compositions at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Two witnesses to the event, musician Jacques Gauthé and writer Barry McRae, both praised Morton's apparent mastery of the big-band idiom, and both commented on the “modernism” of one particular piece, “Gan-Jam.” McRae compared it to the work of Charles Mingus, Gauthé to that of Stan Kenton.
The private recording of the event verifies that the piece is indeed very modern in conception. Morton recorded two of the pieces—“Mister Joe” and “We Are Elks”—in earlier forms, and they contain no great surprises. “Oh! Baby,” by contrast, sounds like a contemporary (circa 1940) swing arrangement, and the great surprise, “Gan-Jam,” looks forward at least ten years in its bold use of dissonance and eastern modal scales.
The style of the group Vappie assembled is New Orleans Revival; one wonders how much more modern the arrangements might sound if played by a more contemporary group.
It is regrettable that Jelly Roll Morton's last days were such sad ones. He spent them trying to pull himself out of obscurity and reclaim his rightful position as one of the nation's most important and accomplished musicians. The man who claimed to have invented jazz simply faded away.
When they buried Jelly Roll Morton in Calvary Cemetery in east Los Angeles, the diamond was missing from his front tooth. Pallbearers included Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, and Ed Garland. David Stuart of the Jazz Man Record Shop was the only white man attending the Catholic funeral. A story in Down Beat magazine reported that Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford, the two most prominent black bandleaders of the day, were noticeably absent from the burial services. Ellington was appearing at the Mayan Theater in his production “Jump for Joy,” and Lunceford and his band were booked at the Casa Mañana in nearby Culver City.
(p.118) Jelly's grave—Number 4, Lot 347, Section N—lay on a gently sloping grass-covered hill. It remained unmarked and unattended, and the music world seemed to forget the genius buried there. Nine years later, tall weeds had overgrown the grave, and the surrounding area was badly neglected. Apparently, perpetual care fees had not been paid.
Early in 1950, members of the Southern California Hot Jazz Society decided to raise the funds for a marble identification plaque and perpetual care. We reserved the Maynard Theater on Washington Boulevard for a September 30, 1950, benefit concert, then set about lining up performers. Blues singer Monette Moore, a contemporary of Bessie Smith's, volunteered to appear. Albert Nicholas, Zutty Singleton, and Joe Sullivan joined the bill. Young Johnny Lucas, original trumpet player in the Firehouse Five Plus Two, also offered his services. To assure a full program worthy of the sixty-cent admission price, we also invited Conrad Janis' Tailgate Jazz Band, winners of Record Changer magazine's amateur band contest in 1949.
Bob Kirstein and I—SCHJS vice president and president, respectively—both hosted weekly radio shows on a small FM station, and we took advantage of our air time to advertise the event. Ticket sales were slow at first, but by mid-September we knew there would be a full house.
That's when Anita Gonzales appeared on the scene.
The radio station manager received a phone call from a woman identifying herself as Jelly Roll Morton's wife. Why, she demanded to know, was his station publicizing an event to raise money for her husband's gravestone? She sounded irate and insisted the activity be halted immediately.
Kirstein and I apprehensively returned Anita's call. She emphatically informed us she would not allow the Jazz Society to buy the marker. In fact, she intended to purchase the plaque herself and would not condone a charitable effort that would embarrass the memory of her departed husband. To placate her, we asked if we could meet her in person. We hoped to persuade her that our project was a sincere tribute from Morton's fans and in no way could be construed as “charity.” We resisted the temptation to ask why she had waited ten years to make the purchase—and why the grave was not properly maintained.
Gonzales invited us to visit her the following day at the Topanga Beach Auto Court, a small motel she operated on Pacific Coast Highway in nearby Malibu Beach. She greeted us with a friendly smile and introduced us to her husband, J. F. Ford. Despite the acrimonious tone (p.119) of her telephone conversation, she seemed genuinely pleased to see us. A large, pretty woman, she spoke in warm tones with an accent reflecting her New Orleans heritage. A portable record player and several albums stood on a bookcase near the door; I wondered if the stack included any of Morton's rare old records. A large theatrical blowup of a nearly nude girl hung on one wall. Noticing my interest, Gonzales said: “That's my daughter. Her name is Aleene. She's a striptease dancer at the Follies Theater.
“I'm fixing a batch of fried chicken,” she continued. “Would you please stay and have some? I'm famous for my fried chicken.” She brought us each a plate of steaming fried chicken and a cold bottle of beer. As we munched the delicious food, she reminisced about her years with the great Jelly Roll Morton:
I used to sing, you know. Not really as a professional—but I had a good voice and knew all of the old songs. I pleaded with Jelly to let me sing with his band, but he never would. He was very old-fashioned. He didn't want me to work. When I ran a hotel years ago—in 1918, I think—he made me hire people to clean and rent the rooms. He refused to allow me to do any of the work.
We were sweethearts years ago back in New Orleans. My brother, Dink Johnson, reintroduced us here in L.A. before the first World War. Dink was playing drums with Freddie Keppard and the Creole Band at the Orpheum Theater. He lives in Santa Barbara now, but I seldom see him.
Jelly and I traveled a lot in those days. We went up the coast to Oregon for several months—even into Canada. Everywhere we went, people loved his music. Did you know he wrote a tune for me? I used to have many of Jelly's records, but most of them were broken over the years. He made a record here in Los Angeles long ago, but I don't know if it ever came out. Jelly did a lot of recording after he left to go back east. He sent many of them, but they usually arrived cracked.
I hesitated to interrupt her recollections but finally generated the courage to broach the subject of Morton's grave. I reminded her that the SCHJS concert was only about a week away and said that, because we had publicized the event as a fundraiser for the marker, we felt obligated to spend the money for that purpose. Gonzales' mood changed, and she became quite adamant. “I cannot allow strangers to buy the stone for my beloved. Tomorrow I plan to visit the cemetery and purchase the plaque. I'll have it no other way.” From the tone of her voice, it seemed evident she was determined to halt the project we had worked so hard to complete. “I realize you are trying to do something good,” she added, “but Jelly would never forgive me if I allowed this to happen.”
(p.120) Bob Kirstein suggested perhaps the SCHJS could give her the proceeds from our show. If she used those funds to make her purchase, we would have fulfilled our objective. She refused. We told her that all the tickets were sold, and it was not possible to cancel the benefit. The patrons and the musicians expected all profits to go toward the purchase of Jelly's grave marker. Gonzales shook her head and said, “I'm buying the plaque tomorrow.”
She eventually agreed to a let us put a second identification on the grave; that way, we could satisfy our commitment to spend the money on a Morton marker. But the next day, Calvary Cemetery informed me that it permitted just one identification per grave. So we were back to square one.
With the concert date now so close, it was too late for a cancellation; we had no choice but to continue as planned. Kirstein had invited Gonzales to appear on his next broadcast, and we hoped he might be able to change her mind and gain her support.
The radio interview, interspersed with Morton's records, went quite well. “You know,” Gonzales remarked after listening to Morton's “New Orleans Joys,” “he had a special touch that was unique. Somehow, when Jelly played, he got a different sound from the piano—maybe it was because he loved the music so much.” After a long pause she said, “The world has forgotten him, but I always remembered what he accomplished. Without Jelly, we'd still be doing the waltz. He mixed all music together—rags, symphony, marches. That's how jazz started, and Jelly did it. Someday, he'll get the credit.”
Gonzales spoke emotionally of Morton's decline and death. “He expired in my arms,” she sobbed. “I cared for him … nursed him during a terrible illness. He came back to me when he knew his time was short. I was the only woman he ever loved.”
Recalling the last time Morton played in Los Angeles, Gonzales said:
When he arrived the last time, he was too sick to play. He kept thinking he would get well enough to take some of the jobs he was offered. He never could take any of them.
I think the last time he actually played in L.A. was back around 1936. Jelly came here with a colored burlesque show called “Brown Skin Models,” and they played at the Burbank Theater on Main Street, down on Skid Row. The girls didn't strip. They did a lot of motionless posing behind a sheer curtain. It was quite risqué at the time. Peg Leg Bates was the headliner; Jelly's name was not advertised. He only played in the pit and never soloed. What a waste! But those were the Depression years, and Jelly was glad to have the work.
This is probably the first reference to Morton's participation in “Brown Skin Models,” a seedy touring company of black artists who played second-rate burlesque theaters in the 1930s. My great-uncle, the late Jack Rothschild, co-produced the show with his partner, Irvin C. Miller (brother of Flournoy Miller, a member of the Miller and Lyles vaudeville team of the 1920s). As a high school student, I saw the show during its various stops in Los Angeles. On one trip, Uncle Jack booked the Models for a week at the Million Dollar Theater. Knowing of my budding interest in jazz, he invited me to hear the new piano player in the show—Jelly Roll Morton. At the time, however, I was more interested in Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey. So, to my everlasting dismay, I did not take advantage of the opportunity to see—and, probably, to meet—the great Jelly Roll Morton.
After Kirstein's radio program concluded, Gonzales reached into her purse and handed me a gift. It was an envelope containing a brittle sepia photograph of Morton. “That was taken before 1914,” she told me. “I am sure of the date because the picture is of Jelly in blackface with Rosa, his partner in a vaudeville act he left in 1914.” On the back (p.122)
We had made arrangements to take Gonzales to Mike Lyman's, where Kid Ory was appearing with his Creole Jazz Band. As we were leaving the studio, she suggested that we take her car, which was (p.123) parked at the curb. “How would you like to drive Jelly's Cadillac?” she asked, handing me the keys. It was a beautiful 1938 sedan, long and black with maroon leather seats—the same car Morton drove during his move to Los Angeles ten years earlier. I eagerly slid behind the wheel, started the motor, and headed down Sunset Boulevard. Driving Jelly Roll Morton's car was one of my greatest thrills. The trip to Lyman's was very short, and I hated for it to end.
During a break between sets, Ory's band came to our table. Naturally, the subject of Jelly Roll Morton dominated our conversation. “He was a very tough man to work for,” recalled Ory, who played on many of Morton's Red Hot Pepper recordings. “He knew exactly what he wanted and would not permit any variation from his arrangements. They were tough to play—the tempos were difficult, lots of key changes. But he was always right; the records sounded great.”
Throughout the discussion, Ram Hall looked very perplexed. Later he called me aside and said, “That's not Mrs. Morton! I used to go to her house in New York for gumbo—but that's not the same woman! Who is she?” Kid Ory repeated Hall's observation: “I never saw that woman before in my life. I knew Jelly's wife very well. Why did you bring her here and introduce her as Mrs. Morton?”
Apparently, Ory and Hall were referring to Mabel Bertrand, a former dancer at the Plantation Cafe in Chicago who lived with Morton from 1927 until his 1940 move to California. Morton immortalized this woman with a brilliant Victor recording titled “Fussy Mabel,” and Ory and Hall must have thought she was his wife.
From the data on Morton's death certificate, Anita was with him when he died in Los Angeles a decade earlier. Why did Ory and his band not remember seeing her during those last rehearsals of Morton's big band arrangements? This is a question that will probably never be answered.
We left the club and drove back to the radio station. On the way, I made a final plea for permission to place a marker at Morton's gravesite. “I ordered the plaque yesterday,” she snapped. “And it will be placed on the grave next week.” Her decision was final. The evening ended with her dismal announcement; she left us at the station and sped off in Jelly's old car. That was the last time we saw Anita Gonzales.
It was too late to cancel our benefit concert, so we held it as scheduled. The event was a great success; a capacity audience enjoyed an evening of outstanding music, and we raised several hundred dollars. SCHJS treasurer Bill Miskell quietly deposited the proceeds in a bank (p.124)
Anita Gonzales followed through on her promise to purchase a headstone for her husband's grave. Bob Kirstein and I went to see it a few days after the Maynard Theater concert. As we climbed the slight knoll toward the grave, we noticed the neatly trimmed grass and a fresh bouquet in a bronze urn. A handsome plaque gleamed brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Carved into the black marble were the words: “Ferdinand Morton—Jelly Roll—1890–1941.” We placed a large garland of flowers next to the new marker. The gold letters on the bright red ribbon read, “MR. JELLY ROLL.” We took several photos and left the cemetery, comforted with the knowledge that the extraordinary musician's grave was finally suitably marked.
Jelly Roll Morton's influence on the world of jazz is still strongly felt. Maybe he did not personally invent jazz, as he claimed, but his great and everlasting contributions to the art form cannot be disputed. With the possible exception of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton was the most creative figure in the history of New Orleans jazz.
We will never forget his boyish face, the ever-present pipe, and the beaming grin as he eagerly discussed his favorite subjects—music and baseball. He could quote a handful of major league statistics as accurately as his deft description of Art Tatum's grace notes.
It was during the first week of 1985 when the startling news of Johnny Guarnieri's sudden death swept through the jazz community. The gifted pianist had lived almost sixty-eight years, and most of them were crammed with illustrious achievements that could, and probably will, fill volumes.
He made hundreds of fine records, played on thousands of radio broadcasts, and was featured with several popular bands. Yet, surprisingly, he never achieved the prominence his talents deserved. When the full impact of twentieth-century music is definitively assessed, Johnny Guarnieri will have attained an exalted position among those who made important contributions to the history of jazz.
He was born in New York City on March 23, 1917. He was a descendant of an Italian family of violin makers who came the United States around the turn of the century. They were so poor they had to burn some violins for warmth during their first winter in New York City.
He drew from a variety of musical experiences, including his formidable contribution to the swing era in bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Raymond Scott. Guarnieri was always willing and anxious to share his vast knowledge with anyone who would listen.
For almost ten years, Southern Californians had the opportunity to hear Guarnieri at the Tail o' the Cock in Studio City. He presided nightly at the restaurant's piano bar. Sadly, he was just a fixture in the minds of most patrons; they would dash through the cocktail lounge to (p.126)
The left side of the faceboard on Guarnieri's piano was deeply gouged with fingernail scars, the residue of thousands of chords. Those scars truly expressed the exuberance of stride piano, a style in which Guarnieri excelled. During his pounding rendition of “Hand Full of Keys,” his left hand, darting down the keyboard, was a blaze of incredibly accurate motion. He liked to employ unusual time signatures and often shifted keys in midstream as he romped through a number. These flashes of technique never detracted from the structure of the composition; they did, however, engrave each number with a buoyant originality. Guarnieri possessed an impeccable sense of timing. The deft bass figures of his pile-driving left hand provided seamless foundations for the agile melodies he constructed with his nimble right hand. One would swear that a third hand was being overdubbed by an invisible engineer.
Guarnieri did not have the large hands one would think necessary to achieve his James P. Johnson—like stride; he often would press his (p.127) outstretched palm against a woman's to show that her fingers were longer. Retaining his grip on her fingers with his right hand, he would then launch a fervent southpaw version of “My Funny Valentine.”
An evening of Guarnieri music would provide an object lesson in jazz tempos. He often began with a twelve-minute romp through “Stealin' Apples,” doubling the tempo with each successive chorus until he had attained a bulletlike pace. His lighter-than-air “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” would merge into a 5/4 treatment of “Maple Leaf Rag.” The set might conclude with a dozen choruses of “I'm Just Wild About Harry,” each played in a different key.
Guarnieri's favorite pianists included Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum, and his interpretations of their tunes bore the stamp of genius. Without mimicking, he became an extension of each artist; his warmth and compassion revealed a keen in-sight into the hearts and minds of his heroes. Few musicians can accomplish this subtle feat as adroitly as Guarnieri did.
He was equally impressive on a simple melodic piece such as “Mood Indigo.” Once, after playing a lovely ballad, Guarnieri leaned over from the piano and told me, “I love playing simply. When I worked in New York on Fifty-Second Street years ago, I rotated with Art Tatum and Eddie Heywood. Tatum was the greatest. During his sets, the sparks flew as he outdid himself with each number. Pianists in the club were amazed. He'd conclude his set with blazing fury. Then Heywood would come on with something very simple—just a basic one-line figure in the bass—a quiet moment that would bring the house down. It was perfect.”
Countless musicians have spent their entire careers at a level of expertise from which they have never progressed—but not Johnny Guarnieri. His endless quest for excellence propelled him to hone his impressive talents to ever-sharper proportions. He was also a fine teacher, always willing and anxious to share his vast knowledge with anyone who would listen. He heaped encouragement and instruction upon a group of thriving new generation of jazzmen (he called them “my boys”) that included Norvin Armstrong, Ted Ziedses des Plantes, and Jim Turner. To repay Johnny for a decade of inspiration, some of “his boys” financed several recording sessions on a tiny independent label, Taz-Jazz.
Guarnieri left a golden legacy of more than six hundred great compositions. “The Great Fred Harding Circus Shout” is a thrilling tour de force of dynamic phrasing so difficult to execute properly that few pianists (p.128) even attempt it. His unique “The Lion Is Alive in Five” extends a 5/4 salute to the memory of another Guarnieri favorite, Willie “The Lion” Smith. “Turner Shout” was written for Jim Turner, who recorded it a few years ago on the Euphonic label. He matured under Johnny's guidance and is now included among the most promising pianists of our day.
Lucille and I frequently took Eubie Blake to the Tail o' the Cock. From his piano bench in the lounge, Johnny could see the front door. As we entered, he would immediately switch to a romping stride version of “I'm Just Wild About Harry.” Eubie greatly admired Johnny's playing; in a 1976 letter, he said:
Dear Floyd and Lucille,
Please give my regards to Johnny G.?—I can never call his name—let alone spell it! He is the greatest pianist I've ever heard—next to “One Leg” Willie—and I've heard all of them since 1902. But Johnny's my favorite.
To the last days of his life, Johnny was always striving for improvement. “Give me two more years,” he told me, “and I'll be as fast and accurate as anybody ever was. Anybody.”
He died before those two years were over, in January 1985—but we all knew he had already achieved his goal.
I'm Just Wild About Eubie—Memories of Eubie Blake
The 1969 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featured one of the best collections of musical talent ever assembled. It starred Count Basie and His Orchestra (whose members included Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate, and Earl Warren). The six-day festival also included performances by Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Milt Hinton, Jacki Byard, Alan Dawson, and Bob Green. New Orleans bands led by Jim Robinson, Sharkey Bonano, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Louis Cottrell, and Johnny Wiggs also appeared. Barry Martyn brought his group of young jazzmen from England, and Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band came from Denmark. Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Eddie Miller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Zutty Singleton, Harry Shields, Tony Parenti, and Sarah Vaughan rounded out the roster of jazz giants.
(p.129) Amid this mind-boggling array of talent, the festival's most impressive segment may have been a twelve-minute interval by a frail, eighty-six-year-old pianist. He needed assistance entering the stage when producer Willis Conover announced his name. As the applause mounted, his halting gait became a vigorous stride, until at last the little man was scampering toward the piano bench with his hands clasped over his head like a prize fighter. The next few moments were sheer magic. The pianist played with power and joy, juxtaposing an intricate right-hand melody against an electrifying left-handed “oom-pah” bass to create an intense ragtime syncopation.
That was my introduction to James Hubert “Eubie” Blake. In my festival review for Jazz Journal, I wrote:
An 86-year-old charmer, Eubie Blake, recalled an era when ragtime was the vogue. After shocking his southern audience with a few irreverent bars of “Marching Through Georgia,” the composer-pianist exchanged some ad-lib remarks with Willis Conover before striding into his “Charleston Rag.”
He paid tribute to his contemporary C. Luckey Roberts with the latter's “Spanish Venus,” followed by a most stirring ragtime version of Sousa's “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The Blake-Razaf classic “Memories of You” received an ovation from the appreciative audience responding warmly to Eubie Blake's youthful ebullience.
After the concert, I noticed the pianist standing alone in a quiet corridor backstage. I complimented him on his excellent performance and requested permission to take his picture. He graciously agreed and posed with bassist Milt Hinton, who approached at that moment. When I offered to send him a copy of the picture, he scoffed and quipped: “You guys have been takin' my pictures for seventy years—and I've never seen one of them!”
I promised to send the photo and asked for his address. He opened a small silver case and handed me a business card engraved with the words:
- EUBIE BLAKE
- COMPOSER OF SHUFFLE ALONG
- I'M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY
- LOU LESLIE'S BLACKBIRDS
That was three decades ago. The card, with my scrawled notation “send pic,” is still in my Eubie Blake file.
Hello there, friend,
Then, switching to red ink, he added,
And I do mean friend.
Like Geo. M. Cohan used to say—
Then, alternating ink colors on each line, he continued:
- My Mother thanks you [green ink]
- My Father thanks you [blue ink]
- My Sister thanks you [red ink]
- My Marion (my wife) thanks you [black ink]
- And I thank you! [blue ink]
- Sincerely, Your friend
- Eubie Blake
- P.S. I love the picture with Milt Hinton. I'll have it blown up and hang it in
- my gallery of great artists.
In 1995, when his image appeared on a thirty-two-cent stamp, my photo of Eubie and Milt Hinton was printed on the first-day-of-issue cachet, mailed during the annual jazz festival at Monterey, California.
Blake was born in 1883 in Baltimore, Maryland; his parents were both freed slaves. He began playing the piano at age four, getting his first lessons on a battered old parlor upright. His mother disapproved (p.131) of all secular music, but Eubie loved ragtime. He was sixteen years old when he wrote “Sounds of Africa” (later titled “Charleston Rag”) in 1899—the same year Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” was published. “I didn't write ‘Charleston Rag’ then,” he said. “I composed it. I learned to write about fifteen years later.”
Eubie regretted that ragtime's early association with saloons and houses of prostitution earned it a reputation as “trashy” music. “We're the only race that threw away its heritage because we were brain-washed by white people who couldn't play it,” he once told me. “They said ragtime was ‘low down’—and it wasn't art. You will notice I never use the vulgar word ‘jazz’—I always say ‘ragtime.’ By the time I was nineteen, with my long fingers, I could span an octave and a half. My mother always told me to keep my hands in my pockets—she was afraid people would imagine I was a pickpocket because of my long fingers. But I could play tenths easily.”
Around the turn of the century, “Little Hubie” began sneaking out of the house every night to play piano at a bordello in Baltimore's tenderloin district. “I didn't dare tell my parents about the job,” he said. “I was still a teenager—but I made more money in one night than my father made in a week working as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks. My mother took in washing to earn a few dollars. I hid my earnings under the linoleum in the parlor. Finally, when the pile got too high, I showed them the money. It was several hundred dollars. They no longer insisted I only play religious music.”
In 1919 Blake was touring the country with Jim Europe's 369th Infantry Jazz Band when the bandleader was tragically murdered. Noble Sissle assumed leadership of the band for the remaining bookings, and he and Blake hit the vaudeville circuit when the tour ended. They billed themselves as the Dixie Duo, with Sissle singing and Blake at the piano. It was the beginning of a long, very successful partnership.
“Right from the start,” Eubie emphasized, “we refused to appear in ‘blackface’—and no funny shoes and overalls. We came out in beautiful tuxedos, spoke proper grammar—none of that ‘dees’ and ‘dem’ stuff. Ours was the first Negro class act.” Assiduously avoiding the stereotypes that hampered black performers, they remained a class act throughout their careers.
In 1921, Sissle and Blake joined another black team, Miller and Lyles, in Shuffle Along, the first all-black Broadway show in more than a decade. It introduced “I'm Just Wild About Harry” and twenty additional Sissle-Blake tunes. The “showgirls,” including Adelaide Hall, (p.132) Josephine Baker, Freddie Washington, and Florence Mills, received $30 a week. The show ran for 504 performances and spawned three Shuffle Along road companies, which broke color barriers in theaters allacross the country.
Al Jolson's 1927 film The Jazz Singer is usually identified as the first American motion picture to include sound; the first talking movie actually appeared four years earlier. It was advertised as a “De Forest Phonofilm—it actually talks and reproduces music without use of a phonograph.” Sissle and Blake were the only black performers in the stellar vaudeville cast, which also included Weber and Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Phil Baker. The film premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York City in April 1923, making Sissle and Blake the first black performers to appear in a “talkie.” Blake made several more film appearances over the years. His last was in Scott Joplin, starring Billy Dee Williams, in 1976—fifty-three years after his screen debut.
“Memories of You,” Eubie Blake's most successful ballad, written in collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf, was in the Broadway show Lew Leslie's Black Birds of 1930. Eubie was always generous in hispraise for the Casa Loma Orchestra's trumpet star, Sonny Dunham, who championed “Memories of You” as a jazz tune in the late ′30s. Benny Goodman's recording a few years later firmly established the tune as a standard.
During the 1930s, Blake collaborated with Noble Sissle for several New York and London shows. He toured as musical director for USO productions during World War II. After the war he joined the faculty of New York University and toured as a lecturer and ragtime artist. In the 1960s he resumed recording, and in 1972 he established a publishing company. In 1970 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Eubie lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in a three-story brownstone house, the family home of his second wife, Marion. (If Marion was not in the room, he slyly remarked, “When I got the chicken, I also got the coop!”) Memories of a long career filled every corner of the house. From the entry door, a long narrow stairway led up to their central living area. Hanging on both sides were framed tributes (including the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and honorary doctorates from Brooklyn College, Dartmouth, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, and the New England Conservatory. There were also medals, citations, and photos—including hundreds of autographed pictures of musicians, four U.S. presidents, and members of European royalty. This was his (p.133) gallery. The small upstairs living room, dominated by a baby grand piano, was cluttered with pictures, records, and sheet music. He told me he practiced there three hours each day.
Although he lived to see his one hundredth birthday, Blake's daily diet violated every nutritional guideline. His favorite meal consisted of half a dozen doughnuts and a bottle of 7-Up. “If I knew I'd live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself,” he once told me. “People think I'm always drunk, because I stagger a lot. I don't drink anything; it's my arthritis.” Blake did smoke, prolifically—two packs of cigarettes a day. “When I was a child,” he explained, “my mother always gave me a penny to buy candy on the way to school. I noticed the bigger kids bought cigarettes instead. I began smoking when I was six years old—and never stopped.”
Blake always seemed happiest on the stage. In the ′70s and ′80s, when his popularity was at its peak, it seemed he would continue forever. Although he resisted air travel until he was ninety, Eubie was a busy bicoastal entertainer. He said, “I've never been on a plane and never expect to unless I'm handcuffed to a sheriff.” He would arrive in Los Angeles by train to make guest appearances on talk shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, and Mike Douglas. During those occasions, he usually visited our home, relaxing on a recliner, smoking a cigarette, and talking about musicians who had long been forgotten, including many who lived and died around the turn of the century. When I asked him about “One-Leg” Willie, a pianist he'd once mentioned in a letter, Blake said:
His name was Willie Joseph. His mother worked for some rich white people who recognized his talent and sent him to the Boston Conservatory. He was the first Negro to graduate as a classical pianist. He lost a leg in a skating accident in 1900. In those days, Negros weren't supposed to read music. We pretended we couldn't read and people would marvel at the way we could play show music and rags—they thought by ear. The only arrangement I ever copied was Willie's “Stars and Stripes Forever”—I still play it.
In December 1979, the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood hosted the West Coast premiere of Blake's Broadway show, Eubie! Lucille and I sat with Eubie and Marion in the front row. The gleam of a pinpoint spotlight hung like a halo over Eubie's bald head during the entire first act. After the final curtain calls, an on-stage ceremony honoring him featured surprise appearances from members of the show's New York cast, including Maurice and Gregory Hines. The after-show reception glittered with Hollywood stars, musicians, and fans.
(p.134) A few months later, Adelaide Hall, who had been living in London for forty years, made a rare appearance in New York City at Michael's Pub. We were the Blakes' dinner guests at the dazzling opening night and shared Eubie and Adelaide's reunion. Still youthful and attractive at seventy-six, Hall reprised the momentous 1927 wordless vocal on Ellington's “Creole Love Call,” confirming the still-regal splendor of her voice. Then she introduced Blake, who climbed on the stage to accompany her on “Memories of You.” Seated at our table between sets, the singer reminisced fondly with the eminent composer who had launched her career in 1923.
Blake often said he would never retire. “I'll keep performing until, one day while I'm on stage, the man upstairs says: ‘Nine, ten, you're out!’”
A distinguished cast came together to celebrate Blake's one-hundredth birthday on February 7, 1983, with an incredible two-hour concert. Adelaide Hall came from London to sing a medley of tunes from Shuffle Along, and pianists Dick Hyman, Dick Zimmerman, John Arpin, Max Morath, Billy Taylor, Terry Waldo, and Bobby Short added their talents to the show. The stellar rhythm section featured Howard Alden on banjo and guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Ron Traxler on drums.
Blake, stricken with pneumonia, was unable to attend the hundredth birthday concert; he watched a special closed-circuit broadcast of the event. The huge bouquet of yellow roses next to his bed was a gift sent by his friend, comedian Bill Cosby.
It was five days after his one hundredth birthday when, as he predicted, the man upstairs said: “Nine, ten, you're out!” At the time Eubie took the final count, he was the only one left who could authentically talk about and play the music from the ragtime era. He was there at the beginning.
The Maryland Historical Society and the Baltimore Cultural Arts Program received his huge collection of memorabilia, documenting the pianist's journey from bawdy houses to concert stages. The Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, also located in Baltimore, features several large displays and a bronze head of Eubie by noted sculptor Dr. William Douglas Hartley, a gift Lucille and I presented to the museum in 1988.
Eubie Blake's life and work spanned a considerable portion of our nation's musical history. He began in medicine and minstrel shows, made cylinder recordings and piano rolls, and became a major force in (p.135) the development of the American musical theater. His songs will continue to be a source of joy to music lovers.
Eubie Blake enriched the lives of countless friends and fans. I am fortunate to have been a member of both groups.
Jess Stacy appeared on my Jazz on Parade radio program on February 6, 1950. Born August 11, 1904, in Bird's Point, Missouri (which lies on the Mississippi about halfway between Memphis and St. Louis), he got his start playing on riverboats with jazzmen such as Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Fate Marable. He became part of Chicago's flourishing jazz scene in the mid-1920s and spent the swing era in popular big bands led by Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, and others. Stacy dropped out of sight in the early 1950s, but in the 1970s he made a brief, unexpected comeback.
By then we were neighbors, and I used to visit the aging pianist frequently. During one of our afternoons together, he said, “Years ago, I thought about writing my autobiography—about my days on the riverboats, Chicago in the ′20s, and so on. I started it once, but, I guess I forgot about it.” He gave me a wrinkled carbon copy of a handwritten manuscript he authored in 1946, perhaps as the first chapter of his intended autobiography. Published here for the first time, the document is steeped in the atmosphere of early jazz.
“ramblin',” By Jess Stacy
When I was the kid, I worked in Clark's Music Store in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. At night, after everyone had gone, I used to put one of those new-fangled flat records on our modern megaphone-type “His Master's Voice” phonograph and sweep the store to the beat of the latest jazz band recordings. Clark's was unquestionably the best-swept music store in the country at that time.
There was a big event three times a year at Cape Girardeau when the SS Capitol steamed into town to play a Mississippi River excursion. What excitement! They used to advertise the coming of the Capitol just the way they advertise jazz concerts and one-night stands these days. On the evening of the excursion we would go down to the levee early to listen to a (p.136) wonderful jazz band playing up on the deck. They attracted customers that bought tickets and went up the gangway for an evening's sailing.
Like all young boys, my mother made me take piano lessons, and I was beginning to try to sound like those riverboat bands. It was my burning ambition to get a job on the Capitol, but the players in those bands were such important musicians, it seemed that I would never make it.
I distinctly remember one night I went down to the levee, and up on the deck of the Capitol there was a new trumpet player, Louis Armstrong. It was Fate Marable's band, and in addition to Louis it featured two young brothers who played clarinet and drums—Johnny and Baby Dodds. The band played “Skeleton Jangle,” “Tiger Rag,” and the popular ballad “Whispering”—yes, the same “Whispering” that Dizzy Gillespie is playing today. But the most exciting of all was their version of “Railroad Man,” one of tunes that accompanied my nightly sweeping chores at Clark's Music Store.
Louis was young and green—in his late teens. He hadn't even seen St. Louis yet. He was on his way up the river for the first time. You can't imagine such energy, such musical fireworks Louis Armstrong played on that boat. The instrumentation of the band was piano, clarinet, drums, two trumpets, trombone, and, I think, a couple saxophones. Most of their material consisted of head arrangements, but occasionally they would fake around simple old-time dance orchestrations. Certainly there was no music written for that band. Who could write anything better than they could play naturally?
The next time the steamer Capitol tied up at Cape Girardeau was early on a fall evening. I ran down to see the boat because I knew that the famous jazz band called Tony Catalano's Iowans from Davenport was on board. Jimmy Cannon was the clarinetist, and Lyle Sexton played trombone. But when I got there, the band was silent, and Tony Catalano was looking for a piano player. Somebody pointed me out. He said, “Kid, get some long pants and come back here right away, you've got a job for tonight only.”
After that, I did get a regular job on the steamer Majestic for a while and soon joined Catalano's band on the Capitol. When we docked in Davenport, everybody knew Bix Beiderbecke, and all the cornet players in the bands around there used to imitate him before he was hardly known up in Chicago.
I remember one night Bix came on board in Davenport, his home town. At that time he was about nineteen years old and had just recorded “Riverboat Shuffle” with the Wolverines. Jimmy Cannon and Lyle Sexton greeted (p.137) him by singing his chorus on that record. Bix picked up Tony's cornet—he had his own mouthpiece—sat in and played “Eccentric” and “Skeleton Jangle” with us. He used the first valve most of the time and did the work of the other two valves with that wonderful lip. Of course, he knocked everybody stiff. And then, when he finished, he took over my bench at the piano, played “Give Me a June Night,” “Baby Blue Eyes,” and “Clarinet Marmalade,” and assassinated everyone all over again.
I didn't see Bix after that for about three years, the night he joined Paul Whiteman. I remember he didn't have a tuxedo; he had to borrow Jimmy McPartland's. His battered silver cornet was green with corrosion, and Bix carried it wrapped in a paper bag. I think he was still in his 20s when he died just a few years later.
More than two decades later, when he appeared on my radio show, Stacy was still performing Beiderbecke's songs (he played “In a Mist” during the broadcast). When he named Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong—both trumpeters—as two of the musicians who influenced him most, I remarked that it was unusual for a musician to be so heavily influenced by someone playing a different instrument. “I've been accused of playing a trumpet-style piano,” Stacy quipped.
Asked to reminisce about the Chicago jazz scene of the 1920s, he said: “King Oliver was playing at the Plantation at 35th and Calumet. Directly across the street, Louis Armstrong had a band at the Sunset Cafe. And upstairs, at a little supper club called the Nest, Jimmie Noone had a small group. I played out at the Midway Garden Ballroom. Some of my buddies were Muggsy Spanier and Frank Tesche-macher—they were in the band. … We'd go over and listen to King Oliver, then try to play the same tunes as best we could.” He spoke glowingly about Frank Teschemacher, whom he met in Chicago. “My buddy, Tesch, was way ahead of his time,” he said. “He patterned his phrasing on Bix Beiderbecke's cornet style and greatly influenced Benny Goodman.”
Stacy himself contributed to Goodman's sound. His beautifully improvised short segment on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” recorded with Goodman during a 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall, ranks among the most celebrated of jazz piano solos. The brilliant two-minute statement has an ecstatic quality, building slowly in graceful spirals. His other recordings, with such stars as Eddie Condon, Ziggy Elman, and Lionel Hampton, gave Stacy quite a following; he won Down Beat's 1940 poll as best pianist.
(p.138) By the time of his appearance on my show, Stacy had moved to Los Angeles and was playing at a little place called the Radar Room, tossing off riffs with Albert Nicholas, Johnny Lucas, Archie Rosati, and other friends. The Radar Room was among scores of locations where he played during more than a decade in the Los Angeles area. I have a stack of postcards announcing his various engagements. During that period, he maintained an extensive mailing list and diligently addressed an announcement whenever he moved to another club. Most of the venues were dismal piano bars where the customers were more concerned with conversation (or the blonde on the next stool) than the music. Occasionally Jess would have a few appreciative fans listening to him, but usually his music was merely a background for imbibing, and his audiences were seldom attentive.
“You know,” he used to say, “the public likes to hear things that look challenging. No matter how good it is, if it doesn't look hard, they pay no attention. You can play a simple riff, and if you beat your brains out and make it look difficult, they'll think it's wonderful and yell for more.”
One evening in North Hollywood, Jess was working at the piano bar in Leon's Steak House (he called it the “Snake Pit.”) The piano needing tuning, the drunks were noisier than usual, and an unsteady matron, requesting “Beer Barrel Polka” for the third time, spilled beer in his lap. That did it. Stacy stopped playing in the middle of a tune. He resolutely closed his piano, reached for his coat, stalked out of the club, and never returned—not even to pick up his paycheck. His bitterness was so intense, he refused to touch his piano for many years and firmly announced his profound hatred for the “@#%&*%” music business.”
After more than a decade of self-imposed isolation, Stacy returned to live performing with an appearance in “A Night in New Orleans,” the concert series I co-produced with Barry Martyn. It took many months to convince him that there was still a large group of fans anxious to hear him play. After much cajoling, he reluctantly agreed to play. On September 20, 1975, we featured Stacy in “A Night in New Orleans” at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles. He shared piano duties with Ralph Sutton; the two were appropriately billed as “The Keyboard Giants.” Stacy claimed he was extremely nervous, but he played with his usual verve and was rewarded by a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience.
Buoyed by this success, Stacy briefly resumed his career. He traveled to New York and recorded his second album for Hank O'Neal's (p.139) Chiaroscuro label, and he contributed to the soundtrack of the Paramount film The Great Gatsby. But his comeback was short-lived; he made only a few appearances and, after the late 1970s, again withdrew from the musical scene. He spent the remainder of his life living quietly in his Laurel Canyon home with his wife, Pat.
On New Year's Eve 1994, during his final days at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, Jess turned to his wife and said: “Teschemacher! Teschemacher!” Was he delirious? Or was he thinking about rejoining his old buddy? Jess died the next evening, on January 1, 1995.
Dedicated jazz historians have carefully researched Jess Stacy's long career, and the following books are currently available: Oh, Jess! A Jazz Life, by Keith Keller (Mayan Music Corporation, 1989), and Jess Stacy, the Quiet Man of Jazz, by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press, 1997).
Bass is the base—the bottom—the support. We hold the thing up—like Atlas of the music world.
Milt Hinton, addressing the world's greatest bassists at the International Society of Bassists Convention, Los Angeles, 1988
During the last six decades, Milt Hinton's career has been inextricably woven into every segment of jazz history—as a musician, producer, author, historian, teacher, and photographer.
Milt Hinton rose to fame playing string bass in Cab Calloway's orchestra from 1936 to 1951. He has since appeared with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and many other major jazz artists. Hinton's bass can be heard on hundreds of recordings spanning a broad range of styles. Bassists around the world agree that “The Judge” (as Hinton was fondly nicknamed) elevated the bass from back-of-the-bandstand anonymity to a featured role in modern jazz orchestras. He took the bass into previously uncharted territory.
With the steady beat of a fine watch, Hinton was always the main-spring of the rhythm section. Exercising a violin-like agility on his cumbersome instrument, he delved deeply within a tune to expose the roots from which its rhythmic and melodic impulses emerged. Hinton was always in full control, effortlessly establishing propulsive base lines to support the efforts of his sidemen; as a soloist, he enhanced each performance with individuality and charm.
In 1917 his family moved to Chicago, where Hinton studied violin and played in the high school orchestra. “We never played any jazz,” he said. “This was symphony stuff. The music was written out—there was no ad-libbing whatsoever.”
As a teenager, Hinton delivered newspapers in the Chicago Loop. “I started my route in the early morning,” he told me. “I was impressed with the well-dressed musicians I saw as they were leaving their jobs. This was the first time I had seen black men in tuxedos. I knew then that I would become a professional musician.”
After switching to tuba, he got his first job in 1929 while still a senior in high school. When the string bass gradually replaced the tuba, he took bass lessons from Dmitri Shmulkovsky of the Chicago Civic Opera Orchestra.
During the 1930s, Hinton worked in the Chicago area with Eddie South, Tiny Parham, Jabbo Smith, and Erskine Tate. After fifteen years with Cab Calloway, he settled in New York and soon was one of the city's most sought-after bassists. He became a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, traveled with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and accompanied Bing Crosby on several overseas tours. He recorded with hundreds of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Percy Faith, Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Quincy Jones. Because of his almost daily recording schedule, he kept a bass stored in a Manhattan loft to avoid having to carry the cumbersome instrument on the subway.
By the 1970s he was featured in jazz festivals around the world. He taught and conducted workshops at Hunter College in New York City and lectured at universities throughout the country. Invariably, Hinton was the senior member of the band when he performed, yet his youthful enthusiasm encouraged and inspired his younger colleagues. His heavy schedule included frequent performances until illness sidelined him in the 1990s. Exuding indefatigable energy, with his beloved Mona always at his side, Hinton hopped and skipped around the planet at a pace that would exhaust a performer half his age. He was a familiar sight at the world's airports—pushing his large bass ahead of him and dragging his heavy amplifier on a cart. Several times, when I offered assistance, he refused, saying: “I'll have to handle this load when no one is available to help, so I might as well do it now.”
(p.141) In addition to achieving greatness on stage, Hinton is an acknowledged master at jazz photography. His books Bass Line: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton (Temple University Press) and Over-time, The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton (Pomegranate Art Books)are widely acclaimed by photographers and jazz fans alike. In 1993 he became the first recipient of the Jazz Photographers Association's Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography. The beautiful bronze plaque was conceived by JPA member Bill Wishner and sculpted by noted artist Jim Casey. It was my privilege to present Hinton with the award. In his acceptance speech, he said, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to live up to this honor.”
Hinton's home is filled with tributes and citations presented to him for his musical achievements. The prestigious JPA award was the first recognition he received for his second artistic love, photography.
Hinton was the guest of honor at the 1993 Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival. The program included the West Coast premier of his very unique composition, “The Judge Meets the Section,” a jazz etude for string bass. Hinton had premiered the composition at his elaborate eightieth birthday celebration, held three years earlier at Town Hall in New York City; the L.A. festival marked its second performance. Hinton, seated in the center of the stage, was flanked by a dozen renowned colleagues. Only once before had so many esteemed bassists been assembled on one stage. This was the setting when they played “The Judge Meets the Section”:
Milt “The Judge” Hinton
As the rich resonance of thirteen bowed basses filled the ballroom, a large screen displayed images of Milt Hinton at various periods in his long career, as well as many of his renowned photographs. The audio/visual presentation showcased his two loves—the string bass and the camera. Milt played his bass from 1929 on and created important photographic remembrances of his peers beginning in 1935.
Every musician will agree that time holds a band together and con-tributes the syncopated pulsation that makes it swing. Milt's famous signature tune was, appropriately, “Old Man Time.” He played and (p.142) sang it at every performance. During the last few years, as he sped past the eighty mark, the tune took on a sentimental air and caused tears to appear in many eyes.
- Old Man Time, he's so mean,
- He's the meanest man you've ever seen
- He gave me youth, then he took it away,
- He took my curly hair, and turned it gray
- He made me rich—made me poor
- Oh, he's mean that's for sure!
- All my dreams and all my schemes
- Don't mean a thing!
- He gave me beauty, charm and grace
- Then put wrinkles in my face
- That's Old Man, Old Man Time
- Some people call him arthritis
- And others say bursitis
- But no matter what his name
- His game is still the same
- To make me forget what I went to the store for
- Or what it was I used to chase those girls for
- That's Old Man, Old Man Time
- “Old Man Time” by Cliff Friend/ Jack Reynolds (EMI Miller Catalog, Inc. 1961); closing chorus lyrics by Milt Hinton
While he epitomized the phrase “musician's musician,” Milt Hinton attracted friends from throughout the jazz community: players, technicians, producers, promoters, and—especially—listeners. They all share an abiding admiration for the great jazzman. The key word here is “love.” Hinton radiated a sincere love for his friends, and they returned his warm affection.
Trombonist Spiegle Willcox was the sole surviving member of the 1925 Jean Goldkette Orchestra, where he played alongside Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, and Bix Beiderbecke.
In 1995 I visited him at his home in upstate New York. My mission was to interview the nonagenarian for the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Oral History Program. His home was not visible from the narrow back road; a rural postal box on an unmarked lane was the only indication (p.143)
A few days earlier, during the Jersey Jazzfest at Stephens College in Hoboken, New Jersey, I had presented Spiegle with the American Federation of Jazz Societies' Benny Carter Award. The bronze figure was proudly displayed on his mantle when we arrived at his house. Our conversations were recorded in a large family room overlooking his private lake—where he often caught a fresh trout for his morning breakfast. During our two day-long sessions, he told me about many incidents that highlighted his long career.
Willcox was born on May 2, 1903; his real name is Newell Lynn Willcox. “I don't remember when or why I got the nickname ‘Spiegle,’” he told me, “but it's easier to remember than ‘Newell.’” When he was nineteen years old, he went to New York with an eight-piece band from Cornell University. They were hired to appear as Paul Whiteman's Collegians. “We played at a very swanky nightclub called the Rendezvous—a lot of celebrities came in. I remember seeing Will Rogers and William S. Hart. The boss's girlfriend was Gilda Gray, the famous shimmy dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. We made a few Victor (p.144) “recordings. Our pay was a hundred dollars a week—quite a sum in those days.”
When Tommy Dorsey left the California Ramblers in 1925, Spiegle replaced him for a few weeks before joining Jean Goldkette's Orchestra at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. “We had no microphones in those days,” Willcox recalled. “We played our solos into mega-phones.” (He still had the large conical contraption and later demonstrated how his horn sounded when he blew into the early “amplifier.”) Goldkette had four orchestras operating under his name and also employed the Orange Blossom Band and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. “Our group was conducted by Russ Morgan,” said Willcox. “Bill Challis became our arranger. Goldkette seldom appeared; he handled the band's business. Once, during a week's engagement in a Detroit theater, he played piano on ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’”
For the next two years Willcox was in the “big time,” playing on radio broadcasts and at parties and college dances. The band continued its engagement at the Graystone, rehearsing in the basement of the building:
Russ Morgan conducted in public, but Fuzzy Farrar, our lead trumpet player, handled the rehearsals. He put the brass, reeds and rhythm players in different rooms to rehearse their sections separately before bringing it all together. We worked on each tune for several days until it was perfect.
Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer joined the band in the spring of 1926. Bix was down to earth and a very nice guy—very modest, almost shy. The audiences were not particularly aware of him, but the musicians in the other bands recognized his skills. I knew he was a great player and also knew the band was very good—but I never dreamed we would be legends half a century later.
Steve Brown [the band's bass player] had been with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings—did a lot of nice bow work and was an expert with the slap bass technique.
With our new Challis arrangements of “Blue Room” and “On the Alamo,” plus Trumbauer's “Clarinet Marmalade” and “Singin' the Blues,” the band became very successful. We were a big hit on our New England tour during the fall. Bix played the best horn of his whole career—and when Itzy Riskin needed a break, Bix took over on piano.
Spiegle married his hometown sweetheart, Helen Gunsaules, in 1925. A couple of years later, when he took a few days off to return home to be with Helen for the birth of their son Newell, Jr., he asked Tommy Dorsey to take his place in the Graystone Ballroom band. “Bix, Don Murray, and some of the Goldkette players were checking (p.145) the horses running at a Chicago racetrack that day,” Willcox remembered, “and they noticed an entry named ‘Helen's Babe.’ It was a long shot, but they each put in a few bucks and bet on the horse to win. It did! They made a couple of hundred dollars.”
Shortly thereafter, Willcox left the Goldkette band and returned to upstate New York, where he entered the family coal business. He continued playing in the Ithaca-Syracuse area and kept a band busy on weekends for many years. Several large posters advertising “Spiegle Willcox and His Orchestra” adorn the walls of his home, along with framed vintage photos of the young trombonist playing in the Cortland YMCA Band, Paul Whiteman's Collegians, and the Goldkette Orchestra.
In 1975, forty-eight years after he left the Goldkette band, Willcox returned to New York to participate with former Goldkette players in a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. He was invited to another Bix tribute during the Newport Jazz Festival that year and soon found himself back on the road with his old colleague, Joe Venuti. After that, Willcox's career surged ahead at full steam.
He was featured at the Palm Springs Jazz Festival in 1989 with C-Melody saxophonist Rosy McHargue and Harry Gold, the English bandleader and bass saxophonist. I enjoyed conducting a symposium with the three musicians, all in their late eighties. They played together and fielded questions from the audience. Willcox's daughter Cynthia was beaming in the front row, holding her father's battered horn case on her lap. That afternoon was a joyous exercise in jazz history I will never forget!
In 1995 Spiegle was the featured artist at a jazz festival in Yuba City, California. He grinned when he said: “At ninety-two, I was their first choice as poster boy—at the Prune Festival!”
While in his mid-nineties, Willcox travelled frequently to jazz festivals in the United States and Europe. He always had a broad smile, retained a youthful alertness, and enjoyed reminiscing. Jazz fans throughout the world considered him a friend. So did I.
Spiegle died August 26, 1999.
The history of jazz has been brightened by scores of great musicians. Their contributions, individually and collectively, have endowed the (p.146) music with a bountiful legacy from which future generations of fans and musicians will always draw inspiration. Among those in the Pantheon of Jazz Greats, just a few—perhaps only one or two on each instrument—are ranked as true titans.
These towering “Giants” have shaped the paths jazzmen will continually follow in whatever direction this music might ramble. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller will forever be included in this select group.
Eddie lived near us in Studio City. He and Edna were teenage sweethearts when they were married in New Orleans more than sixty years before. We often met them walking side by side at the neighborhood Hughes Market. Edna selected the groceries and Eddie pushed the shopping cart. Although on stage he seemed taller, he was actually a very short man. We were always amused to see the acknowledged jazz giant completely dwarfed by his huge load of groceries.
Eddie established clear guidelines for the way a tenor saxophone should be played in a Dixieland band. He skillfully added warmth and depth to the ensembles by spinning graceful musical webs between trombone, trumpet, and clarinet.
His beautifully developed solos, logical extensions of a tune's roots, bloomed with majestic splendor. This magic, continuing over the years, appears on hundreds of classic jazz recordings that include his easily identifiable sound. Regretfully, his golden Selmer horn has been silent for almost a decade.
It has been sixty years since I heard my first Dixieland record—and it was an Eddie Miller recording! It was a joyous, relaxed Bob Crosby Bob Cats' version of “'Till We Meet Again” played by Jack the Bell Boy during his all-night radio program in Los Angeles. I was extremely moved by the thirty-two-bar saxophone solo—and bought the record the next day!
The beautiful 78 rpm blue label Decca (No. 2825) with bright gold printing cost thirty-five cents, a formidable amount in those lean years. The fine print identified the tenor sax player as Eddie Miller. He was in good company: Billy Butterfield was on trumpet, Matty Matlock played clarinet, Warren Smith was the trombonist, Joe Sullivan majestically handled the piano keys, Nappy Lamare was strumming his guitar, Bob Haggart played string bass, and Ray Bauduc was the drummer.
This was 1939—the peak of the big band era, and Bob Crosby's orchestra was riding the crest of the musical wave. They enjoyed the choicest bookings and received nationwide radio exposure. My high school homework was frequently interrupted by their nightly “remotes.”
(p.147) I can still hear the saccharine-voiced announcer purr his introduction to the Crosby broadcasts “from the beautiful Casino Ballroom at romantic Catalina Island overlooking the harbor lights of Avalon Bay and the blue Pacific.” I listened attentively to my bedside radio anxiously awaiting the Bob Cats, the small group that usually spotlighted Eddie's saxophone.
Eddie Miller (Edward Raymond Muller) was born in New Orleans on June 23, 1911. His earliest musical activity was with a local youth band. “I was just starting out, fourteen years old—taking alto sax lessons,” he told me several years ago. “I heard about this newsboys' band—everyone in New Orleans had a band in those days. I wasn't very interested in selling papers, but I got a job at the New Orleans Item so I could join their band.”
Two years later, he was a professional musician. At seventeen he was playing with the eminent New Orleans Owls at the Hotel Grunewald on Canal Street. After a few years in the Crescent City's “big time,” Miller yielded to the lure of New York City. He was immediately recognized as an upcoming talent and played his alto saxophone with several prominent Gotham bands.
In 1930, at the age of nineteen, Eddie was hired to play tenor sax in the very successful Ben Pollock Orchestra at the Park Central Hotel. The Pollock band included Eddie's fellow New Orleanians Nappy Lamare and Ray Bauduc, and future associates Matty Matlock and Gil Rodin.
When Pollock's band broke up in 1934, Miller, Rodin, Lamare, Matlock, and Bauduc formed the nucleus of a coop group. They hired Bing Crosby's young brother, Bob, the handsome vocalist with the Dorsey Brothers' Orchestra, to front the band.
Until interrupted by World War II, the great band showcased near-forgotten Dixieland standards dressed in brilliant arrangements by Deane Kincaide and Matty Matlock. Amid the surfeit of fine “swing” bands, this was the only group sustaining the earlier sounds of New Orleans during the big band era.
Eddie Miller's contribution to the Crosby band's success was immeasurable. Their Decca records, now rare collectors' items, preserve his best efforts. Eddie's clarinet can be heard on the timeless “South Rampart Street Parade” and “Dog Town Blues.” On “Slow Mood,” a Miller original, his landmark solo vividly displays the tenor sax skill that attracted worldwide acclaim.
Most of the instrumentalists at Dixieland jazz festivals around the world have never witnessed live performances by the original Bob (p.148) Crosby orchestra; however, its strong influence on younger players is still very apparent. Many tunes they play, and the manner in which they play them, are based on Bob Crosby recordings. Often, this motivation has led succeeding generations of musicians to trace the earlier roots of the music that also inspired the Bob Cats half a century ago.
Eddie Miller's horn enhanced hundreds of records during his long career. None are more memorable than the 1949 Jump Record sessions, when he eloquently shared the mood with pianist Stan Wrights-man and the guitar master George Van Eps.
Duke Ellington's beautiful composition “Sophisticated Lady” was always a Miller favorite. Probably his most impassioned version is on an extraordinary recording with a fine Italian guitarist, Lino Patruno, and the Milan College Jazz Society.
I recently replayed my treasured copy of “'Till We Meet Again.” The passing years have not dimmed the brilliant sounds that introduced me to Eddie Miller's music. That singular experience eventually led to a rewarding lifetime quest for knowledge about jazz and the men who play it. I often thought I should thank him.
We are fortunate to have seen and heard Eddie for years. He frequently appeared with his own band, periodic reunions of the Bob Crosby Orchestra, with Pete Fountain's band, the World's Greatest Jazz Band, Abe Most's groups, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, and at Bob Taber's Poor Angel Jazz Parties.
The last time I spoke to him was during the 1987 Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival. He was seated on his horn case near the bandstand awaiting his next set. As I approached, he greeted me with the familiar beaming smile accentuating his flushed cheeks and boyish face. Only the lines around his eyes betrayed his seventy-six years. Eddie's soft voice retained a trace of his New Orleans drawl. We spoke briefly, and I took his picture.
Unfortunately, I overlooked this last opportunity to thank him for the years of musical pleasure he had given to me—and to the world. Two years later, when the Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival was dedicated to his lifetime achievements, he was too ill to attend.
Eddie Miller died April 1, 1991.
In 1947, after leading a big band for many years, Louis Armstrong decided to return to the small-band format of his New Orleans roots. He (p.149) assembled a formidable group of musicians: Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Dick Cary on piano, Sid Catlett at the drums, and Velma Middleton on vocals. And the bass player for this seminal ensemble was Morty Corb.
Since his arrival in Los Angeles in 1946, Corb had established a stellar reputation; his mastery of the string bass brought him offers in every phase of the music business. He was in constant demand for club dates, concerts, recordings, radio and television programs, and films. When Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, phoned from New York and asked Corb if he would be interested in joining the new group Armstrong was assembling, the popular bassist jumped at the chance.
Louis Armstrong's All-Stars opened in Los Angeles at Billy Berg's Vine Street club on August 13, 1947. They were an immediate hit, playing to packed houses and garnering rave reviews. But when Armstrong decided to take the band on a world tour, Corb balked.
“My biggest compliment was when Louis said, ‘I like your playing. I would like you to go to Europe with me,’” Corb told me in a 1988 interview. “I declined—partly because I do not like to fly, but also because I was just starting to get roots in the studios, and that was what I wanted to do.” Arvell Shaw took over on bass for the All-Stars.
Corb was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 10, 1917, and learned to play the ukulele at the age of six. Without any formal training, he graduated to the guitar and soon came under the influence of blues recordings by the legendary guitarist Jimmy Rodgers. While still in high school he heard radio broadcasts by the Light Crust Doughboys, a jazz-oriented Texas group that included Knocky Parker on piano. He fell in love with the sound of the string bass in the band and persuaded his father to buy him a bass for $60.
As a youngster, he listened to most of the Texas bands, including groups led by Troy Floyd, Alphonse Trent, Don Albert, Boots and his Buddies, Terry Shand, and Peck Kelly. He played his first professional job at seventeen, earning $3 a night with a San Antonio dance band led by John Fielder.
In 1939 he joined an Arkansas traveling band led by Carl “Deacon” Moore, earning $47.50 a week. After four weeks of one-night stands, he joined Dusty Rhodes' band for a hotel engagement in Kansas City, Missouri. “I was ready to go back to San Antonio when the Rhodes band folded,” Corb told me in 1988, “but I received a wire from Joe Reichman [then known as the ‘Pagliacci of the Piano’] asking me to join his band as a guitarist. The salary was about three times what I had been getting, plus extras.”
(p.150) Corb made his first recordings with Reichman, and his travels with the band took him to Los Angeles for the first time. “On our night off, I visited many of the clubs in L.A.,” he told me. “I heard Nat Cole at the 331 Club; Art Tatum was at the Streets of Paris. The town was loaded with jazz.”
After serving in World War II, Corb returned to Los Angeles for good and began his studio career, working at radio station KLAC. His career soared considerably after his successful 1947 engagement with Louis Armstrong. Before long he was recording almost every day. The hundreds of artists with whom he recorded included Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Nat Cole, Judy Garland, Pete Fountain, Jess Stacy, Stan Kenton, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory, and scores of others. He played bass on the entire Time-Life series of recordings. In addition, Corb appeared in films with Red Nichols, Peggy Lee, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, Benny Carter, Ray Anthony, and Les Brown. He played nightclub and concerts dates throughout the Los Angeles area with Abe Most, Al Hirt, Kay Starr, Jimmy Durante, Ray Conniff, Helen ƠConnell, Connie Haines, Eddie Fisher, Errol Garner, and Walter Gross.
When he died on January 13, 1996, at age seventy-nine, hundreds of colleagues and fans turned out for the memorial service. The musical program at his funeral included the cheerful jazz he played for six decades—songs like “Easy to Remember,” “Frankie and Johnny,” and his personal favorite, “You'd Be So Easy to Love.” Joyous applause filled the crowded chapel after each number.
Several of his friends participated. Each expressed an individual memory tinged with humor and love. Collectively, their sincere comments created a vivid perception of the man whose life they celebrated. During an extremely moving moment, Dave Caughren, a friend for fifty years, played a tape recording of Corb singing an original tune at a recent job.
As a final touch of class, his bronze casket was majestically transported to the nearby mausoleum in a glistening forty-five-year-old Rolls Royce hearse. While the pallbearers slid his casket into its marble niche, a tall palm, framed in an adjacent glass portal, swayed vigorously in the wind, as if to wave farewell. We all returned to our cars, humming “There's a Harp Waiting for Me in Heaven,” played on tape during the service. Corb himself was the singer; his prophetic lyrics were:
- I've got a harp waiting for me in heaven,
- and I'm gonna play some jazz
- at that big jam session in the sky.
Albany Leon “Barney” Bigard was one of the foremost exponents of the New Orleans-style clarinet. His delicate passages, though spoken very softly, shouted the clarion call of pure jazz. Undulating chromatic runs flowed smoothly from his Albert system horn, reshaping familiar melodies into thrilling new sounds. The warmth and vitality of Bigard's playing conjured vivid images of New Orleans. A longtime member of Duke Ellington's orchestra, he spent most of his life away from his hometown, yet the Crescent City's spirit always came through in Bigard's music and in the gentlemanly way he related to people.
He was born in a little house on Villere Street in New Orleans' French Quarter in March 3, 1906. His uncle, the jazz violinist Emile Bigard, encouraged him to study clarinet with Lorenzo Tio, Jr., the great teacher who also tutored such notables as Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, and Albert Nicholas (see Chapter 4).
One of his first musical jobs was with bandleader Octave Gaspard, who asked Barney's grandmother for permission to employ the young clarinetist. This is how Bigard recalled that incident:
She thought I was too young to play a job with him, but he volunteered to get me home safely, so she finally gave in. That night at the job we had a rough time. I couldn't get with those cats—the first thing they put me on was “Tiger Rag,” and I was still trying to make the first part by the time they were already to the breaks. They were all holding their heads and moaning, but I didn't care, I wanted to learn, and I had what they called a “hard face” in those days. My desire to play made it impossible to insult me, and I guess it was a good thing. I played so badly they used to call me “the snake charmer.”
Then the sax came out. I got me a tenor and I discovered it was a lot easier to play than the clarinet. My reputation and my calls improved quite rapidly, and before long I got my revenge. If they wanted me, they had to pay double. That meant a dollar fifty a night instead of seventy-five cents.
Eventually Tio's tutelage became evident, and young Bigard played his clarinet in New Orleans bands led by Armand Piron and Buddy Petit. When he was eighteen years old and playing at Tom Anderson's Cafe on Basin Street, he received an offer to join Joe Oliver's band in Chicago. This group included some old friends from New Orleans, including Bud Scott, Paul Barbarin, and Albert Nicholas. Bigard reminisced:
One day in 1924, I received a telegram from King Oliver in Chicago. Albert Nicholas and Luis Russell had gone on to Chicago before. When the King (p.152) asked them to recommend a tenor man, they mentioned me. We were to open Christmas Eve at the Royal Gardens, but we didn't get to because the place burned down that night.
Nicholas and I roomed together, scuffling 'til the King could get another job. We finally opened at the Plantation. Satchmo was across the street at a place called the Sunset Cafe. After a long run at the Plantation, we went on the road. The band got stranded in St. Louis and finally made it to New York—boxcar fashion, that is.
We worked on and off around New York, but it was rough, so when I got an offer from Charlie Elgar in Milwaukee, I was glad to take the job for the summer. I came back to New York and joined Luis Russell at a club called the Nest. It was here I met Duke Ellington. He used to come in and hear the band, and after talking things over I decided to join him and stayed fourteen years.
From 1928 to 1942, Barney Bigard added a New Orleans flavor to the Duke's rich orchestrations, carefully blending his horn with the eloquent phrasings of Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Joe Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol. Under Ellington's guidance, this amalgamation of talent formed what many consider the greatest jazz orchestra of all time.
As a composer, Bigard made some monumental contributions to the Ellington songbook, including “Rockin' in Rhythm,” “Saturday Night Function,” “Clarinet Lament,” “Clouds in My Heart,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and the dreamy 1930 tone poem “Mood Indigo.” The Duke's expressive arrangements were greatly enhanced by Bigard's flowing improvisations. He left the Ellington band in 1942 when travel conditions became increasingly deplorable during World War II. Despite a succession of great players, no one has completely filled his chair.
During the next few years, Bigard accepted a few club jobs, worked with Freddy Slack, and played on several recording dates and studio sessions in the Los Angeles area. Few are aware that he was responsible for Kid Ory's emergence from retirement in the 1940s. Ory, inac-tive musically since 1933, raised chickens and turkeys during the Depression years. One night in 1942, Bigard urged him to bring his horn to the Capri Club, where the clarinetist was leading a small band that included nineteen-year-old Charlie Mingus on string bass. Ory soon joined the band and, with Bigard's help, recouped long-delinquent publisher's royalties on his old compositions “Muskrat Ramble,” “Savoy Blues,” and “Ory's Creole Trombone.” He eventually reformed his Creole Jazz Band and resumed his career.
(p.153) When Louis Armstrong assembled his All-Stars for a brief 1947 engagement at Billy Berg's Hollywood bistro, he selected Bigard to handle the clarinet chores. Although hastily assembled, the All-Star band was immediately successful. Bigard played with Satchmo for the next eight years, bringing traditional jazz to every corner of the world.
In September 1955, the clarinetist played his last job with Armstrong at Gene Norman's Crescendo on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. His replacement, Edmond Hall, sat at our table, listening very carefully to the band's arrangements. Ironically, Hall had been selected to fill Bigard's chair once before, after Bigard left the Ellington band in 1942; he turned down that offer because of the rigorous wartime conditions. Now, thirteen years later, he again had the opportunity to succeed his New Orleans colleague. When Bigard joined us after each set, he and Hall reminisced about their early days back home, serving their apprenticeships together with bandleader Buddy Petit.
After leaving Armstrong, Bigard retired in Los Angeles, where he spent a quiet life with his beloved wife, Dorothe. Though still very much in demand for concert tours, jazz festivals, club dates, and television appearances, he accepted few offers, content to share his vast talent with Southern California Hot Jazz Society members during our monthly sessions at Larchmont Hall.
When he learned that the Louis Armstrong Statue Fund was established, Barney became the first Los Angeles contributor. He donated his services for the concert that officially launched the fund-raising activities, “Hello Louis!”
Barney and I became crawfishing partners. During the summer months we prowled the humid shores of the Los Angeles River, gathering “mud bugs” in nets made for us by Tudie Garland. After boiling them in Barney's torrid Creole broth, we would consume a mountain of the little red crustaceans with Lucille's potato salad and cold beer. During those jovial occasions he was most reflective. His tales were sometimes farcical, frequently apocryphal, but always intriguing. When he was in a jocular mood, he often spoke about the Pelican Trio, named after the state bird of Louisiana. The fabled group never actually existed until 1976, although Barney had been talking about it for years. Here's the story:
In 1945, a famous jazz critic insisted on interviewing the clarinetist after a long nightclub set. Exhausted, Barney suggested delaying the interview until the next day. When the writer persisted, Barney sent him (p.154) off with some fabricated memories from the early days in New Orleans. “The guy kept bugging me all night long, and I wanted to rest,” he told me. “To get him off my back, I invented the Pelican Trio.” Barney told the critic that this fictional band and its mythical members played in the ornate parlor at Lulu White's Storyville brothel, Mahogany Hall, before World War I. Flush with this wealth of “new” material, the gullible writer published the complete story in a national magazine. The article created quite a furor, and the Pelican Trio took on a life of its own. Musicians told and retold the story, and rumors began to circulate that rare cylinder recordings by the long-lost trio were out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
This tale remained an inside joke until 1976, when Bigard put together a real Pelican Trio and recorded an album. Duke Burrell played piano and Barry Martyn played drums on this, the last of a very long chain of Bigard recordings that began in 1925. It is now available on CD (Jazzology JCD-228).
The Bigard tales about his jazz activities could fill a book—in fact, they do. In 1972, my friend Barry Martyn began recording Barney's reminiscences. After several years of taping and several more spent in transcribing and editing, Martyn had a very revealing manuscript. Macmillan Press finally published With Louis and the Duke in 1985.
Martyn and I had lured Bigard out of retirement three years before the Pelican Trio album. He was the star attraction in our first “A Night in New Orleans” show (1973), which also featured Trummy Young, the French clarinetist Maxim Saury, and Barry Martyn's Legends of Jazz. Invigorated by that activity, Bigard returned to his basic roots. His memories of Tio, Piron, Petit, Oliver, and Armstrong were still vivid, and his love for Crescent City music was evident in each production of “A Night in New Orleans.”
In our 1975 edition, at Barney's suggestion, we included a special Duke Ellington segment when the tour reached Los Angeles. Billed as “Ellington Remembered,” the act reunited Bigard with his old buddy Ray Nance, the ex-Ellington star, who flew out from New York for the event. The segment included pianist Duke Burrell, bassist Bobby Stone, and Louis Bellson on drums.
When Barney played his perennial feature, “Roseroom,” I thought the applause would shatter the old Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Nance's beautifully muted trumpet on “Poor Butterfly” was a masterful expression of tone and substance. He switched to violin for a memorable version of “Come Sunday.”
(p.155) We did not know this would be Nance's final appearance. His flights from New York to Los Angeles and back were timed between scheduled kidney dialysis treatments. Ray Nance died within three months after his Los Angeles triumph.
With varying casts of about thirty people, “A Night in New Orleans” toured from 1973 through 1980 in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Barney was the featured artist every year except 1976, when a last-minute illness prevented his traveling; Benny Carter substituted for him. Carter enjoyed our European tour so much he joined us again in 1978, sharing top billing. We called them “The Reed Giants—Benny Carter and Barney Bigard.”
The seriousness of Barney's illness became apparent during the 1979 tour. We learned he had been receiving treatment for lung cancer—but, determined to make the trip, he had kept the matter secret. We arranged to have wheelchairs waiting for him at airports and made every effort to ease the rigors of travel.
We decided to alter our concert program to make it easier for Barney, who usually closed the show. At each auditorium, during the intermission, the Bigard feature was set up on stage behind the closed curtain. The musicians were in place, and Barney was seated on a stool, before I made the introductory remarks in front of the curtain. As it slowly opened, the band began playing, and Barney, despite his weakened condition, sounded as good as ever. When the set concluded, the curtains closed, and we helped the great clarinetist off the stage. The audience was never aware of his frail condition.
Barney's deteriorating health prevented his appearance in the 1980 European tour of “A Night in New Orleans.” We had an all-star cast that included Trummy Young, Carrie Smith, Cousin Joe, Freddy Kohlman, and the Legends of Jazz, but our star performer was still missed; fans and reviewers throughout Europe asked, “Where's Barney Bigard?”
When he died June 27, 1980, we decided to discontinue our series. Without him, there could never be “A Night in New Orleans.” During his seventy-four years, spanning most of jazz's history, he brought the Crescent City spirit to millions of fans around the world. I am proud that our concert series gave this mature talent one more run in the spotlight.
My graveside eulogy, delivered on a knoll at Holy Cross Cemetery, was accompanied by a softly playing tape, “The Best of Barney,” lovingly prepared by pianist Bruce McDonald.
He went after music as if leading a band into battle, often waving his hand in a circle above his head like John Wayne leading a cavalry charge.
The Wildest One: The Life of Wild Bill Davison, by Hal Willard
He was a very imposing figure seated on a high stool blowing his King B-flat cornet with a wad of chewing gum bulging in his cheek—always immaculately attired, a brilliant shine on his shoes, and never a hair out of place. His sweet and often torrid tones, among the most recognized sounds in jazz, were also immaculate.
William Edward “Wild Bill” Davison was one of jazz's most charismatic figures. Sounding jaunty, crass, or lusty, depending upon the number, he always played each note to accentuate the song's nuances. He made every ballad his own, inevitably ending it with his trademark—a low, growling, insinuating coda that was “the musical equivalent of an innocent wicked wink,” as Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
The famed jazz cornetist was born on January 5, 1906, in Defiance, Ohio, a town whose name is synonymous with his lifestyle—and his horn playing. His long career spanned seven decades; when he died in 1989, he left a wondrous trove of more than eight hundred recordings.
Davison was fifteen when he played in his first band, the Ohio Lucky Seven (which he immodestly called “a damn good band”). Reared during the “rhythm and booze” years of the ′20s, he played with Bix Beiderbecke, survived the swing era of the ′30s and ′40s, helped spark the New Orleans revival period of the ′50s, and kept the music alive long after most of his contemporaries had died.
Many of Davison's fans were introduced to his assertive, energetic style by a wonderful 1943 Commodore 78 rpm recording: “Panama”/ “That's a Plenty.” The cornetist punches his way through nine minutes of compelling jazz, displaying the brash shouts, robust growls and slurs, and strong harmonic embellishments that remained his trademark for another forty years. That sound, said Davison, was inspired by the great Louis Armstrong: “I copied Louis' tone—and the feeling in his heart—as much as possible. Just to be able to make one note sound like Louis is an accomplishment.” Armstrong and Davison became close friends, and in 1971, shortly before he died, Armstrong told him: “If anything happens to me, I know you will keep on doing (p.157) what I'm doing.” And so he did—Davison kept Satchmo's memory alive for eighteen years after the acclaimed musician died.
Those who knew Wild Bill were never sure if his nickname reflected his lifestyle or his cornet playing—probably both. He got the moniker years ago when a Chicago promoter hung a huge poster outside a Southside ballroom heralding the forthcoming appearance of “‘WILD BILL’ DAVISON—THE WHITE LOUIS ARMSTRONG.” Davison was embarrassed, especially as the performance was in a black neighborhood, but the name stuck. Early in his career Davison earned a reputation for excess. Anne Davison, his “fifth and final” wife (they were married thirty-five years), earned the gratitude of jazz fans around the world by assiduously monitoring Wild Bill's drinking, smoking, and kleptomania. Her business card read: “ANNE DAVISON—SLAVE.”
One of our last conversations was in his comfortable home in Santa Barbara, California. We were seated on a plush sofa, his cornet resting on a pillow between us. He was wearing pajamas—his usual attire when entertaining guests. Somehow it seemed appropriate. The pajamas were neatly pressed, the black leather slippers gleamed, and his white hair was meticulously combed. Although his manner seemed serious, a twinkle appeared in his eye when I asked if he had any hobbies. “Booze, broads, and fast cars,” he replied. I inquired about their sequence, and he said: “It doesn't matter.” He quickly added, “That, of course, was ‘B.A.’—before Anne.”
His on-stage humor was usually ribald. If Bill told a crude joke, Anne was always chagrined and severely admonished him. When he introduced a ballad with, “Here's an old piece—that's the only kind I get,” Anne's angry reprimand was an incisive “Will-yiam!” Wild Bill frequently announced: “I am a deeply religious man; I have worn a heavy cross around my neck for many years.” Pointing to Anne, he added, “There she is in the first row.”
In later years, his between-tunes banter included: “I've just had some very serious surgery—they cut out my drinking!” If a heckler in the audience annoyed him, he would snarl, “Get your own damn band!”
By the 1960s Davison had become a bandleader in his own right; his fine Jazz Giants included Benny Morton on trombone, Herb Hall on clarinet, Johnny Giuffrida on bass, Buzzy Drootin on drums, and Nat Pierce on piano. He also had established a huge following in Japan, where a young cornet player named Akira Kohmo obtained a copy of Davison's album Wild and Mild in the mid-1960s. Kohmo, (p.158) leader of a Dixieland band at Rikkyo University, used the LP as a teaching aid, transcribing every part note for note. The young musicians practiced these songs to perfection and finally performed the material in concert. Sadly, Akira Kohmo died soon after this performance.
Seventeen years later, the surviving band members staged a reunion concert to honor their departed friend. The Akira Kohmo Memorial Concert was presented in Rikkyo University's Tucker Hall on October 18, 1985. Davison himself sat proudly in Akira Kohmo's chair, leading a band that had used Wild and Mild as a textbook of traditional jazz. A recording was made of the concert, and it in the fall of 1994 it was finally issued in a special CD pressing. This beautifully packaged album captures the full emotional impact of an extraordinary concert. At seventy-nine, Davison played with verve and fiery passion. Reaching for low notes to underscore a ballad's tenderness or soaring with clear high tones, he retained the mastery that brought him to our attention four decades earlier. The Japanese musicians gracefully supported Davison's virtuoso playing. During an eventful lifetime, Davison played many concerts—but none was as deeply moving as the evening preserved on that CD.
Until his last days, Davison continued to reaffirm the mastery he displayed half a century before on those great Commodore recordings. In 1988, Jazz Journal International selected his album Wild Bill Davison's All-Stars as Jazz Record of the Year. During that year, he performed his distinctive music for listeners in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan. He died on November 14, 1989, at the age of eighty-three.
The cornetist's fine band, now known as Tom Saunders and the Wild Bill Davison Legacy, has continued to tour the world and sustain his memory. His inspiration is apparent on the band's 1996 CD, Call of the Wild (Arbors Records ARCD 19146), which features some of Davison's favorite tunes. The group's lineup includes cornetist Tom Saunders, Bill Allred on trombone, Chuck Hedges and Rick Fay on the reeds, and a great rhythm section of pianist Johnny Varro, bassist Paul Keller, and drummer Warren Sauer.
Saunders, leader of the Legacy band, is the personification of Wild Bill and spent many years playing alongside him. His unabashed love and admiration for the man are apparent in his demeanor and his music. He blows the same model King cornet, reaches for the same dynamic tones, favors a navy blue blazer similar to Bill's, and has a tendency for an occasional bawdy remark.
(p.159) Although he remains beloved by an international coterie of jazz fans, Wild Bill Davison never fully achieved the fame he deserved. He was continually on the threshold of stardom, but agents and record firms mishandled him. His modest financial rewards were never commensurate with his true worth. Davison's many recordings are still available, in formats ranging from 78s to CDs. They preserve his unbridled spirit and jaunty, husky tone. In these recordings, Davison's wild spirit will live forever.
On the first anniversary of his death, Anne hired a pilot to fly over Los Angeles towing a large banner that stated: “I Love You Wild Bill Davison!” At the exact hour of his passing, Anne watched from below as the flyer released a mass of rose petals she had picked from Davison's favorite bush. She is still his champion and continues to perpetuate her husband's image.
I clearly recall the first time I saw Rosy McHargue. The year was 1947. Lucille and I ventured into a small Hollywood club, the Hangover, on Vine Street near Sunset Boulevard. Pete Daily's Chicagoans were on the stage, and Rosy was the band's clarinetist. I had never heard a live Dixieland jazz band before, and this event altered the course of my life. The passage of years has not dimmed the bright memory of our initial meeting; that fine little band created a deep and lasting impression.
Incredible as it might seem, Rosy McHargue performed professionally during each of the last nine decades—from the teens through most of the ′90s. As a very young musician, he was inspired by Larry Shields, the clarinet player in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. McHargue played his first professional engagement in 1917, shortly after hearing the initial ODJB recordings. He later became a proficient saxophonist; his rare C-Melody sax has not been manufactured since 1929.
James Eugene McHargue was born in Danville, Illinois, on April 6, 1902. His date of birth is often misstated in jazz publications, thanks mainly to McHargue himself. “When I started playing music,” he told me, “I was supposed to be twenty-one because I was playing in nightclubs. I was only eighteen, but big for my age, so I told them I was twenty-one. Later, in the ′30s, the big bands wanted young faces, so I (p.160)
He picked up his nickname as a member of the Novelty Syncopators, the first band he played in, which he joined at the age of fifteen. “I used to sing a novelty Hawaiian song, ‘When Rosie Riccoola Do Da Hoola Ma Boola,’” McHargue told me. “Since then, everyone has called me Rosy.” Eighty years later, he still crooned the song with enthusiasm and youthful glee.
As a young man, McHargue played with many of jazz's all-time legends, including Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, Jimmie Noone, King Oliver, and the Wolverines.
I had been working in Chicago for about a year playing in Sig Meyers' orchestra—that's where I met Muggsy Spanier. At the time, the Seattle Harmony Kings were very popular. When they asked me to join the band, I left Sig Meyers and started with the Harmony Kings at the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City. Wild Bill Davison joined the band later. While we were at Atlantic City, we went to Camden, New Jersey, to record three sides at the Victor studios. I played about eight bars on the baritone sax—I think it was “Breezin' Along With the Breeze.” I had to put my alto down and run (p.161) about ten feet to play the baritone, then run back. That's how they made records back in 1925.
Since that 1925 Victor date with the Seattle Harmony Kings, McHargue played his clarinet and saxophone in orchestras led by Roy Schoenbeck, Frankie Trumbauer, Ted Weems, Kay Kyser, and Benny Goodman. When small bands regained favor after World War II, Rosy's articulate horn sparked groups led by Pete Daily, Red Nichols, and Pee Wee Hunt. His intentionally hackneyed solo helped catapult Hunt's 1948 recording of “12th Street Rag” to sales of more than 12 million. Clarinetists throughout the world still struggle to emulate his burlesqued chorus.
McHargue played regular gigs well into his nineties. He charmed his audiences with his gracious attitude and relaxed air, singing songs popular long before his listeners—and, in many cases, their parents—were born. Those songs were an escapist relaxation of wartime tensions, youthful rebellious expressions against a conservative society, and tuneful images that brightened the dismal depression years.
He loved to sing the shocking second chorus of “Oh, What a Night for Love” and his perennial favorite, “When Rosie Riccoola Do Da Hoola Ma Boola.” He dusted off once-beloved standards such as “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” and “Indiana,” as well as arcane melodies that no one else remembered, such as “Doin' the Raccoon,” “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,” “She Looks Like Helen Brown,” “I'll See You in C-U-B-A,” and dozens more.
On April 6, 1997, more than five hundred people gathered at the Elks Club in Fullerton, California, to celebrate Rosy McHargue's ninety-fifth birthday. Recently recovered from a bout with cancer, he looked cheerful and spry. One of the highlights of the event, sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz Club of Southern California, occurred when the honoree re-created his first recording, “Wow Wow Blues” (originally produced with Roy Schoenbeck's Orchestra in 1924). After listening to the original scratchy record, the audience heard McHargue play the tune on his C-Melody sax with Mike Henebry's orchestra, using the exact arrangement from the old disc (as transcribed by clarinetist Dan Levinson). Sound engineer Bill Mintz taped the performance. This may well have marked the only time in history that a musician recorded a precise, note-for-note duplication of a tune he originally recorded seventy-three years earlier.
McHargue and an all-star combo provided the balance of the party's entertainment. The group included Mike Silverman on trumpet, (p.162) trombonist Conrad Janis, Robbie Rhodes on piano, Jimmy Green on banjo, Ian Whitcomb on banjo-ukulele and accordion, and Don Beauchamp on the drums. Dan Levinson, a prodigy of McHargue's, came from New York to play alongside his mentor. The pair rocked the auditorium with a rousing saxophone duet on “China Boy.” During an intermission, John Dieball, producer of the successful celebration, presented numerous tributes to Rosy, including a congratulatory letter from another famed saxophonist, President Bill Clinton.
The music continued long into the afternoon, and McHargue, showing no signs of fatigue, sang one song after another. Toward the end of the program he introduced a long-forgotten tune recorded by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra in 1941. There were many tearful eyes in the room as McHargue sang the very appropriate lyrics to “Love Me as I Am.” It was a touching finale to a remarkable party. McHargue was back at his regular Saturday afternoon gig, still charming audiences.
We saluted his ninety-seventh birthday on April 18, 1999, at Jazz Forum's monthly session at the Elks Hall in Santa Monica. That was one of Rosy's last appearances, other than his remaining few regular Saturday afternoon sessions a few miles away at the West End, a Santa Monica saloon.
We visited Rosy at his home two days before he passed away. He looked very pallid and fragile, watching birds fluttering outside his window. He asked me to sit on the edge of his bed and enjoyed reminiscing. He clearly recalled many of the jazz episodes we shared over the past fifty years. His voice was weak, but his laughter had its usual gusto—and he laughed a lot during our brief chat.
Before leaving, Lucille urged me to kiss him goodbye. I am glad she did. As I briefly held him in my arms, I knew this was the last time I would see him.
Rosy McHargue died on June 7, 1999. The lamentable news spread rapidly throughout the jazz world via telephone, fax, and the Internet. Those of us whose lives were inexplicably altered by his presence must now confront a world that will never be the same without him.
The week after he died, his little band gathered for the last time at that familiar watering hole. The Friends of Rosy McHargue occupied their usual places on the West End's small bandstand.
As the afternoon continued, the small band swelled when Rosy's friends eagerly mounted the bandstand to play for him. The room echoed with reverent versions of “Mandy,” “Garden of Roses,” “At (p.163) the Storybook Ball,” “My Blue Heaven,” and Rosy's lovely composition “Arabian Rhapsody.” When they all harmonized on the familiar songs, tears flowed freely on the stage, in the audience, and even behind the bar. (The usually stoic bartender was seen wiping a tear on his sleeve.)
There were no moments of silence. Rosy would not have liked that. He spent his life filling silence with his wonderful music. That music will continue being played by his bandmembers, who regard their tenure under his leadership as a wonderful educational experience.
As we all said goodbye to Rosy while the musicians played the happy tunes we heard him sing a hundred times, we were aware that this heartfelt tribute was an experience that would always linger in our memories.
Whenever I hear a small band swinging or a vocalist singing an obscure song from the Jazz Age, I am always reminded of Rosy McHargue. Like an old photograph, he is a link with the vision of yesterday. Old photographs can fade through the years. Thanks to Rosy, his old songs have not faded into obscurity. Sounds corny? Maybe it is. But his audiences always had beaming smiles that reflected his convivial radiance. They remind me of the happy night Lucille and I walked into the Hangover Club back in 1947.
“Jazz is an attitude,” Artie Shaw said during an appearance in Southern California in the late 1980s. “I much prefer just calling it music—American informal music. The word ‘jazz’ makes no sense at all. No one has ever come up with a good definition for it. How can you talk about something you can't define?”
Shaw was appearing in a lecture series at California State University at Northridge. The hero of the swing era spoke for almost an hour—mostly about things that annoy him.
“The gap between what an artist does and what the audiences perceive is enormous,” he said. “A vast ignorance surrounds this country's musical understanding. We are probably the most musically illiterate nation on earth. If I hadn't quit the business, I'd be a lunatic by now—many people will tell you I am one anyway. The audience gets in the way. They are not informed.
(p.164) “‘Art’ is a tough word,” he continued. “Most people don't know what it means. I think art is something taking place when somebody with great skills loves what he is doing and works at the absolute top level of his ability. An artist does not do it to please an audience. An entertainer is trying to please audiences. Sometimes he can become sogood he achieves an artistic position.” To illustrate his point, Shaw recalled:
The last big band I assembled was to conform to listeners' tastes. It was admittedly the worst band in the world. I found fourteen men willing to travel for the meager salary of $100 a week. They only had to read simple stock arrangements and own a suit. I bought the neckties.
Our repertoire consisted of ten pop stocks, including “If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake.” During the last engagement of the tour, the ballroom manager commented, “You've got a hell of a band, Mr. Shaw. This is the nicest night we've had since Blue Barron played here.”
Some of Shaw's other remarks:
On music: “Music is sound on silence.”
On jazz: “It was originally spelled ‘jass.’ I won't tell you what it meant in those days, but when they said ‘Jass Me Blues,’ they did not mean ‘Kiss Me Blues!’”
On folk art: “That's an oxymoron. ‘Folk’ is not ‘art,’ and ‘art’ is not ‘folk’—one word cancels the other.”
During one segment of the program, clarinetist Abe Most and a rhythm section simulated Shaw's celebrated arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Stardust.” To help Abe, Shaw hastily sketched the famous clarinet chorus he improvised on the 1940 recording.
“My record of ‘Stardust,’ with Billy Butterfield, Jack Jenny, and one of the first string sections used by a jazz group, sold 16 million copies,” Shaw noted. “It was recorded by Victor as a stunt to appear with Tommy Dorsey on the second side. When Dorsey heard our ‘Stardust,’ he declined to record the other side.”
Shaw concluded with an anecdote about a much shorter lecture appearance:
When Sinclair Lewis was hired to address literature students at Williams College in northern Massachusetts, his entire speech was limited to one or two sentences. He entered the stage and asked, “How many of you want to write?” A sea of hands was raised. Lewis said, “Then why the hell don't you go home and write?”—and left the stage.
During a reception after the lecture, Shaw obligingly chatted with the audience and graciously posed for pictures—but adamantly (p.165) refused to sign any autographs. He grinned when Dorothe Bigard mentioned he was a favorite clarinetist of her late husband, Barney Bigard. Barney was also quite outspoken and rated Artie Shaw over Benny Goodman. During the swing years, Benny Goodman usually garnered recognition as the nation's top clarinetist, with Shaw and Bigard following in his wake. (In 1947 Goodman won the annual gold “Esky” awarded by Esquire magazine, and Barney received the silver statuette.)
Shaw seemed surprised when I told him he owed me fifty-five cents. That was the price I paid as a high school student to hear him at the old Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Midway through the evening, I became aware that the clarinetist leading the band was not Artie Shaw but rather Tony Pastor, fronting in Shaw's absence. When I jokingly asked him for the refund, he smiled and reached into his pocket; but when I added that I felt entitled to full compound interest, dating back to 1939, he reneged.
Although he wrote the words to some of the world's best-known songs, Andy Razaf never enjoyed the fame and respect accorded his white contemporaries. His brilliant collaborations with Fats Waller endowed the world with such great standards as “Ain't Misbehavin'” (a tune written in less than an hour—and promptly sold to a publisher for $250), “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Hand Full of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin',” “Blue Turning Gray Over You,” and “Black and Blue”—all still vital parts of our nation's musical vocabulary. In collaboration with Waller and numerous other great composers, Razaf wrote his perceptive lyrics for more than a thousand songs, including “Memories of You,” “On Revival Day,” “Stompin' at the Savoy,” “In the Mood,” “12th Street Rag,” “Christopher Columbus,” “That's What I Like About the South,” and many more.
“Black and Blue,” which Razaf wrote with Waller for the 1929 musical Hot Chocolates, was probably the first song of racial protest ever sung on the Broadway stage. Razaf took great pride in his heritage, and he struggled against racial prejudice throughout his life. Even in old age, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a debilitating stroke and constantly in pain, Razaf burned with anger over the slights and insults he had endured over the years.
(p.166) During my visits to his modest home on Country Club Drive in Los Angeles, the ailing songwriter and I would leaf through several large scrapbooks crammed with clippings, photos, and other mementos from his career. The books also evoked caustic memories, frustration, rage, and occasional tears.
He fumed bitterly about a publisher who cheated him on promised royalties, a trade magazine that ignored his success, and the mistreatment of black artists by corrupt managers. He complained that racism in the music business had curtailed his income; while Hollywood paid white lyricists such as Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, and Larry Hart $100,000 per picture, he received an advance of just $150 and a guarantee of $25 per week during the run of his hit production Hot Chocolates at Connie's Inn. “They played my songs every night atConnie's Inn and the Cotton Club,” he said, “but my people were not welcome there—it was whites only.”
I often delved deeply into the scrapbooks and, with Razaf's permission, made notes about his life. He traced his lineage to Madagascar; his grandfather, a freed slave, eventually became the United States Consul, reportedly the first black member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. Razaf's mother married the Queen of Madagascar's nephew, but he was killed during the French invasion of the island. Fearing for the lives of his children and grandchildren, Razaf's grandfather left the country with his family, including Andy's mother, who was pregnant with him at the time. Razaf was born in Washington, D.C., soon after their arrival in 1895. He often said, jokingly, “If my family had stayed in Madagascar, I might have become king one day! My father was a successor to the throne.”
Instead he went to work at a very early age. At seventeen, while employed as an elevator operator in a Broadway theater building, he wrote the words and music to his first published song, “Baltimo'.” He gave a copy to a member of the Shubert organization, who added it to the score of the Passing Show of 1913 at the Winter Garden Theater. The faded “Baltimo'” sheet music pasted in Razaf's scrapbook reads: “Words and Music by A. P. Razafkevifo.” This was a shortened version of his Madagascaran name, Andreamenentania Paul Razafinkeriefo. He identified himself as “Andrea Razaf” on some songs in the ′20s before trimming his name to Andy Razaf.
Scrounging for old records, I came across many tunes Razaf wrote under aliases in the ′20s. He seemed pleased when I gave him 78 rpm pressings with labels crediting “Crooning Andy” or “Razaf, the Melody Man.”
(p.167) During one of my last visits with the ailing lyricist, Razaf loaned me a book entitled Show Biz—From Vaude to Video, by Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr. (Henry Holt and Company, 1951). The flyleaf was imprinted with his rubber stamp: “ANDY RAZAF—LYRICIST.” He also gave me a copy of his August 1, 1953, review of the book for the New York Age. In it he made a blistering attack on the authors' failure tocredit “the vital contributions of Negroes in show business.” In two columns of caustic criticism, Razaf listed scores of neglected black artists, from Scott Joplin to Langston Hughes. The pages of the book itself were filled with angry marginal notations. He deplored the authors' description of the standard formula of colored acts—“chicken stealin', crapshootin', gin-guzzlin, no-accounts.” A question mark appeared next to the comment that Irving Berlin's “Alexander's Ragtime Band” gave ragtime “its biggest impetus in 1911.” He favorably marked several mentions of entertainer Bert Williams and the black composing team of Cole and Johnson (which gave us “Under the Bam-boo Tree”). In the book's lengthy index, Andy's bold pencil marks underscored a few references to black personalities. Razaf's review of the highly acclaimed best-seller concluded with: “Of its 565 pages, scant references are made to Negro showfolk—if placed together they would hardly fill six pages! As far as coverage to Negro showfolk—it's a ‘bust.’”
Razaf died before I could return his Show Biz. Despite its affront to Razaf's intense racial pride, the book's extensive exploration of American theatrical life has been a valuable source of material for me.
I cannot remember the title of the book I loaned him in exchange back in 1973. I never saw it again!
The poet-lyricist sent annual Christmas greeting cards almost until his death. Each bore a three-stanza poem printed in green ink on a small white card with a wreath border. These messages reflected Razaf's indignation over wars and racial inequality. Bitter obsessions filled his later years. His chiding remarks in 1953 bristled against the “curse of war”:
- This time each year, just for a few short days
- We lay aside our backward, ugly ways
- Replacing hate of color, race and creeds
- With friendly smiles and noble deeds.
- We, then, are as God meant us all to be
- Aglow with love and sweet humility
- Our mingled voices rise to Him in praise
- But is it only for a few short days?
In 1957, in a greeting titled “Lowtide at Yuletide,” Razaf contentiously addressed the emerging nuclear age:
- Because of man's insanity
- That may destroy humanity
- The saddest words of tongue and pen
- Are “Peace on Earth, good will t'ward men.”
- How merry can a Christmas be
- In a world of increasing misery
- Dictators, bigots and infamy
- Godlessness and hypocrisy?
- In this nuclear, astronomical age
- When leaders and scientists engage
- In talk of bomb shelters and World War Three
- We can't fool God with a Christmas tree.
In 1962, Razaf commented on the Cuban Missile Crisis with this Yuletide admonishment:
- Another Christmas as we watch on high
- For bombers that may someday dot the sky
- And key cities of this earth will die
- You say I'm wrong? Then make this poem a lie.
When Howard University in Washington D.C. asked Razaf for an extended biography, he asked me to write it for him, which I considered a great honor. My manuscript was bound into each of several volumes of his compositions. The books still occupy a prominent position in the university's library, commemorating Razaf's enormous contributions to American popular music.
The sensitive poet I knew was paradoxical—kind, gentle, and generous, but also racked with anger, resentment, and pain. His penetrating lyrics to the bridge of “Memories of You,” written almost seventy years ago, are almost biographical:
How I wish I could forget those happy yesterdays
That have left a rosary of tears
Coot Grant and Sox Wilson✽
My monthly “American Jazz Scene” column in the January 1953 issue of the English publication Jazz Journal included a plea urging assistance for Coot Grant and Sox Wilson. The veteran entertainers had recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, seeking a milder climate that might improve Wilson's failing health. Medical expenses had ruined the couple's finances, and they arrived in Los Angeles in very poor financial condition. Four of their trunks had been impounded during the move, and Wilson and Grant were unable to pay the freight charges of $139. This amount might seem insignificant in today's economy, but half a century ago it was a very formidable sum. The freight company threatened to auction their possessions to satisfy the unpaid bill.
The trunks contained complete original musical shows, photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and other mementos. They also held original copies of more than four hundred of Wilson's compositions, including several unpublished songs he wrote for Bert Williams and three numbers Bessie Smith intended to record. If the couple couldn't come up with the money to pay back the freight company, the (p.170) material in their trunks would be auctioned off to retire the debt. My Jazz Journal column was a last-ditch plea to help the Wilsons retain afew remnants from their lifetime of achievement.
Wesley “Sox” Wilson and his wife, Leola “Coot” Grant Wilson, were seasoned vaudeville performers, dancers, comedians, songwriters, and early recording stars. The pair made a series of recordings in September 1925 with Louis Armstrong, then a relatively unknown sideman in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. For the first time, at the Wilsons' insistence, Armstrong's name appeared on a record label. In later years, Coot and Sox recorded for Mezz Mezzrow's King Jazz Records and appeared on Rudy Blesh's radio show, This Is Jazz.
The talented couple wrote hundreds of tunes that were recorded by various artists. Bessie Smith sang four of them on her last record date: “Do Your Duty,” “Give Me a Pig Foot,” “Take Me For a Buggy Ride,” and “I'm Down in the Dumps.” Wilson's 1940 hit, “Do You Call That a Buddy?,” was recorded by Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, the Andrews Sisters, and Larry Clinton.
Grant appeared on early race recordings under various aliases, including her maiden name, Leola B. Pettigrew. She often spoke of a recording she made with King Oliver, the date of which has never been fully corroborated. Many collectors feel she was referring to “He's a Good Meat Cutter”/“Be on Your Merry Way” by Issie Ringgold (another of Leola's pseudonyms?). Both sides of the label identify Wilson as composer, and his distinctive piano playing is clearly recognizable. So, too, is the familiar timbre of Joe Oliver's muted cornet. Oliver receives no credit on the label, but he was under contract to Victor at the time, which may account for his anonymity.
Wilson's strange nickname came from an original tune he frequently sang, “Dem Sox That My Pappy Wore.” He is heard on many Columbia 14000 series recordings, using the name “Pigmeat Pete” on some of them.
I met Coot and Sox when they attended a Southern California Hot Jazz Society meeting shortly after their move to Los Angeles in mid-1952. The members of our organization happily welcomed the legendary pair. The Wilsons, both in their mid-sixties, alternated between pride in their accomplishments and disconsolation about their financial woes. They eventually became very active in the SCHJS, performing at every meeting and becoming part of the local jazz scene. A large felt banner Coot made forty years ago is still in the SCHJS's archives.
(p.171) Soft-spoken and matronly, Coot had a gentle disposition that contrasted sharply with her imposing stage presence, her robust voice, and her ribald songs. At the SCHJS's regular monthly meetings, she often sang one of Wilson's compositions, “Have Your Chill, I'll Be Here When Your Fever Rises,” which she recorded with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1925 (with young Louis Armstrong in the trumpet section).
Coot steadfastly maintained an ebullient facade. On stage, Sox's eyes would sparkle and his rotund face beamed brightly, but he was in poor health. Seated at the piano, his jovial demeanor masked a deep depression. In response to members' frequent requests, he often humorously sang his “Old Age Is Creepin' Up on You.”
The freight auction was scheduled just ten days after Jazz Journal published my entreating story. One final blow from the auctioneer's hammer, and the documentation of the Wilsons' lifetime achievements would be in peril. That is when Andy Razaf's phone call offered a ray of hope.
“This is a terrible thing, Floyd,” he said over the phone. “I am not a rich man, but my conscience would not allow me to stand by while they lose such valuable material. May I loan them the money necessary to save the trunks? Do you think there is still time?”
After frantic calls to the express company, I learned the trunks were in San Francisco to be included in an auction the following week. The firm agreed to return the Wilsons' treasures upon payment of the amount due—plus additional costs for shipment to and from San Francisco.
On the following day, Andy's check arrived with this letter:
So glad I saw the item about Sox Wilson's problem in your Jazz Journal column.
I don't know either Wilson or his wife, but I know what illness and adversity means.
In sending this check, Dorothy and I are “casting bread on the water.” Who knows? Perhaps we may need help some day.
As ever, Andy
I arrived with the check at the local freight office twenty minutes before closing. The clerk immediately wired San Francisco confirming payment had been received and promised the trunk would arrive at the Razaf address in a few days.
Just to let you know I'm still punching away. Some days are quite painful, however I manage to continue my creative work and newspaper articles.
Mrs. Wilson got three of the four trunks but I never heard from her. Well, we don't regret having done a good deed.
Dot joins me in best regards to you and yours.
The Wilsons' overall financial condition did not improve during their stay in Los Angeles. Anticipating royalty performance payments from ASCAP, they made a small down payment on a tiny home in nearby Fontana. However, the royalties failed to arrive, and, unable to find work locally, they decided to return to the East. In one of Grant's letters to me, postmarked Whitesboro, New Jersey, she described their home as “a wooden shack on a back road two miles from postal service.” My heart ached to think of them living in such conditions.
Sox died October 10, 1958, after suffering several strokes. When Coot died a few years later, no notice of her death appeared in the local press.
Presumably, the couple took their treasure-laden trunks back east with them, but their present whereabouts are unknown. Hopefully, their priceless memorabilia has been preserved and will eventually be found by jazz scholars. Maybe then Coot Grant and Sox Wilson will receive full recognition for their important contributions to American popular music.
Andy Razaf probably never received repayment for his loan to the Wilsons. The “bread cast on the water” will certainly remain in the “asset” column on his impressive character ledger.
The World's Greatest Jazz Band
The ten-piece band could roar with the impact of a large orchestra, but with such great players, they could also improvise freely like a small group. The varied material we played coalesced into a distinctive and unique sound, not like any other band before it.
Bob Wilber, Music Was Not Enough, Oxford University Press, 1988
Although dream bands have always existed in jazz fans' minds, their fantasies rarely materialize. Financial disparities, temperamental differences, and booking and promotion problems have always been formidable deterrents. Top-caliber jazzmen lead extremely busy lives, and they often find it difficult to make long-range commitments. With the notable exception of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, most star-studded groups have existed only briefly, playing together at benefit concerts, on special recordings, and occasionally on short tours. Seldom has an all-star aggregation worked together regularly.
That all changed in 1963, when a group of great players began an association destined to make jazz history. The concept gradually emerged at a series of annual jazz weekends produced by Colorado fan Dick Gibson. Each year, Gibson hired the best talent he could find to entertain friends, business associates, and fellow jazz lovers in Aspen, Vail, Colorado Springs, and other Rocky Mountain locales.
Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart, colleagues in the famed Bob Crosby Orchestra during the mid-′30s, continued their relationship as co-leaders of a popular recording group, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band. Each year, Gibson featured the pair at his party with a variety of fine musicians.
(p.174) The band improved during successive sessions at Aspen, Vail, and Colorado Springs. As additional players were added, the group gradually took shape. By the time it went out into the world as an organized unit, the band had unusual instrumentation that included: Yank Lawson and Billy Butterfield on trumpets, Lou McGarity and Carl Fontana on trombones, Bud Freeman and Bob Wilber on the reeds, Ralph Sutton on piano, Haggart on bass, Clancy Hayes on banjo, and Morey Feld on drums. Lawson and Haggart were co-leaders.
This was no fantasy—it was a living, breathing band of the first order. Each member enjoyed worldwide recognition. With its expanded double front line and a book filled with Bob Haggart's first-rate arrangements of Dixieland standards and contemporary tunes (by Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, etc.), the band was ready to go out and find its audience.
In 1965, billed as Ten Greats of Jazz, they were booked at Elitch Gardens in Denver—the same venue at which, three decades earlier, Benny Goodman had appeared en route to his momentous opening at the Los Angeles Palomar Ballroom, which launched the swing era. Encouraged by Dick Gibson, the band continued working together, and by November 1968, when they landed their first job in New York City (a five-week engagement at the Riverboat Room in the basement of the Empire State Building), they had the audacity to call themselves The World's Greatest Jazz Band. After an additional eight weeks at another Manhattan jazz club, the Down Beat, and a seven-month stint at the famed Roosevelt Grill, the band's future seemed secure.
Gibson arranged a worldwide booking agreement with Sol Hurok, an important promoter of classical music and ballet groups, and The World's Greatest Jazz Band was off and running with a series of extended dates, some one-nighters, and a successful tour of England. The musicians had a difficult name to live up to, but with each performance they proved themselves worthy of the title.
In 1971, Phoenix investor Barker Hickox succeeded Gibson as the WGJB's sponsor. Hickox, a prominent member of the Republican Party, arranged a prestigious booking at Richard Nixon's first inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., that provided wide exposure for the rapidly ascending jazz band. He also established the World Jazz Record Company and produced a series of albums showcasing the band's repertoire, including complete programs of songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart, plus a successful Christmas album.
(p.175) Overcoming early skepticism, the dream band continued to gather momentum for a decade, with rave reviews following each engagement. An appearance by the World's Greatest Jazz Band usually meant a sold-out house. The group's musical trademark—rousing duels between Bud Freeman and Bob Wilber, Yank Lawson and Billy Butterfield, or Vic Dickenson and Benny Morton—brought audiences to their feet. Ralph Sutton's stirring stride piano numbers introduced the genius of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith to a broad range of listeners. Lawson and Haggart remained WGJB fixtures, but family commitments, illness, and other personal considerations forced changes within the ranks. Over the years, a few dozen celebrated musicians sported the familiar stylish blue blazers of the World's Greatest Jazz Band, including:
Billy Butterfield, Bobby Hackett, John Best, Ed Polcer, Zeke Zarchy, Randy Sandke, and Jon-Erik Kellso.
Cutty Cutshall, Kai Winding, Eddie Hubble, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Sonny Russo, Urbie Green, George Masso, Bob Havens, Rex Allen, and Ira Nepus.
Peanuts Hucko, Tommy Newsom, Al Klink, Johnny Mince, Phil Bodner, Bill Stegmeyer, Eddie Miller, Dick Hafer, Kenny Davern, Abe Most, Dave Moody, and Ken Peplowski.
Bucky Pizzarelli and Marty Grosz.
Lou Stein, John Bunch, Ray Sherman, and Roger Kellaway.
Bobby Rosengarden, Cliff Leeman, Nick Fatool, Jake Hanna, Gus Johnson, Jr., and Butch Miles.
Despite the inevitable personnel turnovers, Bob Haggart's brilliant arrangements enabled the band to retain its original style and thrust. With six horns and a sturdy rhythm section, he adapted vigorous up-to-date compositions to a traditional jazz format. Haggart also included original material composed by band members Wilber, Dickenson, Freeman, and Johnson while sustaining the classic Dixieland flavor he created for the Bob Crosby band many years earlier. As a result, the band earned a worldwide following and became a major influence on the jazz scene into the ′80s.
By the 1990s the World's Greatest Jazz Band had ceased its full-time activity, but it still assembled for special events, including its first Japanese tour in 1995. Unfortunately, Yank Lawson's death early that year stilled his muted trumpet and ended a sixty-year partnership with Bob (p.176) Haggart. The bassist sadly fulfilled the scheduled Far East dates, with Ed Polcer valiantly substituting for Lawson. The band members were thrilled to be in Japan for the first time and appreciated the excitement of the knowledgeable Japanese fans. Promoter Yoshi Nishikage arranged a return visit the following year.
Bob Haggart remained at the helm—still tall and handsome at eighty-three, and still structuring clean linear bass figures. The resurrected WGJB included a pair of veterans: George Masso (′75-′76 and ′80) on trombone and pianist John Bunch (′76). Haggart reprised the dual-instrument format with the best of New York's current brass players. Jon-Erik Kellso and Randy Sandke sustained the band's strong trumpet tradition. Trombone assignments were deftly handled by Masso, a veteran of the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, and Ira Nepus, who as a youngster in Los Angeles had played with jazz greats Barney Bigard, Kid Ory, Teddy Buckner, Joe Darensbourg, and Ed Garland at Southern California Hot Jazz Society jam sessions. Ken Peplowski, a master of all the reeds, played tenor and clarinet, while Haggart staunchly anchored the rhythm section with Bunch at the piano and Butch Miles' facile percussion. Vocalist Banu Gibson was included as an added attraction. A recording of a July 1996 concert at Club Birdland in Tokyo will soon be available on compact disc.
The World's Greatest Jazz Band, a fantasy that materialized at Dick Gibson's Colorado jazz parties, sustained the swinging sounds that Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart conceived thirty-five years ago.
Bob Haggart died December 2, 1998.
(✽) Honored by the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors—Best Article Awards for 1993.