Adrian Rollini – The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler

Adrian Rollini BookThis biography of jazz multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini has a long history. The book was started in 1980 by Dutch musician and jazz scholar Tom Faber. Ate van Delden, also Dutch, joined him in the work and when Faber died in 2006, van Delden took over the project. I can easily understand it taking that long to complete the project. One can never know of course, but it seems as though any event of even the slightest consequence in Rollini’s life gets at least a mention here.

This is the very definition of a “weighty tome.” Apart from the book proper, there’s an Appendix of “Engagements Without Definite Dates,” a Filmography, a list of recordings on CD (although, surprisingly, not a complete discography), extensive Notes, a General Index, an Index of Locations, an Index of Title Tunes and an Appendix explaining the history and use of Rollini’s instruments.

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One might think that an Appendix of Rollini’s instruments would be overkill, but he played such a vast and odd assortment, that it’s not. There is, preeminently, the Bass saxophone (larger and lower than a baritone sax), hot fountain pen (like a penny whistle with a couple of added keys), goofus (also known by its maker as a Couesnophone, it has a saxophone shape, but needs no reed and the keys are laid out like a piano keyboard), vibraphone, xylophone, celeste (a keyboard that moves hammers that strike metal bars), harpaphone (what some call “bells,” a metal keyboard played with mallets) and piano. Rollini played all of these live and on recordings.

The author seems to have tracked down anyone or any source able to give an account of Rollini’s life. His youth as a musical prodigy is covered, his early employment as a piano roll maker and his transition into the California Ramblers. The Ramblers justifiably take up a lot of space here. Apart from their importance as early jazz practitioners, they were an outfit through which a changing cast of characters passed. Each of these musicians seems to be accounted for, as well as every gig and every recording. The author has listened very carefully to all of Rollini’s available recordings and gives a useful blow-by-blow of each session, along with his analysis of the playing.

Ate van Delden has also been thorough in his acquisition of photos and other ephemera and I was glad to see some kind of graphic on almost every page. Readers already fascinated by the cast of characters may not need frequent breaks from what is sometimes an eye-blurring recitation of dates and events, but for less invested readers, they provide a respite from the dense narrative.

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The sections on Rollini’s time in Europe-and especially London-cover that period in greater depth than other similar histories. The book brought a new appreciation of the London scene to me, helping me understand the place of musicians like Fred Elizalde, Max Lefco, and Theo Uden Masman in world jazz history. And, while I’d known something about Rollini’s travels, I never knew such fine American players as Chelsea Quealey, Bobbie Davis, Fud Livingston, Mike Danzi, and Jack and Babe Russin spent time in English orchestras. Of course, this is a white musician’s scene. Black musicians were also spending time in Europe, but we seldom run across them in this account.

The book also has a lot of inside dope about how clubs, ballrooms, casinos, etc were run, about their finances and how this affected musicians. The history of Rollini’s nightclub on 48th St.—Adrian’s Tap Room—is fascinating and it’s interesting to learn that Rollini put together a mixed-race group to play there in July, 1935, about the same time as the more well-known integration of Benny Goodman’s band. I will note that African-American trumpeter Bill Moore was with the California Ramblers pretty much from the beginning in the early 1920s.

Adrian Rollini – The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler
by Ate Van Delden
University Press of Mississippi (www.upress.state.ms.us)
Paperback: 520 pp., 102 illus., Nov. 2019, $35 ISBN 9781496825162

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