Darnell Howard: A Musician’s Life, Part One

In jazz history, “Chicago jazz” is often associated with the groundbreaking New Orleans musicians who made the Windy City their home during the twenties. “Chicagoan” usually refers to a group of younger players inspired by those pioneers. Common usage aside, Darnell Howard was a Chicagoan in the most catholic sense of the word.

Born and raised in the midwestern capital and flexing talent and musical versatility from an early age, Howard embedded himself in Chicago’s thriving music scene during the twenties. Classical instruction and a knack for picking up instruments and repertoire made him an asset to bandleaders. An exciting style and pleasant personality sustained a decades-long career that brought him all over the world. Later in life, he would inspire new generations of players and listeners on the West Coast and beyond. Through it all, this Chicagoan remained a highly individual exponent of Chicago jazz outside any geographic or temporal borders.

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Howard crossed paths with jazz’s seminal figures at pivotal points in the music’s history. Yet in addition to these well-known watersheds, Howard’s life reveals multiple sides to a name often read as filler in personnel listings. He was a working musician since before he even finished high school: an orchestral player, a pit band accompanist, a cabaret performer, a section saxophonist, a “Dixieland revivalist,” an explosive clarinetist, a seldom-heard but greatly esteemed hot violinist, a photography and audio expert, a voice of the past, and whatever else the job required. Perhaps most interesting and inspiring, he was possessed by an awe-inspiring work ethic and a hardboiled poise audible in every note.

Sources and Uncertainties

Unlike some other lesser-known names from jazz history, research reveals a startling amount of information about Darnell Howard. The most pleasant surprise is that he generously shared his time and memories with historians, interviewers, and journalists. The most extensive and direct source of information about his life comes from a 90-minute interview conducted by Nesuhi Ertegun and Robert Campbell in 1957 stored at Tulane University’s Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz Oral History Database. Albert McCarthy interviewed Howard for the July 1960 issue of the British magazine Jazz Monthly, and Jim Goggin included an interview with Howard in his biography of trombonist Bob Mielke. Feature articles include John T. Schenck’s 1945 pamphlet for the American Jazz Society, The Colourful Saga of Darnell Howard, and Norman Kraeft’s 1948 Down Beat article “Darnell Back to Music for Fifth Time.”

Since he worked with so many historic artists—including Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton—Howard also provided comments for numerous biographies, historical texts, and journals such as Record Research, Storyville, and Jazzology. He also made an impression on those greats. Hines offered several glowing comments in Stanley Dance’s The World of Earl Hines. Several anecdotes throughout Shapiro and Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya mention Howard. Simply keeping busy made him part of current musical events covered in trade publications like Down Beat and Variety and newspapers like The Chicago Defender. Given Howard’s extensive and storied resume, there are numerous references to him throughout books and periodicals. John Chilton also compiled a comprehensive entry about Howard in his reference volume Who’s Who of Jazz.

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In addition to these professional exchanges, Howard was an active letter writer. Tulane has collected some of Howard’s letters to pianist and collaborator Don Ewell. Other letters were published after his death in 1966. For this article, the son of Howard’s personal friend Peter Hoffhines graciously shared a series of letters Howard wrote to his late father.

This substantial record of Howard’s activities over a more than 50-year career sheds light on him as an individual and a valuable part of American music. Yet there are still blank periods and even contradictions. Jazz historians and journalists often compile chronologies from various people, primary sources, and historical records. Memory is never perfect. Neither is historical transmission. It’s entirely possible that during multiple interviews, Howard and others may have simply misremembered things. Since they would have been recalling events from a busy professional life decades later, it’s wholly excusable!

Early Talent

A significant source of confusion about Howard’s life appears right at its start. His birth year has been given as anywhere between 1892 and 1902. He told Nesuhi Ertegun he was born in 1906, while census records list 1901. The only thing everyone agrees on is the date of July 25 and Howard’s birthplace in Chicago, Illinois—in Howard’s words, specifically an “Italian neighborhood” in the Windy City.

It’s also established that Howard wasn’t the first distinguished musician in his family. His father, Samuel, was a well-known violinist in the south side musical scene who doubled piano and cornet and even sang on occasion. Both Darnell’s mother and aunt sang and danced together on the Pantages theater circuit. His grandparents also played music on an amateur basis, while cousin Benny Carter became one of the most influential multi-instrumentalists and arrangers in jazz. Even with his father dying when Darnell was just three years old, early music lessons for his only child would have been a foregone conclusion.

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By seven, Howard began violin lessons—the only instrument he ever received professional instruction for—with his father’s former teacher. He made his musical debut two years later in church accompanied by his mother at the piano. According to jazz scholar Lawrence Gushee, by 1910, Howard was the “star pupil” of the important Chicago bandleader and violinist Charles Elgar. Howard likely received classical instruction from both teachers. In his landmark historical work Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, William Kenney mentions Howard being featured with Elgar’s student orchestra in a selection from Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor during 1912.

Darnell Howard
Darnell Howard in 1925
(detail from Oliver band photo)

Still, there were limited opportunities for Black musicians to perform classical repertoire at this time. Elgar already had considerable experience with popular music in Chicago and his hometown of New Orleans. Both the teacher and the student must have thought in practical terms. Any classical instruction would have been the foundation for versatility in the broader music industry. Howard mentioned that the first jazz he experienced was playing it himself. He was born in and developed as a musician in Chicago and would have heard all the jazz talent coming in from New Orleans. Those were just fortunate birth circumstances. Getting to play with those musicians took work, skill, and confidence.

At some point, young Howard got to play at the Elite #2, aka Teenan Jones’s Place, where his aunt was performing. Peter Hanley of the British website Doctor Jazz explains that this was one of two “Elite” locations owned by numbers runner Henry Jones. A Riverwalk Jazz program described it as “the most elaborate hotspot on [the south side] around 1913…offering fine wines and cigars, and a cabaret where New Orleans’ top ragtime pianist Tony Jackson performed.” Howard later insisted that he heard Jelly Roll Morton playing the Elite #2, despite the famed pianist/composer saying otherwise. It’s unclear whether the young man got to play with Morton, but playing at a popular spot with ties to organized crime while “still in short pants” shows bravery as well as ability!

By age 12, Howard was part of a four-piece band led by pianist Clarence Jones at the Panorama Theatre. The group provided music for silent films and would have required sightreading and other professional skills from the pre-teen musician. Unfortunately, authorities were unimpressed with young Howard’s precociousness. When the school board found out about the gig, Howard had to quit just six weeks into the job due to child labor laws.

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Undaunted, Howard resumed his burgeoning professional career by quitting school and running away to play with John H. Wickliffe’s band. Howard’s illicit touring activities began at Milwaukee’s Schlitz Palm Gardens after quickly acquiring his first set of long pants in the form of a tuxedo. Urban Milwaukee reporter Holly Nearman describes the combination beer and concert hall as “a mandatory stop for passengers aboard excursion boats [that] also attracted members of royal families as well as prominent businessmen and politicians, including visits from William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson.” Playing to large crowds and an upscale clientele may not have been brand new to young Howard, but he was making it on his own away from home.

According to Howard, when the band’s press agent included “jaz [sic]” in the marquee, it “caused quite a commotion, for the word ’jazz’ at this time was a rather shady word, used only in reference to sex.” As John H. Wickliffe’s Ginger Orchestra, the band next played ten months in Minneapolis before returning to Milwaukee. Based on contemporary reports, playing in this group must have been impressive in terms of music as well as press. Kenney cites an article in Indianapolis’s Freeman on October 28, 1916, titled “John W. Wickliffe’s Ginger Orchestra Styled America’s Greatest Jaz Combination.” A December 1917 Freeman review cited in Abbott and Seroff’s book Ragged But Right praised Wickliffe’s group for playing everything from “Tannhäuser [by Wagner] to the ‘Livery Stable Blues’ [by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band].” At some point, Howard heard Freddie Keppard for the first time while in Milwaukee. The legendary New Orleans cornetist was likely playing with the Original Creole Orchestra based on the chronology in Lawrence Gushee’s extensively researched Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band. Howard would continue to praise Keppard’s hot and sweet musicianship for the rest of his life.

The time with Wickliffe and return to Chicago raises some chronological uncertainties. John Chilton’s Who’s Who of Jazz places the Wickliffe band in Milwaukee for the first time in 1913. Howard told Schenck he was playing with Wickliffe in Milwaukee during 1913, but he also mentioned this as the year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band “had just recorded ‘Livery Stable Blues’” even though that record was actually released in 1917. Chilton wrote that Wickliffe then went to Minneapolis in 1914, followed by a second trip to Milwaukee in 1915. Gushee’s book does mention another interview where Howard told Chicago jazz authority John Steiner that he heard Keppard in Milwaukee in late 1917 or early 1918.

Chilton indicates that by 1916, Howard and the Wickliffe band were back in Chicago playing Lamb’s Café—the same place that Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland made history for its “jass” music in 1915. Kenney seems to agree with Chilton, but Schenck’s feature says Howard went back to Chicago in 1915 when he got homesick. Adding to the confusion, Earl Hines recalled being impressed by Howard in an early appearance in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a group called “The Tennessee Ten” that included trumpeter Gus Aiken!

Howard told Ertegun and Campbell that when(ever) he got back to Chicago, he played at the Elite Café, the Elite #1, and occasionally the Arcadia for several months before joining Elgar’s 22-piece band at Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom on Chicago’s west side. The Dreamland Ballroom was a different venue than Bill Bottom’s south side Dreamland Café, where King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made history. Kenney describes the ballroom as “a cavernous old one-story barn-like building under the elevated tracks.” The ample space was probably advantageous since it doubled as a roller rink. Unlike the Dreamland Café, the Dreamland Ballroom only admitted white patrons—though Kenney notes that Elgar broke the color line for performers in 1916. Contemporary descriptions cited by Kenney described “rough dance music” and the band switching to waltzes when moral-minded urban inspectors visited the joint. By the time Howard joined Elgar at the ballroom, his colleagues included the gifted clarinetist Buster Bailey and fellow Elgar pupil and jazz violin innovator Eddie South.

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He was soon back out on the road, this time off to New York City with seminal blues composer W.C. Handy in 1917 to make his recorded debut. Years later, Howard would still laugh about accidentally hitting the recording horn with his bow a few times. Some commenters have harshly reviewed these sides for their rough acoustics and now archaic style. Taken on their own terms, these records feature some warm, charming, and—in their own fashion—rhythmic orchestrated ragtime. Howard is one of three violins and is not audible, though the strings unfurl a warm lead through all the crackles on the pretty waltz “Moonlight Blues.” He wouldn’t record again until nearly nine years later.

The young violinist stayed in New York to play the Ziegfeld Roof with Broadway songwriters Will Vodery and Ford Dabney before once again growing homesick. On his way home through Philadelphia, he added another big name to his growing resume: composer, touring conductor, and Dvořák student Will Marion Cook. Interviewed decades later, Howard remained unimpressed by Cook not paying him on time. But he was still amused at having boarded the wrong train home and ending up in West Virginia! A kind porter at the station gave the befuddled youngster a sandwich and ensured he got on the right train. According to the 1900 census, Howard’s father had worked as a railroad porter, which may have been especially significant to the lost traveler. Years later, passing through the area, Howard tried to locate the worker and show his gratitude, but the gentleman had long since retired from the railways.

Building a Hometown Career

Chilton lists Howard leading his own groups at the Elite Café and the Arcadia after this roundabout return trip home. Based on later comments, Howard disliked leading bands, so his rejoining Elgar as a sideman is no surprise. Jean-Christophe Averty’s 1989 Storyville feature on Elgar points out an advertisement for Elgar’s Novelty Orchestra from 1918 that shows a 14-piece band. Despite the photograph’s poor quality, Elgar identified Howard in this group and pointed out he was doubling saxophone by this time. This seems to be the earliest mention of Howard playing any instrument in addition to the violin.

Howard seems to have just picked up instruments according to curiosity or professional need while crediting his classical training for making such adaptation possible. Schenck’s profile implies that Howard was first inspired when he heard Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone at the De Luxe. As Howard related, “One evening, Sidney wasn’t playing his soprano sax. I asked him where it was, and he showed me a pawn [shop] ticket. Sidney said he’d sell it to me for five dollars [about 60 dollars in 2021]. I bought his soprano sax out of hock and started playing it myself.” The date is unclear, but Bo Lindström’s comprehensive survey Chicago South Side Clubs and Venues 1915–1930 says that Bechet played there with Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra in 1918. In his liner notes for the album Music to Listen to Don Ewell By, Lester Koenig said that Howard’s introduction to reeds through Bechet didn’t take place “until the comparatively late age of 17, after [Howard] had been playing more or less professionally for eight years” Koenig did not list any sources for his chronology.

Sugar Johnnie's New Orleans Creole Orchestra
Sugar Johnnie’s New Orleans Creole Orchestra Left to right: Wellman Braud, Lil Hardin (obscured by damaged photo), Lawrence Duhé, Sugar Johnnie Smith, Roy Palmer, Minor Hall.

The Tulane interview adds that Howard later bought a clarinet, followed by a fingering chart and diligently practicing in front of a mirror. While Howard never studied clarinet formally, he did learn from Lorenzo Tio, Jr. The New Orleans clarinet master founded a dynasty of New Orleans-via-Chicago clarinet stylists through other pupils such as Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Albert Nicholas, and Jimmie Noone. Howard noted to Ertegun that he didn’t “study” with Tio, perhaps meaning there was no formal course of private lessons. He also explained to Ertegun that by 1921, he played violin in cornetist Manuel Perez’s band at the Pekin and got to play with Tio there.

However, speaking to jazz journalist Floyd Levin in San Francisco, Howard offered a different chronology and location for meeting Tio:

It was about 1924. I was hired to play tenor saxophone and violin in a band led by a New Orleans musician, Charlie Elgar, who was working at the Dreamland Café. When we moved to the Wisconsin Roof Garden in Milwaukee, Elgar sent for Lorenzo [Tio, Jr.], who played with him in New Orleans before World War I. After [Tio] joined the band, we became buddies. He liked my violin playing and offered to show me how to make the same runs on a clarinet. I bought a used horn in a pawn shop, and for a year, we spent hours together each night after the job. He was a wonderful teacher.

This account is slightly at odds with other parts of Howard’s story. By 1924, he seems to have already been with Elgar for some time. Elgar’s band appears to have been at the Dreamland Ballroom and not the Café (though they could have played both venues). Yet Howard seems to have already been playing clarinet for years at this point. In Discography magazine, Ralph Venables said that tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell told George Hoefer “hearing Darnell Howard [circa 1921] first inspired him to try his luck with the clarinet.” It is possible that Howard was playing someone else’s instrument before getting that used horn at a pawn shop.

It’s safe to say that Tio would have still had plenty of wisdom to share with Howard regardless of how long his new friend had been playing the clarinet. Both accounts say that Howard’s version of the famous clarinet obbligato on “High Society” actually originated with Tio, who first worked it out with Howard playing it on violin and later transposing it to clarinet. Tio became Howard’s favorite clarinetist, and even decades later, Howard still expressed pride in Tio once complimenting his clarinet playing. Despite an inexact timeline, the fact remains that Darnell Howard caught the ear of one of the most respected clarinet teachers in jazz history, and he was an autodidact on the instrument he’d be most commonly associated with to this day.

The episode with Tio also exemplifies Howard’s lifelong ties to New Orleans musicians. As the Red Hot Jazz Archive entry for Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra notes, along with Bechet, Freddie Keppard would have been one of the guests fronting the band at the De Luxe after Johnnie Smith’s untimely death in 1918. Howard mentions playing with Keppard, the De Luxe is a good candidate for where he might have had that opportunity, and it’s therefore possible he also played with Bechet there. This revolving dream band of New Orleans talent included King Oliver, Mutt Carey, Lawrence Duhé, Jimmie Palao, Roy Palmer, and others at various stages. The skilled and affable Howard always fit in with the Crescent City crowd musically and personally (despite some contemporaries finding them cliquish).

Not one to miss an opportunity for a job and with nerve to spare, according to the Tulane interview, Howard also doubled cornet and replaced King Oliver himself. Oliver was playing two shows back-to-back at the Dreamland Café. When he moved to take over the late show at the Pekin, he kept his earlier Dreamland shift, and Howard handled the night’s second show. He not only took the King’s slot on his same instrument but also played similar music! The timeline in Laurie Wright’s authoritative biography of King Oliver indicates this would have been around 1920.

An ad in the October 17, 1920 edition of the Chicago Tribune for Elgar’s band at Harmon’s Dreamland shows Howard was still in the band, now playing first violin, saxophone, and clarinet. A photo of the Elgar band from November of 1921 (from collector and historian Mark Berresford’s collection) shows Howard holding what appears to be a soprano saxophone, indicating further doubling responsibilities and raising the question of whether Sidney Bechet ever got that horn out of hock. Given all this work, it also makes one wonder if Howard ever slept.

Darnell Howard: A Musician’s Life, Part One
Charles Elgar’s Dreamland Orchestra, 1921. Darnell Howard is at far right.

The ad says that Elgar’s group consisted of “the same men that played at the Dreamland the last three seasons.” In 1921, this band toured the Midwest, including Detroit and Indianapolis, and likely collected more fans of the group and Howard’s playing. Howard was already making an impression on other musicians in Chicago. In a 1958 interview on file at The Louis Armstrong House, the greatest jazz musician of all time himself mentioned how “your best musicians come from symphony orchestras” and immediately pivoted to “how well Darnell Howard used to play a violin…when I first come to Chicago in 1922.”

During his career in Chicago in the twenties, Howard’s gifts as a violinist expanded beyond orchestrated music. Bandleader Ben Pollack declared to Ertegun that Howard was the best “fiddle” he ever heard. Hines said Howard “had great ideas on the violin, and many people—even Eddie South—got ideas from his playing.” When Chicago jazz magnate John Steiner interviewed Eddie South for Record Research, South himself called Howard “the first violinist to play real jazz”—in Steiner’s words, “disdainfully, as if I should have known.” Bassist Quinn Wilson said he sought out Howard at live shows based on his brother’s recommendation, adding “I tried to copy off Darnell, but I couldn’t play jazz like he could.”

Travel Abroad

Howard’s next move probably earned him some international admirers. He joined the “Plantation Days” revue that brought Elgar’s band and various singers and acrobats to Europe. Elgar was unable to leave Chicago, likely due to other professional commitments, so stride deity and composer James P. Johnson took over as director while writing music for the show. According to Howard, future Ellington bassist Wellman Braud was also part of the 12-piece band that played “hot music” for the entire show. A passenger manifest for the Red Star liner Finland out of New York City shows Howard arriving in Plymouth, England, on March 12, 1923. The Plantation Days troupe traveled to Paris as well as parts of Germany and Belgium before arriving back in New York City aboard the SS Cedric on May 26, 1923.

Some narratives mention a second trip by Howard to Europe after the Plantation Days group returned to the United States. Schenck said that Howard played in Paris, Belgium, Holland, and London with a group called the New York Singing Syncopators. Yet this was the name of the group Howard definitely played with in Asia later on. Perhaps repeating Schenck, Chilton’s Who’s Who of Jazz says that Howard played in Europe during 1924 with the five-piece Singing Syncopators (without “New York” in the tile). Charles Eugene Claghorn’s 1973 Biographical Dictionary of Jazz also described the Singing Syncopators as a five-piece group in Europe during 1924. Claghorn’s book added that Darnell Howard led the Syncopators, but this is the only source that makes this claim, and it seems to be an error.

In his 1957 interview with Nesuhi Ertegun, Howard did not mention any trip to Europe with the Singing Syncopators. He only referenced a trip to Europe with James P. Johnson’s “Plantation Days” revue and the journey to Asia with the Singing Syncopators. There are also no official records of a second European trip, while it’s easy to find records of the Plantation Days trip and the Singing Syncopators’ time in Asia.

In his article “Visiting Firemen: The Plantation Revues” for Storyville, Howard Rye said that Schenck “muddled” things. Rye suggested that “the European tour of the New York Singing Syncopators referred to [in Schenck’s article] is in fact an account of the subsequent fate of Plantation days.” Rye had discovered an ad for the New York Singing Syncopators mentioning the group’s plans to possibly play London on their way back to the United States. The reference to the Syncopators touring Europe could have been Howard describing the group’s planned route, which Schenck mistook for his recalling an earlier trip. Rye did not differentiate the two different types of Syncopators, perhaps because he thought the earlier incarnation that visited Europe didn’t even exist. Either way, it seems unlikely that Howard went on a second European trip after returning to the United States.

Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr told his friend John W. Slingsby at Jazz Journal that, by 1923, Howard was leading the Arcadia band that “played stock arrangements, nothing special in the way of music.” Chilton’s Who’s Who of Jazz entry for St. Cyr says that the banjoist played in Darnell Howard’s band in September of 1923, so he presumably started this group after his European trip. St. Cyr’s opinions on the quality of the music notwithstanding, historian Scott Newman’s website Jazz Age Chicago describes the Arcadia Ballroom as a trendy spot during the twenties and one of “a handful of north side venues…where white audiences regularly danced to the tunes of Black jazz bands.” St. Cyr added that Howard unfortunately lost the job after just two months. He didn’t offer any explanation for this event, but judging by Howard’s later comments about his dislike of leading bands, this probably didn’t bother him too much.

At some point, Howard played with musician and influential critic Dave Peyton at the Pershing Palace before joining King Oliver in May of 1925, according to Laurie Wright’s book “King” Oliver. This proved to be a short stint. In several interviews, Howard praised Oliver as a leader, musician, and gentleman. He doesn’t seem to have been unhappy at the Plantation. Numerous anecdotes suggest other reasons for his leaving. In Jazzmen, Frederic Ramsey says that both Howard and Nicholas thought they’d get better wages on a tour of China. Different authors reference instances of gangland violence in the Chicago area as another motivation. It’s also possible Howard wanted to see more of the world. Chilton says he stayed with Oliver for seven months, meaning he left in December of 1925, while Albert McCarthy’s Big Band Jazz says the New York Singing Syncopators went to Asia in August of that year. Whatever the reason or timeframe, at some point, Howard left Oliver to see more of the world.

The New York Singing Syncopators are alternatively listed as being led by pianist William Hegamin or drummer Jack Carter. They seemed to have been based out of Shanghai and played hotels owned by the Oriental Steamship Line as far as Manila, Kobe, and Tokyo while also taking two trips to Moscow. The exact length of their tour is also uncertain. Howard offered little insight into the group’s music, but he did mention each member getting a feature onstage. The passenger manifest for the SS Tenyo Maru out of Shanghai shows Howard and the rest of the Syncopators arriving back in the United States at San Francisco on June 23, 1926.

With King Oliver

According to Laurie Wright, by July 1, 1926, Howard had returned home to Chicago free of bandleading responsibilities and back in Oliver’s band. With Oliver, Howard played lead alto and violin while splitting clarinet solos with Albert Nicholas and even providing some arrangements. On July 23, 1926, Howard and the rest of King Oliver and His Dixie Syncopators recorded four sides for Vocalion in Chicago. Two takes of “Tack Annie” were the only sides issued from Howard’s second recording experience and his first studio visit in nearly nine years. With reed solos given to Bigard on tenor and guest Stump Evans playing soprano sax, Howard is not audible. He was also overshadowed by visitors on his next and last session with Oliver on September 17. Evans once again gets a solo spot on two takes of “Snag It,” and Oliver brought in his former sideman Johnny Dodds specifically for his low register on “Someday Sweetheart.”

Howard did get a clarinet spot on “Dead Man Blues,” later explaining that he prepared a solo and practiced it for a week before playing something different on the actual record! Another ear-catching aspect of this session is the pinched, soprano-like lead alto on “New Wang Wang Blues” cutting through the semi-improvised patter chorus. If this was Howard, it’s a subtle but impressive stylistic artifact.

Darnell Howard: A Musician’s Life, Part One
King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, c. 1925. Darnell Howard is at center, immediately to Oliver’s right.

While historically overshadowed by Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators were incredibly popular in their day. Despite not getting much room on record, Howard’s work with this band earned him esteem among musicians. In a 1948 interview with Cy Shain for Jazz Music magazine, Albert Nicholas fondly recalled, “That was certainly a great band. People would start swinging as soon as they came in and keep rocking all evening. I happened to play with Joe [Oliver] when he was in his prime and sat in on perhaps the greatest reed section in jazz history, with Darnell Howard and Barney Bigard.” Bigard recalled that “When I went to Chicago and joined King Oliver’s band, he had two good clarinetists in Albert Nicholas and Darnell Howard. I wouldn’t even pick up the clarinet at that time.”

In an interview with Laurie Wright for Storyville, saxophonist George James paints a vivid picture of the Oliver reed section:

Oliver’s band had three of the grandest clarinets from New Orleans: Darnell Howard, Albert Nicholas, and Omer Simeon [who joined Oliver in March of 1927 per Wright]. You couldn’t have known a better section than that…regardless of who was playing a solo, the reeds always put a pattern behind him, and I don’t think it’s possible to find words to describe the beautiful way those three guys would do it—such riffs and patterns…I just used to stand there listening. Just Oliver or [second trumpet Bob] Shoffner playing with this behind them, and this mess would go on for hours …the sounds they would make! I used to think, if ever I could play anywhere near as much saxophone as these men played, I’d be tickled to death. You just couldn’t imagine it. And nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t have a piece of music in sight—it would just come straight out of their heads.

James mistaking Howard for a native New Orleanian can be interpreted as a sign of authenticity and maybe intentional flattery. In Levin’s opinion, studying under Tio “accounts for Howard’s distinctive New Orleans feeling, which collectors have been at a loss to explain.” In his 1962 liner notes for Don Ewell’s Free ‘n Easy!, John Lucas laments the loss of so many great New Orleans clarinetists before commending Howard for “proving that a New Orleans horn may be Chicago-born.” Ralph Gleason went as far as to say that Howard and Buster Bailey were the “only two clarinetists in all of jazz history who were able to take their place in the New Orleans tradition indistinguishable from the men who were born and raised in that city.”

Assessing Howard’s overall legacy in his 1965 book Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Richard Hadlock said that Howard retained the “clear-toned, flowing New Orleans style.” Howard could certainly unroll lengthy, sinuous stacked arpeggios and scalar runs. Yet he tossed out longer unbroken lines of notes, perhaps owing to strong breath control or influenced by the literally breathless streams of tones played on his violin. Johnny Dodds was an obvious influence on Howard in terms of an earthy arpeggiated sound, but compared to other New Orleans clarinetists, Howard developed a uniquely piercing tone and incisive attack. His clarinet comes off much more hard-edged and even agitated next to Noone, Bigard, and other Tio disciples.

Historian K.B. Rau summed up Howard as “the squeaky, fast, shrill one [who] owns a fluent, rhythmically regular style.” For any other player, that might sound like faint praise. Listening closely to Howard, it’s a mark of distinction. Howard’s phrases, especially on fast numbers and even more so in later years, burst rather than flow. Occasional squeaks and missed notes are just a byproduct of all that energy and spontaneity. The exhaust smoke isn’t the point; the engine is what matters.

His unbroken chains of eighth notes both underscore the harmony and spike the ensemble. He combines the dexterity and density of the classical clarinet with a colorful tone that almost seems to disdain the orchestral tradition’s cultivated timbre. Without overdetermining styles based on geography, the hard urban edge often ascribed by writers to Frank Teschemacher and other “Chicagoans” was audible in Howard’s every note. This next period of his career would yield the first extended recorded samples of his style.

Early Records and Fame in Chicago

New Orleans-born violinist and bandleader Charles Elgar performed a variety of repertoire through his different outfits. Elgar’s Creole Orchestra—his group at Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Roof Gardens from 1925 through 1927—stuck to hot numbers for its sole record of September 17, 1926, on the Vocalion label. In Storyville, both Laurie Wright and clarinetist Harm Sagawe disputed Howard’s presence on these sides due to his being with Oliver at the time. Yet Elgar identified Howard as part of this session during a Tulane interview, and Howard was already in the Vocalion studio with Oliver that day. It might have been a long workday, but Howard could have recorded with both bands. Howard also mentioned playing with his old teacher at the Wisconsin Roof, likely traveling the manageable distance from Chicago to Milwaukee to sub in Elgar’s band as needed. Wright admits that the clarinetist on Elgar’s record has Howard’s “reedy tone.” That tone is especially noticeable in the coyly chirping solo on “When Jennie Does Her Lowdown Dance” and the roiling obbligatos throughout the session.

In November, Howard recorded with Luis Russell and the pianist’s fellow New Orleans colleagues. The clarinetist gets the spotlight in a wailing melody statement and flowing breaks backed by the ensemble on “Plantation Joys” and shows off some Johnny Doddsian phrasing and dark tones on “Please Don’t Turn Me Down.” In December, Howard contributed to a unique session with Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Howard, fellow Oliver sideman Albert Nicholas, and Morton’s regular band member Omer Simeon create an atmospheric clarinet trio on “Sidewalk Blues” and “Dead Man Blues.” Simeon explained that Morton wrote these parts in the studio. While some discographies list Howard as the violin soloist on Morton’s “Someday Sweetheart” of December 16, 1926, in separate Tulane interviews, both Howard and Simeon said Howard was not there that day (with Simeon naming Clarence Black on violin).

Howard’s affinity for New Orleanians extended beyond music. One memorable night at the Plantation, Oliver threw a party for his friend from home. Little is known about Hazel. She was apparently born in Choctaw County, Mississippi, but moved to New Orleans and right next door to the legendary cornetist. It’s unclear how Darnell started talking to her, but by 1928, they were married and would remain together until Howard’s passing in 1966. Howard always referred to her as “Armanda” in his letters—perhaps her middle name or a now inexplicable nickname.

At some point, Oliver and Howard parted ways for good when Oliver relocated to New York City. Laurie Wright notes the Oliver band migrating when they embarked on an eastbound tour on April 26, 1927. Yet by January of 1927, Dave Peyton’s “The Musical Bunch” column in The Chicago Defender reported that “Louis Armstrong’s bunch is still the big scream at the Sunset Café [and] Darnell Howard is a new addition.” In his Tulane interview, Howard explains that he started playing at the Sunset Café when Oliver took his band to New York in 1928—but it’s entirely possible he was simply off by a year when recalling events decades later. The only thing for sure is that Howard never seemed to have trouble finding work in the twenties.

The Sunset band was its own who’s who of jazz. Robert O’Connor’s article about the fate of the famed site in South Side Weekly explains that Louis Armstrong took over this group from Carroll Dickerson in February of 1927 when the violinist’s drinking problems became too much for the venue’s manager, Joe Glaser. Armstrong’s musical soulmates Earl Hines and drummer Zutty Singleton were part of the band. The short-lived but influential saxophonist Stump Evans, trombonist Charlie Green, and trumpeter Natty Dominique were some of the other sterling talents in the group.

Howard may not have achieved the same long-term historical clout as his Sunset colleagues, but he left an impression right alongside them in his time. Earl Hines recalls Howard playing several choruses when the band would open up on dance tunes like “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Peyton mentioned Howard a few times in his column as part of the musicians “hitting in fine shape.” Unfortunately, as noted by Brian Priestly in his liner notes for Mosaic’s Hines boxed set, the authorities shut down the Sunset later in 1927.

The always resourceful and in-demand Howard now embarked on a string of different gigs all over Chicago. On February 18, 1928, Peyton mentions that “Louis Armstrong and Darnell Howard are now playing with Clarence Jones and his Metropolitan theater [sic] orchestra.” In his 1955 Tulane interview, Omer Simeon recalled that Erskine Tate led the Metropolitan Theatre orchestra around this time. Whoever was in charge, Peyton took note of Howard’s whereabouts as well as those of Armstrong. He must have been seen as far more than a sideman.

Simeon also pointed out that the Metropolitan featured “legitimate music”—likely including classical selections—as well as jazz. Howard’s versatility continued to place him at an advantage. While playing with the pioneers of improvised American music, Howard’s technique and training made him an ideal collaborator in various musical settings. In Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, Kenney devotes a few paragraphs to Howard, singling him out for playing “a vital role in the growth of technical sophistication and versatility in South Side [Chicago] jazz.” His instrumental flexibility, ability to read different scores, and improvise exciting solos allowed him to “bridge the worlds of concert hall and cabaret music.” Howard’s work with Elgar’s varied ensembles alone illustrates what a resource he was to bandleaders. He must have also raised the bar in terms of what was expected from a gigging musician.

By June of 1928, the Chicago Defender reported that Howard was part of Jimmy Wade’s group. An article on Chicago’s south side scene by Christopher Hillman and Mike Tovey in Storyville 128 described Wade as “one of the top outfits of the day.” Ralph Gulliver’s Storyville feature on Wade said that the trumpeter’s band started at the Villa Venice before transferring to the Dreamland Café. Chilton mentioned Howard leading a quartet at the Ambassador during the summer of 1928 and briefly leading a group at the Club Arlington that included the brilliant drummer Sid Catlett. Schenck said Howard spent the last few months of 1928 in Elgar’s band, now at the Savoy and including Keppard and Omer Simeon. Kenney also mentioned that when Bill Bottoms left the Dreamland Café, he opened the Farmhouse Country Club in Robbins, Illinois, about 20 miles southwest of Chicago, and chose Howard to lead the house band.

Tom Lord’s massive biography of Clarence Williams mentions Howard recording with the bandleader/publisher on Columbia during 1929. Historian K.B. Rau cites reed player Emerson Harper naming Howard as the clarinetist on a November 29, 1929 session for Okeh by Williams. Still, Rau says the clarinetist does not sound like him. It’s also unclear when Howard may have even traveled to New York at this time. This also casts doubt on Howard being part of a session for QRS recorded by J.C. Johnson in Long Island City in February of 1929. Unlike many of his colleagues, Howard never relocated to New York City. It’s unclear whether this was a conscious decision or was simply unnecessary. Even though the Big Apple was becoming the next jazz hotbed, Howard seems to have been satisfied professionally and personally in his hometown.

By 1929, Howard was working for Dave Peyton at the Regal Theater. Wallace Best’s Encyclopedia of Chicago describes a “lavish Byzantine edifice” in the Bronzeville neighborhood that “catered specifically to the entertainment tastes of African Americans.” Musicians working at this nightlife hub would have increased their profile, and the Defender reported Howard was “still a success” at the Regal through October of 1930. During this period, Howard also led the unfortunately named “Jungle Band” at Bill Bottom’s newly opened Ritz cabaret with future Hines colleague Quinn Wilson on tuba.

By January of 1931, the Regal also featured a big band led by pianist Jerome Carrington and featuring Armstrong’s trumpet rival Reuben Reeves, former Sunset colleagues Shoffner and Simeon, and Wilson. Albert McCarthy indicated that this fine band didn’t last long enough to build a larger following. Newspapers report it closing after 22 weeks. Drummer Wallace Bishop also recalls Howard being part of the band led by Erskine Tate at the Metropolitan Theater alongside others from the Carrington band. Howard had now worked for the biggest names in Chicago music at the time with the possible exception of Doc Cook—though Johnny St. Cyr mentioned Howard playing with Cook too!

Before the twenties had even ended, Darnell Howard had played with the most groundbreaking names in jazz and American music in general. His resume already read like a directory of the city’s musical establishments, from rough cabarets to huge dance halls and glitzy nightclubs. Yet his next move would bring him scores of listeners from well beyond his hometown.

Part Two of this article will appear in our September 2021 issue.

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Andrew J. Sammut has covered music for All About Jazz, The Boston Classical Review, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America, The IAJRC Journal, and his blog The Pop of Yestercentury. Andrew also works as a freelance copyeditor and writer. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and his dog.

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