Origins of a Passion for Music

JB: Hal, over the past several columns, we’ve explored obscure musical heroes, dissected seminal early jazz pieces, and celebrated iconic ensembles. Let’s take a break this month and turn the magnifying glass on ourselves. The origins of a passion for a music that was already fringe long before any practitioners still on this side of the sod were born fascinates me. I won’t immediately put you in the hot seat; I’ll begin with the first time I heard early jazz on record.

I became a teenager in 1980, so my most impressionable years, the years when my ears were most open and receptive to input, were spent in the 1970’s. With no YouTube, internet or even home computers available, all I had at my disposal were the radio and my parents’ record collection. They had eclectic tastes, so Barry Manilow would open for Dr. Hook, then Anne Murray, The Beach Boys, Bix Beiderbecke, the Oak Ridge Boys, Henry Mancini, Olivia Newton John…WAIT a minute? Backing up I see the name of one of my heroes amidst the stars of the bell-bottom age! How can that be?

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Turns out my dad was a closet jazz fan; he had the 1950’s three-volume Columbia releases comprising The Bix Beiderbecke Story (CL 844, 845, 846) with magnificent liner notes by George Avakian. Dad would take out the old, tarnished trumpet he’d played in high school, spin one of those discs and play a 4th trumpet part to the Whiteman material in Vol. 3 or blow long-tones under Tram’s solos in Vol. 2. His chops were non-existent—he had a range of about a 5th from concert middle C to the G above—but his ear was good so his voice-leading was always spot-on. I think I was initially mesmerized by the music from hearing my dad in the flesh reaching out with his notes to musicians from 50 years prior.

The Bix Beiderbecke StoryI wore those LPs out and discovered he also had The Louis Armstrong Story (CL 851, 852, missing 853) and, on Captiol, Pete Daily’s Dixieland Band (H 183) and Joe “Fingers” Carr’s Ragtime Band (H 443). Finally, my first exposure to Turk Murphy was the 1959 Roulette LP (R 25088) with the unwieldy title Turk Murphy: Music for Wise Guys and Boosters, Card Sharps and Crap Shooters. GONE was 1970s music for me, forever replaced by vintage jazz and ragtime. The clincher occurred when I was seven and my folks returned from an evening at the cinema, where they had seen The Sting and brought home a copy of the soundtrack album (MCA 390). When they put that record on and I heard the Hamlisch orchestration of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” I knew I’d always be drawn to that music and its primary instrument, the piano.

HS: The first music I heard was on 78s in my dad’s collection: Marvin Ash playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” Johnny Maddox on “St. Louis Tickle” and “Crazy Bone Rag” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Seattle Hunch.” I was immediately drawn to Ragtime and my parents encouraged my interest by adding records by Joe “Fingers” Carr, Big Tiny Little, Knuckles O’Toole, and others to the family library. The first jazz I heard was a 45 RPM on the Disneyland label: “The Strawhatters.” At that time, Pete Fountain was a regular performer with Lawrence Welk and I always enjoyed hearing him on that television program. I had not yet developed any specific interests beyond Ragtime, Honky Tonk piano, banjo music, and whatever Dixieland I was able to hear on TV and radio. I dimly remember hearing the Firehouse Five Plus Two on the Mickey Mouse Club program, but for some reason that particular appearance didn’t resonate with me!

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JB: Awesome story, my friend. From my initial taste, I’d search out any early jazz I could find. I’d sit watching early black-and-white musicals rebroadcast on channel 9, 11, or 13; I’d go with my family to amusement parks and skip all the rides so I could follow the strolling Dixieland bands throughout the park; on weekday afternoons I’d be sure to watch any Merry Melodies cartoons from the 1930s that were on offer: I was obsessed.

The apotheosis of this journey occurred one fateful Sunday night when I was 10 years old. My Dad took me to a low-ceilinged basement bar called The Millpond Tavern in Northford, CT, where I first encountered live Dixieland Jazz offered up by The Galvanized Jazz Band [N.B. Tubist and original member Art Hovey described the band and this locale at length in the August issue]. I was there in the third row of this claustrophobic but acoustically perfect venue and soaked in the chugging banjo, weaving clarinet, gutsy trombone and searing cornet in the front line, with the constant swinging rhythm of piano, tuba (or bass) and drums SIX FEET AWAY FROM ME!!!

By 1977, the band had been around in their present incarnation for quite some time and they were tight and hot. I almost switched to trumpet after hearing Fred Vigorito lead that band. For the next several years, I went every Sunday possible with my dad for 4 sets of pure magic.

By the time I was 13, banjoist Joel Schiavone was graciously letting me sit-in to accompany him on his weekly sing-along between the third and fourth sets and I was guesting with the band by the time I reached the venerable age of 16. These musicians were my mentors and remain my friends; I’ve even had the honor of hiring them for my ensembles over the years!

Hal, when Bill Hoffman profiled you, you described that the first experience for you was at Disneyland with the Firehouse Five Plus Two. You only touched on that epiphanic moment in that interview. Could you elaborate on this life-changing encounter? Also, what was the first band you were able to learn from live on a regular basis?


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HS: Jeff, I will never forget that first exposure to live jazz! After seeing my reaction to the music on one of the Firehouse Five records, my parents offered to take me to Disneyland to hear the band in person. I wrote to leader Ward Kimball, who graciously responded with a nice letter that included the band’s summer schedule. After spending most of the day enjoying the rides, we settled in at one of the tables near the bandstand next to the “Blue Banjo.”

The bandstand was dark, but at the appointed time, it lit up as seven musicians in colorful red shirts, white suspenders and white fire helmets mounted the stage. After arranging various percussion and sound effect devices on the stand, Ward Kimball lifted his trombone and called out “HEY! One-and-two-and-three-and four” and the Firehouse Five blasted off with “At the Jazz Band Ball.” Their music went through me like an electric current! 60 years later, I remember that sensation…and it is still with me when I think about hearing the Firehouse Five Plus Two live onstage.

JB: Yeah, Hal! I’m a REAL nerd: I got chills reading your vivid description above. Although I never had the pleasure of hearing FH5+2 live, I have a story regarding them and how they contrasted with another group I discovered on the exact same day, although the two ensembles were 3,000 miles apart, both in terms of home base AND musical content. I grew up in Hamden, CT, a northern suburb of New Haven. In High School, I was taking theater and music classes at an arts school in downtown New Haven within walking distance of Yale University and the Yale Co-op. Within that campus store they had an amazing record shop containing ALL styles of music, including a healthy dose of traditional jazz. I was looking to expand my aural horizons within the genre, so I would often save up my (miniscule) gig money to buy an album now and then.

The fateful day I had enough money to purchase 2 records (at $9.99 each…a BIG investment), I chose The Firehouse Five Plus Two Dixieland Favorites (Good Time Jazz S10040) and The New Black Eagle Jazz Band in Concert (BE-TWO). When I got home, I rushed to the stereo to play my new finds. I knew nothing about either group and eagerly anticipated some amazing discoveries.

My 16-year-old ears gravitated immediately to the brash, stomping sound of FH5+2 with Danny Alguire’s driving lead, Don Kinch’s solid tuba, Ward Kimball’s smeary trombone and, of course, George Probert’s virtuosic soprano sax. I felt listening to that beautifully recorded album as if I were in the band! Another plus was that they were playing all the tunes I already knew, doubling my pleasure as they barreled through “hit” after “hit.”

Then I put on the NBEJB vinyl and was dumbfounded. I couldn’t wrap my ears around what I was hearing! Tony Pringle’s cornet lead was way more subtle than Alguire’s trumpet (at the time, I ignorantly referred to it as “weak.”), Stan Macdonald, though facile, didn’t nearly have Probert’s tone on the soprano, Eli Newberger was so virtuosic I couldn’t make out the desired traditional tuba lines on beats one and three; the list goes on and on about what I found wrong with that album and the band. It wasn’t even recorded with clear, studio sound; being a live concert album, it had what I thought were mushy acoustics. What WAS this? Nothing about this music was “in my face” as was the FH5’s. Over the next several months I listened to my FH5 album several times a day—and bought more: Crashes a Party,Plays for Lovers,—with Walt Kelly’s artwork!—the red-colored series The Firehouse Five Story, Around the World, and many more. I didn’t take another listen to the NBEJB In Concert for over a year.

Fast forward about three years to when I was 19 and I had realized how one-dimensional had been my exposure to the music up until then. I’d heard more variety within the genre and had “taken a chance” on purchasing another Black Eagle LP, then another and so forth, until I possessed all the band had released up to that point; subsequently the band members all became good friends of mine. I had reassessed and realized how wrong I was earlier about their music. While FH5 was like a rough (though SO tasty) bourbon, NBEJB was like a musical Armagnac. I am so grateful to have made those purchases on the same day; I fit immediately into one sound and style and had to grow into the other one. Today, they remain my two favorite “out-of-state” bands (GJB will always be my CT favorite!).

HS: Growing up on the West Coast, I didn’t get to hear the Eastern and Midwestern bands and musicians who were so influential on others. Of course, I kept going to hear the Firehouse Five as often as possible at Disneyland. All the musicians—especially Danny Alguire, Dick Roberts and George Probert—were kind to me and never rolled their eyes or excused themselves when I took up their precious break time asking “young kid” musical questions.

In the ensuing years, I heard the band with several guests and substitutes, but none of the subsequent performances were as significant as the night in 1964 when the band included Danny Alguire and Don Kinch on trumpets (and George Bruns on tuba). I remember wondering why the band would need another horn in the front line. When Ward Kimball made the first announcement of the evening he rasped, “Tonight we’re gonna play some LU WATTERS music!” I remembered seeing that name in the liner notes to the FH5 records but had not actually heard Watters. Four beats from Ward and the eight-piece band launched into “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll.” The resulting sounds were a sensory overload!

Naturally, hearing a two-trumpet front line and finding out about the Watters connection made me want to hear more! After picking up the Yerba Buena Jazz Band records on Good Time Jazz, I became an instant fan. Next, I discovered Turk Murphy’s music (and got to hear his band in person at Disneyland). The Bay City Jazz Band’s first record was another revelation and eventually I got to hear them “in the flesh.” Meanwhile, the great South Frisco Jazz Band was performing regularly at the Pizza Palace in Huntington Beach, which was relatively close to my home in San Diego. I spent many a night breathing in pizza and beer fumes enjoying the South Frisco group.

One night, I heard a unique version of the SFJB: Papa Ray Ronnei, cornet; Frank Demond, trombone; Mike Baird, clarinet; Dick Shooshan, piano; Vince Saunders, leader/banjo; Mike Fay, string bass; and Bob Raggio, washboard. That was the first time I heard an entire evening of New Orleans style music, and it opened up a whole new world for me! Later, I found out that this ensemble (except for Vince Saunders) was the exact same lineup as the El Dorado Jazz Band. I was too young to go into most of the clubs where El Dorado played, but that evening at the Pizza Palace was a good illustration of the EDJB’s iconic approach to New Orleans Jazz.

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My interest in New Orleans music intensified as I heard Kid Ory at Disneyland and caught the New Orleans Rascals of Osaka on their 1971 tour of California. I started buying records by Bunk Johnson and George Lewis to compliment my collection of San Francisco Jazz. At the time, LP reissues of material by Oliver, Morton, Armstrong and Dodds were not always easy to find, so it took a little longer for me to add those original recordings to my library.

After hearing so many great brass and reed players live and on record, I often wish that I had taken up one of those instruments instead of drums. But—I had to wear braces as a teenager and playing drums did not affect the alignment of my teeth! My Dad introduced me to the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller too…but I didn’t have the inner discipline to practice the piano for hours at a time. I really regret that now.

JB: Well, we can’t ALL be Clint Bakers or Simon Striblings: I have a hard enough time remembering how to play piano these days! Quick story: at the Sacto fest years ago, a beleaguered double bass player was trudging up a steep hill with his instrument towards his 5th set of the day. Some callous wag called across the street, “Hey you, don’t you wish you played flute right now?” Without missing a step, he turned and snarled, “Hell, no! Then I’d have to carry both instruments up this #$@%&@% hill!”

As to your story, when you mentioned that terrific version of the SFJB (and El Dorado group), it serves me as a reminder no musicians should be pigeonholed; sure, the inclusion of Demond, Shooshan, and Fay steered the ensemble towards NOLA, but the other musicians, so often associated with two-beat Watters jazz moved along with them. It’s the terrific synthesis and sharing of styles that creates the best jazz!

We’ve been describing early positive musical experiences and now I must mention the “one that got away…” In addition to the Yale Co-op, a couple of blocks over you could go into Clark’s Record Store, which boasted acres of vinyl, both used and new. I got my first taste of the ORIGINAL real stuff there (Oliver, Armstrong, Morton etc) along with discovering even more “contemporary” heroes of jazz (Original Salty Dogs, South Frisco, Paramount Jazz Band, Terry Waldo’s various groups, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks).

Sprinkled on almost every block in New Haven were small record stores specializing in used discs. I was in one such store one afternoon and came upon the complete Audiophile series of the Dukes of Dixieland (some 20+ LPs) for TWO dollars apiece! I didn’t have enough money on me, and since I was seemingly alone in my interest in this music—no-one in my circle even knew what “traditional” jazz, let alone “jazz” of any sort was—I assumed I could pick them up the next day rather than ask the clerk to hold them for me. The next afternoon, I strolled in, cash in hand and found they were GONE! I had missed them by about 45 minutes…I was so heartbroken I asked if the purchaser had paid by check and could I have the phone number so I could offer them twice the money they’d paid…of course, the clerk couldn’t share that information and besides the bounder had paid cash!!

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HS: My experience with “one that got away” ended up badly for the other guy! In 1965, I ordered the first volume of The San Francisco Style by Lu Watters from our local music store. The owner called me in about a week to say that the record had arrived. When I went in to pick it up, the owner noticed the label and said “Hmmm. ‘Good Time Jazz.’ You know, someone else ordered a record on that label and never came to pick it up. Would you like to have it?” Answer: affirmative. That record was none other than Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, 1954. I have never stopped thanking my anonymous benefactor for the introduction to Ory, and that fantastic rhythm section with Don Ewell, Ed Garland, and Minor Hall!

JB: Before we end this trip down memory lane, I’ll share one short triumphant story of mine; in the early 1990s at one of the annual CT Public Radio media purges (a warehouse full of compact discs, LP’s, cassettes and even 78s for sale) I scored over 200 Stomp Off LP releases at a BUCK each! Heaven!!

HS: That’s the Bargain of the Century! Thank goodness for Stomp Off and Bob Erdos. That label documented bands around the world which might otherwise be as forgotten as Barbecue Joe and his Hot Dogs!

JB: I’ll bet you a bourbon within a week of this column’s publication 12 bands will appear across the country with exactly that name! Hal, what’s on tap for next month?

HS: Make that a double Elijah Craig and you’ve got a deal. Meanwhile, why don’t we check with another relative of a great jazzman who deserves to be better known?

JB: Sounds perfect to me! Let’s keep the suspense intact and not reveal the mystery musician! Thanks for going into the personal vaults with me, Hal. It was a blast!

Hal Smith is an Arkansas-based drummer and writer. He leads the New Orleans Night Owls and the
Mortonia Seven and works with a variety of jazz and swing bands. Visit him online at

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at Email: [email protected]

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