Snapshots of Spiegle Willcox

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Snapshots of Spiegle Willcox

Dan Barrett shares some of his experiences in playing with legendary trombonist Spiegle Willcox (1903-99) and gives insight as to the interplay among musicians while on the bandstand. During his long career, Willcox played in the Paul Whiteman and Jean Goldkette orchestras, reminisced on his experiences with Bix Beiderbecke for the documentary film Bix, and discussed his life and music in the Ken Burns documentary, Jazz.

James “Rosy” McHargue (1902-99) became a professional musician at the age of 15 and over the years played with Frank Trumbauer, Ted Weems, Kay Kyser, Jimmy McPartland, and Red Nichols, among others. In his later years, he was a popular performer at West Coast festivals and was active in the jazz preservation movement, working with historians in interviews and recalling the tunes and lyrics of many long-forgotten songs from the 1920s and before. – Ed.


Spiegle Willcox in the 1920s

-That should count for something!-

The late Rick Fay—a wonderful, funny guy and a very good soprano saxophonist and singer—shared this with me some time ago. Back around 1996, Rick was leading an “all-star” group for the weekend at one of the dixieland festivals. (It may have been the Suncoast Dixieland Classic, I’m not sure.)

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As Rick tells it, it was a very good band, with Spiegle Willcox on trombone. The band had played a few tunes and toward the end of one of their numbers, there was a small commotion at the back of the room. Rosy McHargue—in a wheelchair by that point—was being helped into the room. He was immediately surrounded by fans and well-wishers.

When the band ended whatever it was it had been playing, Rick stepped up to the microphone and announced:

“Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for the applause for that last number. Right now, I’d like to welcome one of the true legends of traditional jazz. He actually knew—and even played with—the great Bix Beiderbecke! Please give a warm welcome to our special guest here today, who recently turned 94 years old! – Mr. Rosy McHargue!”

The audience applauded enthusiastically, quickly rising to their feet. Rosy looked around, waving to them graciously and appreciatively. While this was happening, Spiegle put his trombone back on its stand on the corner of the stage and motioned to Rick that he wanted to get to the microphone. Rick stepped aside.

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As soon as the applause subsided, and the audience had returned to their seats, Spiegle leaned into the microphone. (The way Rick told it, I got the impression that Spiegle was half-kidding; but only half. Rick thought Spiegle might actually have been a little put out by the sudden attention given to Rosy.)

“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” Spiegle began. “I’m real happy to see my old buddy, Rosy. And, ladies and gentlemen…it’s true that Rosy knew Bix and played with him, but…I recorded with Bix!” And he went on, “Rosy’s 94 all right, but… but, hell, folks…I’m 93! I think that should count for something!”

The audience laughed and applauded. As the applause died down, Rosy cupped his hands around his mouth, and in a strong, clear voice shouted, “Oh, what I wouldn’t GIVE to be 93 again!” Rick Fay said that at that point, the place was up for grabs! Spiegle laughed and shook his head. He retreated to his trombone, good-naturedly conceding defeat.

(Spiegle Willcox and Rosy McHargue passed away within two months of each other: Rosy in June of 1999, and Spiegle the following August.)

Spiegle Willcox with his dog Lynn Dee at his home near Cincinnatus, NY, in May 1993. (Bob Ellis photo via Facebook)

– Spiegle’s Surrogate Trombone –

I lived in New York City from 1983 until 1996. I used to sub often at Eddie Condon’s club in Manhattan for Tom Artin, a brilliant guy and a very good trombonist. One night in 1984 or ’85, Spiegle was in town, and came by to sit in. He seemed very interested in the horn I was playing. (At that time, I was abusing a Conn 100-H). I naturally offered to let him try it. He played it for a set and sounded great, of course. He thanked me, and said he really liked the horn.

The next time I saw him, he had found a used 100-H and was playing it! I’ve always been proud that my judgment in horns had been corroborated by none other than Spiegle Willcox! (Now I’m sitting here wondering why I ever switched to a different trombone…)

Spiegle Willcox on The Tonight Show, 1986

– A Special Set in Switzerland –

Another time, we were performing separately at the jazz festival in Ascona, Switzerland. (“JazzAscona”—the “big” festival in July—hasn’t called me for a while, but my Dutch friend Frank Roberscheuten now produces a great, much more intimate event in Ascona earlier in the year which I attend. It’s called the “Hotel Ascona Swing Festival.” Interested parties can find out about it online.)

After the final set of the festival, there was a big farewell party. A jam session naturally ensued. At some point—late in the evening—Spiegle led a set of four trombones and a rhythm section. This was long enough ago that I can’t be sure of one of the trombonists; it was one of two Parisian friends: either Daniel Barda, or Patrick Bacqueville. I’m leaning toward Barda. The other two—in addition to Spiegle—were Tom Baker and me.

We played a few tunes, faking four-part harmony and having fun making up backgrounds for each other, trading fours, and all that. The one number that stands out, however, is “On The Alamo.” Spiegle may have suggested it. He was pleasantly surprised that we all knew it. I remember Tom Baker playing an absolutely beautiful—masterful—chorus.

– About Tom Baker –

When I met Tom, he was a trumpet player, and he continued to play that instrument (and cornet) brilliantly for all of his short life. Shortly after our first encounter, he took up the tenor sax (think Coleman Hawkins, and Gene Ammons), and then on to alto and soprano. He had one of the prettiest tones on the alto sax, and I’m including the “Golden Age” greats on that horn when I say that.

When Tom brought his trombone to Ascona that year, he’d been playing it for about three years. That was long enough to become my favorite living trombonist. His unexpected death at the age of 49 shocked and saddened all who knew him. Shortly after his death, some clown came up to me and intimated that Tom had died of a drug overdose. I haven’t hit anyone since a schoolyard fight in seventh grade (and I didn’t want to then), but I nearly clocked that guy.

It was obvious he didn’t know that Tom was an Eagle Scout and lived his life according to those values. Eagle Scouts don’t use hard drugs. Tom had a congenital heart defect. He died in a hospital in Breda, the Netherlands, of a massive heart attack caused by that defect.

After Tom’s terrific solo, I suppose Daniel Barda (or Patrick Bacqueville) and I played solos, and then Spiegle came in. The whole sound of the band changed; the rhythm section sympathetically came down to Spiegle’s mezzo-forte volume, and something odd happened: the band took on what I think of as an “old world” quality in its sound and conception.

Spiegle and the guys really sounded as though they stepped out of about 1928, into the middle of that jam session. Spiegle’s tone was warm and rich, and a little melancholy. His phrasing was very natural, and his inventive, lyrical ideas were not touched or in any way informed by “bebop,” or anything that came after the Roaring ’20s bubble he and the rhythm section had created. It was wonderful, and astonishing to hear.

After his chorus, Spiegle received one of the most enthusiastic rounds of applause that had been given anyone during the whole festival. I remember the three trombonists standing around him also spontaneously applauded.

Tom Baker ducked his head once, and made a “click” with the side of his mouth; hard to describe, but it was kind of an old fashioned, “Bowery Boys”-era way of expressing, “you just can’t beat that.”
Tom was right. Just like Bix, Spiegle lives!


Arranger, cornetist, and trombonist Dan Barrett lives in Anaheim, California. Visit him online: www.danbarrettmusic.com.

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