Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist

Sterling Bose
Young Sterling Bose
(photo courtesy Jan Ostrom)

JB: So many fantastic musicians of the jazz era who made their living as sidemen never received enough limelight to be widely remembered by modern audiences or anyone other than jazz historians and collectors. Such is the case of cornetist, trumpeter, vocalist, and practical joker Sterling Belmont “Bozo” Bose. He first appeared, both textually and photogenically, in our February column on Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats. Soon after that column’s release, Bose’s great-niece, Jan Ostrom, got in touch thanking us for including him in our Bob Cats discussion. She and Hal started a flurry of email exchanges and info sharing and it became evident that it was time to use this column to bring Mr. Bose into clearer focus.

Hal and I invited the young musician/historian Colin Hancock as well as Jan Ostrom to join us and we are thrilled they both accepted! I was able to chat at length with Jan and learned that her first exposure to her great-uncle Sterling’s music was as a child hearing the 1935 Clambake Seven (Tommy Dorsey’s Dixieland group spawned from his big band) recording of “The Music Goes ’Round and ’Round,” during which we hear Bose’s solid lead playing and his playful vocal–and musical–interchanges with the fantastic vocalist Edythe Wright. I’ll be sprinkling the anecdotes Jan shared with me throughout the column, but presently I’ll step back and ask Hal to give us a thumbnail biography of this (mostly) forgotten jazz star…

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HS: Sterling (his name has also been spelled “Stirling”) was born in Florence, Alabama (the hometown of W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues”), on February 23, 1906. When still a teenager, he relocated to New Orleans. Before long he was working with excellent local bands such as the Crescent City Jazzers. Colin mentions Bose’s association with Bix Beiderbecke in his analysis of an early Bose recording (below). The Beiderbecke influence remained strong, though Sterling developed his own very distinctive style on cornet and trumpet.

Original Crescent City Jazzers
Original Crescent City Jazzers – Left to right:Felix Guarino, Sterling Bose, Johnny Riddick, unknown, unknown, Avery Loposer.

In the late 1920s he played alongside another Beiderbecke disciple—Andy Secrest—in Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra. Around 1930 he began a long association with trombone wizard Jack Teagarden. Between 1930 and 1936, Bose played and recorded with great bands led by Teagarden, Ben Pollack, Tommy Dorsey, Vic Berton, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Red McKenzie, Chick Bullock and others. He also worked with Eddie Sheasby, Joe Haymes, Ray Noble, Victor Young, and on the staff of WGN radio in Chicago before joining Bob Crosby’s Orchestra.

After leaving Crosby in 1939, Bose worked with Bob Zurke’s short-lived orchestra and gigged with Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Bud Freeman, George Brunis, Bobby Sherwood, Horace Heidt, Tiny Hill, and small Dixieland and swing combos—including a stint at Nick’s in Greenwich Village. I have not been able to find any jazz recordings made by Bose after the mid-1940s.

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Here are some thoughts regarding some of Bose’s recordings from 1925 to 1944:

“The Co-Ed” (1925)

Arcadian Serenaders
Arcadian Serenaders; Johnny Riddick (piano), Sterling Bose (cornet), Bob Marvin (banjo, gtr), Felix Guarino (d), Avery Loposer (tb), Cliff Holman (reeds)

Colin Hancock: Bose’s first records were made with the Arcadian Serenaders. Based in the Gulf region, they were initially known as the Original Crescent City Jazzers, the name by which they made their first sides. However, an engagement at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis prompted a name change. Trumpeter Wingy Manone played with the band there first, recording four tunes with them, but the following year Bose rejoined the band, recording eight timeless sides. They were playing opposite the Frankie Trumbauer band at the Arcadia, and Bix Beiderbecke’s influence on the young Bose is obvious (they were also roommates during this time). Thus, on “The Co-Ed” we hear Bose under the spell of Bix, even quoting “Davenport Blues” within the first five seconds of the record! His tone is clear and driving, and his phrasing is a beautiful mix of Beiderbeckian lyricism and New Orleanian punch.

“My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now” (1928)

Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist
Bose P.R. photo from early 1930’s

HS: Just a short time after Bix Beiderbecke left the Jean Goldkette Orchestra to join Paul Whiteman, Sterling Bose was the new hot cornet/trumpet soloist with Goldkette. Some of the recordings were done while fellow Bix disciples Andy Secrest and Earl Baker were in the brass section, but to my ears—the solos on this one are played by Sterling Bose. In fact, I would say Bose’s playing on this recording is some of his very best. The Bix influence is still very apparent, but he also showed a daredevil side—venturing into Jack Purvis territory with blazing hot licks and a headlong, charging rhythmic thrust.

CH: Ah yes! It is indeed Bose, and man is he playing! I think this one is also important because of how it’s starting to show how Bose’s style was becoming more his own rather than so much of a Bix influenced sound (not to say that the influence wasn’t there; he was just a bit more focused on his own style)!

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JB: I must interject just how marvelous the song is as well. Such good material and arranging can bring out the best in top musicians! As you’ve both mentioned, Bose starts out his solo referencing Bix’s style and phrasing, but as the solo progresses, he makes a gradual departure into a more individual statement; some of it featuring rhythm and phrases that would figure in the upcoming swing era. In three 8-bar sections (trombone takes the bridge) we hear a distillation of a musician’s journey from disciple to prophet.

“Two Tickets to Georgia” (1933)

Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist
Eddy Sheasby Orchestra circa 1933. Bose front row, left; Jack Teagarden second row, second from right.

HS: This record is significant because it includes what many critics consider to be one of Jack Teagarden’s very best trombone solos. Also, it is a glimpse into the future as many of these Ben Pollack sidemen in this band formed the nucleus of the Bob Crosby Orchestra a couple years after this was recorded. Bose’s playing here shows that he was keeping up with the times; his solo is smooth, but very rhythmic and driving. It reminds me of Henry Red Allen’s soloing on his record of “I Wish I Were Twins.”

“St. Louis Blues” (1936)

HS: Benny Goodman recorded two takes of “St. Louis Blues” in 1936. The second take is a little cleaner, but—uncharacteristically—Goodman chose the first take to be the issued one. His decision may have been influenced by Sterling Bose’s solo. Bose’s chorus on the first take is remarkable, not only for his improvisational skill but for his surefooted double-time phrasing.

“I’m Prayin’ Humble” (1938)

Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats
Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats, late 1930s: Bob Zurke, Bob Haggart, Nappy Lamare, Irving Fazola, Ray Bauduc, Eddie Miller, Sterling Bose, Warren Smith.

CH: Bose’s style shifted and developed a lot during his career. By the time he started playing with Bob Crosby in the late 1930s, he was an even harder driving trumpeter than before, though still with much of his original lyricism. The all-star Crosby band recording of “I’m Prayin’ Humble” from 1938 features Bose throughout, starting with a preaching solo in which he shows off his tasteful growling skills. Later in the tune, he riffs a couple of choruses that swing like mad, again showing off his mute abilities and how far his style had come (compare these, for instance, to his mute work 14 years earlier on the Crescent City Jazzers’ recording of “Christine”).

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HS: Arranger Bob Haggart originally intended this chart as a feature for trumpeter Yank Lawson with the Bob Crosby Orchestra, but Lawson left to join Tommy Dorsey before it could be recorded. Sterling Bose shows that he was equally as adept as Lawson with the plunger mute.

Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street,” “Peach Tree Street” (both 1939)

Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist
Bose 1950’s P.R. shot. Note the notes coming out of his horn!

JB: Speaking of his mute work, I’ll describe two sides you laid on me, Hal. Both were recorded in 1939 by Bob Zurke and his Delta Rhythm Band, had topics and titles concerning street names and featured Bose on trumpet AND vocal. The title “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street” isn’t the only unwieldy aspect of the first tune. It rambles quite a bit, with disjointed sections and an unmemorable melody, making it impressive that Bose could navigate it and give it such a swinging vocal. It’s hard to believe this was covered as well by Charlie Barnet and Bing Crosby! A more successful side is “Peach Tree Street.” Albeit a shameless knock-off of “Basin Street Blues,” this tune puts the spotlight on Bose’s vocalizing and his scorching muted trumpet solo over stop time rhythm, with shades of Muggsy Spanier shining through even as Bose stays true to his unique “voice.”

Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist
A serious Sterling circa 1950’s

Hal, you mentioned hearing Jack Teagarden Bose’s vocals and I sure hear that as well! Bose and Teagarden met up in 1930 when both were in the Ben Pollack band. Not only did they team up on many wonderful recordings during the early 1930s, but Jan avers they shared many crazy adventures including midnight fishing trips and taking flying lessons.

HS: Bose’s singing makes me think of Teagarden and it also reminds me a lot of Eddie Miller. Those Southerners really knew how to make a vocal sound relaxed and swinging at the same time!

“Eye Opener” (1939)

HS: Bose plays two red hot blues choruses on Bob Zurke’s composition. You can hear bits and pieces of Armstrong and Beiderbecke licks and there is a slight hesitation in the beat—reminiscent of Yank Lawson, Benny Strickler and Nate Kazebier.

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JB: Bose entrance on his solo is SO hot, as are those notes he’s bending in the 2nd chorus, with the Bob Crosby Orch. swinging like a gate throughout. Ahhh…going to listen to that one again…

“Have You Ever Felt That Way” (1944)

HS: Three of the songs from this session sound pretty good, and this is one of them. Even though Bose hits several “clams,” you can really hear his nice vibrato and very relaxed phrasing. Around this same time, he made some outstanding records with Miff Mole—in a band that included Pee Wee Russell, Gene Schroeder and other members of the Condon Mob. Bose really made the band move on numbers such as “I Would Do Anything For You” and took some terrific solos on “Ballin’ The Jack,” “At The Jazz Band Ball” and “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll.”

JB: There’s some great listening listed here for anyone wanting to experience the breadth of music that Bose performed over a productive 20-year period! To early jazz aficionados world-wide, the sounds of Sterling Bose might be better known than his name; the recordings listed above provide a connection for modern audiences to hear his talent.

Sterling Bose publicity
Bose P.R. shot. One of Jan’s favorite photos of him; she loves his smile!

For Jan Ostrom, the connection runs deeper as she grew up hearing family stories about Uncle “Bozo.” Stories of how he’d play the cornet and marimba at churches in NOLA when he was a young man and would keep losing the jobs because he would start jazzing up the music! Another anecdote, recalled by Matty Matlock from a road-tour he and Bose shared, tells of a call girl who was working at the hotel the band was staying at, posing as a hosiery saleswoman. Bose was crushed to find out he had missed her—not for her sexual favors: he really needed a pair of socks! One of Jan’s relative’s favorite stories recounts the time Sterling missed a bus going to play in a small town for a country club’s very formal Tea Dance. He did show up, albeit late, obviously drunk and carrying a basket of manure, which he tossed on the floor, crying out “Who said this was only a one-horse town?”

Deeper still than the family stories about him is the connection Jan has to Bose through her ownership of the Conn Victor Cornet he played. Colin, could you share your insights about this horn?

CH: Sterling Bose played a variety of horns, each of which contributed to his distinctive sound and phrasing. While in photos with the Crescent City Jazzers he has what looks like a Buescher trumpet, which explains his attack on their early sides. By the time he was with Goldkette, he had switched to a Conn Victor cornet, which certainly aided him in his Bixian style at the time. Bose seemed to favor that brand of horns, as one of his last horns, which belongs to his great-niece Jan Ostrom, is a Conn 38A Victor Special cornet. Starting in 1935, Conn began manufacturing the Special as a short version of its Victor cornet. It was advertised as a small-bore horn without sacrificing the tonal quality of its shorter shape, which some players like Bose favored. The serial number 344536 shows that the horn was made sometime around 1941 or so, when Bose was playing around New York.Sterling Bose Cornet

A closer look at Bose’s horn shows it to be in quite good cosmetic condition considering its age, though some of the brass plating is worn on the crook (could this possibly be where Bose held his horn when he wasn’t playing?) A look inside the case also reveals two mutes, a cup and a harmon, along with an aging bottle of valve oil and a polishing rag. In his earlier years of playing, he favored the sound of a Conn doorknob mute or straight mute, so his change in preference seems to echo his stylistic trajectory. There are also two mouthpieces, one appearing to be shallow and another a deeper cup, both vintage. The fact that the horn remains in such good shape after all this time is a testament to Bose’s family’s exemplary job of keeping his legacy alive and well after all of these years, particularly Jan’s father (and Bose’s nephew), who babied the horn for a number of years, making sure it stayed safe in tip-top shape.

JB: Thanks, Colin. Great job! Hal, you mentioned not being able to find Bose on recordings after the mid-1940s. By then, his intake of alcohol was compromising his intonation and chops and, in your words from a 2010 thumbnail article about him, “he relocated permanently to Florida, leading his own bands and eventually settling into a steady engagement in St. Petersburg, FL.” At first glance, this situation sounds like an ideal “retirement” for a busy, hustling freelance musician! Closer examination reveals Bose was suffering both from individual ills and a family history of depression, a lethal combination driving him to take his own life on July 23rd, 1958.

Sterling Bose: Forgotten Hot Jazz Cornetist
Bose with a Florida based Quintet, 1950’s

Sterling Bose was the second youngest of 10 children. His mom Susie, when she was young, had been a good enough pianist that a local visitor with ties to a piano teacher in NYC heard her play and offered to bring her back to NYC, convinced her talent would eventually take her to Carnegie Hall.  Her parents forbade her to accompany a man alone and her dreams of becoming a concert pianist came to an abrupt halt.

Two vital components of the Sterling Bose story arose from Mom Susie’s unfortunate, but all-too-common experience. The first, happily, is that she vowed all her children would do what they wanted to do, a promise that led to Sterling’s siblings becoming, most notably, a commercial artist, a groundbreaking children’s clothing designer in NYC, and older brother Randall becoming the first person to free-fall parachute from a plane; he was so confident that he did this stunt on a bet and collected the money afterwards! The second, tragically, is that Susie herself committed suicide when she was 51, with an unfulfilled dream of performing music professionally certainly among the reasons for her taking her own life.

In addition to his mom, Sterling lost an older brother to suicide as well. By the late 1950s, he was losing his hearing and his alcohol intake was creating serious physical and emotional challenges. He ended his life with a pistol. He was a life-long prankster and practical joker with a penchant for absurdity, and it seems as if even his death sounded a final ironic note.
Jan Ostrom shared this story with us:

JO: Sometime during the mid 1970s, Bobby Hackett was playing a private party at the Broadmoor Hotel here in the Springs (N.B. Colorado Springs, CO, a decades-long hub of swinging jazz). My dad had a couple of old photos of Bobby that he wanted to give him, so we went over to try to meet him. We were able to meet up with him on a break and Dad introduced himself and his relationship to Sterling (to explain why he had the photos). Hackett’s comment about Sterling was so kind, “Of all the times that damned pistol of his had to work—it was a piece of junk and usually jammed. Sterling had such great talent, I enjoyed playing with him. It’s too bad he could never conquer his demons.

JB: A full-time musician leads a dichotomous life. Soaring freedom and creativity contrast with demanding responsibilities and uncertainty. Somehow out of this roiling mess, music is created; sometimes, perhaps because of this polarity, it even thrives. Sterling Bose had a storied musical career; his manic humor was an integral part of his music. In his relatively short life, he left us some righteous hot jazz sounds as well as some good laughs! Once again, Hal and I would like to thank Colin Hancock and Jan Ostrom for joining us on this journey of discovery. Also, we thank Andy Senior and Joe Bebco for their continued efforts to use this publication for research and topics such as this one. Kudos to all and looking forward to next month’s adventure!

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Hal Smith is an Arkansas-based drummer and writer. He leads On The Levee Jazz Band and works with a variety of Jazz and Swing bands. Visit him online at halsmithmusic.com.

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

Colin Hancock led the Buddy Bolden Cylinder Project while still in high school, recruiting experts on the topic to assist him. In college, he founded The Original Cornell Syncopators taking the group as far as the San Diego Jazz Festival. He cuts cylinder records and acoustic 78s of himself and other musicians, and creates remarkable overdubbed early jazz performances on which he plays every instrument. You may hear them at www.youtube.com/user/SemperPhonographCo.

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