For several decades, now, Ted Shafer has been something of an institution in traditional jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area. The message on his telephone answering machine all those years opened with This is Ted Shafer, leader of the Jelly Roll Jazz Band and owner of Merry Makers Records. Actually there were two versions of the Jelly Roll Jazz Band, one being a five- or six-piece “drummerless” group that strove for the New Orleans style, the other an eight- or nine-piece two-cornet or two-trumpet group with either one or two banjos in the rhythm section. (Ted’s banjo talent was quite modest, as he was aware, and he liked to have a second banjo for the fills, breaks, and solos.) That group espoused the style of the King Oliver and Lu Watters bands and their “arrangements,” along with those of the band’s namesake, Jelly Roll Morton, comprised much of the Jelly Roll Jazz Band’s book.
After suffering a stroke a few years back, even though it was less than debilitating, it, in conjunction with advancing years, motivated Ted to decide to call it a day and he folded the band(s). His record company stopped issuing new CDs, all of the existing inventory being turned over to a distribution company which still, as far as I know, fills orders from remaining stock. As well as music, writing was one of his passions—Ted loved to write and aspired to being an author, self publishing in the sixties a group of short stories he wrote. While he was not a pilot, he also loved flying and aircraft and published a novel, Jimmy Beebe and the Great Silver Air Fleet: A Novel of Adventure and Suspense, (Merry Makers Press, 1978). These literary endeavors have no relation to jazz.
Born in Rochester, New York on May 11, 1925, Raymond Theodore Shafer, as he was christened, opted for his middle name in its abbreviated form rather than his first name. His father was a real estate broker who, like to so many others, went broke during the Depression. After graduating from school, Ted went to work for a copy machine company which sent him to Cincinnati where he heard Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings and an offshoot of that band, Carl Halen’s Gin Bottle Seven and thus became enamored of the music. Sent to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, by his company, he was inspired to take up an instrument to play this jazz, and he decided on banjo, taking a few lessons while there.
Since, as he said, the West Coast was where the music was, from his employer he wangled a transfer to the Los Angeles area in the mid fifties where he sought out jazz bands. It was there that the two Jelly Roll Jazz Bands were organized and he cut his first recording of the band—on LP at that time, of course.
Also in Southern California were two of Ted’s favorite musicians whom he had met back in Cincinnati—trombonist Charlie Sonnanstine and pianist Robin Wetterau—and they transcribed many of the King Oliver and Lu Watters recordings, which they let Ted have. When Sonnanstine and Wetterau moved north to the San Francisco area in the early sixties, Ted decided to follow. In 1964 he had formed Merry Makers Records and a second label, Homespun Records, the latter being dedicated to Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band.
After arriving in Northern California, Ted formed his own copier company, which he ran until he sold it and retired in 1988, and he decided to reform the two bands. He kept the record companies, switching to the CD format for Merry Makers when such took over from LPs, and closing Homespun. When he reactivated the big Jelly Roll band, he recruited Sonnanstine (Wetterau had already moved to Florida), and I was fortunate enough to be asked to join on drums, and although I was playing with Professor Plum’s Jazz at the time, fortunately there were few conflicts with gigs. We played all of the jazz clubs in Northern California, in turn, as well as many other private and company events.
Ted certainly got some interesting gigs, including playing on an aircraft carrier, based at the time at Alameda, California: the USS Carl Vinson (which is still in service). The event was a short cruise for the crew’s families round the Farallon Islands in the Pacific Ocean outside San Francisco Bay prior to the ship’s home port being changed to Bremerton, Washington State. Not many gigs provide an opportunity to stand on the flight deck and witness fighter planes taking off and landing. Another was an Easter Sunday party thrown by Francis Ford Coppola on his estate in Napa, where some of the casts from his movies, along with his friend George Lucas, could be seen mingling with the other guests, mainly other actors and workers from his films and wineries.
Ted organized a couple of small one-day festivals in Benicia and Suisun, California, for several years and got the Jelly Roll Jazz Band booked into some of the larger festivals, such as Placerville and Sacramento, along with its appearing at many other festivals in Northern California.
Recently Ted celebrated his 94th birthday with an outdoor concert given for anyone who cared to come. His original intention was to reform the big Jelly Roll band for the occasion, but he was too frail to take that on and hired one of the local bands which he had recorded on the Merry Makers label. A few years ago he confided to me that he was intent on getting issued everything he had recorded, especially by those bands he considered worthy of being preserved who might not otherwise be. He managed to achieve this goal, I believe, and the traditional jazz world is the richer for his having done so. After an extended period of failing health, Ted passed away August 7, 2019. His burial will be back in New York, as per his request.
In 2010 Frank Grace profiled Ted Shafer in our predecessor paper The American Rag, read the story: Ted Shafer and the Jelly Roll Jazz Band Keep Rolling Along