The Austin High Gang by Charles Edward Smith From “Jazzmen,” by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. & Charles Edward Smith Harcourt, Brace & Company – New York, 1939
In 1922 five kids from Austin High School out at Chicago’s west end, got up a little band. The buff brick high school they attended was so much like others it was hard to describe, and the boys themselves were the sort who might have gone on to college but for their interest in music. All played violin except Bud Freeman, the greenhorn of the bunch. Their interest in music, brought to a head when they first played together, was so keen that they played and practiced in school, in their homes, and even in the vacant apartment of a house owned by the father of one of them. “The poor people downstairs,” Jim Lannigan commented, “they finally had to move out.”
Jim Lannigan played piano in the little band. Jimmy McPartland played cornet and his older brother Dick played banjo and guitar. Bud Freeman played C-melody sax, at that time a popular instrument for home study, and changed to tenor sax a few years later after the band had got under way professionally. Frank Teschemacher was also a member of the original group. At this time he was learning alto sax, but still played violin. The ages of the group ranged from Jimmy McPartland, the baby, who was a mere fourteen, to Jim Lannigan, seventeen. Dick was seventeen before the first season was over, Teschemacher sixteen, and Bud Freeman slightly younger.
Drawn together by a common ambition, they went as a group to theaters, parties, and restaurants. Coming from comfortable middle-class homes they could, in the beginning, pursue their musical ambitions as a hobby, a circumstance that gave them much more freedom of choice than would have been the case with a different background. At that time the Al Johnson Orchestra, heard in a local theater, was their inspiration, though it was not to last long. It did, however, give them the incentive they needed and they improved rapidly. Soon they were good enough to play at the afternoon high school dances that were then becoming popular in Chicago. These dances, held usually from three until about five thirty, had the endorsement of the Parent-Teacher Association, no doubt on the theory that they were a healthy social outlet for youthful energies. Over at Hull House was a band made up of neighborhood kids, most of them from the tenements. There, membership in the band was a double inducement. Some, like Benny Goodman, joined it to get a chance to play on a real instrument; others were chiefly interested in the fact that the band got a free trip to summer camp.
In the Austin Gang the oldest boys, Jim Lannigan and Dick McPartland, were best grounded in theory. Although Jim was jazz crazy with the rest of them he wasn’t sure that he always wanted to play in jazz bands. He’d watched and listened to the foundation work of a contra bass in a symphony orchestra; and this had become the measure of his ambition. Jimmy McPartland, on the other hand, wouldn’t trade his jazz cornet for the best symphony job. Handsome and athletic, there was a sturdy quality in his ambition that showed in his personality.
And Tesch? Well, you couldn’t, to this day, get an accurate word picture of him. He was of medium height, blond, and outwardly quiet. He had a full mouth, long upper lip, slightly snub nose, high rounded forehead, and brooding eyes that were often hidden by glasses. He was patient and impatient in turn. Some said that this was because of his extreme sensitivity; others insisted there were those two sides to his nature. Whatever it was, Tesch remained to the end the white-haired boy of the Austin High School Gang, the one they listened to and the one they followed.
The little band played at high school fraternity dances, at the homes of fellow students, for supper or for nothing at all. Practicing day and night and never quite satisfied, their studies had been forgotten. Tesch wasn’t always convinced that Bud would learn to be a musician. On one occasion he said that he wished Bud was out of the band. But this was a passing mood. As the band shaped up, Bud’s musicianship was not merely to be vindicated but was to become, for many, the source of an instrumental style. In the give-and-take of criticism the boys built upon what knowledge they already had. Dick, whose father had taught him musical theory, got Bud to learn arpeggios. “He pounded harmony in his head,” Jimmy explained.
Across the street from Austin was an ice cream parlor known as “The Spoon and the Straw.” The boys dropped in there often, as did other students from their high school, and usually someone had a nickel to feed the automatic phonograph. One day they made a tremendous discovery. It was a record by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, made under the name of the Friars’ Inn Society Orchestra. They played the record over and over, none of them knowing who the clarinet was on Tin Roof, but all of them getting a kick out of hearing that kind of music for the first time. They turned to each other and said, “That’s the stuff!” “That’s it!” So audible in their amazement that even the soda-jerker looked over at them in surprise.
The Rhythm Kings, to whom the young Chicagoans were listening for the first time, had grown up when jazz was at its height, when in a few compact blocks in New Orleans you could hear jazz that was authentic because no one had yet learned to be cornfed. And so, patterning their style after the veterans of New Orleans, the Rhythm Kings had had the satisfaction that they were getting their music from its source.
The Austin High School Gang had no such opportune environment. By the time the toddle was dying out in Chicago, the word jazz had no more meaning than had the word ragtime before it. What you heard when you listened to jazz might be a four-piece honky-tonk combination playing as though there were nothing to go by, not even instinct, or it might be a fourteen-piece band emasculating the already dreary strains of Tin Pan Alley’s most commercial output. Somewhere in between were the small bands that could not read, were traditional but going places. In an atmosphere of confusion the significance of the records on the nickelodeon at “The Spoon and the Straw” may be appreciated. Listening to the Rhythm Kingsthe Austin High Gang heard real jazz for the first time. The Austin Gang came definitely and immediately under the influence of the Rhythm Kings. They tried to get the same steady, compelling rhythm, contrapuntal improvisations, a comparable quality in tone color, a similar economy of notes melodic and ease of interpretation. When a bit later on they heard Gennett records made by Bix and the Wolverines, their pre-professional training was almost complete. In this way the impact of New Orleans music, strained first through the Rhythm Kings and next through the Wolverines stamped itself on the musical style of the Chicagoans at the very beginning. What was more natural than that they should name themselves after the Friars’ Inn Society Orchestra; Husk O’Hare’s nom de plume for the Rhythm Kingsand call themselves the Blue Friars? Having heard records, they went out to hear the bands themselves. It was about this time they discovered King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. From then on, their identity with New Orleans jazz was complete.
One of the first dances given by the Blue Friars was at the Columbus Park Refectory. They paid eight dollars’ rent to get the hall from three until six in the afternoon, and they charged fifty cents admission. Jimmy “borrowed” type from the school print shop to make up tickets and handbills on a home press. On that day, each of the boys felt a responsibility that was less to Austin than to Roppolo and Bix. “The kids came from Austin and other high schools,” Jimmy said. “They went crazy .”
Sometimes the band played at Lewis Institute, which Dave Tough attended, and he added his drums to the little band. (It was Dave who found Floyd O’Brien playing trombone at a University of Chicago jam session. The latter was a musician whose restraint of mood gave emphasis to a gifted imagination and a constantly surprising technical equipment.) The dances at Lewis were “tea dances,” on the model of those endorsed by the P.T.A. Each of them got fifty cents for the afternoon’s work. Benny Goodman occasionally played with them, though Tesch felt that he was not close to their musical ideas. Joe Sullivan also played at Lewis. They played “Jazz Me Blues,” the Dixieland pieces, and numbers from the repertoire of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Jim Lannigan got hold of a bass viol, watched how Chink Martin slapped it, and was soon able to play it in the band. Then, with Dave North on piano, they could call themselves an orchestra. They didn’t have a business manager and hardly needed the inducement of cold cash to make them work. “Let’s get together and play,” was the first law of their land. Once when they (unsuccessfully) auditioned for a job, the manager commented, “All right, boys, we’ll let you know.” Jimmy said, “But you don’t understand, mister, we just got to have this job.”
Probably the manager was scared by the absence of written music. There was no system to their playing. The Blue Friars, often with Tesch leading informally, decided upon a number, then played chorus after chorus. At the end of 32 bars Tesch was off by himself. Musicians went for this kind of music and among them the Blue Friars were beginning to have a name. But in the fall of 1924 the Wolverines lost Bix. They were in New York at the time, playing the huge Cinderella Ballroom on Broadway. They tried out Sharkey Bonnano of New Orleans but he hadn’t ripened; so they wired to Chicago for Jimmy McPartland. While in New York the Wolverines recorded for Brunswick and many listeners, hearing McPartland’s cornet, mistook it for Bix. Actually his tone was bland compared to that of Bix and his style hadn’t the rolling quality of the original Wolverines’ cornet.
The Wolverines spent the winter in Florida, coming back to Indiana, their old stomping ground, for the spring college dances. Jimmy Hartwell and Vic Moore had left the band. Vic Berton, who had made the trip East with the Wolverines, was on drums, Jimmy Lord on clarinet. Dick Voynow, the pianist, was finally the only member of the original outfit. Though there were temporary changes in personnel, every member of the Wolverines was eventually replaced by a member of the Austin Gang.
During the lean months the boys who had been left behind had temporary jobs of varying duration. One was as the pit band in a movie house prior to the days of sound. Their job, of course, was to play music appropriate to the film. On one occasion the band, interested in the piece it was playing, was unaware that the newsreel was on. Field Marshall Foch solemnly laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while the Austin Gang had an informal jam session, beating it out. Suddenly one of them noticed the discrepancy. “Holy smoke!” he exclaimed, “we’re playing the wrong tune!” The manager of the theater had made the same discovery and was on his way down the aisle, to give them their notice. It was funny, in a way. But they needed work and were relieved when Jimmy came back and with chubby Husk O’Hare, the most unmusical Chicagoan of them all, they formed “Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines.” Over WHT the band was labeled “O’Hare’s Red Dragons.”
With Floyd O’Brien, Dave North, and Dave Tough added to the Austin Gang, Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines got a job at White City, a large dance hall of Chicago’s south side amusement park. On Saturdays Mezz Mezzrow or Fud Livingston played third sax. A Goldkette unit consisting of Bix, Pee Wee Russell, and Trumbauer, was playing at Hudson Lake, Indiana, and sometimes came in to hear the band. Ben Pollack, who was at the Southmore, and Louis Armstrong, who was at the Sunset, both came out. Louis stood near the bandstand, said, “Hit it. Yeah, boy!”
While the band was still playing tea dances at Lewis, Tesch was practicing clarinet, blowing on Bud’s before he got one of his own. Oftentimes he’d practice in the locker room of the Y.M.C.A., his style showing traces of the glissandi from violin playing.
At the Sunset and at Kelly’s Stable Tesch heard Johnny Dodds, learning from him, as well as from Bix a method of playing that was somewhat like trumpet phrasing. He also went to The Nest (later the Apex) where he sat in with Jimmie Noone, a clarinet player whose style was typical New Orleans, fast runs of notes that seemed evenly spaced in tempo made up flowing passages, interspersed with long, sustained notes and sudden excursions into the upper register. Tesch learned the one without losing the other. Bud, meanwhile, had become interested in the tenor sax. When he heard Coleman Hawkins later on, in a Detroit ballroom, it was exactly the lesson he needed in order to develop a style of his own. Hawkins who has since become known as a virtuoso of the tenor sax, then had a simple direct style, characterized by a clear and precise attack.
The style of Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines, at its best, was one stripped of the superfluous. It was strictly musical interpretation in which feeling had to be so welded to the music that you were not aware of it as a quality apart from the music. Naturally, they didn’t formulate this. It remained for the critics to name it. But it should be possible to distinguish Chicago style on the basis of instrumentation alone. The Rhythm Kings had come nearer than any other white band in New Orleans to the Black style while retaining much in the way of tradition that belonged to white Dixieland. Similar white Chicago style approached the style of Black jazz in Chicago but held on to the white traditions kept alive by the Rhythm Kings and the Wolverines.
The music of the O’Hare Wolverines hadn’t the flow of New Orleans (Black) style, yet there was the same tendency to define each note. There was also, as no white band had developed it, the ability to cradle the note in the swing of the rhythm. Ensemble passages were marked by a closely knit polyphony and a sour tonality that became more pronounced as Tesch learned clarinet, Bud tenor sax. With Tesch it was not merely a dissonant tone quality, it was an unconscious hankering for the quarter-tone scale. Well meaning friends told him what a bad tone he had. At times he professed to be worried about it but his playing was not affected.
Chicago style was closer to the beat than most styles having a comparable “swing.” Describing it, Bud Freeman said, “This was right on the note. In order to keep time you have to think of pushing on the beat, all the time. There are fellows who play ahead of the beat or behind the beat. But on the beat gives you that fine rhythm. We worked it out from playing together. We studied and listened a lot.” He said that you could compare it with the way Black bands played; though it was not the same thing, it was similarly motivated: “It came from playing together. We used to listen to and love the same things.”
At White City, O’Hare’s Wolverines stayed in the shell a great part of the night and when feeling good, begrudged themselves time off. They had some stocks, but usually played without arrangements. Sometimes Jimmy stood up to lead. In the band were Teschemacher, Jim Lannigan, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Dave Tough, Floyd O’Brien, Dave North, and Dick McPartland. Later George Wettling played traps. Late at night when they played New Orleans tunes you could hear the high strong tone of Tesch’s clarinet cutting through the dance hall din. A big hall and a big tone. Tesch showed the way in collective improvisation, slashing the tones of the upper register, the band getting hotter and the dancers so excited that the floor shook and the manager begged the musicians to take it easy.
On weekends at White City, Sig Myers’ Orchestra with Muggsy Spanier played opposite them. This band had tremendous sock, and was even closer to the spirit of the Black bands than Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines. The two bands undoubtedly affected each other. Muggsy was an old-timer. Back in the early twenties he’d had a cornet team with Bix. Keeping to the middle range of the cornet, Muggsy played in the rhythmic style of Oliver and Armstrong, and from the former may have gained his dexterity with mutes. A warm tone riding easy-that was Muggsy. And he kept to this style, even when playing in name bands. Years later, when a baton wielder said to him to play high notes, Muggsy Spanier retorted, “Aw, get a piccolo!”
At the Columbia Hall “dancing school” where Myers’ band played opposite a band with Louis Armstrong there were real battles of music. It was tough, rough and so noisy that the bands had to play loud to be heard! One band was on the floor and the other on a balcony. For a time the Rhythm Kings played there, and apparently felt a trifle condescending toward the younger musicians. One reaction was “We killed those guys!” But the Myers’ band were not lacking in confidence, either, and boasted of how they “blasted” the Rhythm Kings.
For the White City job Myers had Volly de Faut on clarinet; Myers, violin; Floyd Town, sax; Shorty Williamson, piano; George Petrone, drums; Marvin Saxbe, banjo and guitar; Arnold Loyocano, bass; Muggsy Spanier and one other cornet; Bob Picilli, trombone. At the end of the White City engagement the band was re-formed to go into the Midway Garden at 60th and Cottage Grove. Tesch joined Muggsy for this job and the Wolverines broke up at last, Freeman, Lannigan, and Jimmy McPartland going with Art Kassel.
The Midway Garden band shaped up around Tesch and Muggsy. A musician with whom he played on this job described Tesch, indicating how little his personality had changed: “He was a very odd guy. Not a whoop-it-up guy. He had lots of character and he was a fine musician, tough with every sax. He could really make them play. He learned from Jimmie Noone and from Dodds and Pee Wee. But Bix was his idol.”
And Tesch was the same in other ways. Once, while playing a fashionable job on the North Side, Tesch needed a haircut. The customers kidded him about it so much that he finally had it clipped short. Seeing him come in that night the men in the band stood up and applauded. Tesch glared at them, embarrassed, sore. He walked out and didn’t come back for three days.
For more than a month after he began playing at Midway Garden he came in each night, said hello, then sat down and got to work. Not a word out of him. Later, when he and Muggsy became friendly, they went to jam sessions together and often at night they’d have a few drinks, then go down to a French restaurant in the Loop.
Muggsy was from the South Side, where he’d gone to parochial school. So was George Wettling, who became the drummer in the Midway Garden band. Another recruit to this band from Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines was Floyd O’Brien. Jess Stacy came into the Midway Garden one night, wearing a tuxedo but no overcoat, shivering. One of the men in the band knew Jess very well, though some remembered him from the tea dance days. Stacy came directly to the point and said that he was looking for a job. He had been playing piano at a little place in the Loop that had closed down. Muggsy said, “Go on upstairs; we got all the gin upstairs. Lacy headed for the stairs, Muggsy watching him as he blew softly into his cornet. While Jess was getting warm the band played “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a number they really swung out on. Jess came down, feeling warmer inside. Muggsy asked him if he was ready to play and Jess nodded. “What would you like to play?” Muggsy asked. Jess said, “That Poor Little Rich Girl suits me fine.” He sat down at the piano, chording skillfully with an easy rhythm. When the musicians came in with him they played softly so that they could listen to the piano.
Although Chicago’s local of the American Federation of Musicians was Jim Crow (almost all locals except New York City are, even today) the musicians themselves got around this policy. They played together in the Black district, at speak-easies patronized by musicians, and in the homes of such musicians as Johnny Dodds. “It was jam session all the time,” Wettling remarked. Joe Marsala at that time did more listening than playing. But he liked Noone and Tesch and Dodds, and was learning clarinet himself. He drove a truck for a living, and bought records on pay day.
They jammed at The Cellar with Wingy Manone, and at the 3 Deuces Bix often led the sessions. Eddie Condon played there a lot and after a night of it would buy a bottle of milk from the wagons to drink on the way home. The idea that the Chicagoans were at this time (1926-1928) amateurs was of course without foundation. Condon, for instance, had his first union job at the age of seventeen.
There was among them one bona fide amateur. This was Charles Pierce a south side butcher who played jazz for the love of it. He used what profits he derived from the meat market to pay high salaries and thus attract the best men to his band. It was not a regular band but a pick-up outfit playing weekend engagements and making phonograph records. Pierce always supplied a bottle for these jobs. The first recorded example of Chicago music was made in 1926 when Charlie Pierce, with Muggsy and Tesch in the band, made some records for Paramount, a company that specialized in “race” records. Because no one knew the tune, Muggsy had to sing the verse of Darktown Strutters, then they waxed it. Tesch was nervous and kept pushing up too close to the mike.
Pierce played alto sax, and though his style lacked brilliance it was clean-cut and in the mood. Once Pierce heard a clarinet player he didn’t like, hired him and put him in the band so that he could hear Teschemacher. He’d have the newcomer play a chorus and then have Tesch play six to show him.
Although the Chicagoans had jobs, the big hotels still went for the name bands. Often the Chicagoans, who were far better musicians, generally speaking, eked out a living in the joints that flourished during the Prohibition era. Most of these places were really low down, like a cafe on North Clark Street, described by Wettling, “where the cab drivers came in with guns sticking in their leggings. They’d get drunk and have battles. Then they’d begin to shoot. We’d duck into the back room, behind the safe. We would see those rots come up and duck”
The little clubs were settings for many fights. Young gangsters, coming in from outside, tried to break up the dance. If the law got around it was usually when the fighting was over. When it was too close, the drummer had to hold the bass drum in the air so it wouldn’t get smashed. “But we got good money then,” a musician confided. “One job on South State Street paid $118 a week.”
The Midway Garden Orchestra got a job at the Triangle Club at the end of its Midway Garden engagement. Although he paid the regular men well, the boss of the Triangle Club hired substitutes and extra men without paying them. They’d take out what they could in meals and drinks. When the union threatened to get tough the boss said he’d bomb the union. He meant it, too. But the regular men liked the job. As one of them put it: “We had the best band and conditions were good. It was cabaret class. Strictly west side crowd. Plenty of takers. The boss was shot in the stomach one night but we kept working. After that he walked sort of bent over.”
North and south side gangs had their own leaders but Al Capone was boss. He would come into a place with seven or eight men. As soon as he got in, the door was closed. Nobody got in or out. He had a couple of hundred dollar bills changed into fives and tens and his bodyguards passed these around to the waiters and entertainers. The musicians always got five or ten dollars each for playing his favorite numbers, all of them sentimental things.
During these years George Wettling often worked on jobs with Joe Sullivan, with whom he went up to James Lake. Joe studied piano at the Conservatory of Music. When he first came around to play jobs, such as at Lewis Institute, he didn’t know standards like Tiger Rag. He was influenced somewhat in this formative period by the trumpet-piano style of Earl Hines, but Sullivan’s own style was characteristically ginmill, reminding the listener of places he played in – smoky, raucous, dimly lit. Sometimes on the slow blues he would use a heavy left hand roll that he had learned from the obscure Black “party-piano” players.
A music relatively free from the inhibitions and constraints of arranged popular music was bound to attract younger men. Some of these entered the picture early and stayed on. Some, like Joe Marsala and his brother Marty, were not to become known until the thirties. Others were lost sight of in later years. Nor were all of the Chicagoans from Chicago. Wettling was from Topeka, Bob Zurke, a younger pianist than Sullivan bwho came under the influence of the latter, was from Detroit, and Jess Stacy was from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Bud Jacobsen, the clarinet player, and John Mendel, trumpet, are usually called Chicagoans because they played on the Okeh record of Crazeology. In other words, it was the style that made the man. Rod Kless, the clarinetist, decided to come to Chicago after hearing the Austin Gang when the latter, a la Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines, were playing one of their first jobs, a summer place at Riverview Park near Des Moines in May, 1926. (He’s also a Chicagoan by marriage. His wife is Bud Freeman’s sister.)
Jack Teagarden wasn’t very much in the Chicago picture though he recorded with Chicago musicians. Many of the Chicagoans met him for the first time in New York, when Pee Wee Russell said, “Come on, I’ve got a trombone I want you to hear.”
Like Teagarden, Russell played with the Chicagoans more often on records and at jam sessions than in bands. He was born Charles Ellsworth Russell, Jr., March 27, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Tall, thin, and apparently vague, Pee Wee’s whole personality seemed to change when he blew on a clarinet. Off the stand he looked like the sort of person about whom anecdotes are told, an attitude he inspired whether he willed it or not. One story told about him concerns the Chicago El, on which tokens were three for a quarter. Passing through the gate, Pee Wee paid a quarter each time, pocketing the two tokens change. Gradually they accumulated and he talked it over with an acquaintance. He explained how he got the tokens, and said, “Now what do I do with them?”
When Pee Wee was still much too young to venture across the river to East St. Louis or even go down to the wharves and listen to riverboat music, the family moved to Oklahoma. There, at the age of seven, he took violin lessons from a “lady teacher.” After a few months he gave up the violin. In rapid succession he took up piano, drums and clarinet. He was still playing the latter at the age of twelve, when he was a student at Western Military School, Alton, Illinois. In the school band he was fourth clarinet and that, in his own words, “meant there were four clarinet players in school, and I was the fourth worst.”
When he entered the University of Missouri, Pee Wee took his clarinet with him. This time he did get down to the wharves. Black bands, such as Fate Marable’s, played on the riverboats. In St. Louis itself he heard Charlie Creath, a local cornet player who created his own blues style, playing with a deep, rough tone. There were also piano players and small bands in East St. Louis. Pee Wee got Saturday night jobs. “Sometimes,” he explained, “I’d go away on a Saturday and turn up in college on Tuesday afternoon in time for a Monday class at eight o’clock.”
Although in and out of Chicago, Pee Wee had an influence on its music. Goodman, on his early records, seemed to vacillate between Tesch’s phrasing and Pee Wee’s growl. Tesch, by his own admission, was an admirer of Pee Wee’s style. Besides the growl, that sounded as though he were trying to play two tones at once, Pee Wee played with a sustained rhythmic flow in a tone that was very blue. Pee Wee was surprised that Tesch’s opinion of him had survived. He said, “I learned plenty from Tesch. If he was alive today he would play more clarinet than anyone in the world.”
As in the familiar blues line, he “traveled all over,” and on one job near Houston, Texas, played in a band with such a curiously mixed personnel that it’s worth mentioning. Peck Kelly was on piano, Joe Loyocano, who got his apprenticeship with Papa Laine, played bass, and Leon Prima was on trumpet. The band also had in it Leon Roppolo, mentally ill but playing sensitive clarinet characterized by fugitive tone and delicate vibrato. And Pee Wee, who could double on saxes, probably did.
In the early twenties Red McKenzie was back in his hometown, St. Louis, the Mound City from which the Blue Blowers got their name. “I was a bellhop in the Claridge . . .” Red said, “. . . and across the street was a place called Butler Brothers. Slevin worked there and there was a little colored shoeshine boy who used to beat it out on the shoes. Had a phonograph going. I passed with my comb, and played along. Slevin would have liked to play a comb but he had a ticklish mouth, so he used a kazoo. He got fired across the street and got a job in a big soda store. He ran into Jack Bland, who owned a banjo, and one night after work they went to his room. He and Slevin started playing. They got me. Gene Rodemich’s was a famous band at that time. His musicians used to drop in at the restaurant where we hung out. They were impressed and told their boss.
“He took us to Chicago to record with his band, as a novelty. When we got to Chicago we went down to the Friars’ Inn. About 1924 it was. Volly de Faut and Schoebel were there. Isham Jones was at the place and he asked us what instruments we were playing. He had us come to his office next day, and set the date for Brunswick. That was the time we made “Arkansas Blues” and “Blue Blues”. They say it sold over a million copies. Brunswick put us in a cafe in Atlantic City called the Beaux Arts. I met Eddie Lang in Atlantic City. In New York the Blue Blowers played the Palace in August, 1924.”
After a trip abroad, where the band played at the Stork Club in London, McKenzie returned to America. It was Red who fixed the first Okeh date for Bix, Eddie Lang, and Trumbauer, on which the band made “Singin’ the Blues.” In 1927 he arranged a Paramount recording session at which a small band of Chicagoans made “Friar’s Point Shuffle.” The following year four sides were made for Okeh under the band name “McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans.” At this time Condon was with Morris Sherman at College Inn. Bud was with Herb Carlin at the Hollywood Bard. In-between jobs with Art Kassel, Jimmy McPartland and Jim Lannigan had had a run at the Friars’ Inn. But it was already a cheap, dingy cabaret. The crowd had moved on.
On the McKenzie and Condon recording date were Jimmy Freeman, McPartland, Bud, Teschemacher, Joe Sullivan, Jim Lannigan, Eddie Condon, and Gene Krupa. They made the discs in the old Okeh studio on Washington Street, standing on soap boxes Jimmy said, “It was so wonderful to be together again that we really played.” Bix (who wasn’t allowed to record with musicians other than those in the Whiteman band) heard the records soon after they were made. “They were fine,” he said, “the greatest I ever heard.” “It was all right,” Tesch admitted after playing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” over and over,” but Bud played too much Armstrong .”
Improvisational in spirit, “Nobody’s Sweetheart” has an ensemble passage in the middle of the record, written by Teschemacher. It is proof enough that such passages may be written and followed; the proper instrumentation is one-of-a-kind; a balance of almost equal melodic and rhythm sections. There much original writing has been done for the twelve and fourteen piece band, by such arrangers and composers as Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Mundy, Bob Haggart, Mary Lou Williams, and Duke Ellington, yet it is usually only in fragments of even the good orchestrations that one finds a utilization of the discoveries made by the ensemble of small bands. Indeed, most arrangements adapt themselves to the conventional orchestra setup and are in turn swallowed up by it. They resort to juxtaposed brass and reed choirs, harmony abounding in tone color and technical tricks useful in themselves but no more than a means, the end must still rest on the arranger’s skill, or lack of it. A further point is that Nobody’s Sweetheart grew out of playing together. “The money didn’t matter; we just had to play,” may have been a slight exaggeration but there was some truth in it.
Just as the four Okeh sides represent adequately the type of Chicago music played by O’Hare’s Wolverines, two sides recorded by Brunswick show to some extent what the Midway Garden band sounded like. Though the personnel differs from that band, Muggsy and Tesch dominate the records in the same way they dominated the playing of the band at Midway Garden. The titles are: There’ll Be Some Changes Made and Dark Town Strutters Ball. On the date were Muggsy, Tesch, Condon, and Mezzrow (tenor sax), Sullivan, Krupa, with McKenzie doing the vocal on “Changes.” After playing until six in the morning, the musicians reported for the Brunswick date at nine, played around to start the tune, then put it on wax.
Benny Goodman is sometimes identified with Chicago style music, a point that proves confusing to those who listen to his recordings. Few of them would be considered appropriate to the direct melodic approach of Chicago music. One of the Chicagoans explained this difference by saying, “Benny and his bunch liked Red Nichols; we couldn’t go for that at all.” Yet they saw quite a lot of Benny and there were certainly times when he played in a style that fitted well with theirs. An excellent example is from a Nichols’ recording made in New York after Nichols had begun to use the Chicago men on his records.
This was the Brunswick record of “Lazy Daddy,” on which Krupa and Sullivan also play. Benny’s chorus is creative and along definitely melodic lines; the decorative phrases that often mark his playing are absent. Hot musicians in New York jumped when they heard the record, for the rhythm was exciting and the solo work of Sullivan and Goodman excellent. Benny’s clarinet on this record has a thin reedy tone, not at all unpleasant but utterly unlike the round limpid tone with which he was to play a few years later.
Among the Blacks who have made records with one or more of the Chicagoans are “Happy” Cauldwell, tenor sax; Jimmie Noone, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Henry Allen, Jr., trumpet; and Zutty Singleton, drums. Not all of these men played Chicago-style, or anything like it, nor can there be any attempt here to list the innumerable Chicago-style records and their personnel. However, it does seem essential to give the reader a starting point. For the rest, he can pursue the exhaustive research by Delaunay, Panassie and others, as to the merits of this and that record. Though the total number of Chicago-style records is somewhat limited, the fact that they were recorded under various pseudonyms made their discovery a sort of collector’s nightmare. The two most recent masters to turn up were “Windy City Stomp” and another “Jazz Me Blues.” The former record is actually a metamorphosis of a popular song.
The Chicagoans were not always sure they were on the right track. Sometimes they wondered if they ought to go commercial. But most of the time, they didn’t think about it. If you were a musician depending on the gangster joints and the taxi-dance halls for a livelihood, you didn’t think too much of today, much less tomorrow. Most of the Chicago musicians went in for bathtub gin and a few smoked marijuana. The continued use of marijuana resulted sometimes in a nervous “jive” playing against background harmonies, in contrast to straight melodic improvisation. From being ripe, the jive would soon get over-ripe. A musician would lose his talent for improvising on the melody and eventually his instrumental technique might also be affected. The ones who suffered most were not the famous ones, who had some patch of ground to stand on, but the obscure musicians who, as one jazz player expressed it, “climbed the bush to get out of this world.” Then he said, “It’s not a very pretty picture, is it?”
Another curious side to the Chicago story is that while the music was obviously a fusion of black and white influences, musicians themselves were not always free of prejudice. Among Chicagoans, one who was imbued with the most naive race prejudice, was himself famous for having come close to the Black style of playing, and has acknowledged the indebtedness! But the anomalous stand taken by a few of the Chicago musicians was due most of all to the attitude of the society in which they lived.
When the 1928 recordings were made, most of the Chicagoans got offers of jobs with name bands. Jim Lannigan, however, soon fulfilled his ambition to play bass viol in a symphony orchestra. Jimmy McPartland went with Ben Pollack, and Tesch finally got a job with Jan Garber. Except for one trip East, Tesch did not leave Chicago. However, Tesch made several records while in New York, among them the Ted Lewis discs on which both he and Muggsy play. Jan Garber’s Orchestra was much better than the average name band but even so Tesch was not happy. He said, “I wonder if we’ll ever be able to play hot jazz for a living .”
Tesch is pictured as having been a musical hermit at this period in his life. Of course, that was not so. He played jam sessions with such friends as Noone and Johnny Dodds. He was married, too, and happily so. But music was always an important part of his life. He saw a lot of Rod Kless, with whom he had become friendly in Des Moines, and he jammed with younger musicians such as Joe Marsala. At home he played Holst’s The Planets, much as Bix played Debussy. His own records he played repeatedly, always listening closely. Here both his tenacity and his humility were apparent. A chorus might sound a little off, or the tone not quite right. As the conviction grew that something was wrong, Tesch would lay the record aside, take it up again, play it through once or twice more, then smash it deliberately.
Because Tesch had natural talent some of his friends were inclined to overestimate it and assume that he came by the style as you and I breathe or walk or talk. Seeing him with the clarinet held carelessly to his lips, notes tumbling out, spreading in broad crescendos that cut through the noise of a crowded hall, it did look spontaneous. But he practiced continually and listened critically to his own playing.
That was Tesch and that was the spirit of Chicago-style. That it was a melodic and rhythmic style having its own measurable qualities may be determined by listening to records. That it had a perceptible influence on subsequent hot music will hardly be questioned. Yet Chicago-style as such began to decline in the late twenties, when its best exponents were absorbed in name bands. The musical spirit of the Chicagoans was swallowed up in the maw of something bigger and considerably less great than itself, the popular music business. This business, to exist, had to predicate its methods on what it thought the public would take, not on what it thought the musicians themselves had to give. Thus, the music they played depended no longer on their creative ability but on how they could adapt themselves and their talents to the name band business.
With some fortunate exceptions, this transition was noticeable even on records. Many of them had less and less the “feel” of Chicago music. The Mezzrow sessions of the early thirties were largely jive music. “Mutiny in the Parlor” was worth listening to because, like Armstrong’s “Tight Like This, it was jive to the bone. One listened to the spurious “Sendin’ the Vipers” because on it Floyd O’Brien nonetheless played beautiful trombone. The record that was good all the way through, with everyone playing “like crazy” was a very dim memory. For the panic was on, as one of the Mezzrow titles inferred, and it was to continue until the coming of a jitterbug era that, however ridiculous its excesses would seem to a sober public, was to give hot music a re-birth.
Chicago-style went out with Tesch, who was given to strange quirks and unexpected moods. He was afraid of riding in automobiles. He didn’t know how to drive and he got nervous when anyone drove a little too fast. He’d say, “Slow down or I’ll get out.” One night in January, 1932, Tesch and Wild Bill Davidson, who led the orchestra in which he played, were on their way to work. They were a little late but they weren’t driving fast. A truck rammed into them. Tesch was thrown clear of the car and killed instantly. Davidson was hauled off to jail to answer questions. They told him Tesch had been killed. Davidson is said to have turned dazedly to his informant and asked, “Now what the hell am I going to do for a sax man?”