Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini: Profiles in Jazz

They were two of the finest saxophonists of the 1920s, ranking at the top with Sidney Bechet (soprano sax), Jimmy Dorsey and Johnny Hodges (alto), Coleman Hawkins (tenor), and Harry Carney (baritone). Unlike those greats, Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini mastered instruments that were considered nearly extinct by the mid-1930s. The number of major players who occasionally played C-melody sax and bass saxophone after 1940 can be counted on one’s fingers.

Trumbauer and Rollini had other similarities, rising to fame in the 1920s, finding it difficult to make much of a mark during the swing era, and largely fading away in the 1940s. But they both left behind many rewarding recordings and displayed their own fresh and unique musical personalities during their prime years.

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Orie Frank Trumbauer (who was known as Frank, Frankie, or simply Tram) was born on May 30, 1901, in Carbondale, Illinois. He grew up in St. Louis and was one of several major jazz artists (including Jack Teagarden and Mildred Bailey) whose family tree included some Native Americans; in his case he had partial Cherokee ancestry. His mother played piano for silent movies and directed theater orchestras. It was due to her encouragement that Trumbauer began playing music. He had short stints on violin, piano, trombone, and flute, settling on the saxophone in 1912. While he learned the alto sax and bassoon, the C-melody sax became his main instrument. Falling range-wise between the E flat alto and the B flat tenor, the C-melody was most noteworthy for its practitioners not needing to transcribe their parts since it is a C instrument.

Frank Trumbauer
Frank Trumbauer

Trumbauer led a local band, served in the Navy and, after his discharge in 1919, he returned to St. Louis. He played in the Midwest with Max Goldman’s Orchestra, Ted Jansen, Earl Fuller, Gene Rodemich (making his recording debut on six titles in Nov. 1920), the Benson Orchestra of Chicago (1922-23), Joe Kayser, and Ray Miller (1923-24). His first significant recordings, ones that show him already displaying his original sound and mature style, were with the Mound City Blue Blowers. With the trio of Red McKenzie on comb, Dick Slevin on kazoo, and banjoist Jack Bland, Trumbauer took solos on “San” and “Red Hot” that made it obvious that, even that early, he was becoming an important soloist.

While Trumbauer also recorded in 1924 with the Arkansas Travelers, the Cotton Pickers, and Ray Miller, the most memorable session of that year took place on Oct. 10. For the first time, Trumbauer teamed up with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. With a sextet called the Sioux City Six that also included trombonist Miff Mole, Bix and Tram performed ensemble-oriented versions of “Flock O’ Blues” and “I’m Glad.”

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Frank Trumbauer played a rather important part in the Bix Beiderbecke story, teaching the cornetist how to read music. Beiderbecke’s inability in that area had cost him a position with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Trumbauer, who was well schooled, became the musical director of the Goldkette Orchestra in 1925. The following year, Beiderbecke was considered skilled enough to be able to rejoin the band. Bix & Tram’s lives overlapped quite a bit during the next three years, forming a historic musical partnership. Trumbauer only had a few short solos on Goldkette’s recordings as did Beiderbecke. However during his first recording date as a leader (Feb. 4, 1927) he and Bix made history.

On that day, Trumbauer headed a septet/octet that also included Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto, trombonist Bill Rank and, on one number, guitarist Eddie Lang. His “Trumbology” was one of his finest showcases, displaying Tram’s technique, very personal sound, somewhat whimsical musical personality, and his creative way of improvising off of the melody. “Clarinet Marmalade” was a romp for the group with hot solos all around. But it was “Singin’ The Blues” that proved to be a highpoint in the careers of both Beiderbecke and Trumbauer. One of the first jazz ballads, the piece begins with Trumbauer improvising around the melody with many of his more famous phrases. While Beiderbecke’s solo, considered by many to be his best on record, slightly overshadowed the C-melody master’s contributions, “Singin’ The Blues” became Trumbauer’s trademark song throughout his career.

On May 9, Trumbauer led an octet with Bix that resulted in classic versions of “Ostrich Walk” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle,” and four days later a similar group recorded “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans.” Also from that day, “For No Reason At All In C” was mostly a feature for Trumbauer in a trio with Beiderbecke (on piano except for a few moments on cornet at its conclusion) and Lang. On his Aug. 25 session with Bix that resulted in “Three Blind Mice,” “Blue River,” and “There’s A Cradle In Caroline,” the group was expanded to a nonet that included the brilliant bass-saxophonist Adrian Rollini.

Adrian Rollini
Adrian Rollini

Adrian Rollini was born in New York City on June 28, 1903. His younger brother Arthur Rollini is best remembered for playing tenor with Benny Goodman’s big band in the mid-1930s. A child prodigy who started playing piano when he was two, Rollini performed a 15-minute recital of Chopin’s music at the Waldorf Astoria at the age of four. When he was 14 he led a local group, playing piano and xylophone. After two years of high school, he dropped out to become a full time musician. During 1920-21 he made around 35 piano rolls for the Aeolian company.

In 1922, Rollini joined the California Ramblers. Since they wanted to utilize a bass saxophone (a string bass would have been inaudible on the primitive recordings of the time), Rollini took up the challenge and mastered the instrument within a week. The bass sax is pitched an octave below the tenor and a fourth below the baritone. At the time that Rollini first appeared on records, the instrument was being used as an occasional substitute for the tuba, operating as part of the rhythm section. While Rollini assumed that function, he also quickly developed into a major soloist.


The California Ramblers had already made many recordings as a dance band, but the addition of Rollini made the ensembles much more jazz-oriented and swinging. Rollini appeared on a remarkable number of titles during 1922-26 with the Ramblers and similar groups that had the names of the Varsity Eight, the Vagabonds, the Little Ramblers (a quintet), the Five Birmingham Babies, the Kentucky Blowers, the Goofus Five, Bailey’s Dixie Dudes, and the University Six. He appeared on over 550 titles (without counting alternate takes) during the five years including over 180 in 1924 and another 157 in 1925.

In addition to Rollini’s work on bass sax, vibes, xylophone, piano, and other saxophones, he occasionally played such unusual instrument as the goofus (a small saxophone keyboard), the hot fountain pen (a miniature clarinet with a saxophone mouthpiece), and the harpaphone (a type of xylophone). While he continued with the California Ramblers into Aug. 1927, Rollini (who had already recorded with many of New York’s top jazz musicians), began to appear in other settings. He made record dates with Red Nichols’ Five Pennies, Annette Hanshaw, and Joe Venuti’s Blue Four (with whom he waxed the titles “Kickin’ The Cat” and “Beatin’ The Dog”). And then on Aug. 25, he met up for the first time in the recording studio with Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke.

The Jean Goldkette Orchestra was struggling with its large payroll and, after their record date of Sept. 15 which resulted in the classic “Clementine,” the band broke up. Adrian Rollini had recently become the talent booker for the Club New Yorker so he hired the cream of Goldkette’s band for his own group including Tram, Bix, Lang, violinist Joe Venuti and pianist Frank Signorelli. For three weeks they played glorious jazz but unfortunately were unable to attract much of an audience. No recordings exist of the legendary group. Most of the musicians (other than Rollini) soon joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.


Frank Trumbauer was with the “King Of Jazz” for most of nine years. It was a lucrative position, but it resulted in the C-melody saxophonist gradually fading in importance for he was buried in Whiteman’s huge ensemble and not featured enough. However he did engage in classic tradeoffs with Beiderbecke on “You Took Advantage Of Me” and “Borneo” (some of the earliest recorded examples of two horn soloists trading with each other) and can be heard taking short solos on many titles, particularly before 1930. He continued leading his own record dates, some of which were saddled with so-so singers (including Trumbauer himself on “Futuristic Rhythm”) but they are generally of strong interest. Beiderbecke was part of the sessions through mid-1929 (including on fine versions of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “There’ll Come A Time,” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home”) until his unreliability caused by his alcoholism resulted in him voluntary giving up his position his near sound-alike Andy Secrest took his place. While Beiderbecke steadily declined, passing away in 1931, Trumbauer remained consistent if underutilized. He appeared with Paul Whiteman in the film The King Of Jazz in 1930 but is only seen briefly a few times and does not get a single solo. He fares better on a Joe Venuti record date (Oct. 18, 1929) including playing bassoon on “Runnin’ Ragged” (which is subtitled “Bambozzlin’ The Bassoon”), and he takes a notable solo on Bing Crosby’s “Some Of These Days” in 1932.

Trumbauer broke away from Paul Whiteman for part of 1932, leading a band that was based in Chicago that had one recording session. But it was the depth of the Depression, the timing was bad, and he was soon back with Whiteman for another four years. He did have opportunities to continue leading occasional jazz sessions of his own, often featuring trombonist-singer Jack Teagarden (another Whiteman member) during 1934-36. But time was passing, the swing era had begun and, while some of his contemporaries and those that followed were becoming famous bandleaders, Trumbauer was still working semi-anonymously in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Meanwhile, Adrian Rollini was having his own musical adventures. He was on six titles recorded by Bix and his Gang including such Dixieland-flavored tunes as “Royal Garden Blues,” “Jazz Me Blues,” and “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” In 1927, he was still filling in for the role of a string bass while also taking short solos, recording with Red Nichols and some further titles with Trumbauer. With the breakup of his short-lived band and the end of his long period with the California Ramblers, Rollini was at liberty. He spent two years living and playing in Europe, working and recording with Fred Elizalde. In that setting he was finally liberated from the timekeeping role by the inclusion of a tuba player. Back in the US by early 1930, Rollini worked with Bert Lown’s Orchestra (for a short time he and Spencer Clark gave Lown two bass saxophonists), recorded with Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Lee Morse, Jack Purvis, Joe Venuti, and Jack Teagarden, and worked steadily as a studio musician, keeping busy during the worst years of the Depression.


Surprisingly Rollini did not lead any record dates of his own in the 1920s but during 1933-35 he led no less than 14 sessions of his own. Some featured freewheeling jazz with trumpeter Bunny Berigan as a sideman while others were more oriented towards providing dance music. During 1934-36 Rollini managed a popular club, Adrian’s Tap Room, and a little later he owned the Whitby Grill. He also had a musical instrument store, the White Way Musical Products. But as the swing era was progressing, both Rollini and Trumbauer knew that it was time for a change.

In the case of Frank Trumbauer, it was time to leave the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. While the orchestra was on vacation in Dec. 1936, he co-led the Three T’s with Jack and Charlie Teagarden, a septet that also included Casper Reardon on harp. The radio broadcasts that have been released feature a swinging combo that has plenty of potential. But when the vacation ended, the Teagardens rejoined Whiteman. Trumbauer next put together a medium-size group that on a couple of its broadcasts has Adrian Rollini guesting on vibes. By late-1937 it had grown to be a big band that recorded some radio transcriptions in Los Angeles. Trumpeter Manny Klein was its only notable sideman although the music is excellent swing for the era with Trumbauer doubling on alto. In 1940 he led a 14-piece big band that recorded 18 songs in two days. The only “names” among the sidemen were bassist Trigger Alpert and singer Georgia Gibbs, but the band sounds excellent. However by then, Trumbauer’s interests were elsewhere.


Frank Trumbauer had long been very interested in flying planes and he developed into a skilled pilot. In 1939 he joined the Civil Aeronautics Authority and in 1940 he largely left music. Trumbauer spent World War II. as a test pilot with North American Aviation and he also trained members of the military. After the war ended, in 1946 he made a brief comeback in music. Tram played with the NBC Orchestra and led one record date, sounding still very much in his prime on hot versions of three standards including “You Took Advantage Of Me” and “China Boy.” Just 44 at the time, these were his final recordings. The C-melody sax had been out of favor for 15 years, it never really fit into big band saxophone sections, and with Trumbauer leaving the scene, there were very few who still played it, even as a double.

Frank Trumbauer worked for the Civil Aeronautical Authority in Kansas City for the remainder of his life. He made a final appearance as a musician in Oct. 1952 at the Dixieland Jubilee’s Bix tribute, playing an emotional version of “Singing The Blues.” He passed away on June 11, 1956 at the age of 55.

During 1936-37, Adrian Rollini was at the crossroads of his career. Although he was still busy (recording jazz dates that also included Albert Nicholas, Bunny Berigan, guitarist Dick McDonough, and trombonist Jack Jenney), he knew that there was no longer any demand for bass saxophonists. One would be hard pressed to name any bass saxophonists that were employed by swing era big bands. Since Rollini could play many instruments, he decided to switch to the vibraphone where the only real leader at the time was Lionel Hampton. His final recording on bass sax took place on Jan. 7, 1938. From then on he led an easy-listening vibes-guitar-bass trio, his main outlet for the rest of his playing career. Despite the lack of competition among vibraphonists (Red Norvo would not switch from xylophone to the vibes until 1943), Rollini drifted away from the jazz world, mostly working at hotels and being largely forgotten. There are some film shorts featuring him in his trio, playing excellent vibes and occasional chimes, and he made occasional recordings up until around 1950, but he never came close to equaling the popularity of Lionel Hampton.

Adrian Rollini ended up in Florida where he worked in the hotel business. He passed away on May 15, 1956, (a month before Trumbauer) at the age of 52. Although there was some mystery concerning his death which was caused by a leg injury and pneumonia with some speculating that he had unpaid debts to organized crime figures, his passing seems to have been from natural causes.

In addition to his many recordings as a leader, Frank Trumbauer was cited by the cool-toned tenor-saxophone innovator Lester Young as a major influence and also praised by altoist Benny Carter. Adrian Rollini was an inspiration for baritonist Harry Carney. Both saxophonists have been profiled in excellent books with Philip R. Evans and Larry F. Kiner’s Tram – The Frank Trumbauer Story (Institute Of Jazz Studies) having an extensive discography while Ate van Delden’s Adrian Rollini – The Life And Music Of A Jazz Rambler (University Press Of Mississippi) gives the full story of Rollini’s life while untangling the many myths.

As far as their instruments go, the C-melody sax was played quite well by Rosy McHargue and in more recent times by Dan Levinson and Scott Robinson (who plays virtually everything) but it would be difficult to come up with a current-day full time player. Joe Rushton kept the bass sax alive during his many years with Red Nichols’ Five Pennies in the 1950s and early ’60s, Charlie Ventura played it now and then and it has been occasionally utilized on some avant-garde jazz records and little-known trad jazz bands.

But it is fair to say that no one has ever played the C-melody sax and the bass sax on the level of Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini.

Since 1975 Scott Yanow has been a regular reviewer of albums in many jazz styles. He has written for many jazz and arts magazines, including JazzTimes, Jazziz, Down Beat, Cadence, CODA, and the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, and was the jazz editor for Record Review. He has written an in-depth biography on Dizzy Gillespie for He has authored 11 books on jazz, over 900 liner notes for CDs and over 20,000 reviews of jazz recordings.

Yanow was a contributor to and co-editor of the third edition of the All Music Guide to Jazz. He continues to write for Downbeat, Jazziz, the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, the Jazz Rag, the New York City Jazz Record and other publications.

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