In this Article: Location recordings, rare photos, unissued studio tracks and a radio broadcast explore Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band. His talent for mentoring and presenting women instrumentalists and singers is highlighted.
“Oxtot has been playing in the San Francisco Bay Area since the days of World War II. He has been a pivot around which an astonishingly large collection of musicians have revolved. Oxtot has been playing a few nights a week in little clubs and big ballparks in every conceivable context.” — Phil Elwood, from liner notes for the 1980 Golden Age Jazz Band album
Dick Oxtot (1918-2001) was a bandleader who proffered “Vintage Music with Style” on both sides of San Francisco Bay. A creative force in Frisco Traditional and Revival Jazz, he was a bandleader, excellent rhythm banjo player, multi-instrumentalist and fine singer. For at least two decades Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band hosted a continually rotating roster of outstanding Bay Area Classic Jazz musicians.
His ensembles were favorites at Traditional Jazz festivals, band showcases and casuals all over greater Northern California. And he was a mainstay of Bob Mielke and The Bearcats in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Dick was exceptionally good at getting gigs and building an audience. His noteworthy talent for mentoring and presenting female singers and musicians is highlighted below and amplified in a separate article, Dick Oxtot at ‘The Ordinary’ Nightclub.
Stellar Golden Age Performers
Oxtot’s groups were constantly shifting in number of players and style such that no particular lineup can be described as typical – as will be seen below. Among the outstanding principal musicians of Golden Age were reed players Bob Helm, Bill Napier, Jim Rothermel, Richard Hadlock, Earl Scheelar and others.
Oxtot’s piano players included Ray Skjelbred, Barbara Higbie (also a vocalist), Linda Wiggins (likewise, a singer) and Dick’s son, Terry (Oxtot) Rodriguez. He featured a wide range of female vocalists singing in diverse styles: Classic Blues, ballads, risqué songs of yore, standards from the American songbook and duets with Dick.
After 1978 Oxtot relied heavily on trumpet player Jack Minger (1925-2010). Popular with audiences and respected by fellow musicians, he was a superb trumpeter who leaned noticeably toward Mainstream and even ‘modernist’ sounds.
Jack was active in East Bay jazz beginning in the 1940s. He worked with Burt Bales, Bob Mielke, Kid Ory, Jack Sheedy and Wally Rose and in later years with local Swing ensembles, such as the Casa Bonita Gardens Orchestra and the Harbor Lights Orchestra in which Oxtot played string bass.
Other cornet players (or trumpeters) favored by Oxtot were Jim Goodwin, Bob Neighbor and Ev Farey. During the early 1970s Oxtot’s ensembles often featured his bandmates from Bob Mielke’s Strolling Dixieland Baseball Band.
Bob Helm, Bob Neighbor, John Moore and the Swingin’ A’s Band
Oxtot was a key element of Bob Mielke’s Strolling Dixieland Band that played 23 years for Oakland A’s baseball home games. This Golden Age quartet is essentially that quintet minus Mielke.
Oakland native Bob Neighbor (b. 1937) was associated with Oxtot and the Swingin’ A’s for nearly twenty years. He was a fine traditional jazz cornet player who played with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band in the 1960s and freelanced. Bob wrote one of the first Traditional Jazz ‘fake books’ for more than 300 Classic Jazz tunes and was a fine graphic artist. He also led his own group, Bob Neighbor’s Jazz Band, regularly staffed by Oxtot, Mielke or Helm.
John Moore (b. 1941) may be best known as the main tuba player with Mielke’s Swingin’ A’s strolling baseball band, though he also played string bass. On this session he sounds equally as good on string and brass bass.
Bob Helm (1914-2003) worked intermittently for Oxtot — when he wasn’t fully employed in Turk Murphy’s San Francisco Jazz Band. He too was in the Swingin’ A’s Strolling Dixieland band.
A professional musician for seven decades, Helm was crucial in shaping the Frisco Traditional Jazz movement. He studied early jazz, embodied its traditions and often “doubled,” switching instruments mid-tune between soprano or alto saxophones and clarinet.
In this session Helm and cornetist Neighbor skillfully blend their voices generating a huge volume of sound. The excitement rarely wanes as these distinctive instrumentalists harmonize and blend their horns in novel combinations. “Doctor Jazz” was Bob’s vocal specialty for decades — a fitting metaphor for his outlook, demeanor and reputation. Note how Oxtot tags particularly good numbers with a brief descending banjo riff – almost like a chuckle.
Oxtot Quartet, Early 1970s:
Bob Neighbor (cornet), Bob Helm (reeds, vocal), Dick Oxtot (banjo), John Moore (tuba, string bass)
OXTOT SET ONE – Quartet early 1970s complete
Apex of the Golden Age Jazz Band
These two astonishing sets from the late 1970s reprise and ultimately surpass similar performances heard on the 1977 and 1980 Golden Age Arhoolie albums. This may be Oxtot’s best ensemble, captured at events hosted by the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California in 1977, and at The Point in 1979.
The declarative horn playing of Jim Goodwin (1944-2009) leads the sessions. Deeply inspired by “Wild Bill” Davison and Henry “Red” Allen, “Kid” Goodwin was second to none among the Frisco Revivalists. He brought searing heat, articulate phrasing and robust dynamics to any jazz ensemble.
This redoubtable lineup contains not only Goodwin and Bill Napier (clarinet), but the expressive trombone duo of Bob Mielke AND Bill Bardin. Together, they bring uplift and swing to “Down in Honky Tonk Town” and “Savoy Blues” powered by the tuba of either Walter Yost or John Moore. Terry Garthwaite sings “What’s the Matter with Love” and Dick shows his winning appeal as a singer delivering the “Dallas Blues.”
Golden Age Jazz Band, NOJCNC, 1/77:
As previously suggested, Oxtot’s bands, personnel and style were constantly changing and these lineups vary in number of musicians, instrumentation and format. That said, this July 1979 quintet recorded at The Point is one of his finest, performing above its weight-class thanks to the focused coordination and cooperation among the players — Jim Goodwin (cornet), Bill Napier (clarinet), Bob Mielke (trombone), Jim Cumming (bass) and Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocals).
GAJB at The Point 7/79:
Trombonist Bill Bardin and Oxtot
Dick and Bill Bardin met in the early 1940s and worked together frequently for the rest of their lives. Bardin was a steady fixture for decades, performing in the shifting Golden Age lineups, Trad Jazz events, festivals, casuals and at The Point.
Earl Scheelar is a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist who worked often with both and likened them to a bickering odd couple. Bardin was orderly, sensitive and easily upset by Dick’s off-the-cuff leadership style. Bill frequently quit or was fired. Eventually, they
would make up and resume working, but inevitably repeat the cycle.
At The Point
For a couple decades, from about 1974-94, Dick played two nights a week at a bar called The Point in tiny Point Richmond — a quirky East Bay community North of Berkeley. Trombonist Bardin explained the gig’s origin: “The band started at The Point in the first place because the owner wanted to keep motorcycle gangs away from it and he knew that motorcycle riders hated this kind of music. But the band got quite a following there.”
Dick employed a surprisingly broad range of singers and musicians, recounting in his memoir: “The Point couldn’t pay high wages, so I had an agreement with the regular players that if they had a higher paying job on any Friday or Saturday, to take the job and I would find a replacement. The arrangement worked well, as generally the subs were up to the standard of the regular player. It also made an interesting diversity of styles and tunes.”
Oxtot and Women Musicians
Dick Oxtot became famous for finding, mentoring, introducing and featuring a succession of excellent female singers and instrumentalists, often recruited from other fields of music. He developed a keen talent for spotting diamonds-in-the-rough, oft times destined for greatness in other genres.
Singer Terry Garthwaite (b. 1938) was a feature of the band in the mid-1970s. She formerly co-led the Folk-Rock-Jazz group, Joy of Cooking (1967-71).
Longstanding friends, Dick and Terry were previously associated in Folk Music. They developed original material built around her dynamic stage charisma and horn-like scat vocals, trading phrases with the instrumentalists. Garthwaite was especially popular at East Bay nightclubs, Freight and Salvage, Mandrake’s and The Ordinary. (Find more about Terry in the related article, Dick Oxtot at ‘The Ordinary’ Nightclub.)
Among Oxtot’s vocalists were the versatile Pamela Polland and Diane Holmes who specialized in the Blues — fast or slow, clean or raunchy; bass player Laurie Lewis (who soon became successful leading a Bluegrass band); and Barbara Rhodes. Rhodes was bartender at The Point and blossomed into a first-rate entertainer, becoming Oxtot’s main vocalist for a few years.
Key female instrumentalists in Golden Age Jazz Band and related Oxtot ensembles included piano players Jane McGarrigle (of the famed Canadian sister Folk duo), Melanie Monsour (a ragtime specialist) and Barbara Higbie (a good singer). Dick also hired tuba player Candy Sealy, accomplished guitarist/singer Melissa (Collard) Levesque and Piper Heisig (string bass, drums and vocals).
Dick’s talent for mentoring female performers dated back decades. The Oxtot sessions with Janis Joplin recorded at various bars and his Berkeley home in 1963-64 are an obscure wonder. Oxtot and his wife Darylene briefly mentored Janis, unsuccessfully attempting to groom her for a job with Turk Murphy. Dick’s flexible and open-minded musicians blended well with her untutored expressive feeling for the blues.
Unreleased Studio Session with Diane Holmes
As noted, Diane Holmes was one of Oxtot’s finest singers with a wide range, from sweet ballads to novelties and bawdy blues. Her broad range was featured on Oxtot’s first album, Golden Age Jazz Band with Diane Holmes, recorded live at the Berkeley nightclub Mandrake’s.
In his memoir, Dick wrote that Diane “had a remarkable voice which was so versatile that she could sing any kind of material and it sounded fabulous. In my opinion her singing was second to none.” He confessed that her rendition of “You’ve Changed” made him cry real tears.
These unissued studio tracks feature Holmes singing with Jack Minger (trumpet), Jim Rothermel (clarinet) and Jim Cumming (string bass). Dick often sang the Swing era hit “Undecided” in duets with his female vocalists.
Diane Holmes’ Studio Session, late 1970s:
Richard Hadlock Played Reeds
Though he was rarely on the official Golden Age Jazz Band roster, Richard Hadlock (b. 1927) played for years in Dick’s Golden Age ensembles and at The Point. Hadlock is a superb soprano saxophonist who also plays all the saxes and clarinet. He studied with masters Sidney Bechet, Garvin Bushell and Lee Konitz. His Annals of Jazz radio series has aired in the San Francisco Area since 1959 and has written for jazz periodicals, album liner notes and books.
Hadlock praises Oxtot, declaring: “He had the drive of a leader, with the help of his wife to keep him focused well. He had the assertiveness for being a leader. . . He had a rock-solid beat that didn’t vary. You could walk on it, you could rely on it, you could know that it was going to be the same at the end of the tune as it was at the beginning. That’s worth a lot.”
But Dick’s crowd-pleasing tactics and penchant for 1920s hokum weren’t always in sync with Richard’s sophisticated outlook. “He could play a Trad Jazz tune very well, but he had this desire to be a cross-over into the pop world,” said Hadlock. Richard was sometimes made uncomfortable by Dick promoting female singers with agendas of their own, leaving him “caught in the middle as a sideman, it wasn’t very comfortable.”
Furthermore, in later years the quality of Oxtot’s gigs and bands could fluctuate wildly: “His jobs ranged from great, to gigs from Hell. We went to a trio job on an open-air, broiling-hot wooden platform. It was me, Dick and a hopelessly inept tuba player. After setting up our chairs we heard Dick moan, ‘Oh, no! I forgot my banjo.’”
In late-1970s tapes from the The Point, Hadlock’s sumptuous tone and expressive variations on soprano saxophone are on display in the Swing-era classic “Avalon” with trumpeter Ev Farey. One “Roberta” (no last name available) sings the knowing “Women Be Wise” with excellent accompaniment by Richard. A lively audience joins in singing the early New Orleans classic “Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” with Bob Mielke (trombone).
Richard Hadlock at The Point, 1976-77:
KJAZ Broadcast from The Point, 1990
KJAZ-FM in Alameda, California (1959-94) may have been the last Jazz-formatted commercial radio station operating in the USA. See’s Candies sponsored a longstanding classic jazz performance series produced by Bay Area radio personality, recording engineer and drummer, Bud Spangler (1938-2014). At least one Golden Age Jazz Band performance from The Point was broadcast on KJAZ.
The decisively Mainstream Jazz music heard in these broadcast excerpts should dispel any remaining misconception that Oxtot’s was a Traditional Jazz band. There’s no hint of the two-beat banjo and tuba rhythms or ensemble style championed by the Frisco Traditionalists. There’s more emphasis on Swing and Duke Ellington than Jelly Roll Morton or King Oliver.
Neither the walking four-beat bass, extended solos, Jack Minger’s forward-looking trumpet, Melissa Lévesque’s popular singing style nor the slick post-production sheen could be mistaken for Trad Jazz. Yet the compelling twin trombones of Bardin and Mielke generate a lilting “Chattanooga Stomp” second to few. Note that some of Bud’s original announcements have been retained for color and context. KJAZ, Spangler and Sees deserve recognition for their decades of support for Classic Jazz.
Golden Age Jazz Band at The Point – KJAZ Broadcast session 3/90:
Jack Minger (trumpet), David Giampietro (clarinet, vocal), Bill Bardin and Bob Mielke (trombones), Terry (Oxtot) Rodriguez (piano), Evan Dain (bass), Melissa Levesque (guitar, vocal), Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocal), Bob Scott (drums), except Bud Spangler (drums on “I’ve Got to Be a Rug Cutter”)
A Central Player of the Frisco Revival
Few second-generation traditionalist musicians did more to support and sustain the Frisco Jazz Revival than Oxtot. For a half century his adaptability, independence and crowd-pleasing strategies gained his music wide acceptance beyond the typical Traditional Jazz demographic.
He played a large role in the second wave of the great San Francisco Jazz Revival — East Bay chapter. With his broad-minded associates, Richard Agee Oxtot forged a personal brand of four-beat Jazz in his eclectic Golden Age ensembles, encompassing New Orleans, Kansas City, Blues, Swing, Mainstream, ballads and broad swaths of American popular music.
Encore – Recording Session at The Point
This set is from an undated tape labeled “Recording Session at The Point,” probably from the 1980s. Dick might have been attempting to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle of his first live album or preparing for a radio broadcast.
Jim Rothermel (1941-2011) was a tremendous entertainer, a musician who played most of the saxes and clarinet with heat and refinement, typified by his luminous interpretation of the Sidney Bechet-inspired “Indian Love Call.” For a clever novelty he took solos on flute (recorder) or melodica (a mouth-blown free-reed instrument with a keyboard spanning two or three octaves) as heard in the delightful “Tishomingo Blues” and “Mack the Knife.”
Classic Blues was a staple of Oxtot’s repertoire, giving vocalists license to channel their inner Red-Hot Mama. Barbara Rhodes offers “I’ve Got What it Takes” and Diane Holmes sings “Special Delivery Blues.” The lineup for this set includes Jack Minger (trumpet), Bill Bardin (trombone) and Rothermel.
Golden Age Jazz Band, Point Richmond, California:
See the related item, Dick Oxtot at ‘The Ordinary’ Nightclub featuring Terry Garthwaite. The story of Dick Oxtot and Frisco Jazz continue at the JAZZ RHYTHM website.
Oxtot was quoted from his memoir, Jazz Scrapbook (with Jim Goggin, Creative Arts, 1999). Thanks to Richard Hadlock for his recollection of Dick. Bill Bardin was interviewed in 1994, Earl Scheelar in 2015. Thanks to Bob Mielke for auditing this text and Hal Smith for music consultation and assistance.
The sound and images contained herein are newly published from Dick Oxtot’s personal library and destined for the Stanford Libraries archives for preservation in the Dave Radlauer Jazz Collection documenting Bay Area jazz history.