[Ed. note: Apropos of our show this month about San Francisco jazz, this article on the subject by guitarist and bandleader Eddie Condon appeared in a 1954 issue of Holiday magazine.]
The Commodore Music Shop in New York City is not exactly the cradle of jazz; it is more like the nursery. At least, it used to nurse a lot of jazz musicians, spoon-feeding them gin and sympathy and putting their less painful errors on acetate, thereby creating the first successful independent record label devoted solely to jazz music. I often stop in the Commodore to find out what’s going on in the music world; it is centrally located, and besides, a few doors down the street is Sellmann’s, where if you speak nicely to Danny, the maître de slab, he will, likely as not, sell you a soothing drink of grapeade with a Moxie chaser.
One day not too long ago I backed into the shop for a word with Jack Crystal [ed. note: father of comedian/actor Billy Crystal], one of several brothers-in-law of the management. Swallowing my modesty, I inquired how, or if, the old Eddie Condon releases were moving.
“Eddie Condon releases?” Jack snorted. “If I didn’t know you were Eddie Condon, I’d say ‘Who is Eddie Condon?’ Turk Murphy is stirring up the commotion these days, uncle.” All I know about Trends in Musique Moderne is what I read in the collected spasms of Leonard Feather. This was something Leonard hadn’t dusted; not in my ken, anyhow.” What does Turk Murphy do?” I asked. “Wrestle?”
“With a trombone,” said Jack.
“Where’s he from?”
“That’s enough for me,” I said, and told him how I’d got entangled with Gerry Mulligan, a kid from California who plays fireplug (bass saxophone), at the Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1954. “This Mulligan played very advanced music,” I told Jack. “He was so advanced he was out of sight of himself. If that’s California jazz, I may join Kostelanetz in protest.”
Jack explained that there actually are two types of California jazz: the intellectual type, played by such fellows as Shorty Rogers, the Mulligan boy, Chet Baker, old Red Norvo (traitor!) and others. This might be described as avant-garde bop, with liberal doses of classical music and nonsense.
“Then,” said Jack, “there is San Francisco jazz, as played by Turk and a few other bands.” He put on a record, and I listened. The selection was “New Orleans Joys,” by Turk Murphy and his Jazz Band. Jelly Roll Morton was playing this number in the city of the same name back before 1920. When I was no taller than the banjo I used to play, the Joys was already forgotten. The Turk Murphy band had no drums; I could hear a tuba, a banjo and a washboard. This was music right out of the Museum of Natural Surprises.
“San Francisco jazz, eh?” I said. “It took that music nearly forty years to get there. At this rate, San Francisco ought to be enjoying a pronounced mambo swell around 1994.” Jack went on to say that all San Francisco has been smitten by this creaky style of jazz, and that several bands are playing it, including a couple led by old-timers who were in New Orleans when the music was far ahead of its time.
“Play some more,” I implored, and Lou Blum, another Commodore brother-in-law, stepped in and twirled a flock of LPs. They included Barrelhouse Jazz, The Music of Jelly Roll Morton and When the Saints Go Marching In, all by Turk Murphy and his Jazz Band (Columbia label); Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band in three volumes (Good Time Jazz label); Dawn Club Favorites, Originals and Rags, all three by Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band (reissues on Good Time Jazz label of old West Coast labels); and a couple of volumes of Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, also on Good Time.
“This is a good representative selection for anybody who wants to hear how Crescent City music sounds when it’s been transplanted to the Golden Gate,” Lou Blum said.
“Well,” I said, “you don’t have to be an authority to know it’s less than modern.”
Some of the tunes in those LPs were: “Down in Jungle Town,” “Santa Claus Blues,” “Sweet Substitute,” “Big Fat Ham,” “Wild Man Blues,” “The Pearls,” “New Orleans Blues,” “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” “Canal Street Blues” and “Workingman Blues.” As I listened I could imagine I was back in the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago listening to Joe Oliver’s band, fresh up the river from New Orleans. I used to stand around drinking in that band’s music with my lower jaw scraping my plus-fours.
Not all the numbers were from New Orleans. Some were old Barbary Coast specialties (“Ace in the Hole” and “Silver Dollar”) featuring vocals by Clancy Hayes, a fellow who doesn’t need too many lessons. Others were old vaudeville tunes, such as “Evolution Mama” (“Don’t you make a monkey out of me”) and “I Wished I Was in Peoria.” The latter, which Billy Rose wrote while he was still a shorthand champion, is the plaint of a captain on a ship that’s going down. That city is now one of the biggest distillery centers in the U. S., which must prove that the captain was gifted with foresight.
“After two hours of this, I’m almost ready for some bop,” I said. “Well, not quite that ready.”
Aside from the age of the selections, the most impressive thing about those records was that everybody seemed to be having an old-fashioned good time. All the tunes moved right along without hesitation. I found this particularly remarkable in the case of Kid Ory’s band, which is mainly composed of very old old-timers–New Orleans originals, in fact. Most of these bozos are so old you have to credit them for being able to stand up. You can say this: they may not be much on tone, but they sure have one hell of a walk.
I was puzzled when the records were over. “I can understand Brubeck, Rogers, Mulligan and those kids trying to go forward,” I said to Lou and Jack, “but what would make relatively young guys like Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey want to go back?”
“Murphy is in town,” said Jack. “Ask him.”
This seemed sensible. Murphy was in the middle of his first evangelical coast-to-coast tour, and I caught him in Toots Shor’s between Philadelphia and Boston. He turned out to be a husky guy with a stir-trim, and looked somewhat the way Fred MacMurray might have if he had stuck to the music business. I asked him to tell me how he and his pals started San Francisco jazz.
“Understand this,” I said, “I’ve only been in San Francisco once, for one day only, and I couldn’t see anything for the fog. Wild Bull Davison was along, and he couldn’t see much either.”
“Where’d you play there?” Turk asked.
“Guest concert at a place called Hambone Kelly’s,” I said. “It was no crib. It’s–”
“Hambone KelIy’s was my old hangout,” Turk said, the mist of reminiscence seeping into his eyes. Then he began to talk. If I can just untangle my notes, most of which I jotted down on some Old Taylor labels, I’ll reveal what Turk imparted.
His name, for reasons known only to his parents, is Melvin Alton Edward Murphy. Until he was of voting age he had a speech defect so severe he couldn’t get out an entire sentence. Today he can sing the lyrics to “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” and still remain his natural color. Jazz helped him overcome his difficulty. I always knew jazz had therapeutic values.
Turk was nicknamed while playing on all possible teams in high school at Williams, California. He came from a family to which music was no intruder. His grandfather had been a fiddler for prospectors during the gold rush and also had played in the Hangtown, California, Silver Cornet Band. His father played cornet and drums and at various times had bands similar to the one Turk leads today.
When Melvin was eleven, his father presented him with a cornet and turned him over to grandfather. The old man taught him a lot of those old Barbary Coast shouts–pretty rough stuff for a lad.
After high school Turk went to Stanford and dematriculated after one semester. By now he was playing trombone, an instrument more in keeping with his heft (at thirty-eight, he still looks capable of staying a round or two with Firpo). He began using his trombone in such bands as those of Will Osborne, Mal Hallett, and other unmentionables. Their music, designed for people who had never heard anything better, made him think wistfully of the old barrelhouse, the sinful songs he had learned at grandpa’s knee.
Most of Turk’s energy in those days was expended in and around the San Francisco area. When the music he played for a living weighed too heavily on his nerves, he would quit for a while and work as a plumber or electrician. Around 1937 he dropped into a place one night and heard a band led by a fellow named Lu Watters, who played trumpet. The band consisted of a rhythm section, four brasses and three reeds that, Turk explained, never played together.
Watters was not satisfied with this band. He wanted a smaller one and he, too, was tired of playing music he didn’t like. His tone was not unlike Louis Armstrong’s, and he knew oldies, like “Melancholy Blues.”
Turk was delighted to find a blood brother, but he and Lu did not join forces immediately. There was still the problem of making a living. To solve it, Turk went to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to lead a band that played behind Sally Rand. But despite the scenery, this engagement soon turned out to be even less rewarding than sliding around with Will Osborne. Turk returned to San Francisco and sought out Watters, and the two of them began to think about organizing their kind of band.
“Nobody was working at King Oliver or Jelly Roll Morton music then,” Turk said. “We figured it. would be a do-or-die proposition,” Both Lu and Turk had large collections of records made even before the Victor dog began staring into that horn. Turk unearthed other old tunes, and the older they were, the happier he was. He consulted the Library of Congress, old musicians, students of folklore, files of long-dead publishing houses–and finally he had a basic library which would have delighted his grandfather.
The next problem was to find some sympathetic cohorts. There was a fellow around named Paul Lingle who could play every ragtime piano number ever written, plus a few he’d ragged up himself. He joined. So did a tall clarinet player named Bob Helm, who had been playing in pit bands literally since the age of eleven. Then came Clancy Hayes, the banjoist and singer. Bob Scobey operated the second trumpet. Other proselytes came in.
When I first heard this band on records I remarked that it was plain that these boys hadn’t rehearsed in separate rooms. Turk verified the statement.
“The band was very carefully planned,” he says. “We rehearsed almost every night during the last half of 1939 at a place called The Big Bear, in the Berkeley Hills.” They rehearsed every night from one A.M. until seven or until physical tolerance took over. They played that old-time stuff and added their own ideas, so that what came out was not totally a carbon copy.
Pretty soon they decided that if they performed in public their music might draw some fans as well as vegetables; they figured their stuff was so old that at least a few people might think it was the newest thing.
The band was called Lu Watters and The Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Yerba Buena, Turk explained to me, was the original name of San Francisco; these guys were determined to be authentic even in the geography department.
They played a few scattered engagements for a local hot-music society, and in December, 1939, they opened at The Dawn Club, located in Annie Alley.
This room has a capacity almost like that of Carnegie hall, and a good thing. Kids from Stanford, California, and other surrounding academies found out about the music, and before long it was difficult to get on intimate terms with a glass of beer in there. To say that the band and its music was a sensation would be like saying that Marilyn Monroe will do.
This first success did nothing to quell Turk’s quest for authenticity. He heard that Mutt Carey and Kid Ory, two of the foremost old-time New Orleans guys, were living in musical retirement in Los Angeles. They were working on a railroad, and they were so old even the railroad was ready to retire them. Turk made a pilgrimage and hauled old Mutt’s back upstate with him.
Mutt Carey’s first whiff of the Dawn Club came one Saturday night when the seams of the place were being strained as usual.
“When Mutt heard the music,” Turk said, “he got a look on his face as though he’d seen a ghost. We asked him to sit in, and he sort of hesitated. Nobody in the audience knew he was the great Mutt Carey–I doubt if most of those kids had ever heard of him. We played “Dippermouth Blues,” and he took the old traditional cornet chorus. When he finished, the people went nuts for twenty minutes. I looked at Mutt–and there he stood with the tears streaming down his face. Then he played and played and played all night long.”
Mutt is dead now, but some of the other old boys are still very much alive. Kid Ory’s band is playing up and down the west coast, and so is one led by the veteran George Lewis. The late Bunk Johnson came out of retirement in 1942, went out to the coast and made some records with the Yerba Buena Band (they are still available on the Good Time label).
“For a time, San Francisco was like Chicago in the twenties, when jazz first came up from New Orleans. There was a real boomeringer, with bands springing up all over. World War II put the Yerba Buena Band in drydock for a time, but Turk managed to play with compassionate friends whenever he got home on leave from the Navy.
The boys reopened at The Dawn Club in 1946, and a year later they started their own place, Hambone Kelly’s. To get this one running, Turk got his plumber’s tools out of moth balls and when to work on the pipes himself. In a way it was like old home week for him: Sally Rand had formerly played there. The boys cleaned up the feathers and set about making the barn–it was 10,000 feet square–into a fitting monument to their prehistoric music. The place was so big, several members of the band lived behind the bandstand and a few in rooms upstairs.
They opened on June 13, 1947. That was a Friday, but they had nothing but luck. By then jazz was so firmly implanted in San Francisco, even Pierre Monteux didn’t flinch when it was mentioned. Hambone Kelly’s turned out to be almost too small for the mobs. I remember when Davison and I went there for our guest shot the crowd was as thick as the fog.
That period lasted two and a half years. Hambone Kelly’s closed on New Year’s Eve, 1950. Meanwhile various members of the band had drifted off to start their own outfits;
Bob Scobey had formed one, and Turk decided to try it as a leader.
Some quarrels had developed; they always do when people not only play together but mingle with the customers together and even live together. The rear of a bandstand can got to be quite a crowded place. Lu Watters retired and is said to have sold his trumpet.
According to The Record Changer, a American scene for jazz scholars, when last heard of Watters was running a restaurant. The Changer did not say whether or not there was a jukebox present.
Still, the movement went on. Today San Francisco jazz is stronger than ever. According to George Avakian (of Columbia Records) it hasn’t even reached its peak. Today there are nearly a dozen bands playing the old-fashioned music in the shadow of the big bridge.
When Turk finished telling me all this, he got up. “Eddie,” he said, “when are you coming out to San Francisco again?”
“I’ve given up commuting,” I said to him.
That’s all I know about San Francisco jazz. But I also know this: whether you like it or dislike it, there’s a rapidly expanding number of people who prefer it to the strange discords the Brubecks and Mulligans are playing these days. In fact, there’s a growing number of people who prefer it to anything. The popularity of the various records proves that, and the large crowds who turned out to hear Turk on his Coast to coast tour constitute supplementary evidence. As far as San Franciscans themselves are concerned, it’s a tossup between the music and the cable cars, and it looks as though both of them are there to stay.