[Dixielandjazz] Tailgate player Conrad Janis - Redux

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Mar 7 22:31:00 PST 2004

Here is a bit more about Conrad Janis, a rather extraordinary man and
tailgate trombonist. It is excerpted and condensed from Jim Uhl's
article about him, in the Mississippi Rag a while back. Yes, Janis is a
wonderful player, in large measure under appreciated as a jazz musician
because of his acting successes. If you don't get the Mississippi Rag,
subscribe now.

Steve Barbone

Conrad Janis sat, literally, at the feet of master trombonist Kid Ory
for several years. He has played a significant role on the Classic jazz
scene for more than 50 years. He has worked with dozens of historic jazz
figures on both coasts. His Tailgate Jazz Band members in the ˜50s were
the first revivalists after the  pioneers like Bunk Johnson to play New
Orleans style in New York City. His joyful tailgate trombone has powered
his own Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band, for more than 25th years. And,
oh yes, he has been a sought-after actor on Broadway, the movies and TV.

Eclectic is as good a word as any to describe a man who has run with the
bulls at Pamplona, been a race-car driver and press photographer, snared
his first Broadway role at age 13, was co-director of a major art
gallery in Manhattan, and won a Twist contest in Harlem with Valerie
Harper in the early 60s.  It sounds as if his life would make a
fascinating biography. 

He came from a wealthy family. Their passion was modern art, a much
maligned and misunderstood genre, especially  at that time. They amassed
a world-class collection of Twentieth Century masterpieces, including
Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Pollock, Leger,
Kandinsky, Matisse, Dali and others. It was just a step from there to
establishing the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan, which for decades
was one of the most respected in the world. 
In 1966, Conrad's father gave the entire Sidney and Harriet Janis
collection to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, 109
paintings, the largest gift MOMA ever received.

His mother, Harriet, had an infectious zest for life, culture and the
avant garde that led Her to the San Francisco Art Museum, where she
discovered jazz! She knew Rudi Blesh as an art collector, but he was
also the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Later Rudi played
records for him, talked about jazz; and Conrad was hooked. 

In 1946, now in California, 20th Century Fox signed him to a long-term
contract. In his spare time, with a forged ID, he haunted the Beverly
Caverns night after night for three years to listen to  Kid Ory's  band
of New Orleans veterans -- Mutt Carey, Jimmy Noone, Bud Scott, and later
Andrew Blakeney and Joe Darensbourg. He idolized Ory's four beat New
Orleans style. 

Conrad learned trombone and joined a jam band. Still filming for Fox he
would drive each weekend to San Francisco to play with this revivalist
band that included Elmer Bischoff  on trumpet; Charlie Clark; clarinet;
David Park, piano; Clifford Still, guitar, and MacAgy, drums. If you are
a museum-goer, you'll recognize their names. Park's painting of Conrad's
first band hangs on the walls of the Oakland (California) Art Museum. 

But after many months, the drive became too long. Conrad called another
family friend in Los Angeles,  Nesuhi Ertegun, founder of the early jazz
record labels Crescent and Jazzman and, later with his brother Ahmet,
Atlantic Records. Ertegun  and his wife are also credited with
organizing the revived Kid Ory band. Ertegun introduced Conrad to a
young Los Angeles band,  the Canal Street Stompers, who needed a
trombonist. With some trepidation, he sat in with
them in somebody's dingy basement in Hollywood. 

The leader was Tom Sharpsteen, playing then as now like George Lewis. On
trumpet was R.C.H. Smith emulating Mutt Carey. The piano player was Russ
Gilman playing  like Jelly; the drummer, John Joseph, doing his best to
sound like Baby Dodds.Their first paying job was a battle of band's at
the Pasadena Elks Club. Conrad surmises that they won because "we were
the cutest". The girls gave us the most applause.

Then, in 1950. His movie contract had run its course and Conrad returned
to New York City.
Rudi Blesh, too, had  moved to New York to become jazz critic of the New
York Herald Tribune. He and Harriet Janis not only became good friends,
they became partners. In the late 40s, they produced the weekly network
radio show "This is Jazz." They wrote the book, "They All
Played Ragtime" (1950), the first serious investigation of that art
form. They established the Circle Record label and recorded, among
others, Louis Armstrong, Ory, Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill Davison, and the
budding Conrad Janis.

Rudi took him on the rounds of the New York jazz scene. At Condon's, he
heard the Commodore Band, Wild Bill Davison, cornet; George Brunies,
trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet. "It was the greatest Chicago-style
band I ever heard" he said. "You have no idea of the power of that

But It was Brunies, the New Orleans native, who impressed him the most.
Then Tony Parenti, who invited him to come along on a date at the Tip
Toe Club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was his first time with a real
band. "I was concerned because I didn't know the New York book. If
Parenti called an Ory tune or a number I had played with my California
band,  I was relatively safe. If not, I had to figure it out by ear.
Fortunately, most Dixieland isn't so complicated in terms of chord
changes. A trombone can just wait for the trumpet to have his say and
then fill in. If you are working with the chords, you are safe more or less."

He was invited to come back to The Tip Toe Club with a band of his own.
At 18, he had Henry Goodwin on trumpet; Edmond Hall on clarinet, James
P. Johnson on piano, Pops Foster on bass, and Baby Dodds on drums. The
rest is history.

He played New Orleans Jazz is every hot jazz joint in NYC and led bands
with the following sidemen: Bob Greene, Bob Lovett, and Baby Dodds. Then
he played as a sideman with Red Allen, Edmond Hall, Willie The Lion
Smith, Sid Catlett

Time to join the union. He barely passed his local 802 AF of M test and
had to promise to take lessons. His teachers included Jimmy Archey,
Tyree Glenn, Herb Nichols (Cab Calloway and Benny Moten bands)

Other players he gigged with include Bobby Hackett, Jimmy McPartland,
Wild Bill Davison, Cab Calloway, Rex Stewart, Coleman Hawkins,  Charlie
Shavers, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Hot Lips Page, Sonny Greer, Bud Freeman,
Ralph Sutton, George Wettling, Yank Lawson, Kenny Davern, Panama
Francis, Marty Napoleon, Sol Yaged, Dick Wellstood, Cecil Scott, Buster
Bailey, Jo Jones and Roy Eldridge, Freddy Moore, Danny Barker, Elmer
Schoebel, Dick Wellstood

The recordings they made for Circle as the Tailgate Jazz Band  have been
reissued on CD by George Buck, still under the Circle label.

He worked a 13 week stint at Jimmy Ryan's with absolutely sold-out
business before taking two
weeks off to play at the Savoy in Boston. "I had noticed Wilbur DeParis,
who was known as a big-band musician, sitting down front night after
night. When we returned from Boston, the guys insisted I ask for  more
money, if only for $10 to be split among us all. I was reluctant to do
it, since Jimmy was notoriously tight-fisted. I was right. We were
fired. The DeParises offered to play for below scale and they were
hired, playing much of our book and using our style and our
arrangements. They were there for years with Wilbur on trombone, his
brother Sidney on trumpet and Omer Simeon on clarinet.I knew then how
Kid Ory had felt when he heard us doing his stuff."

Janis went on to a higher paying gig and sell out (1300 strong) crowds
at Child's Paramount, etc., etc., etc. . . . 

This article, by Jim Uhl, is based on his interviews with Conrad Janis
and on material from the upcoming biography of Conrad Janis, "From
Riches to Ragtime" written by Maria Janis. It is excerpted from Jim
Uhl's Mississippi Rag Article which is beautifully written and contains
much more information about this extraordinary jazz musician and
fascinating man.

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