[Dixielandjazz] Joe Bithell obituary and services announcement

David Richoux tubaman at batnet.com
Tue Mar 8 10:44:51 PST 2005

 From the San Jose Mercury News today:

Joe Bithell, influential Bay Area jazz musician

By Betty Barnacle
Mercury News

He sang and played old-time bluesy jazz in clubs throughout the Bay 
Area, spinning out tunes from the Roaring '20s through the '40s, what 
fellow aficionados call the golden age of jazz.

Music was everything to Joe Bithell, according to his close friends 
from all walks of life.

Mr. Bithell died at 76 on Feb. 19 of a heart attack, a half-hour after 
singing one of his favorites, ``Call Me Dr. Jazz'' for other musicians 
on their afternoon off at a private San Mateo open house. A gathering 
in his honor will be held Saturday.

Bill Armstrong, a sideman in Mr. Bithell's Silicon Gulch Jazz Band when 
the regular banjo player was a no-show, summed up the band's 
performances as ``OKOM -- our kind of music.''

In the Guadalupe Society, a club at St. Lawrence the Martyr Church, and 
the American GI Forum, both in Santa Clara, Gus Ayala became close 
friends with Mr. Bithell.

``Joe and his first wife, Patricia, worked for the United Farm Workers 
union,'' Ayala said. ``He had a band. Music. It was Joe's life.''

Harry Bithell remembers his big brother as a teenager listening 
intently at home to jazz with his buddies. He had a standing date for 
the past 10 to 15 years to go to Sacramento for the jazz festival, this 
time to do the listening as his brother performed with a washboard 

``We all are in shock,'' said Armstrong, one of the musicians present 
when Mr. Bithell died in San Mateo.

``There was no indication Joe felt bad,'' he said. ``We talked for 10 
to 15 minutes and then he said he had to go to the car and get some 
music. He walked back in and collapsed.''

Kara Bithell, a goddaughter of labor-movement leader Cesar Chavez and a 
dancer whose dream it was to perform while her father sang live, said 
Mr. Bithell was in apparent good health. But she said he had heart 
surgery three or four years ago. Armstrong said the band leader had 
stents put in his heart.

Born in Utah, Mr. Bithell was raised in the East Bay, where he 
graduated from Alameda High School in 1947. The next two years he spent 
in the U.S. Army and, while finishing up his education at San Mateo 
Junior College, he joined the National Guard. He was an officer when he 
left 18 years later.

Music also is important to his second wife, Ida, who plays piano and 
once had her own band, his daughter said.

To support his family, Mr. Bithell got a job as an engineer at Western 
Electric in Santa Clara and didn't start his band until he retired 
after 25 years in 1980 when he was in his 50s.

But he hadn't waited that long to perform. Friends and family said he 
would visit jazz clubs on the Peninsula and in the East Bay, where he 
was welcome on stage to sing with several bands.

``He was very good on gospel music and had a nice rounded medium to 
bass range,'' said Armstrong.

Self-taught on the tuba, trumpet, jug and washboard, Mr. Bithell was a 
charter member of Washboard International and a member of the New 
Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California and the South Bay Traditional 
Jazz Club of San Jose.

``He was very enthusiastic and really loved the music,'' said John 
Dodgshon, who played trumpet with Mr. Bithell's band for eight years. 
``He did a lot for many musicians, giving them jobs in his band or 
finding other jobs for them. He had a positive influence on jazz here 
in the Bay Area, particularly the South Bay.''

He had a photographic memory not only for the music he loved but also 
for the whereabouts of those who played and shared his love of jazz, 
Armstrong said.

Nancy Gray praised Mr. Bithell, her stepfather, for ``living his life 
to its fullest. He loved his family and his music, and he actually went 
out singing.''

Joe Bithell

Born: Feb. 17, 1929, in Logan, Ariz.

Died: Feb. 19, 2005, in San Mateo.

Survived by: Wife, Ida Bithell of Santa Clara; children, Kara Bithell 
of Madera and Marianne Bithell of Davis; brother, Harry Bithell of 
Laguna; stepchildren, Dennis Whittemore of Tracy, Bob Whittemore of 
Londonderry, N.H.; Nancy Gray of Murrieta and Sandra Strawn of El Paso; 
14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services: A gathering in Mr. Bithell's honor will be held from noon to 
3 p.m. Saturday at the Avalon, 777 Lawrence Expressway, Santa Clara.

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