[Dixielandjazz] Condon & Watters?
bhaesler at bigpond.net.au
Wed Oct 4 23:22:30 PDT 2006
Here is the Condon article I mentioned.
It was reprinted on the Jim Cullum site.
Here too is the link (I hope):
I hope Jim and Don don't mind me posting it to the DJML for information.
By Eddie Condon
[Ed. note: this article 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
"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
"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 LP's. 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
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
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
"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.
"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
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
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 Kelly¹s. To get this one running, Turk got his
plumber¹s 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,
it¹s a tossup between the music and the cable cars, and it looks as though
both of them are there to stay.
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