[Dixielandjazz] Getting into OKOM

J. D. Bryce brycejd at comcast.net
Wed Nov 4 08:11:49 PST 2009

To All:

    I've been following the thread about how guys got into OKOM. I particularly enjoyed Rick Knittel's story.  I knew Rick when he played in New Jersey.  So I thought I'd put in my twenty-five cents on how I got into OKOM.  The post is a bit long, but it is all true.

I had been listening to and loving trad jazz since watching the Lawrence Welk show in the mid-1950s, which was on Saturday nights from nine to ten.  My father had been a bandleader and he loved that band.  He said what they played was corny, but the musicianship was excellent.  Each week at about 9:40, they pulled guys from the band and formed a dixieland unit they called the "Hotsy-Totsy Boys."  I remember that Bill Page was their clarinetist.  I used to love to watch that guy's fingers move on the clarinet.  I had just started on clarinet with my father as a teacher. Man, but I wanted to play like Page. Later, Welk got Pete Fountain and I loved his playing. 

In high school I played with a rock & Roll band; mostly doing boogie-type blues in the keys of E, A and B; as well as the doowop turnaround C, Am, Dm, G7.  I did some improvising, but it was all simple.  During all this time, I was buying and listening to Fountain, the Dukes, Clarence Hutchenrider, the Dixie Rebels etc.  I listened, but never played the music.

In 1957, I started taking clarinet lessons form Charlie Frazier.  He had played with Jimmy Dorsey during Dorsey's glory years. He also played with and respected my father. Charlie emphasized scales and chord exercises. I learned them all, but never understood how they applied to improvising. But I learned 'em.

In 1967, I graduated college, started teaching Social Studies, got married and moved to Morris County, New Jersey. About this time, across the courtyard from our apartment, I kept hearing a piano being played.  Eventually, I went over to meet the player.  Hs name was Umberto Petrucci.  He was half Italian and half German.  He spoke English with a thick German/Italian accent.  We went out together and played a few jobs.  I generally played alto with him and a bit of clarinet.  My association with him served to introduce me to the music scene in Morris County.  

In April of 1968, Umberto mentioned a place called the "Copa Capri" that had live entertainment.  It was on Route 10 in Ledgewood.  It had a large oval bar, behind which was an elevated stage with a spinet piano on it.  We saw an older woman playing piano, a younger woman playing upright bass, and singing, and a younger guy playing a cocktail drum and singing.  It turned out that the older woman was the drummer's mother.   The drummer was introduced to me as "Chris Scott," but I later found out his name was George Berry.  His mother was Mona Berry and the bass player was Ann Wiehl.  They weren't bad.  

            We went back there a few times and I sat in with the band.  They liked my playing, and had begun to talk to me about playing there steady for the summer.  Unfortunately, George, who owned the bar, was overextended there and the place closed in June, 1968.  

            During my time sitting in at the Copa, I became acquainted with some guys in a  dixieland band led by a trumpeter named Tom Fox, who was to become my closest friend.  The clarinet/ tenor sax player was George DeWitt, and the pianist was Doug McDonald whom I had seen at the Copa.  On drums they had Don (Swannie) Swanson, and on trombone, there was a guy called Judd Pecek.  I liked these guys a lot and went to see them as frequently as I could.

In July, I called George Berry (Chris Scott) and asked him if he was willing to work with me.  He said he was and even had a keyboard (Hammond organ) man that we could use.  I spent the next month looking for a spot.  Finally in early late July, I started calling bars from out of the yellow pages.  I'd call and say, "Someone told me that you're looking for a band."  For the most part, they'd say they weren't.  But on one call, I got a bite!  It was a place called "The Stockman's" on Route 46 in Rockaway. 

I went up to see the owner, who didn't even ask to hear us, but said that we could start in two weeks, which was the notice he was giving his current band.  I named my new band, the "Nite Lites." We were to be paid $25 per man.  We started in mid-August, 1968 and played there until late February, 1969.  We played a mixture of pop, top forty, bossa nova and swing standards.  The organist was an older guy named Jack Cook.  He also played vibraphone.  I played alto and tenor.  George sang, (he was very good) and played cocktail drum.  I also played two songs on clarinet: the Swinging Shepherd Blues and Stranger on the Shore.  That was all on clarinet.  I always had the clarinet on the stand, but only very occasionally used it.

By October, other musicians were stopping in and sitting in.  It was a lot of fun, for me.  I was becoming known in the area, and the musicians seemed to like what I was playing.  We generally finished at one in the morning and I would  rush over to the Fireside in Denbille to catch Tom's last set with his dixie band.  I became very friendly with those guys.

In February 1969, Stockman's asked us if we would play on a Sunday afternoon for a Wild Game Buffet.  They were going to serve elk, deer, Canadian goose, duck, pheasant and wild turkey.  

That day, we were playing our first set, when in walked Tommy Fox and his dixieland band!  Naturally, we asked them to sit in. They did.  Mac pushed a spinet piano over from the corner and George Berry and Jack Cook vacated the stand.  Don Swanson set up his drums.  I stayed up on the stand, just to maintain a Nite Lites presence there.  I was on tenor.  The dixie band played a tune, I don't remember what it was, but I played a solo, strictly melody.  When it was over, Tommy, who was standing next to me, said, "Why don't you play one on clarinet?"  

I was extremely ill at ease about that. Remember, I'd been listening to, and loving dixieland clarinet since the fifties, but I had never, ever attempted to play it.  I told him I had never played dixieland clarinet, that I didn't know how.  

He said, "Go ahead, try it.   What do you have to lose?"  

I said, "Please, Tom, I don't know how.  I don't know what to play.  I've never done it!"  

He picked up my clarinet, handed it to me and said, "Play it!"  

Then he turned to George DeWitt and said, "George, play tenor."  George shrugged and picked up his tenor sax.   So, with trepidation, I asked "What are we going to do?"  

He said "Indiana, in F."  And so they were off, with me on clarinet.

To my utter amazement, my clarinet began to play dixieland!.  It was as if there was somebody else playing it.  I remember looking out over the horn as I was playing with the ensemble, watching my fingers move, and thinking that they looked just like Bill Page's did on the Welk show so many years before.  All of the things I had been listening to all those years, were suddenly coming out of my clarinet!  I couldn't believe it.  I really couldn't.  I took a solo and then we played the hell out of the out-chorus.  When we finished the audience was roaring.  I was in a daze.  I just stood there, looking at the clarinet in my hands.  Tommy, nudged me and said, "I thought you said you never played this stuff before?"  Still in a daze I said, "I never did.  I never did before...can we do another?"

And so we did.  I played the rest of the afternoon on clarinet.  It was the most wonderful afternoon I had every experienced.  Truly a life-changing epiphany for me.  I could play dixieland!  It was all I'd ever wanted and I've been doing it ever since.



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