Heroes #4: Jasper Taylor, 1894-1964

“Away down in Chicago / There is a name, that’s bound to gain fame /
He is a brown, known over town / He’s Jasper Taylor, Jasper Taylor”
– Julia Davis, ‘Jasper Taylor Blues’

Jasper Taylor.jpg


If you were to rank early jazz drummers purely by the historical importance of their musical associates, the relatively little-remembered Jasper Taylor comes out very highly placed indeed, having not only performed regularly but also recorded multiple sides with three of the truly legendary names in the creation years of jazz: W.C. Handy, Freddie Keppard and Jelly Roll Morton. The facts which are certain concerning Taylor make for arresting reading – he had quite an exciting life.

Jasper Taylor was born on the first day of 1894, in the Texas portion of the cross-border city of Texarkana, and was surrounded by music from a young age. He later remembered his mother playing hymns and popular songs on the piano when he was a small child, and knew the family of local ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Taylor remembered that he always felt a calling for the drums, beginning on pots and pans: “I used to play the drums in the back yard, and on the fences, and down in the barn […] homemade sticks made out of chairs… somehow I could always beat rhythm with those sticks.” As a teenager he graduated to snare drum in the parade band at school, then, gaining confidence, began to play ‘trap’ drums, accompanying pianists for local dances and playing in touring shows outside of school term times. In 1912, at the age of eighteen, he left Texarkana for the first time to go on the road, during which he “sang, danced, and played drums” in the Young Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Whilst it may seem slightly surprising that a Wild West revue would have any use for an African-American ragtime drummer, Buffalo Bill’s show included a “Regular brass band, which played for parades and side shows” on a band wagon; in the era before amplification, a good brass band was one of the most successful methods of attracting attention. In October 1912, Jasper left the Buffalo Bill company to join the Dandy Dixie Minstrels, a group of touring blackface entertainers. This was a useful move for Taylor as it brought not only steady work but also improvement; the trumpet player, one Mr. Wilson of Pennsylvania, was a schooled musician who taught the enthusiastic young drummer the rudiments of musical theory and tuned percussion: “That’s where I began to study the drums, xylophone, very very much. I bunked with the trumpet player, and he was a professor […] he began to teach me the seriousness of music. […] He taught me to read so that I could read mostly anything written.”

The Dandy Dixie Minstrels’ peripatetic schedule took them all over the southern states and even as far as Mexico. Whilst passing through Memphis, Tennessee, Taylor went along to hear the Eckford Orchestra, a local band, playing on Beale Street, and was fated to save the day when a minor disaster struck:
“While I was standing there listening to this orchestra, well, the drummer’s snare drum was split, so he couldn’t use it. He didn’t know what to do, so I stepped up and gave him my card, with my name on it (I was very proud of that card – ‘Jasper Taylor: Drums, Bells, Xylophone’) […] and so we made a deal, and I went down and got my drum, and brought it back up […] and it wasn’t long before he extended me an invitation to play a tune.”

Taylor’s gentlemanly conduct and subsequent drumming skills went down so well on Beale Street that he was convinced by a delegation of local musicians to leave the road for good and settle in Memphis, splitting a job at the Metropolitan Theater with a drummer named Baker. Soon he was reccomended to an agency called the Syndicate, run by the kingpin of the Memphis scene – impresario, cornettist, composer and so-called ‘Father Of The Blues’, W.C. Handy. Handy had by this time had already built a reputation as one of America’s foremost black musicians, composing a number of very popular blues songs including two (‘Mr Crump’, a.k.a. ‘Memphis Blues’ in 1909, and ‘St. Louis Blues’ in 1914) that would later become jazz standards. Handy’s Syndicate supplied musical groups of all stripes for functions in polite society, and often featured proto-jazz players from New Orleans and its environs. Taylor recalled that on a given day he would often have “more than a hundred men out” [at work].

In 1914 Taylor relocated to St. Louis to play at the Booker Washington Theatre, where he stayed for nearly two years. By the time of his return to Memphis and Handy’s organisation in 1916, he had become a fully finished pit percussionist as well as an accomplished drummer. And his return was timely: the following year was a landmark for Handy, Taylor and jazz in general. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first records, cut in 1917, sparked a huge and sudden craze for recorded jazz music, and a scramble by rival record companies to find new bands to compete with the ODJB. After weeks of entreaties, the Columbia company eventually persuaded Handy to overcome his initial misgivings about the new style, and bring his band to New York City to make ten sides. Taylor played drums on some (his crisp snare, woodblock and china cymbal clearly audible) and xylophone (excellently!) on others.

However, just as Jasper Taylor looked set to cement his position as one of the very first important jazz percussionists, fate intervened in the form of the Great War, which had already been raging in Europe for three years. In late 1917 Taylor was drafted into the 365th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit drawn from Chicago and nicknamed the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ (the army, just like all other aspects of American life, was strictly segregated). In addition to his infantry training, Taylor played drums in the 365th’s regimental band, keeping the soldiers’ spirits up with the kind of music they knew from home – ragtime and blues – as well as military marches. The great ragtime impresario James Reese Europe commanded a similar band in another black regiment, the 369th – the famous ‘Harlem Hellfighters’. Jasper Taylor’s regiment travelled to France in the summer of 1918 and was involved in combat during the last months of the war. During the run-up to the eventual Allied victory he returned dispatches from the Western Front to a Chicago newspaper: “Our band is in fine playing condition regardless to circumstances […] we manage to give the boys just what they want, plenty of Livery Stable Blues, love songs and a few standards.”
Thankfully he survived one of the most awful of conflicts in history without any major mishap.

Taylor was demobilised and returned to Chicago in early 1919, securing a steady gig with Clarence Jones, the resident bandleader at the Owl Theatre on 47th & State – one of many venues that made up the notorious Chicago nightlife district known as the Stroll. In his hours off, Jasper would frequent the Asia Café at 35th & State, a famous rendezvous for musicians, which was perhaps where he met and was befriended by young Jimmy Bertrand, another keen jazz drummer who was also a trained xylophonist. Whilst resident at the Owl, Taylor also gigged and recorded with a number of other pioneering jazz artists arriving from New Orleans and elsewhere to make their fortunes in the North, perhaps the most important among these being the great pianist, composer and self-proclaimed inventor of Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton. Taylor had met Morton several years earlier, before the Great War. “I went out on some jobs with him – piano and drums – in Memphis […] and then he came up to Chicago.” His prior work with the pianist evidently went down well, for once they had reunited in Chicago, Morton hired Jasper for his first ever recording session with a band, for Gennett Records in 1923.

Whilst it was a feather in Taylor’s cap to record with Morton, this was not a classic period for the pianist; although the piano solos he recorded around this time are up to his usual excellent standards, these band sides are competent rather than transcendentally great. It seems Morton at this point was not able to attract quite the same stupendous calibre of musicians as he would in his golden period, a few years later. Taylor’s playing drives the band along nicely and he shows off some neat tricky backings behind the alto saxophone solo around the [1:20] mark. There is some debate over what instrument Taylor is playing on these sides. Some discographies have him playing ‘drums’, others ‘woodblock’. My personal opinion is that it is neither of these:

In the middle ‘twenties Taylor became indelibly associated with a novelty ‘instrument’ which he appears to have been the original pioneer of – the washboard. Much later in his life Taylor dated his innovative use of the humble kitchen utensil to his tenure with the W.C. Handy orchestra:
“I was on a woodpile down in Mississippi, we were on a date down there, and I stopped by this woodpile and I picked up an old washboard […] and I started fooling around with the washboard from then on. I saw a man play […] bamboo poles; he had several of them put together and he was strumming them and blowing a mouth organ, and keeping rhythm with this cane. And so I just did the same thing with the washboard.”
From this point on we rarely hear Taylor on record playing anything else – it seems to have become his principal calling-card, for better or worse. I would contend that on ‘Big Fat Ham’ it’s his washboard that Taylor is playing – making it the first washboard jazz record in history.

Officially, Taylor debuted his board a year later in a series of sides made with the little-remembered ‘gaspipe’-style clarinettist Jimmie O’Bryant and his pianist Jimmy Blythe. These were hybrid dance/novelty records, heavily marketed around O’Bryant’s trick clarinet playing and Taylor’s washboard.

Compare Taylor’s playing on this side – particularly his solo breaks at 1:01 – to that on the Morton track. Same instrument? Sounds like it to me. Certainly compared to other washboard performers Taylor’s approach is functional rather than ostentatious, built around tapping the various resonant surfaces of the (wooden?) board rather than constant metallic scratching. He also makes no use of the ubiquitous toy cymbals, tin cans, rattles and other often intrusive ‘traps’ so beloved of later washboard players, preferring to propel the band along and stay out of the soloist’s way. Regardless, Taylor’s playing on this and similar records sparked a fad for primivitivist, folksy jazz records played by small groups with a strong blues element. The mid-20s ‘washboard craze’ soon swept the nationwide drumming community and inspired legions of imitators (some willing, other less so), including Buddy Burton, Floyd Campbell, Kaiser Marshall, Baby Dodds, and Taylor’s great friend and rival Jimmy Bertrand, who perhaps ran him closest of all for the title of 1920s washboard king.

Throughout the later ‘twenties Taylor held the drum chair in the orchestra led by the pianist Dave Peyton, whose band never recorded under their own name but held several consecutive residencies at prominent theatres and clubs on the Stroll. In addition to this, he ‘doubled’ with other artists on one-off gigs, and recorded with many of the great black jazz artists resident on the South Side including the great Freddie Keppard – Buddy Bolden’s successor and Joe Oliver’s predecessor as holder of the title of cornet ‘King’ in 1910s New Orleans. With Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals, Jasper made several sides, including his own composition ‘Stockyard Strut’ – so far the only Taylor original to be recorded.

In February 1928 Peyton’s band secured a residency at a new theatre, the Regal, that was set to open in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood. To add some showbusiness sparkle to the opening, the famous New York-based bandleader, showman and ‘gaspipe’ clarinet specialist Stanley ‘Fess’ Williams was persuaded West to front the group, which was temporarily renamed ‘Fess & His Joy Boys.’ In April, they made two sides for Vocalion which give us an excellent impression of Taylor’s third musical incarnation: as a hip, driving dance-band drummer pounding the band along with woodblocks and modernistic choke technique on a glassy-sounding, heavy Turkish cymbal.

Of particular interest on ‘Dixie Stomp’ is Jasper’s handling of the accompaniment for Williams’ solo chorus [1:20], delicately-played on low-register clarinet (always a tricky solo texture for a drummer not to overpower). Taylor’s offbeat woodblock idea is a simple device, but one that propels things along with just the right gutsy character whilst still leaving plenty of sonic space for the star frontman to shine.

The residency at the Regal was also the scene for an infamous event in Jasper Taylor’s life on June 2, 1928. The Chicago Tribune of the following day recounted: “Patrons of the Regal Theater […] were thrown into panic last night when a woman arose from her seat and fired three shots, apparently at Jasper Taylor, drummer in the orchestra”. According to his friend Jimmy Bertrand, Jasper had been carrying on an affair; one of the two women involved, 19-year old Gladys Mason, discovered his duplicity and brought a firearm to the Regal one day intent on doing murder. Bertrand was working just up the street at the Metropolitan Theater with Erskine Tate’s band – we’ll hear the story as he recounted it to Bill Russell in 1959:
“Jasper and Dave Peyton, and Fess Williams, they was at the Regal […] One Sunday, we were having a little intermission, and I saw everybody coming out of the Regal theatre – we were out in front of the Metropolitan. Boom! I didn’t see where Jasper went, but I know what happened… Gladys shot at him! […] Jasper had to get out of there. Joe McCutchin […] he jumped over there and saved Jasper from getting shot. Then I took the job… ’til I got fired too!”
Having been in both the Wild West and the trenches of the Great War, Taylor was presumably no stranger to the sensation of being shot at, but Bertrand recalled that he ran several blocks before anyone caught up with him.

The highlight of Taylor’s ‘twenties work perhaps came when he made four sides under his own name (‘Jasper Taylor and his State Street Boys / Original Washboard Band With Jasper Taylor’), an extremely unusual honour for a drummer and perhaps a reflection of the sheer novelty value his playing of the washboard still retained. On the most famous of these sides, the red-hot ‘Stomp Time Blues’, Taylor is joined by three legendary names: Keppard on cornet, the great Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Tiny Parham on piano.

One side made by the Original Washboard Band in 1928, the ‘Jasper Taylor Blues’, takes the form of a blues ballad in five choruses, sung by Julia Davis and presumably intended to mythologise Taylor not only as a musician but as a larger-than-life folk character. It focuses very much on his fame and tells the story of the shooting at the Regal, self-deprecatingly describing how Taylor ‘fell to the floor; he’s a sheik [womaniser] no more…’ Jasper’s washboard playing is very much in the background here, and from a drumming point of view it’s probably of no great insightful value – but since no other Drummers of the ‘Twenties had a blues recorded all about their lives, it’s still well worth a listen in my book.

And here, at the end of the decade, we’ll leave the colourful Jasper Taylor – wild west dancer, ragtime percussionist, pioneer jazz drummer, veteran of the trenches, sheik, folk hero, washboard king.

Taylor seems to have been a charismatic presence all his life – for better and for worse. Newspaper reviews of his performances praised his stage persona, billing him as a “zylophone artist and eccentric Drummer” and claiming that besides his musical expertise, he “entertained equally as much as much by his gestures, inspired by his musical enthusiasm as much as by his playing“.

Taylor retired from the music business during the Great Depression and worked as a clerk for many years, enjoying a brief late-life return to music during the revival boom of the 1940s and 50s. In June of 1959 he recored a short but charismatic interview with historian Bill Russell, which is now in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. He died in 1964, an obituary mourning the loss of  ‘The Wailing Drummer’.