Heroes #5: Victor Berton, 1896-1951

A true pioneer, for the timekeeping methods he introduced and for his role in determining the very equipment […] subsequent drummers would play.” – Richard M. Sudhalter

Vic Berton

(aka. The Red Heads / Red Nichols & His Five Pennies / Red & Miff’s Stompers / Miff Mole’s Molers / Van’s Collegians / The Charleston Chasers etc, etc.)

Today’s Hero is one I have always had a soft spot for, not just because of his playing (excellent, imaginative and truly unique though it is) but because his name became something of an in-joke with a band I played in for many years. This band would make an annual trip to play a jazz festival on an island off the west coast of Scotland. The first year we played there I was accosted in one of the set breaks by an elderly (though extremely imposing-looking) Scottish gentleman, who loudly demanded: “Have ye haird of Victor Berton? Ye plae just like Victor Berton!” We had a brief chat and I thought no more about it. But from then on – every tune, every set, every subsequent year – whenever I took any kind of hot cymbal break with this band at this festival, I knew his stentorian voice would inevitably pipe up from somewhere at the back of the room: “VICTOR BERTON!”

Many of the most famous drum Heroes of the ‘twenties grew up in the South, in poor working-class homes if not in actual poverty. Their musical skills were hard-won, on the streets in parade bands and in saloons, watching and absorbing the talents of older musicians. However, Vic Berton – for a short time recognised as perhaps the greatest jazz percussionist working in America – originated from a very different cultural background and consequently approached both the instrument and the role of the jazz drummer in an alternative way to many of his contemporaries.

Vic was born Victor Cohen on May 7, 1896 in Chicago, into a middle-class immigrant family; both his young mother Ida and his father Maurice were Russian Jews who had arrived in America during the late 19th Century. The family originally came from money, but pursued a more bohemian lifestyle on their arrival in the New World, working in the vaudeville end of the entertainment business and moving regularly from city to city. In the 1910s Maurice ran a nickelodeon theatre in Indiana for a time, where young Vic perhaps got his first taste of showbusiness. Maurice Berton was also a talented violinist, and music was a big part of family life. Vic began on violin at five, and both his brothers also became musicians: Eugene (born 1901) had a successful career as a professional singer from childhood onwards, whilst little Ralph (born 1908) was an amateur drummer among many other things. In fact, Ralph’s book ‘Remembering Bix: A Memoir Of The Jazz Age’ is our only real source for detail regarding Vic’s life and career – which is potentially problematic, since Ralph was a very young child at the time in question and it’s a difficult task to distinguish memory from fantasy in his recollections.

Having begun formal music lessons from a very young age, Vic initially pursued the classical tradition, winning a statewide competition to be first percussionist at the Alhambra Theatre in Milwaukee at the age of just seven. He continued performing with professional orchestras at theatres around the Midwest whilst still a child, and according to Ralph became the family’s principal breadwinner: “he was always compelled to pick the most lucrative [jobs], not the ones he liked.” When America entered the Great War in 1917, 62 year-old John Philip Sousa, the legendary ‘March King’, was commissioned as a U.S. Navy bandleader at the Great Lakes Naval Station outside Chicago. Overcome with a mixture of patriotism and eagerness to work for a true hero of American music, young musicians in the area flocked to enlist in Sousa’s band, the 22 year-old Berton among them. “He burned to go Over There and shoot Kaiser Wilhelm […] the only shots he fired were rimshots.” Sousa’s bands had been playing orchestrated ragtime marches since the turn of the century, and it might have been his wartime bandmates that first exposed Berton to popular music.

“Right after his discharge, Vic went to the greatest timpanist in America, Josef Zettelman, first percussionist with the Chicago symphony. Vic was then working at the Winter Gardens, a Loop cabaret, 7pm to 2am every night […] he managed to squeeze in an occasional afternoon as extra man with the Chicago Symphony […] and a couple of nights a week, after the hotel job, he would drive out to the South Side to sit in with the great black jazz bands.“- Ralph Berton.

Vic was extremely fortunate to be a native-born Chicagoan, and would happen to be in just the right spot at the right time, in the city where jazz would soon come of age. At the cessation of hostilities, he quickly became immersed in the burgeoning Chicago dance band scene. Society functions abounded in the post-war boom, and a multitude of dance bands had sprung up inspired by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra’s recent successes. Vic Berton’s flawless sightreading, impeccable time and formidable orchestral technique made him a valuable commodity. By 1920 he was a full-time professional, though still living at the family home on Sunnyside Avenue, up on Chicago’s North Side (see map).

Finding time to put in the requisite hours to truly master classical percussion to the level he desired was a difficult issue for Berton. His solution, according to legend, was to have a pair of of Ludwig & Ludwig pedal timps delivered to the Winter Gardens’ basement, where he would practice through the night until exhausted. By the early ‘twenties he had not only mastered timpani to Zettelman’s and his own satisfaction but also passed through several leading dance bands and co-composed the hit song ‘Sobbin’ Blues’, with saxophonist Art Kassel. The tune would later become a standard, recorded by great jazz artists including King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Berton made his recording debut in in 1923 with Art Kahn’s orchestra, the house band at the Senate Theater on Kedzie Avenue, with whom he performed regularly.

At this early stage the bands still sound rather stiff and mechanical, but on ‘Bahama’ we can hear some snappy choke cymbal from Berton at several key moments and a driving out-chorus played on woodblock.

Around this time, as he was establishing himself on the white Chicago jazz scene (officially at least, we must sadly remember that music had to remain racially segregated), Vic had been deeply impressed by some records released on the Gennett label made by a Midwestern jazz band, the Wolverine Orchestra. On seeking them out, he’d met and befriended their outstanding cornet player, Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke. In early 1924 Berton became the band’s business manager – though, as the Wolverines already had the excellent Vic Moore (Hero #13) behind the drums, his role remained purely administrative. That spring, Berton secured the group a residency for the summer season at Miller Beach, Indiana: “It was decided that Vic would give notice to Art Kahn at the Senate, and move out to Miller Beach for the summer to be (and sometimes play) with the Wolverines.” Following this, the band went on the road for a few months, Berton using his vaudeville connections to book them a series of one-night dates around the Midwest including Indianapolis, Louisville, Terre Haute and Gary. Vic Moore went on a short holiday, leaving Berton to temporarily take over drumming duties, during which time the band visited the Gennett studio in Richmond to make their latest record date, witht their manager filling in on drums for three issued sides.

Having already mastered classical percussion and dance-band drumming, Berton is now clearly becoming an excellent jazz player. He matches the insouciant swing feel of the rest of the band perfectly and plays the kit with great variety and imagination, making use of woodblock, open and choked Chinese cymbal, and some syncopated snare drum hits on the two shout choruses.

When Vic Moore returned from his break, there were an uneasy few gigs where it was uncertain who was the regular percussionist; after noting a downturn in the usually cheerful Moore’s morale, the Wolverines’ musical director Dick Voynow gently advised Berton to return to his managerial role, only taking the occasional sit-in during the final set.

As the summer season at Miller Beach ended, Berton won the Wolverines a job at the Cinderella Ballroom in New York City, 900 miles away. Thus, the band took the road again, following a roundabout route East (a journey described in vibrant colour by Ralph Berton) to make their fortunes on Broadway. The Cinderella was popular at the time as it maintained a reputation for hot dance music with solos (close to jazz, in other words) at a time when many other big New York dancehalls were leaning towards more polite, ‘sweeter’ bands. The Wolverines, with their rolling, Midwestern rhythm were an entirely new sound to Eastern ears, and caused a minor sensation. Unfortunately, the mercurial Beiderbecke, around whom much of the excitement centred, decided to leave the Wolverines in late 1924 and return to the Midwest in order to join Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra in Detroit (where he would join up with drummer Chauncey Morehouse). This ultimately precipitated the end of the Cinderella Ballroom residency by early 1925, and a significant change of personnel including Berton’s departure as manager. Fortunately, he had already begun planning the next stage of his career as a New York session player – and had already made the professional acquaintance of another exceptional young cornettist, with whom his name will always be associated in the musical history books: Ernest ‘Red’ Nichols.

Nichols was a clean-cut and technical player with an ear for modernistic harmonies and creative musical arrangements. He had a contract with the Brunswick record company and had been making small-group jazz sides for the previous few years, often with his principal partner, trombonist Milfred ‘Miff’ Mole. They recorded under a host of aliases, among them The Red Heads, Red And Miff’s Stompers, Miff Mole and his Molers, The Charleston Chasers, The Six Hottentots, and most frequently, Red Nichols And His Five Pennies, a wisecrack (five pennies equals one nickel) apocryphally attributed to Vic Berton. The jazz they made was consciously ‘artistic’ – clever, controlled and cerebral. Berton, with his classical training and mastery of percussion instruments, proved the perfect drummer for Nichols’ bands. They began recording together in 1925.

Over the years that he was a member of the loose Nichols/Mole group of musicians, Berton originated and developed a number of trademark sounds and techniques hitherto unheard in jazz. Firstly, he brought his childhood timpani expertise to bear on jazz, using state-of-the-art pedal-tuned drums to play chromatic basslines and short solo breaks: many Nichols records from the period feature Berton “galumphing along on his tymps like a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing lunch” (Richard M. Sudhalter). Secondly, Berton pioneered a special trick for playing rapid rhythmic patterns on a light choked cymbal. He would strike the underside of the cymbal with the stick held in the fingers of his left hand, the thumb of which choked the edge of the instrument. With his right stick still free to play the top side as usual, he found he could alternate very rapidly between striking the top and bottom sides of the cymbal and produce a range of extremely interesting syncopated rhythms. A few years ago at the International Classic Jazz Party Mr. Josh Duffee (a great mate and true 1920s drumming expert) and I were watching another wonderful vintage jazz drummer, Mr. Richard Pite, performing the ‘tricky-cymbal’ technique faultlessly and with typical panache. I turned to Mr. Duffee and said, ‘Who first came up with that thing? Berton?’  Josh replied: ‘Berton.’

Many classic Nichols/Mole records feature Berton’s percussive trickery to wonderful effect. This is perhaps the first ever band to record prolifically in which the drummer regularly takes lengthy solos and breaks, and he is not only beautifully recorded (for the period) but prominently showcased almost as much as any other instrumentalist.

‘Boneyard Shuffle’ is a tour de force – virtually a percussion concerto! Vic begins playing complex bass lines on his timpani, punctuated with the odd choked cymbal. Behind Nichols’s cornet solo (0:39) he plays some neat ‘hot socking’ on cymbal, moving to mellow woodblock for the breaks (1:01), backs Mole’s trombone solo on tom-toms (1:33) before taking a complete chorus using the trademark ‘tricky cymbal’ technique explained above (2:30).

It’s been suggested (not least by Ralph Berton) that Vic’s groundbreaking technical innovations were partly possible due to simultaneous techological inventions he made to alter or augment exisiting drum hardware. As well as one of several mooted creators of the ‘sock’ cymbal ancestor of the hi-hat (Baby Dodds is another), in his early years in Chicago Vic is credited with setting the trend amongst Chicagoan drummers of removing the ‘zinger’ cymbal attached to the side of early bass drum pedals. Later, around the time of his arrival in New York, he was supposedly responsible for the development of the modern cymbal stand. Instead of merely using the vertical part of the conventional cymbal ‘hanger’ as a mount for a horizontal beam from which the cymbal was suspended, Berton supposedly dispensed with the horizontal altogether and began mounting cymbals directly onto the post, via some kind of spigot attachment. This resulted in the cymbal sitting much more steadily, allowing for convenient playing of regular time on it. “He showed it to his favourite manufacturer […] he must have thought Vic had a pretty good idea, because soon every drummer in the world had cymbals sitting up on those vertical rods.” – Ralph Berton.

It’s almost impossible to know how true any of this is (Ralph bemoans his brother’s legal naiveté and consequent lack of financial profit from the manufacture of any of these ideas) but the fact remains that Berton is without doubt one of the earliest drummers you’ll see photographed with one of the post-mounts described above, and it’s within the realms of reason to imagine that the kind of innovative, enquiring brain that came up with the ‘tricky’ cymbal technique might also have turned to instrument technology as well as to the music itself. For me, therefore, Berton’s sometimes-claimed position as the inventor of not only the hi-hat, but also the modern cymbal stand, might not be quite as specious as it might first appear – but then, we’ll probably never know for certain.

‘Alabama Stomp’ (the second recording of this tune by the Nichols gang, on Edison, 1926) finds Berton playing a 16-bar chorus of improvised solo on the snare drum with brushes (1:40) which is not only one of the earliest clear recordings of brushes being used, but a masterclass in syncopated ‘hot’ rhythm. If you want to know what the cutting edge in hip brushes playing in the mid-20s was, this is it.

During these incredibly productive few years Berton seems hardly to have left the recording studio, often working with Nichols, Mole and their other collaborators in backing bands for what we’d now call pop sessions – his timpani featured prominently, for example, on a number of records by the great singer Annette Hanshaw. Berton was finally poached by America’s most famous bandleader, Paul Whiteman, in 1927, but his tenure with the greatest large jazz ensemble extant at the time  – which ought to have been the peak of Berton’s career – lasted only a month or so, before he and Whiteman (not usually known for being a hard man to work for) had an almighty falling-out about something. There are two stories: firstly Red Nichols’ version of events, that Berton became angry when Whiteman refused to transport his huge percussion outfit between gigs along with the band’s other equipment. Secondly there’s Vic’s younger brother Ralph Berton’s account involving a punch-up between the two men in the gents’ toilets, which according to Ralph was won by his brother. Either or both stories may be true. However, Berton quickly moved on from Whiteman to see the decade out playing in a number of high-class New York dance bands.

This chapter ends with an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside of an early talkie:

It’s a shame that many of the drummers in these pages did not appear in a moving picture, or at least, not during their peak years. Berton’s appearance on film, however, is an intriguing mystery. A star-studded band under the little-known name of Walter Roesner’s Capitolians was filmed using a new sound process in New York in 1928. The band includes many of Berton’s New York session colleagues: Jimmy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Jimmy Lytell, and Leo McConville. At the back of the band stands a drummer surrounded by percussion instruments. He plays some neat choked cymbal, tom toms, and occasionally reaches behind him to interject on timpani. He also accompanies a singer by tearing newspaper rhythmically. Is this man Vic Berton? Opinion is divided. The time, place and other personnel are right, but there seems to be no record I can find of Berton playing with Roesner. If it’s not him, it’s someone imitating his style and doing a very fine job of it too. There is a brief close-up when he tears the paper – here’s a comparison of the two. Is it our man? Make your own mind up…

Berton comparisonThe film is from 1928, and although I can’t find a confirmed date for the photo of Vic on the left, I would assume from the caption (though cropped here, it lists artists he ‘records with’, including Nichols and Mole) that it’s from c.1925-6, i.e. a couple of years before the film. To me, the mystery man on the right looks a good bit older than Berton – though maybe it’s just his moustache? – and his chin and brow seem to be of a different shape. Whoever he is, it’s great to be able to watch as well as hear a drummer playing really on-point Berton-style 20s jazz percussion.

Whatever the identity of Roesner’s percussionist, the feature film ‘Applause’ (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1929) definitely does briefly feature Vic, playing with a small dance band  in a resturant scene. The scene fades in to the sight and sound of his beautifully rich-toned cymbal suspended on a springmount, played with a soft mallet and choked (evidently Berton sometimes choked overhand as well as underhand!) He then drops the mallet and sets up a snappy press-roll groove on the snare, all whilst having a conversation with the banjoist next to him. Sadly this is all we see of Vic or the band, but they do perform several more numbers on the soundtrack, and even this brief glimpse is revealing both of his technique and performance practice, and his general personality and charismatic onstage demeanour.

As mentioned previously, you can also read a colourful (if rather fanciful) account of Berton’s early work and his escapades with with Bix and the Wolverines in the 1974 book ‘Remembering Bix’, written by Berton’s younger brother Ralph, who at the time was only in his early ‘teens and clearly in awe of the debonair Vic and his talented friends. In subsequent years the book has often been criticised by Beiderbecke historians for its lack of factual accuracy, but whatever its shortcomings it still provides ample evidence of the elder Berton’s incredible work ethic and a generally strong flavour of the hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle led by certain young musicians in the 1920s. Ralph Berton is an excellent writer and creates amusing, memorable characters and a compelling story – just remember to take them all with the proverbial grain of salt.

2 thoughts on “Heroes #5: Victor Berton, 1896-1951

  1. Hi,

    I agree with you – I don’t think it is Vic. However, 1) it’s fun to invite people to speculate! and, 2) in that case, who could it be? He’s perhaps not quite up to Berton’s best, but he ain’t bad! Of those who, as you say, ‘fit the bill’ – care to suggest any names? The list of Heroes I’m planning to write about is already well over 50 long, but any more are always welcome!

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to get in touch,

    All the very best,



  2. The drummer in the Capitolians film is most emphatically *not* Vic Berton. He clearly does not look like him and while there are some superficial similarities in the playing styles, the Capitolians’ drummer is a pale imitation. There were many drummers who fit that bill! I believe Berton *does* appear in “International House” from 1933, performing “I’m The Drummer” with Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra.


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