Heroes #7: Ben Pollack, 1903-1971

“Now there was a drummer, one of the finest who ever lived.” – Jimmy McPartland

Ben Pollack

With THE STOMP SIX, 1925
With IRVING MILLS [small groups under many aliases], 1928-30

When the name Ben Pollack crops up in jazz histories it’s most often found in the résumés of musicians who came to prominence in the late 20s or early Swing era, usually as one in a list of ‘name’ dance bands in a series of stepping-stones to stardom. Certainly Pollack can be justly considered one of the most talented leaders at the art of spotting and promoting exceptional talent, giving breaks to luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Muggsy Spanier and Ray Bauduc amongst many others during the ‘twenties.

Pollack was born and raised in Chicago, and began playing drums as a child. By the early ‘twenties he was a part of the local jazz scene to one degree or another, and like most Chicagoan musicians of his generation fell deeply under the spell of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (usually abbreviated to ‘NORK’) – perhaps the most important and influential successors to arise after the breakup of the first widely-popular band in jazz history, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The NORK had begun life as ‘Friars’ Society Orchestra’, the house band at the Friars’ Inn, a cabaret club on Chicago’s Wabash Street where they performed six nights a week for $90 a week per man. They were a mixed bag: Paul Mares, Leon Roppolo and the Brunies brothers had migrated north from New Orleans, whilst the rest of the band was from the Chicago area. They quickly became hugely popular with jazz-crazy white youngsters, gaining an avid following amongst the callow teenagers later to find jazz fame as the Austin High School Gang. The only slightly-older Pollack would later recall: “These boys had rhythm and a definite style that was very fine… they literally rocked us over”. Pollack worked hard at his craft, trying to innovate something that would set him apart:

“I thought up some stunts […] I palmed an iron drum key under the cymbal and got a ‘ciss’. All the drummers thought I had split my cymbal to get the effect, so all the drummers split their cymbals. Then I tried a fly-swatter on a bass drum to get a bass-fiddle buzz. So all the guys bought fly-swatters.” 

Pollack’s use of metal fly swatters (which were just beginning to be marketed to drummers as ‘rhythm brushes’ around this time) to create interesting effects on his bass drum will crop up again (though to the best of my knowledge, this unique sound was never laid down on record).

When, in 1923, the NORK’s drummer Frank Snyder was unable to make a gig, twenty-year-old Ben Pollack happened to be on hand and heard the loud knock of opportunity:
“Pollack used to hang around the Friars’ Inn a lot. One night he heard us talking about how Frank Snyder couldn’t make it, and walks up to me and he says, ‘Do you mind, Mister Brunies,’ he says, ‘if I sit in?’ I says, ‘How you play?’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I play pretty good.’ ‘Well, all right, sit in,’ I says, ‘but don’t give me no fancy damn beats […] So he sat in, and then made good from then on.” – George Brunies.

Soon Snyder was out and Pollack in. After only a short time, however, the management of Friars’ Inn decided to end the NORK’s tenure as the cabaret’s house band. Yet they had been recording on and off for Gennett since August of the previous year, and Pollack made his recording début with the band on a prolific two-day session in early March 1923, during which they cut some twelve released sides (some were alternate takes of the same tune).

Pollack here is at the cutting-edge of jazz drumming in 1923. He plays with considerable drive throughout whilst never overpowing the band, showng off some nice New Orleans-style vocabulary for a Northerner  and varying his texture wonderfully behind different instrumental solos and sections of the arrangement. Unusually for such an early date, his snare drum is clearly audible and strongly featured, particularly from around 1:24 where Pollack lays down a fantastic, driving shuffle beat which prefigures the rolling swing that would later come to typify Chicago jazz. In total Pollack would make nineteen records with the NORK, including one throwaway tune – ‘Tin Roof Blues’ – which was to become one of the most recorded standards in jazz. As it had evolved from a rough routine arrangement devised during the Friars’ Inn days and nobody could remember its originator, on the cover of the original sheet music the composition credit went to all five members of the NORK, including ‘Benny’ Pollack. His recording career with the band culminated later that year with a legendary session (one of the first interracial recording dates in jazz) with the mercurial Jelly Roll Morton on piano, a musician truly steeped in the history of New Orleans music and already something of an elder statesman at thirty-three. However Morton later remembered it (“I helped the NORK out in making their big records…”) the session actually featured a much larger NORK ensemble than usual, which unfortunately left less freedom of manoeuvre for the musicians and makes it more difficult for us as listeners to pick out Pollack’s (and Morton’s) contributions amid the general melée.

However successful these records were, the NORK, without their residency, had more or less dissolved. Pollack jobbed around and made the occasional date with some of his former NORK colleagues (two hot sides under the name ‘The Stomp Six’ stand out in particular from this period). His parents, none too keen on their son pursuing a career in jazz and hoping to get him away from Chicago, suggested he take a summer vacation to California. Owing to his NORK pedigree, upon arrival in LA Pollack was an instant cause celebre amongst the burgeoning jazz community and plunged straight into an intensive period of work with a number of fine West Coast society bands. When bandleader Harry Bastin fell ill in 1925, his sidemen elected Pollack as the man to replace him. Some of them were soon to regret this decision; Pollack had a natural talent for band-building and within weeks was hiring and firing like he’d been doing it all his life, cutting away dead wood and bringing in new talent. And these were talent. Benny Goodman (aged 16), Fud Livingston (19) and Glenn Miller (22) all joined Pollack’s band in California. In 1926 ‘Ben Pollack And His Californians’ moved back to Chicago, where in September of that year they made their first records.

This is a not a jazz band, but a slick commercial dance orchestra with occasional hot solos – a common and winning formula in the mid-20s which satisfied both ends of the record-buying market. On ‘He’s The Last Word’ Pollack’s drumming is supportive rather than conspicuous, except when he backs Goodman’s excellent clarinet solo at 1:46, and Miller’s trombone at 2:54, with some hot socking. As Pollack’s band gained in confidence and status they made some excellent sides, with superb arrangements – often by Miller – combining the smooth and un-threatening dance-orchestra sound with the syncopation and appearance of spontaneity that excited jazz-orientated listeners.

During this period Pollack’s band began to evolve a new way of playing foxtrot rhythm, stressing all four beats of the bar more or less equally rather than the heavy two-beat feel popular at the time. Benny’s brother, bassist Harry Goodman, later recalled: “That rhythm you hear […] we created it. Every band was marking two […] but we played four. I played four on the tuba, and Pollack did it on his bass drum. And it worked.” Pollack’s bass drum can be clearly heard marking four on the floor on ‘Memphis Blues’ at various points – during the theme (0:29) under the alto solo (1:16) and behind Goodman’s clarinet (1:53). This move away from two- and towards four-in-a-bar rhythm – the foundation of Swing – comes a good year or two earlier than a number of other notable bands credited with making that breakthrough.

Pollack’s band followed an itinerant trajectory typical 1920s dance orchestras, with one short-term hotel ballroom residency followed by another, moving across the country. As often happened, the bandleader bore the brunt of this unpredicatble routine: “We had some good runs, like the Southmoor Hotel in Chicago in 1926 […] But as soon as we were out of a job […] it seems I was always paying out more to sidemen than I was taking in. […] As I recall it now, everywhere the band played it was the talk of the town – with musicians […] But for all of us it was pretty much the same – weeks of starvation followed by periods of high living and prosperity when we were working.” – Ben Pollack.

In 1928 Pollack moved operations to New York City, and after a period of ‘scuffling’ on the East Coast, in September scored a plum residency at the Park Central Hotel. They also began recording again, for Victor. The band was now stuffed with talent – possibly the dance band most resplendent with excellent hot soloists at the time aside from Ellington’s – and the shows at the Park Central became a hot ticket, bringing the fire and swing of Chicago jazz to an adoring new public. Lead trumpet player Ruby Weinstein later remembered the band’s attitude to their nominal 2am finish time at the Park Central: “Just about that time Pollack would get behind the drums and with brushes alone give that band a drive that was just sensational. Never used sticks. […] it was something to hear and be part of.” However, as the record industry grew increasingly lucrative, executive control of leading bands’ output was exercised more strictly, and the records Pollack and his men cut in New York are often of only limited interest as jazz:

“They wouldn’t let us record the stuff we were playing every night on the bandstand, stuff we knew sounded great […] we’d start out with the full band, then I’d play maybe two or three choruses, and Benny would play maybe fifteen or twenty, with Pollack on the drums, and those guys would get to swingin’ like mad. Also Pollack had a thing where he used the fly swatters [brushes] on the bass drum, and he and Benny would just go at it, playing chorus after chorus, just inspiring each other.” – Jimmy McPartland.

Luckily for us, Pollack did occasionally freelance with other musicians in more informal settings and even made a few records outside the strictly-controlled limits exercised over his own band’s sides. Some of the fire and excitement of his live playing can be glimpsed in a loose blowing session organised by Benny Goodman in Chicago in 1928, with a star-studded lineup mostly drawn from the main Pollack band, including McPartland and Miller. ‘Room 1411’ (the name taken from the apartment block in New York where many of the participants lived at the time) is probably the most famous and revealing. Clearly revelling in the freedom being afforded him, Pollack is in scintillating form, not only powering the band but frequently contributing hip tom-tom and cowbell interjections reminiscent of the contemporaneous eruptions of Stan King and Gene Krupa. His washy Chinese cymbal is a prominent feature, and he even ‘rides’ (plays consistent time) on the open, unchoked cymbal at several points, notably [1:12] and [1:45]. Whilst this is very likely the very first recorded example of this texture being used by a drummer, there are virtually no others by Pollack or anybody else until around a decade or so later – meaning Pollack’s innovation on ‘Room 1411’ can only really be considered an early precursor, rather than the true beginnings of modern jazz drumming. As Jimmy McPartland recalled: “When he got behind you, he’d really make you go – yes, he’d send you.”

Sadly, Pollack’s unwillingness to stand up for his band’s live work and resist meddling from above was one of only several grievances towards him that his musicians had begun to nurse, which gradually drove a wedge between leader and sidemen. They started to deride him:

“We were continually getting into trouble with the boss [Pollack]. We were just an  independent bunch of individuals and we were always fluffing the boss off and getting just as fed up with him as he was with us. It was a pretty swank place and he couldn’t see our sitting with the customers or anything like that. In a way, those were the happiest days of our lives, only we didn’t know it then, and maybe we don’t know it now.” – Bud Freeman

“Ben wanted to be real big-time […] so he got a manager. He was the one who told Pollack he should quit playing and stand up there in front of the band like Paul Whiteman […] He didn’t sing too well. Also, he changed. He’d always been terrific as a leader, drummer and as a person, he’d always been one of the guys […] Pollack seemed to change.” – Jimmy McPartland.

When Ben made the move from drummer to frontman late in 1928, he hired the young New Orleans drummer Ray Bauduc to replace him behind the tubs. Thus, when the orchestra was selected by Warner in 1929 to be immortalised on one of their groundbreaking Vitaphone sound films, it’s Bauduc we see and hear playing drums (not that he gets much of a look-in!) whilst Pollack tries his very hardest to be a charming compere and crooner. There’s not much hip drumming or much jazz in it but if, having read this far, you’d like to see what the great Ben Pollack looked and sounded like, here you go.

By this time Pollack felt that the precocious Goodman was “getting in everyone’s hair” with his grandstanding solos and onstage misbehaviour, though watching his electrifying two-bar solo in the Vitaphone film above [4:00] you can sense – and sympathise with – Goodman’s own frustrations. The decade would end with Goodman and Jimmy McPartland leaving the band in acrimonious circumstances, though Pollack would continue his band into the Swing Era and beyond. His finest and most compelling work may have gone unrecorded, but since even the testimonies of musicians with whom he later fell out support his status as an important figure in the development of jazz, if we’re being generous we can perhaps allow him his self-awarded title, ‘The Father Of Swing’. Pollack band saxophonist Gil Rodin later reminisced: “He’d ride this cymbal attached to the bass drum, and Benny Goodman would blow fantastic clarinet for about 20 minutes – just the two of them, the rest of us looking on speechless, and Ben almost bursting with excitement. That’s the Ben Pollack I want to remember.”