Heroes #12: Alfred ‘Tubby’ Hall, 1895-1945

‘I got my press roll from […] Tubby Hall’– Baby Dodds

Tubby Hall drawing


Addressing the early life and work of Alfred ‘Tubby’ Hall, hard on the heels of having finished introducing our previous Hero – Mr. Stan King – is fascinating, since writing the two articles presented me with two almost contrary challenges. In researching King I was disappointed to find that he had been largely forgotten by mainstream jazz history: few critics or historians mentioned him in detail, factual information about his life was scanty and his name hardly comes up even in the memoirs of his colleagues. Yet at the same time, I was faced with an imposing morass of literally hundreds of his records to listen through to try get a sense either of the person or the musician. With Tubby Hall, we are confronted with the opposite problem – he has been generally well-served by jazz discourse and frequently ranks among the more talked-about drummers of the era (respected French jazz writer Hugues Panassié named him one of the three greatest drummers of his generation, along with Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton). Many of his former peers also paid lip service to his talents, but the unfortunate fact is that despite him evidently being an extremely impressive live performer, retrospectively attempting to learn very much from Hall’s paltry recording career is problematic to say the least – as we shall discover. The important fact to remember throughout this article, therefore, is that Hall’s reputation as one of the greatest drummers of the period is largely thanks to the testimony of his colleagues and peers – and in the absence of abundant recorded evidence, we’ll just have to take their word for it.

Alfred Hall was born in the town of Sellers, Louisiana in 1895, “eighteen miles upriver from New Orleans”. His father, lumber worker Joseph Hall, was also a drummer, who had “played in brass bands in the country”, according to historian Bill Russell. Fred was two years older than his brother, Minor, who was himself to follow the family trade and become another great drummer (and one day, will have a ‘Hero’ article of his own!). In his early years, Russell tells us, “Tubby Hall took lessons, and learned how to read pretty well.” He also played music as a teenager in the saloons of New Orleans, and in the parade bands which had already produced Tony Sbarbaro, Dodds, Singleton and the Barbarin brothers. As the youngest musician in his circle, Fred was often called ‘Baby’, though fairly soon became known as ‘Tubby’ instead, his corpulence evidently being a distinguishing feature even early in his life! Later, once his younger brother became a well-known musician too, Fred was called ‘Big Tubby’ and Minor ‘Little Tubby’, before he eventually earned a nickname of his own – ‘Ram’.

Having obviously gained some kind of reputation in New Orleans, Tubby was soon following many of his peers in joining the Great Migration:
“I came to Chicago in March, 1917 […] although I didn’t have a real job for several months. In May, I got a job with a New Orleans jazz band – [Freddie] Keppard’s brother on guitar, with Sugar Johnny, Lawrence Duhé, Roy Palmer, and Ed Garland, who was later replaced by Wellman Braud.” – Tubby Hall.

The band that Hall was joining in 1917 was Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, and is not to be confused with the much more celebrated Original Creole Orchestra – probably the first real New Orleans jazz ensemble to leave the city, which had toured the South and Midwest widely in the 1910s.  Many Southern musicians of Tubby’s generation worked as musicians on a seasonal or semi-professional basis, usually having been apprenticed in a manual ‘day trade’ as youngsters, which provided them not only with a financial safety-net when gigs were slow, but also with source of quiet pride in their hard-won skills. As bassist ‘Pops’ Foster’s biographer Tom Stoddard observed: ‘Every musician had a day trade. He was a barber like Buddy Bolden, a plasterer like Johnny St. Cyr, a tinsmith like Alphonse Picou, a cigarmaker like Manuel Perez…’ Minor Hall, however, asserted that ‘Tubby didn’t have a trade, only doing office work when he was not working as a musician’.
The Sugar Johnny band was led by clarinettist Lawrence Duhé and featured the ‘gutbucket’ cornet playing of ‘Sugar Johnny’ Smith. They soon settled into a plum residency at the De Luxe Café at 3503 State Street (see map). Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, the younger Hall replaced his elder brother in most of the regular musical jobs which he had vacated.

Soon, in late 1917, the Sugar Johnny band was in need of a new pianist. A slender seventeen-year-old girl whom Duhé had  discovered demonstrating sheet music in a piano shop tried out with them, and impressed them with her self-confidence, musicality and secure grasp of the rudiments of accompaniment. This talented and assertive young woman was Lillian Hardin, who was very soon to become a truly legendary musician in her own right. Young Lil recorded some of her first impressions of the other members of the Sugar Johnny band that day, and recalled that ‘Tubby Hall (drums) was as fat as the others were skinny, and the youngest…’ Her mother was (perhaps rightfully) wary of allowing her precocious daughter to work in a night-time cabaret with jazz musicians, and paid a visit to the De Luxe to satisfy herself that Lil was in no danger. Having met all the musicians, Mrs. Hardin eventually decided that Tubby Hall was the only member of the band trustworthy enough to escort Lil safely home after work.

Meanwhile, undreamed of, hundreds of miles away in Europe, the Great War was reaching its appalling climax. It burst into Tubby Hall’s life suddenly and unannounced – just as it had so many thousands of other young lives of his generation – when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, in early 1918. Tubby reluctantly went off to be a soldier, and although the Armistice would be declared long before he would leave the United States, it was 1920 before he was demobilised. In his absence, he arranged for Minor to make the journey to Chicago to take his place behind the drums again (though he would himself be drafted later that year). Soon, ‘Sugar Johnny’ Smith tragically died of pneumonia, and after a few months of uncertainty the remnants of both the Sugar Johnny Creole Orchestra and the Original Creole Orchestra were merged into one single entity led by another New Orleans cornettist newly-arrived in Chicago – Joe ‘King’ Oliver. This group would soon become the famous King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which would feature first Minor on drums, and later the great ‘Baby’ Dodds – but that is, of course, quite another story. Meanwhile, following the end of his stint in the Army, we lose track of Tubby Hall for a few years. His band had ceased to exist in its old form, and there was no vacancy for a drummer in its new form either. He may have returned to his hometown for a time, or perhaps he stayed on in Chicago, playing with the many expat New Orleans musicians building a budding jazz scene there – suggestion has been made that he may have played with Jimmie Noone and King Oliver amongst others in the early 20s.

Following the success of the records made in 1923 by Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (which, let’s not forget, was born out of the dying embers of the Sugar Johnny band, Tubby’s old gang), the Gennett record company of Richmond, Indiana was on the lookout for new jazz artists to record in their bespoke studio. In the words of Rick Kennedy, in his excellent book charting the history of Gennett, ‘On January 21st, 1924, Doc Cook and his Dreamland Orchestra, a popular black Chicago band, arrived in Richmond [and] knocked out six numbers’.

The house band from Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom – a ‘cavernous’ nightclub on the West Side of Chicago – the Dreamland Orchestra was led by conductor Charles L. Cooke, who had gained a doctorate of music from the Chicago College of Music and was known professionally as ‘Doc Cook’. The records boast an impressive roster of New Orleans-raised, Chicago-based jazz stalwarts, most notably two other Creole Band alumni: cornettist Freddie Keppard and clarinettist Jimmie Noone. Both are heard to great effect on ‘Scissor Grinder Joe’, a rollicking number full of the blues and swagger typical of mid-20s black Chicago. Yet discographers and jazz historians have since failed to agree with any certainty on the identity of the drummer on these sides. One Bert Green (sometimes ‘Greene’) is usually listed as house drummer at the Dreamland, and appears in several photos of the band from earlier in 1923. Meanwhile, Andrew Hilaire was to replace Green in early 1924, and is pictured on contemporaneous publicity posters advertising these records. Yet many reputable sources (Brian Rust’s seminal ‘Jazz & Ragtime Records’ and the wonderful Red Hot Jazz Archive website amongst others) have confidently identified Fred/Tubby Hall as the drummer on the six sides recorded in Richmond on 21st January.

The anonymous drummer is (as usual for the mid-‘20s) restricted to using only ‘recording traps’, and whilst he certainly lays into the woodblock with some gusto towards the end of the side and plays a few tasty choked cymbal hits (as well as doubling on glockenspiel during the introduction), there simply isn’t enough information for us to make even an educated guess at which of the three possible candidates it might be behind the tubs. However, given the musical and instrumental restrictions placed on all drummers thanks to the limits of recording technology, it’s very unlikely that any one of them would have played significantly differently to what we hear on ‘Scissor Grinder Joe’, and regardless of whether it’s really our man playing or not, we can still take the six Dreamland Orchestra Gennett sides as a perfect example of the type of jazz drumming Tubby was hearing and performing in the middle years of the decade.

When Andrew Hilaire joined the Dreamland Orchestra in early 1924, he left a vacancy behind the drums in the house band at one of Chicago’s other legendary nightspots, the Sunset Café. Tubby Hall was the man chosen to replace him. This band was led by violinist Carroll Dickerson, and had been resident at the Sunset since 1922, although had not yet been offered the opportunity to record. The Sunset was situated in the midst of a cluster of jazz hotspots around 35th and Calumet Streets: next door was the Plantation Café, where King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators (with drummer Paul Barbarin) held a residency, whilst acorss the intersection was the Nest (later the Apex Club) home of Jimmie Noone and drummers Ollie Powers and Johnny Wells (see map).

The band left Chicago in mid—1924 and went on the road around the country as part of the Pantages vaudeville circuit (the same booker which had sponsored the Original Creole Band back in the late 1910s), returning in 1925 to play a residency at Chicago’s Entertainers Club, where a young pianist newly arrived from Pittsburgh joined the band. This was Earl Hines, who was soon taking on the role of musical director for the band whilst making waves amongst the musical community with his awesome technique and inventive ideas. Soon afterward, the Dickerson outfit returned to the Sunset Café once more, and were joined by another prodigious talent: Louis Armstrong, freshly returned from his two-year tenure with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in New York. Whilst there, the cornettist had been an integral part of one of the greatest dance bands in the world at the time, and has been largely held responsible for imbuing it with a completely refreshed impetus and style. Yet on arrival in Chicago Armstrong still was evidently highly impressed at the quality of his new colleagues:
‘I shall never forget those nights in Chicago […] when Earl Hines, Tubby Hall, and Darnell Howard was in the band […] Carroll Dickerson’s band. That’s when the Sunset was really jumping.’ – Louis Armstrong.
Throughout 1926 and early 1927, whilst playing nightly with Dickerson, Armstrong would also perform regularly with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome Theatre, and began cutting his series of seminal Hot Five recordings for the OKeh label.

Dickerson was clearly a good leader and businessman, but was never truly a jazz player. Like so many musicians of his generation, he also had a problem with alcohol, which began to disrupt the orchestra’s operations. Eventually, matters reached a head: Dickerson arrived for work drunk one night in 1927 and was fired on the spot by the formidable Joe Glaser, the Sunset Café’s manager and a business associate of Al Capone. Despite Hines’s established position as musical director, Glaser saw the magnetic Armstrong as the obvious choice as frontman, and renamed the orchestra ‘Louis Armstrong And His Stompers’. It was with this band, on May 9th, 1927, that Tubby Hall made his first – and, unbelievably, his only – confirmed side during the entire decade: ‘Chicago Breakdown’.

This rare record, which remained unreleased until 1942, allows us plenty of evidence to understand the furore surrounding both Hines’s and Armstrong’s playing, but even at this relatively late date Tubby Hall’s contribution is largely inaudible. He socks some fulsome choked cymbal (and it sounds like quite a large, heavy one) behind Armstrong’s solo chorus [1:18], followed by two choruses of what sounds like offbeats played with brushes, behind Boyd Atkins’s clarinet solo and Joe Washington’s tenor. Aside from that, despite his evident live performing career, there is no further material from the 1920s to back up Hall’s reputation as one of the period’s greatest percussionists.

However, I’m so keen to explain Tubby’s mythical status in the face of such scant evidence that just this once, I’m going to make an exception and take us past my self-imposed cut-off point (December 31, 1929), in order to understand just what it was that made people so excited about him. The unfortunate fact is that immediately following the end of the 1920s, Tubby Hall suddenly began to record prolifically with one of the greatest jazz artists of all time. One justification for this bit of rule-bending on my part is that even in 1930-31, he was still playing in a very similar style as he had in the late ‘twenties because, of course, nothing changes overnight. Which brings me to a ticklish subject, and DITT’s first ever advisory notice:

ATTENTION. Readers who feel they might be offended by historical racial caricatures may not want to read on any further. Some of this stuff is not pretty. You have been warned.

As the ‘twenties rolled on into the ‘thirties, Louis Armstrong’s star continued to rise and rise. After his Stompers folded in 1928, he had gone back to Dickerson, who had straightened himself out and started a new band at Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom (see Heroes #2: Zutty Singleton). Armstrong then moved back to New York, this time for good, recording widely and fronting Luis Russell’s excellent band (see Heroes #8: Paul Barbarin). During this period Louis also recorded with several other great drummers including Kaiser Marshall and Lionel Hampton. However, in 1931, as his Orchestra began to really take off, Armstrong called Tubby Hall to join him from Chicago to become his regular percussionist. With ‘Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra’, Hall appeared on a series of superb records (including ‘I Surrender, Dear’, ‘Them There Eyes’ and ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown’) – seemingly content to subtly power the ensemble along and allow his boss the freedom to express himself. One record Hall made in Armstrong’s band, ‘I’ll Be Glad when You’re Dead, You Rascal You’ (April 28th, 1931) was such a hit that it led to Louis and the band appearing in two short films, one a Betty Boop cartoon of the same name, and one a live-action comedy, ‘A Rhapsody In Black And Blue.’

There is plenty in both films to make the modern viewer feel uncomfortable. The cartoon is set in a generic colonial African setting and plays on established ugly ‘witch doctor’ and ‘head hunter/cannibal’ caricatures. The live-action film meanwhile contains scenes which reference domestic abuse for comic effect, and culminates in a stereotyped African mise-en-scene, complete with Louis and the band clad in animal skins. However, for all that they may offend, both films offer us vital and important documentary evidence of Tubby Hall’s onstage modus operandi, for there he is; probably most eyecatching presence onstage after Armstrong, and the only other member of the band to receive close-up shots. In the music, he’s perhaps less prominent but clearly takes great pleasure in motoring the band along with bassist John Lindsay.

‘I’ll Be Glad…’ opens with a shot of Louis and the band playing ‘High Society’ [0:30]; a cartoon soundtrack then takes over until the famous sequence [around 2:50 onwards] which features the title song – sung initially by a giant, phantom witch-doctor’s head pursuing the characters as they flee, which then morphs into Armstrong’s own head as he performs the song. After this trope is exhausted, there is a sudden cut to the band playing ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown’ at a phenomenal tempo [5:10], which at last allows us a glimpse of some of Tubby’s appeal, as he grins widely and displays evident technique and control with the brushes despite the pace of the number. We then depart for racist cartoon-land once again, until the highlight of the whole film from a drumming point of view [around 5:55], in which a caricatured ‘savage’ stirring a cauldron with two ladles morphs into a close-up shot of Hall behind the drums, evidently having the time of his life and laying down some silky press-rolls despite his hefty sticks. His drum setup appears to be an early type of ‘console’ set, with a trap table and two post-mounted cymbals (the left-hand one with a large chunk missing out of it!) along with a bass drum and what looks to me like a Ludwig Black Beauty dual-tension snare drum.

‘A Rhapsody…’ begins with Sidney Easton playing a man who enjoys drumming along to records on assorted cleaning equipment instead of cleaning. His exasperated ‘mail order wife’ (Fanny Belle DeKnight) knocks him unconscious with a mop, prompting a dream sequence in which he is the king of ‘Jazzmania’, and is personally entertained by Louis and the band (dressed as stereotype Africans) amid a sea of soap suds.

They once again perform ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead…’ [2:55] and ‘Shine’ [6:35]. Louis sings and plays trumpet with such characteristic brio and panache as to temporarily transcend the demeaning and corny setting. Once again, we’re treated to a brief close-up of Tubby Hall [8:13] bouncing along behind the band in joyous fashion, playing the exact same drum setup as in the cartoon, and showing off some stick tricks to boot. Both numbers feature well-recorded drums and are generally excellently performed by the whole band. Even from these two minute glimpses, and despite the unfortunate and objectionable surroundings, it’s possible to sense that in a live context Hall was a really compelling performer, and that a lot the tremendous energy this band produced had its origin behind the drums.

It’s clear his legacy and influence on other drummers was considerable. Jasper Taylor in a late-life interview mentioned Tubby Hall’s ‘great reputation for holding a steady tempo’. When discussing drum rolls, Taylor sought to highlight that Tubby had his own approach: ‘Hall played five-stroke, Baby Dodds used press.’ While we’re on the subject of Dodds, Tubby’s brother Minor meanwhile recalled that, ‘Baby Dodds admired Tubby’s press roll”, and, unusually, that “Tubby had a fast foot, he could play a show with his foot’.

In the later 1930s Hall continued to play and record with Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and others, both in New York and in Chicago, where he eventually died in 1945.