Heroes #14: Andrew Hilaire, 1899-1935

“Andrew Hilaire: the perfect drummer for Jelly Roll Morton.
Time, taste, technique – all superb.” – Hal Smith

hilaire spotlight


At the dawn of the recording industry, before big business became involved, random factors such as politics, geography and sheer happenstance played unduly large roles in determining which artists were recorded, with whom, and how extensively. As a result, certain musicians who were unfortunate to record only a slender body of work can still leave long shadows, if those few sides happen to be imbued with more or less consistent excellence. Mr. Andrew Hilaire, today’s Hero, is one of these. He only appeared on a comparatively small number of records for absolute certain – possibly fewer even than thirty – yet his is most definitely a case of quality over quantity.

The narrative of Andrew Henry Hilaire’s early life is very similar to that of a great number of our Heroes: born in New Orleans in 1899 to a family of colour, he spent his boyhood in the Crescent City but by his early teenage years was in Chicago, the family of five having joined the many thousands of others following the Great Migration. Whilst still in New Orleans he may have been attracted, like small children often are, to its great street parades and the marching bands that powered them, but we have no hard evidence that he took an interest in or studied music at such a young age. Therefore, despite his birthplace, Hilaire cannot really be considered a product of the legendary New Orleans drumming tradition in the same way as Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton or Paul Barbarin. The great guitarist Johnny St. Cyr – who, as we will learn, worked side by side with Hilaire during much of the ‘twenties – later recalled in an interview with historian Bill Russell that Hilaire “left [New Orleans] when he was quite young; he learned his music in Chicago.”

For most of his adult life we know that Hilaire suffered from a severe respiratory problem – some sources have this as chronic asthma, others as tuberculosis – which he may have had to bear since childhood. Yet however debilitating it may have been, a U.S. Army medical board nonetheless passed the nineteen-year-old fit to be drafted for the Great War in September 1918, although fortunately hostilities ended before his number came up. Even at this early point in his life, Hilaire on his draft card gave his profession as ‘Musician’, so we can reasonably deduce that he had likely been playing music at least from his early ‘teens, and in the saloons and cabarets which teemed around the entertainment district known as ‘The Stroll’, he would have found ample opportunities for employment.

Hilaire’s career began in earnest accompanying the famous African-American singer and entertainer Florence Mills, who for a short time starred in the cabaret at the De Luxe Café, a nightclub at 3503 S. State St, right at the heart of the Stroll (see map). The historian and author Mark Miller has also unearthed details of a tour to Winnipeg, Canada, in November 1917 by a vaudeville troupe called the Tennessee Ten (no relation to the later jazz band of the same name), a group of black Chicago-based performers including Mills and the regular bassist at the De Luxe Café, Ed Garland. Also present was a youthful drummer – named as ‘Kid’ or ‘Young Killaire’ by the Chicago Defender – whom Miller speculates was in fact none other than a teenaged Andrew Hilaire. The time, place and personalities all support Miller’s theory, and no record of another drummer named ‘Killaire’ has yet been unearthed.

Soon Florence Mills’s busy touring schedule took her elsewhere, and Hilaire graduated to a band led by another female powerhouse, the twenty-year-old pianist Lillian Hardin, who had begun her career year or so earlier in the Original Creole Orchestra (also known as the Sugar Johnny band) at the De Luxe alongside several other expat New Orleans musicians – cornettist Freddie Keppard, clarinettist Jimmie Noone and drummer Fred ‘Tubby’ Hall. [For more information about the formation and breakup of this band see ‘Hero #12: Tubby Hall.’] ‘Miss Lil’ was a rising force in Chicago jazz in 1918 and 1919, and soon secured her new band a plum residency just down the street at one of Chicago’s grandest nightclubs, the Dreamland Café. At 3520 South State Street, the Dreamland had first opened its doors in 1914, but in the late 1910s came under the ownership of entrepreneur William Bottoms, who lavishly refurbished it with the intention of making it a centre for jazz entertainment:
“In the large dome in the center of the ceiling hangs a beautiful bunch of green foliage, in which blaze red, white and blue incandescent electric lights. On the outer edge of the dome are several dozen incandescent lights, with the initial “D”. Hanging from the ceiling there are four lights covered with shades, hand painted. Gold decoration is the color scheme and on the floor is a new Brussels carpet. In the centre is a glass floor five feet square under which brilliant lights burn with stunning effect. On each table is an electric shade. […] At the west end is the special balcony for the New Orleans Jazz Band.” – Chicago Whip, November 19, 1920. The musicians of the ‘New Orleans Jazz Band’ are not mentioned by name. Was Andrew Hilaire present? Fortunately, a photograph exists of Lil and her band at the Dreamland during these months, in which the drummer (small and blurry though he appears) looks to me like he could well be our man.

Residencies in the 1920s, however, appear to have usually been just as shortlived as they still are today. Less than a year after the Dreamland’s grand re-opening the great cornettist ‘King’ Joe Oliver hired Lil Hardin away to join his Creole Jazz Band on a pioneering trip to San Francisco, where she remained for six months. Whilst I can find no information about what happened to Hardin’s band whilst she was away, she evidently remained on good terms with the Dreamland management, since James L. Dickerson recalled that, “Lil left King Oliver’s band [in San Francisco] in late 1921 and returned to Chicago, where she got her old job back at the Dreamland.”
Hardin’s Dreamland band never recorded, a shame not only because it would be fascinating to hear but also because the record companies’ archives are often the only way to definitively establish exactly which musicians were working with which bands. Thus, we don’t know for certain if Hilaire stayed with Hardin throughout 1920-22, and if he did, how he sounded. By referring to the work of those of his South Side contemporaries that did make it into a studio during this period (Jasper Taylor and Zutty Singleton, to name but two) we can hypothesise that the band would likely have played what might be best described as a loose form of contrapuntal ragtime, perhaps including feature solo passages and short improvised breaks. Hilaire would likely have mostly marked time on the snare drum and wood blocks, punctuated with the occasional cymbal crash.

In early 1923, however, King Oliver returned to Chicago and began assembling a new Creole Jazz Band, including the Dodds brothers and a teenaged Louis Armstrong. Lil Hardin found an invitation to return to Oliver’s piano stool impossible to refuse, and Hilaire, cast adrift once more, began working at the Sunset Café under bandleader Carroll Dickerson – who would, ironically, himself later record significantly with Armstrong, who by then was Hardin’s husband – but that is another story.

The next significant character to come into Andrew Hilaire’s life was the Louisville-born composer and impresario Charles L. Cooke. In an era when the oldest, most technical or musically-proficient members of bands often found themselves nicknamed ‘Professor’ (or ‘Fess’ for short), the classically-trained Cooke embraced this persona and performed professionally under the name ‘Doc Cook’.  After a varied career as songwriter and bandleader, Cook assembled a large band which played hot two-beat music for dancing, and in late summer 1922 made his breakthrough, taking over from Charles Elgar’s Orchestra as the house entertainment at Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom (not to be confused with the aforementioned Dreamland Café!) on the West side of Chicago. We have met Cook before, again in connection with Tubby Hall, since the Doc had incorporated the nucleus of the Original Creole Orchestra into his organisation, with Tubby joined by cornet player Freddie Keppard and clarinettist Jimmie Noone. As discussed in ‘Heroes #12’, tracing the exact history of the various occupants of the drum chair in Cook’s band is a slightly thorny issue. Some jazz discography sources (Rust, for example) confidently place Tubby Hall alone behind the drums in the early twenties, whilst others (Delaunay) plump for Bert Greene, who had been with Cook since the late 1910s. Yet on the 1923 poster advertising the band’s residency at the Dreamland (see top of page) Hall is not pictured, yet both Greene and Andrew Hilaire are. This evidence places Hilaire in the running to have been present at the orchestra’s first recording session, when they travelled to Richmond, Indiana to cut six sides in a day for Gennett Records on January 21, 1924.

‘The Memphis Maybe Man’ is a knockout tune, and a superb example of mid-20s black Chicago hot dance music, with some fine cornet by Keppard and clarinet by Noone as well as some interesting period textures such as the percussive, slap-tongued baritone saxophone solo [0:55]. It has been noted that the voice at the beginning (“Maybe I will / Maybe I won’t”) sounds very similar to at least one other (later) recording of Andrew’s speaking voice on another Doc Cook side, which once again corroborates his presence at the session. The drummer (whether Andrew, Tubby, Bert Greene or A.N. Other) mostly sticks to typical early-mid-20s ‘recording traps’ fare, with some neat, motive woodblock playing – particularly on the out-chorus at [2:18] – and occasional precision cymbal crashes.

Research suggests that in fact Cook seems always to have had at least two drummers on his books at any one time – whether Bert Greene, Tubby Hall, Jimmy Bertrand, or Hilaire. One theory, that Hilaire’s delicate health made it expedient to have a second drummer handy, would seem convincing except that this already seemed to be Cook’s strategy before Andrew joined the band, and additionally we can theorise that if Hilaire’s fitness had really been that unreliable, it’s doubtful he would ever have made any kind of professional career. Certainly the vitality and power in his playing does not suggest he was any kind of invalid. New Orleans clarinettist Barney Bigard recalled, ‘The Dreamland […] boasted three bands. The featured orchestra was that of the illustrious Doc Cook. He led an eighteen-piece group, then the largest Negro dance band in the world. There were sixteen instrumentalists held together by two drummers.’
Cheap drummer-ist jibe aside (cheers, Barney) this is interesting since it corroborates the two-drummer theory, and even suggests that Cook’s band had a tandem percussion section even in live situations. Another important recruit to join the group around the same time as Hilaire was the great guitarist/banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, another New Orleans expat, who together with the drummer would build some of Chicago’s strongest and most swinging rhythm in the later years of the decade.

Cook’s recording career (and consequently, Hilaire’s and St.Cyr’s) stalled for two and a half years following those six sides for Gennett. When they at last recorded again it was as a smaller group, for OKeh records in Chicago under the name ‘Cookie’s Gingersnaps’. However, the residency at the Dreamland had evidently continued smoothly in the interim, since in July they once again recorded as the full Dreamland Orchestra, this time for Columbia, cutting four sides including enlarged versions of two of the Gingersnaps numbers recorded the previous month (‘The Hot Tamale Man’ and ‘High Fever’). Side-by-side comparisons of these is an interesting exercise and raises all sorts of questions about the finer points of arranging, the nature of the improvisation process in Jazz at this date and the intricacies of the recording technologies and techniques used by different companies – though I’ll leave that up to you to do in your own time, dear Reader, and we’ll get back to focusing on the drumming.

‘High Fever’ is an almost dazzlingly exciting and surprising piece of music, despite the relatively moderate tempo. The arrangement cleverly plays the different sections of the band off against each other with a constant sense of balance and humour, and the musicians swagger through it all with brio and wit. Andrew Hilaire’s contribution is now much more clearly audible thanks to advances in electrical recording, and we hear him clipping the band along on woodblock, elegantly and subtly directing the traffic. He also pops up with a couple of cameos, delivering hot syncopated cymbal breaks at [0:31] and [2:13] respectively. I can’t find a really clear photograph anywhere showing Hilaire’s kit, but the cymbal played here is, to my mind, the same one he recorded with back in 1924 – in fact, the only one he ever seems to have recorded with – which is a typical mid-20s Turkish style: thick, dark and very punchy.

In the summer of 1926, the great pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton, self-styled inventor of Jazz, returned to Chicago after several years roaming the country and secured a recording contract with Victor Records. His touring band having broken up, Morton decided to convene an entirely new ensemble, the Red Hot Peppers, which would exist only in and for the recording studio. A date was set; 15th September, in the ballroom of the Webster Hotel next to Lincoln Park, which was regularly used by Victor as a recording venue due to its pleasant acoustic. Seeking musicians younger than himself, who could be relied upon to play accurately and hot – and used to taking orders from a somewhat exacting musical leader! – he selected two of Doc Cook’s rhythm team – Johnny St. Cyr and Andrew Hilaire – for the inaugural Peppers session.

It’s hard to know what to say that hasn’t already been said about the records made by Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers in September and December of 1926. Like many musicians and hot jazz fans, they were some of the first pieces of 1920s jazz that really knocked me out, and I go back to listen to them far more frequently than almost anything else from the canon and find new things to enjoy about them each time. Morton – let’s get this out of the way now – was an originator and a genius; the fact is as plain in his playing of the piano as it is in his composing. Almost every single one of the Red Hot Peppers sides is a masterpiece, brimming with compelling (though never overbearing) rhythm, perfect solos and endless compositional and orchestrational derring-do. Morton’s conception is at once musically technical and extremely accessible.

‘Black Bottom Stomp’ was the first side the band recorded, and was likely composed by Morton especially for this session. The exuberant joy with which the band attacks the Stomp is tangible, and Hilaire seems to be revelling in the awesome power of the 2-beat groove he sets up with St. Cyr and the superb double-bassist John Lindsay. Morton was a famously stern leader and provided his musicians with precise and detailed instructions at all times. Baby Dodds recalled from his own work with the pianist, “At rehearsal Jelly Roll Morton used to work on each and every number until it satisfied him. Everybody had to do just what Jelly wanted him to do. During rehearsal he would say, “Now that’s just the way I want it on the recording”, and he meant just that. We used his original numbers and he always explained what it was all about and played a synopsis of it on the piano. Sometimes we had music and he would mark with a pencil those places which he wanted to stand out in a number […] Jelly didn’t leave much leeway for the individual musician. You did what Jelly Roll wanted you to do, no more and no less […] He wasn’t hard to please and after making a record he would let us know when he was pleased with it.”

Regardless of whether the artistic choices involved are Hilaire’s or Morton’s, Red Hot Peppers sides like ‘Black Bottom Stomp’ contain an absolute wealth of imaginative, colourful and deftly-executed drumming. The first thing to note is that Hilaire is at last heard playing a full kit, including a full-blooded and very audible bass drum. He spends the first few choruses subtly motoring the band along with brushes, but having picked up his sticks during the bridge [0:51] utilises the wooden shell of the bass drum as a mellower alternative to woodblock – one of Dodds’s own favourite tricks and the perfect accompaniment for Omer Simeon’s low-register clarinet solo [1:15]. After sitting out solos from Morton’s twinkling piano and George Mitchell’s cornet, Hilaire rejoins on shell backing a banjo solo from his old bandmate St. Cyr. [2:10] and takes a hot break on (the same?) cymbal at [2:35], before riding the final chorus home with a pounding backbeat on Chinese tom-tom [2:46].

‘Black Bottom Stomp’ is wonderful, but I could just as easily have chosen ‘The Chant’, ‘Dead Man Blues’, ‘Steamboat Stomp’ or ‘Grandpa’s Spells’ from the first Red Hot Peppers sessions – they’re all tremendous, and imbued with the same sense of focus, cohesiveness and imagination that characterises Morton’s best work. Hilaire is in sparkling form throughout, driving and decorating in equal measure. His bass drum, warm and fat, is a constant heartbeat-like presence blending perfectly with John Lindsay’s bass strings. On ‘Doctor Jazz’ he lays out some lovely rim-and-trap work, and socks on a thinner, trashier cymbal than usual. On ‘Original Jelly Roll Blues’ with its rumba-like ‘spanish tinge’ rhythm, he plays what sounds like castanets or maracas. And then there’s the immortal cymbal break on ‘Smokehouse Blues’ at [3:09]. Underpinning everything are the four rhythm section players working like pistons on an engine and spurring the frontline with a combination of muscularity and delicacy. Gunther Schuller in ‘Early Jazz’ (1968) neatly enumerated the qualities of the Peppers’ rhythm section:
“Lindsay had a full, centred tone and a springy, strongly swinging beat that combined beautifully with Johnny St. Cyr’s banjo. If we add to this well co-ordinated, well-balanced team the discreet drumming of Andrew Hilaire and, floating above, the lacy melodic descant lines of Morton, we have a rhythm section beautifully integrated in respect not only to rhythm but also to timbre and registral placement.”
The tunes recorded on the second Peppers session (September 21st, 1926) include a considerable amount of spoken comic ‘hokum’ routines and novelty sound-effects throughout, and it’s conceivable that Andrew may also have had a hand in operating these, since many drummers during the period were used to handling effects when working in cinemas providing sound for silent films.

Hilaire’s last session with jazz’s first great composer came in December 1926, whereupon he was replaced for Morton’s future sessions by Baby Dodds.

Whilst recording with Morton, Andrew Hilaire had of course continued to work with Doc Cook’s orchestra, now zippily(?) renamed ‘Doc Cook And His 14 Doctors Of Syncopation’. They recorded again in 1927 and 1928, adding to their small but impressive body of work with six more hot dance sides.

There’s much to admire in ‘Brainstorm’ and its ilk. Andrew is once more to the fore, providing some piquant woodblock and interjecting with tasty syncopated cymbal chokes at opportune moments. This is excellent, up-to-date dance-band drumming for the time, and although we miss hearing the thumping bass drum of the Morton sides, it’s clear that during the later 20s Hilaire’s style continued to evolve in line with the prevailing musical trends. He also contributes some nice tuned percussion on ‘Hum And Strum’.

We don’t really know what sort of a person Andrew Hilaire was. There are no clear, full-face photos of him publicly available and in his formal headshot for Doc Cook’s organisation (see top of page) he looks rather stern. However, he can be seen in several of Morton’s Red Hot Peppers publicity photos, in the background, in various attitudes of cheery relaxation and slightly out of focus. You can also clearly hear his voice – ‘Willie The Weeper’ and ‘I Got Worry (Love Is On My Mind)’ from Cook’s last sessions in 1928 both feature Andrew speak-singing in an unusual style which almost prefigures rap. Tragically, they were to be among his last appearances on record. As we’ve discovered, he was never a well man, and as the ‘thirties came around he seems to have found life increasingly hard. Andrew died of his illness in 1935, aged just thirty-six. His obituary in the Chicago Defender noted, “He has been the inspiration of many younger musicians in his particular field of music, and is sincerely mourned by many of his contemporaries.”