Heroes #16: Anton Lada, 1890-1944

Anton Lada


Today’s Hero was initially slightly further down my list than number 16, but during the last few months I’ve been doing some intensive research for another project in which he plays a prominent role (more about that below!), so it made sense to write this article now whilst the information was fresh in my mind. Also, since our previous featured Hero (#15: Gene Krupa) was one of the second wave of jazz drummers and only came along in the later 20s, it felt like a good time to return to the dawn of the decade and look at an early great who is scarcely remembered today, but at the time was famous and a notable influence on his peers.

Jazz musicians are often ascribed bohemian lifestyles but Anton Lada was a genuine Bohemian, born in 1890 in Prague – today the capital of the Czech Republic but at that time the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anton is thus our first European-born Hero, although his parents James and Antonisa Lada decided to emigrate to the United States when Anton was only a baby. They sailed from Bremen in Germany in 1891 on an aged Imperial mail steamship called the S.S. Nurnberg, which had entered service back in the mid-1870s. The Nurnberg regularly ran the route from Bremen to Baltimore, taking many thousands of emigrants to their new lives each year.
Bohemian emigration to the USA was a trend which had begun in the 1850s and grew steadily to reach a peak at the start of the 20th century: in 1907 over thirteen thousand arrived to start new lives in the New World. The Ladas disembarked in Baltimore on December 20th 1891, and like many of their compatriots followed the railway routes inland to settle in the Midwest. A decade later, they were comfortably settled in Chicago, with 11-year old Anton at school and fluent in English. By 1910, the older Lada boys, Ladislav and James, had reached adulthood and were working menial jobs, whilst Anton was twenty and gave his official occupation as ‘Musician’. Two years later, he married Emma Horack, who was a year older than him and, judging by her name, presumably another Chicagoan with Bohemian roots.

It’s interesting to conjecture what sort of music Anton would have been playing for his living in 1910s Chicago. It’s most likely he played in vaudeville theatres and cabarets, accompanying singers and dancers. He might also have performed in movie theatres underscoring silent films, and for nighttime revelers in cafés and restaurants with the small, string-based ragtime groups that were the forerunners of the jazz combo.
In the spring of 1916, however, this comfortable world began to feel early tremors foretelling a coming musical earthquake. When agent Harry James brought drummer Johnny Stein’s ‘Band from Dixie’ north from New Orleans for a booking at Schiller’s Café on Chicago’s South Side (see map), things would never be quite the same again. Stein’s band included musicians brought up in the unique New Orleans parade tradition: cornettist Nick LaRocca, trombonist Eddie Edwards and clarinettist Alcide ‘Yellow’ Nunez (who habitually played an unusual and piercing ‘C’-pitch clarinet of martial origin). The raucous, polyphonic music played by the Band From Dixie caused a sensation amongst Chicagoan partygoers and immediately made stars of the Southerners. However, within a few months Stein fell out with his musicians, who set up on their own as The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB), replacing Stein with Tony Sbarbaro and clarinettist Nunez with Larry Shields. Nunez, aggrieved, settled in Chicago and joined banjoist Bert Kelly’s group at the Stables, whilst his former bandmates left for the bright lights of New York, where in March 1917 they made history and became the first ever jazz band on record.

We don’t know whether Anton Lada ever went to hear the Band From Dixie or the ODJB whilst either was in Chicago, but it seems logical that professional curiosity might have led him to investigate what this new music – which he’d have likely understood as a kind of contrapuntal, brass-and-reeds-led ragtime – was all about. One thing is certain: he made a strong musical ally in the form of sacked clarinettist Alcide Nunez at some point during 1917, since just a year later it was Nunez who was to provide our man with his big break.

Over in New York, disaster had suddenly struck the ODJB at the moment of their greatest success. America had recently entered the Great War, and manager/trombonist Eddie Edwards was drafted into the US Army. The band deserted their lucrative residency at Reisenweber’s Café in Manhattan in order to find a replacement, and Bert Kelly’s band – including the truculent Alcide Nunez on clarinet and Joe ‘Ragbaby’ Stevens on drums – was hired over from Chicago as a temporary replacement. When the ODJB returned, however, Reisenweber’s kept both bands on in rotation, something that caused yet more bad blood between the incumbents and Nunez, who in the intervening time had been fighting a bitter legal battle with his former colleagues over the rights to the hit song ‘Livery Stable Blues’. When ‘Ragbaby’ Stevens’s drums were vandalised by an unknown hand in September 1918, he left for home in fear the very next day. Bert Kelly, in need of a replacement, asked Nunez’s advice. Remembering the previous year’s escapades in Chicago, the clarinettist recommended Anton Lada to him on the spot. Kelly – perhaps with an axe of his own to grind! – later recalled:
“Nunez had gotten a tall, skinny, unprepossessing looking man, who I was forced into using on the spur of the moment, whose name and past were unknown to me […] since he was very timid and quiet in feeling his way along, so as not to interfere with our rhythm, I decided to allow him to remain.”
Despite these evident misgivings Lada saw 1918 out with Kelly’s band, finishing up at Reisenweber’s in October, then working the vaudeville circuit with comedian Joe Frisco. However, as 1918 turned to 1919, Lada and Nunez decided the time was right to leave Kelly and strike out on their own. They formed a brand new group with Lada as drummer/director, Nunez as star soloist, and three callow local boys: Charlie Panely (trombone), Joe Cawley (piano) and Carl Berger (banjo). Capitalising on Nunez’s Southern roots, they named themselves The Louisiana Five.

The Five began their life together by taking over Kelly’s old vaudeville gig with Joe Frisco. Meanwhile, they began negotiations with a number of record companies. New York at that time was the world centre for recording technology and home to a proliferation of new labels. The ODJB’s smash success had alerted many of these companies to the booming demand for hot wind-and-brass music, and the Louisiana Five with their seemingly-authentic Southern pedigree were an ideal competitor group to attract record-buyers who were ODJB fans – in other words, everybody. On 1st February 1919, they made their debut on record, cutting no less than six sides for the aspirational Emerson label.

‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ is a typical piece of late-1910s ‘jass’, which shows that even at this early stage the Louisiana Five had already forged a strong musical identity and a productive method of working, their sound distinct from that of the ODJB and their other peers. Uncharacteristically for what we often expect of the earliest jazz, the tempo is elegant and insouciant rather than frantic – but despite this the Five are able to go up through the rhythmic and timbral gears so effectively over the course of the performance that the last chorus is tremendously hot. Like many pieces of contemporaneous jazz it takes the form of a repeating cycle of strains (in this case an A-B-B format) with each player devising their own parts then playing them more or less identically on each reprise, rather than extemporising. The improvised content, such as it is, comes in the form of short solo breaks, in this case mostly taken by Nunez.

Another immediate observation to make about the Louisiana Five is the lack of a cornet, or indeed any other traditional lead instrument such as the mandolins or violins sometimes used in 1910s proto-jazz bands. The reason for this is that the entire concept of the Five was built around Nunez’s distinctive playing of the melody on his ‘C’ clarinet – his default modus operandi and one of the reasons for his expulsion from the ODJB. It was what Nunez did best, and probably the reason why Bert Kelly’s band had had no cornettist either.
What of our man on the drums? Despite Kelly’s disparaging testimony above, the Anton Lada we hear on this side is clearly a confident, sensitive and powerful drummer, albeit one whose approach and musical vocabulary is very much of the ragtime school. Sadly he is denied the panoply of exciting percussive effects allowed Tony Sbarbaro on the ODJB’s contemporaneous records; his palette limited to woodblock and snare drum, he can only contribute primary colours to the overall sound. However, he nevertheless excellently fulfils the principal function of a drummer in dance music, imbuing the piece with a buoyant sense of swing and propelling the band forward with subtle but ever-present impetus. It’s important to note that like his ragtime/jazz crossover contemporaries Sbarbaro and Jasper Taylor, at this early date Anton isn’t yet using any of the techniques most commonly associated with 1920s drumming, such as press rolls. His style is more of the parade-ground than the streets, yet he delivers his snappy rudiment-based patterns with a surprisingly swaggering feel.

A few months later, with several more Emerson sessions under their belt and a rapidly-filling gig calendar, the Five had obviously proved their mettle and were offered a deal with Columbia Records – an industry world leader and one of the labels recording the ODJB. ‘Yelping Hound Blues’ – a particular favourite of mine – features Nunez imitating the titular mutt, possibly in an attempt to capitalise on the farmyard animal noises heard on ‘Livery Stable Blues’ – which dated back to Nunez’s tenure with the ODJB and which he always claimed to have devised.

The Five sound even more cohesive by now, rollicking through the various strains of the tune with sprightly vigour and once again steadily bringing everything to the boil as the side progresses. Lada, as well as being co-composer of the number, is in particularly fine form on drums and the Columbia engineers (evidently more generous than those at Emerson) allowed him use of extra percussion ‘traps. In addition to his trademark snare- and block-work, we also hear him faintly striking a deep-toned (Turkish?) cymbal in the opening strain [0:12], and clanging away on a cowbell during the trio [2:00].
On the subject of equipment, despite the fact that it was posed in a photo studio there’s no reason to suppose that the drum kit we see Lada behind at the top of the page wasn’t his regular setup for live dates. Unlike the giant 30″ parade drum used by Tony Sbarbaro, he has a shallow bass drum of relatively moderate diameter (perhaps 8” by 26”?), a steeply-tilted ‘Snapper’-style snare drum with single-tensioned thumb-tightened tuning bolts, and a large Chinese cymbal mounted on a hanger. I suspect the crudely-written lettering, seemingly painted onto the bass drum head, has actually been retouched on the photograph afterwards – an early form of Photoshopping.

The following month, back at the Emerson studio, they recorded several more original compositions (something common to a lot of early jazz bands but particularly the Louisiana Five). ‘Dixie Blues’ is a real oddity; a two-strain blues of unorthodox harmonic construction which continually oscillates between major and minor, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. Uniquely amongst the Five’s repertoire, the chorus of ‘Dixie Blues’ also has a tango-ish, almost Caribbean rhythmic flavour, something quite unusual for a jazz band at this early date. Lada’s use of woodblock to add a Latin-American style colour here could be seen as an early forerunner of the ‘Spanish tinge’ sound used to great effect by Andrew Hilaire and others when playing similar Caribbean-inspired jazz with Jelly Roll Morton in the later 20s.

In June the Five began a residency at the Tokio in Manhattan, then in July and August they held a holiday gig in the Alamac Latzcellar in Atlantic City. In the autumn they returned to New York to play at the Chateau Laurier, as well as undertaking private engagements further afield, travelling as far as Oklahoma to play for an oil baron on one memorable occasion.

1919 had been a glorious first year for the Louisiana Five, but sadly it would turn out to be their only one together as a group. Star soloist Alcide Nunez – always a mercurial character – left in early 1920 to join a dance band led by Harry Yerkes. Unperturbed, Anton Lada immediately organised a new, larger group, Lada’s Society Orchestra. He was now gaining a name as a writer of pop songs, and had scored a number of hits such as ‘Arkansas Blues’ in conjunction with well-known Tin Pan Alley songwriter Spencer Williams. Lada’s new venture, patterned on the model of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra which was by then sweeping all before it, made test recordings of several of his numbers including ‘Barcelona’ in April of 1920, but these were never issued. In June he recorded two more sides with a putative Louisiana Five which included none of the other original members (but did include demobbed former-ODJB trombonist Eddie Edwards!).

For the next few years Lada concentrated on his dance band, the eight or nine-piece ‘Lada’s Louisiana Orchestra’. This group was resident in New York and throughout 1922 and ’23 made numerous recordings for Emerson – none of which, alas, I have ever heard. However, according to Brian Rust’s discography Anton played xylophone in this group as well as drums, which makes for a fascinating prospect should any of these records ever come to light.
In 1924 Lada again tried to rekindle the glory days of the Louisiana Five when he made four sides, released on a number of budget labels, with a group spuriously called ‘The Original Louisiana Five’ which actually contained none of the original members beside himself. These records are very much in thrall to the groups from New York and elsewhere that had really taken the ideas set out by the first wave of jazz bands including the Louisiana Five and run with them, principally ‘Fabulous Five’ groups like the Indiana Five and Original Memphis Five.

Hearing the eerie and rather wobbly ‘Hoodoo Man’, it’s interesting to hear how jazz has developed in the five years since we last heard from Anton Lada. Despite their limitations – and I need hardly point out that this is far from being a band of elite jazz players, alas – the Original Louisiana Five still clearly understand the roles their instruments are intended to fulfil within the ensemble. The anything-goes spirit of 1919 has vanished, and the winning cornet/clarinet/trombone frontline format chanced upon by the ODJB back in 1917 has now been firmly established as the optimum. Gone too is the practice of reprising the piece several times whilst escalating ‘heat’, and in its place (for better or worse) we now find a series of instrumental solo choruses. The most prominent of these comes from an anonymous but truly wretched clarinet player, who hardly does justice to the brio and drive of Alcide Nunez, who by now was back home in New Orleans working as a policeman.  As they stumble through to the end of the side it’s easy to forget that we were meant to be listening for a drummer! After the crisply and  punchily-recorded (for the time) snare and woodblock of the Louisiana Five in 1919, unfortunately for Anton it’s now the height of the ‘recording ‘traps’ Dark Age, where drummers were more or less banned from record save the odd lonely cymbal-crash or block-tap.

Anton Lada’s last recordings came with his ‘Louisiana Lads’ (a smaller offshoot of the Society Orchestra) in Los Angeles, which by 1925 had a thriving jazz scene of its own.

‘Everybody Stomp’ features recurring breaks on ‘traps that almost parody the percussive sound world of the Louisiana Five. However, this side is a much more coherent and professional-sounding effort than ‘Hoodoo Man’, and provides proof that unlike some of his ragtime peers, Lada’s playing did continue to evolve in line with the mainstream of jazz drumming during the twenties. By 1925 he has clearly become a consummate mid-20s drummer; ‘Everybody Stomp’ is propelled along superbly on woodblock, and he provides full crashes on a heavy, dark Turkish cymbal to give drama and colour at appropriate moments, much in the manner Vic Moore, Tubby Hall or Kaiser Marshall would around this time.

Anton Lada made no more records but continued to provide jazz groups for society functions in New York and its environs throughout the 1920s. He was always a talented composer, and in 1941 he moved to Los Angeles to write film scores in Hollywood, where he sadly died just three years later.

Lada’s legacy has suffered greatly over the years. As only the second person to ever play drums in a group marketing itself as a jazz band, I believe his name should be much more well-known. Certain critics in the first great wave of Jazz writing during the 1950s and 1960s made it a fashion to knock the Louisiana Five as a means of magnifying the brilliance of their rivals the ODJB.  The ODJB were indeed fantastic, and of all the groups active at the dawn of the Jazz Age it was the model they happened to devise which was quickly adopted as the template for the mainstream of jazz for the next two decades to come. Consequently the ODJB’s sound has always been somewhat more familiar and easy to appreciate than that of their contemporaries, for long-subsequent listeners. Idiosyncratic groups like the Louisiana Five, with their unusual instrumentation, kinky rhythmic groove and odd compositions are a much tougher proposition when approached from the direction of 2019, yet I believe they were much more interesting than the ‘inferior ODJB imitator group’ they’ve sometimes been derided as.

As for Anton Lada, whilst he was perhaps not allowed to play as extrovertly as some of his peers, his drumming nevertheless has a fierce propulsive drive, and is an excellent early example of how a talented and energetic percussionist could inspire a band to scintillating jazz armed only with ‘recording traps’. He also played an important role at a crucial pivot point in the history of drumming. Lada was the inheritor of the legacy left by the true ragtime drummers such as Howard Kopp and Buddie Gilmore, and also the immediate precursor to the first wave of true jazz drummers like Chauncey Morehouse, Baby Dodds and Ben Pollack. As a composer and songwriter he also contributed a number of evergreen ‘standards’ still played by jazz musicians a century later.

You can find out more about Anton Lada and the Louisiana Five in a brand-new project which I’ve been responsible for (the main reason why activity in this corner of the Internet has been somewhat quiet recently!)  ‘Clarinet Squawk!’ is a brand-new release on V.E.A.C. Records and a new concept which I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried before. It’s half a reissue and half a recreation, with new digital transfers of seven classic Louisiana Five sides followed up with seven of my transcriptions of their records, performed by a superb group of specialists in London in Autumn 2019. You can download it online in various audio formats and bitrates, along with a 20-page document including lots more interesting historical context, biographical details, original photographs and insight into the process behind the record.  

I don’t ever ask anything for readers of this site – it’s free for everybody in the world and so it will remain! – but if you’d like to show your support for what I (and also four other really fantastic musicians) do – studying this art from a century ago and trying to do it the honour it deserves – go and buy ‘Clarinet Squawk!’ now!


My sincere thanks to  Daniel C. Meyer, whose original work tracing the history of the Louisiana Five was invaluable when researching this essay. Thanks also to Colin Hancock for finding ‘Everybody Stomp’!