Heroes #17: Jimmy Bertrand, 1900-1960

“The leading black show drummer in 1920s Chicago” – James Lincoln Collier

With JUNIE C.COBB (E.C. Cobb & His Corn Eaters / State St. Stompers / Kansas City Stompers etc.)

The overwhelming majority of the Heroes we’ve met so far in this series of articles made their names as kit players first and foremost, with a small handful occasionally turning their hands to auxiliary percussion when the need arose, particularly when working with dance bands. Our next Hero, however, stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Vic Berton and Chauncey Morehouse as a fully-fledged and multitalented percussionist, and in his recorded legacy we find him hitting something other than a drum kit as often as not.

James Alsay Bertrand was a Southerner, born on 24th February 1900 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Whilst his parents weren’t musical, Hero #14 Andrew Hilaire was a cousin, and Jimmy’s uncle, Alphonse Ferzand, played bass in the Original Creole Band – the first New Orleans jazz band to ever tour widely. We know little else of Bertrand’s early life, besides that at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census the family was still in Biloxi and had expanded to five, and that in 1913 the Bertrands joined many other families making the Great Migration north to settle in Chicago. As a young teenager, he studied drums at the Catholic school on 55th and Halstead St., and at the specialist music school established by W.L. Jackson. (This Mr. Jackson had a stepson – a boy violinist named Erskine, who we will be hearing from again very soon in this story). Jimmy’s talent was obvious, and he soon graduated to take “lessons with the best musicians in this country” – particularly Bill Cussack of the Tivoli Theatre orchestra, and Roy Knapp, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra percussionist and legendary teacher, whose other students included Gene Krupa.

In 1918, Bertrand was drafted for the Great War, his draft card stating that he was ‘negro’, of medium height and slender build – just like his father, who registered at same time aged 42. At the time, the family lived on South Wells St, Chicago, with Jimmy already listed as a professional musician, his place of employment being the State Theater on the corner of 35th & State St. – the heart of the nightlife district already known as ‘the Stroll’ (see map). Here Bertrand performed every night in the pit band led by Ed Bailey, playing timpani and tuned percussion as well as drums.

Around the same time, Jimmy was befriended by another, more recent arrival from the South: Minor Hall, the younger of the two famous drumming brothers from New Orleans. His big brother Tubby had just been drafted, and had arranged for young Minor to replace him behind the traps in the ‘Sugar Johnny’ Band, a pioneering jazz group composed mainly of New Orleans expats. The Sugar Johnny band held a residency at the De Luxe Café, a Stroll cabaret right next door to the State Theater, for a year or so. On hearing and meeting Bertrand, Minor was evidently deeply impressed by the pit drummer’s proficiency doubling on orchestral percussion and began taking lessons from him, particularly in reading music. In exchange, Hall claimed, he showed Bertrand “some of my New Orleans style.” These sessions with Hall perhaps first alerted Jimmy to the fact that even at a relatively young age, he had already developed skills beyond those of many of his peers. His later reputation as professor to a generation of great jazz drummers maybe had its inception here.

The stepson of Jimmy Bertrand’s childhood music teacher ‘Old Man Jackson’ had recently returned from Lane College in Tennessee, where he had been studying music. Erskine Tate was now in his early 20s, and an ambitious professional violinist and would-be bandleader. In 1919, he won a contract to assemble a band for the brand-new Vendome Theater, a cinema and cabaret just a few blocks up from the State Theater where Jimmy was appearing. It’s not known for certain whether Tate hired Bertrand purely on the strength of his rising reputation on the Stroll, or whether (as I prefer to imagine) the two had become friends in their boyhoods when Bertrand (who was the younger by a few years) was studying music with Tate’s stepfather. Either way, the call was made, and soon Jimmy was moving his huge arsenal of percussion instruments up the street from the State to the Vendome. Erskine Tate’s Vendome Symphony Orchestra, initially a nine-piece group composed of black and ‘creole’ musicians, was principally required to perform accompanying scores for the silent films shown nightly in the theatre, then to play hour-long jazz concerts between screenings to keep the patrons entertained. Tate’s musicians thus had to be versatile, accomplished technicians across the whole gamut of musical styles, as well as crack readers – and yet also able to convincingly improvise cutting-edge jazz. With his orchestral training and authentic Southern heritage, Jimmy Bertrand was the perfect drummer for the job.

Tate’s band quickly became a great success at the Vendome, billed as “Chicago’s premier organization – Ten musicians – Every man an artist”. Soon the leader had attracted some serious jazz talent into his ranks too; ace clarinettist Buster Bailey joined in 1921 and soon cornet king Freddie Keppard was often appearing too – meaning Jimmy Bertrand got to play alongside one of his uncle Alphonse Ferzand’s former bandmates from the Original Creole Band. Bertrand’s doubling gifts were earning him a starring role in the orchestra’s shows; on Sundays, when individual musicians were allowed to play solo features, he would often be among the virtuoso performers, including a version of the blues ‘My Daddy Rocks Me’ played on timpani. It was at this time that, according to W. Royal Stokes, Bertrand was “adept at tossing his sticks in the air and catching them without missing a beat, and his drums sported flashing lights”, whilst Tommy Brookins called him “the greatest hit drummer that ever lived.” The photo at the top of the page shows Jimmy in 1921, with a steeply-angled and very deep single-tension snare drum, bass drum (flashing lights not in evidence) and a large Chinese-style cymbal suspended on a hanger – which was presumably only a fraction of his total equipment.

And at long last, we can start actually talking about music, since in June 1923, Tate’s Vendome Orchestra made their recording début; two blues sides for Okeh cut at home in Chicago.

Despite his prodigious gifts and undoubted value to the Tate organisation, like many of our drumming Heroes Bertrand is merely present, rather than prominent, in his very first appearance on record. He would, of course, have been restricted by the recording engineer to using only ‘recording traps’ rather than full drum kit at this session, so perhaps it’s unrealistic to wish for more. ‘Chinaman Blues’ is a classic of its type, a stately foxtrot which starts off relatively sedately, led by Keppard’s cornet. Bertrand’s first really noticeable contribution comes around [1:35], when he accentuates a rhythmic answering phrase in the brass with clipped strokes on a resonant-sounding woodblock. Tate’s men had evidently learned something from their time accompanying silent films, and throughout the side the tension steadily ratchets up to the climactic point at which the whole band breaks into a riotous out-chorus [2:15]. Here the drummer is included in the general mêlée, knocking out a series of hot improvised syncopations on the block – which, it is suddenly revealed, actually has two very distinct tones to it. And there’s a sting in the tail too: after Keppard’s solo cornet coda and a moaning band chord, Jimmy brings things to a close with a resounding clang on a heavy Turkish cymbal.

Following these two sides Tate’s band was not to make another record for two more years; the group developed considerably in the intervening time however, continuing their residency at the Vendome and adding several more stars including alto saxophonist Stump Evans. In December 1925, their luck improved even further. Louis Armstrong had by this point been resident in New York for nearly two years, working as the featured soloist with the best black jazz band in the city – Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra – where he was backed up by Hero #10, Kaiser Marshall. Louis had already been a prodigy with King Oliver in the early years of the decade, but with Henderson he had become a genuine star, and at last began to feel confidence commensurate with his talents and his new-found status. However, when Armstrong had left to go East in 1924, his pianist wife Lil had remained in Chicago running her own band at the Dreamland Café, and maintaining the long-distance relationship had damaged their marriage. At Lil’s insistence, in December 1925 Armstrong handed in his notice with Henderson and returned to Chicago to join his wife’s band, where, casting around for extra work, he landed right in Tate’s lap.

Having worked out an agreement to ‘double’ – with Tate in the early evenings then with Lil’s band later at night – Louis began to appear regularly at the Vendome, remembering the opening show as “sensational”. Soon (having switched permanently from cornet to trumpet, supposedly at Tate’s suggestion) he began to be featured among the soloists on Sundays, where his fertile musical imagination and bravery in taking artistic risks, combined with his powerful sound and incredible range, won him legions of new admirers. And in May of the following year, the Vendome Orchestra finally entered a studio again, this time for the Vocalion company. Again, only two tunes were recorded, but both were red-hot, with all the musicians on scintillating form.

From its electrifying opening, ‘Stomp Off, Let’s Go’ is three minutes of rocking, barnstorming rhythm, which perhaps allows us more of a glimpse of the heady excitement the Tate band must have generated in their jazz shows at the Vendome in the mid-20s. Alongside Armstrong and pianist Teddy Weatherford, Bertrand is one of the standout performers, and in addition to the punchy choked cymbal and neat woodblocks we’ve heard driving the Tate band along before, he is also allowed plentiful solo space of his own for the first time on record. Having led us in, Bertrand switches to washboard for two breaks [0:22] before returning to blocks for another raucous band chorus. The fun really starts with Weatherford’s virtuoso piano solo [1:30] and Armstrong’s characteristically spontaneous and playful half-chorus of breaks [1:55], after which Bertrand joins Louis to shadow-box together over another half-chorus, in one of history’s few trumpet-and-washboard duets. To cap it all, the rest of the Vendome gang then pile in to riotously round off one of the most unstintingly exuberant records of the whole decade.

It’s worth briefly discussing Bertrand’s choice of solo instrument here, for a number of points are worth noting. It’s curious, after all we’ve heard about his classical training and technical facility on a huge range of orchestral percussion instruments, that he should choose to record these solos on ‘the humble kitchen utensil.’ Even more so, given that the so-called washboard craze had by this point already been going for some time – since 1923, in fact.

Jasper Taylor (Hero #4) was six years older than Jimmy Bertrand, and despite an eccentric and adventurous early career path, had amassed a similar set of skills to Bertrand’s by his own early adulthood, being a proficient xylophonist and reading jazz drummer combined. After demobilisation from serving in France during the Great War, Taylor had settled back into the Chicago scene, where he became a role model for aspiring younger drummers. Bertrand later recalled that their friendship began, “right here in Chicago… even before the 1919 riot. He was working at the Owl Theatre, with Clarence Jones.” Scraping a washboard with thimbles to create a novel and rustic-sounding percussion instrument was, you will remember, Taylor’s own innovation; his recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmie O’Bryant in 1923 and ’24 had instigated a nationwide craze for novelty records featuring similar effects that briefly engulfed many more legions of reluctant drummers, including Heroes Kaiser Marshall and Baby Dodds.

Regarding his own playing of the washboard, Bertrand stated: “Jasper Taylor taught me that. We went to a place down on State and 31st […] we wanted something to scratch, and this guy down there, he made things like that… and Jasper and I got washboards together, that’s when we first started. We hit ’em, you know, and they used to cut my hands all up […] we used thimbles, and we had something else, on the thumbs.”

A couple more points arise from this testimony. Given the speed of his switching from drums to board and back again on this record, I’d judge it most likely that Bertrand in fact used the the butt end of his drumsticks to scrape and strike the surface, rather than fiddly thimbles; the heavier, woody sound produced also bears this theory out. Whatever the thinking behind it, ‘Stomp Off, Let’s Go’ was to be only the very first of a long catalogue of washboard records soon to be cut by the decade’s second great washboard specialist.

The following day (May 29th), presumably seeking to capitalise on his friend Jasper’s success in a piano/clarinet/washboard trio format, Bertrand was back at the Vocalion studio with Jimmy Blythe and Junie Cobb to lead a session under the name ‘Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards’.

To appear as leader on a recording was quite an achievement for a drummer, particularly one who at that time had appeared on only one disc – the Tate group’s first effort of three years earlier. Yet such was the evident reputation of the Vendome shows and of Bertrand as a soloist that the record company were more than willing to take the risk, and were rewarded with four sides. ‘Little Bits’ conforms completely to the folky, ‘primitivist’ format of Jasper Taylor’s earlier washboard trio records (and shares the same pianist, Jimmy Blythe) and it’s interesting to compare the much more intimate sound production on this side to that of ‘Stomp Off…’ made the previous day. Bertrand is perhaps still using sticks on his board here, and has evidently brought a woodblock or two along as well. His approach to playing washboard is orientated more around scraping the board (particularly as the number heats up) than that of Taylor, who preferred setting up a dialogue of various pitches by tapping different resonant areas on his board. However, the combined success of these two days’ recording would cement Bertrand’s reputation for the rest of the decade as top-drawer recording jazz drummer and washboard-scraper nonpareil.

The music scene on the Chicago Stroll in the middle and later years of the 1920s appears to have been an extremely frenzied, productive and even incestuous one; with so much work around and so many great musicians in town it seems everyone was ‘doubling’ several times a night, appearing in myriad different bands whose fortunes rose and fell as venues opened and closed (often at the whim of organised crime), and making records whenever the chance arose. Officially, Jimmy Bertrand remained with Erskine Tate as first-call drummer more or less throughout the decade, but following the success of the first Washboard Wizards records he continued to record under his own name, and frequently performed and recorded with other bands in addition to his work at the Vendome Theater. In November of 1926, he also cut three sides for the great blues singer Ma Rainey, doubling the accompaniment with pianist Jimmy Blythe on a xylophone which was sadly under-recorded. However, working on the blues scene would become another valuable string to Jimmy’s bow, and would prove a fertile avenue for him throughout the later ‘twenties. In addition to gigs, Bertrand would soon record with great blues artists including singer Elzadie Robinson, pianist Blind Blake and guitarists Tampa Red and Bill Broonzy.

Back in the jazz world, another prominent bandleader to favour Bertrand besides Erskine Tate was Hartzell ‘Tiny’ Parham, a superb and distinctive composer and pianist, who arrived in Chicago from Kansas in 1925. Together with violinist Leroy Pickett, he co-led a band at the Apollo Theater at 74 West Randolph street, presumably hoping to compete with what Erskine Tate and his band were doing at the Vendome. Jimmy Bertrand joined the Pickett-Parham Apollo Syncopators for one session in late 1926, and was a featured soloist on ‘Mojo Strut’:

Whilst Parham’s group might have performed a similar role at the Apollo to Erskine Tate’s group at the Vendome, it’s clear from this recording that Parham differed from Tate considerably in his concept and approach, favouring simple but elegantly-scored arrangements with a considerable dramatic flair. His band at this stage was still fairly rough and ready, and in Pickett’s shrill violin it even bore some vague inflections of the country. Bertrand is in superb form again, and we can enjoy an exotic, orientalist introduction played on Chinese tom-tom [0:15], several band choruses punctuated by hot cymbal socks, and then a superb solo chorus of woodblock [1:28]. Shortly following this session Parham set up his own group independent of Pickett, and over the next few years played at a number of theatres and other venues around the Chicago scene as his fortunes improved. Jimmy Bertrand often accompanied him, whenever his schedule with Tate would allow. Bertrand remembered: “We opened the club on Garfield Boulevard, me and Tiny Parham, and then (Eddie) Ellis sold moonshine downstairs. And we opened that club – the Golden Lily.”

Meanwhile, he continued making Washboard Wizards records in his time off, using a rotating cast of supporting characters drawn from the clubs and theatres of Chicago’s South Side. He scored a particular coup in April 1927 when he succeeded in recruiting two bona fide jazz titans to his banner for the day; his erstwhile former Vendome Theater bandmate Louis Armstrong (now a regular in Carroll Dickerson’s band, with Zutty Singleton on drums), and also Louis’ clarinettist of choice – the great Johnny Dodds, who had already made a string of washboard band sides of his own. Bertrand later recalled:

When Johnny Dodds was over at Kelly’s Stables, I used to go over there if I got off at the Vendome with Tate and go over and sit in at the Stables […] Johnny Dodds was the most conscientious man… he had his mind this way. You see Johnny didn’t read too much music. But I’ll tell you, all we had to do was play it over and over again, and then we hit it. The best. Never missed a note.”

The session with Armstrong and Dodds on April 21 yielded four sides and is surely the best that Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards ever sounded. On ‘Easy Come Easy Go Blues’ the leader was in particularly fine form, playing two choruses of astounding and captivating rhythm.

Toward the end of the decade, Bertrand continued his busy schedule of shows with Tate and doubling elsewhere. He also recorded sessions with Reuben ‘River’ Reeves, Jimmy Blythe and the Memphis Nighthawks, and enjoyed a long association with the reed player Junie Cobb, who led a series of sessions under various names in 1928 and ’29. A highlight of Bertrand’s work with Cobb is the superb ‘Transatlantic Stomp’ for the Victor company under the name ‘E.C. Cobb And His Corn Eaters’ from December 1928.

Bertrand begins the side on brushes, playing subtle time behind Frank Melrose’s delicate piano melody. Oh, I didn’t yet mention that Jimmy Bertrand, that famously ‘finished’ drummer, could play great, swinging time with brushes, in the manner of an Andrew Hilaire or a Zutty Singleton? Needless to say – of course he could. Behind Jimmy Cobb’s trumpet solo [0:35], Bertrand gives a slight extra emphasis to his backbeat with the butt of the brush. He then takes a syncopated solo break on cymbal that would do some of his New York contemporaries credit [1:10] before moving across to the xylophone – and yes, at last, after all we’ve heard about Jimmy’s prowess as a mallet percussionist, we finally [1:45] get to hear him featured – playing a superb, coherent and imaginative xylophone solo on a hot tune that allows him to show his talents to the full. Cobb’s ‘Transatlantic Stomp’ and its ilk, despite their musical vocabulary deriving straight from the black cabarets of the Stroll, nevertheless have an approach somewhat reminiscent of East Coast small-group jazz such as that played by Red Nichols’ Five Pennies – consciously hip and witty, yet clever and measured, with a routine carefully arranged so as to present to the listener a succession of brief vignettes rather than three minutes of consistent bombardment.

In later years Bertrand was described by one of his pupils, Sid Catlett, as, “the sepia Vic Berton, a master of technique and an excellent tympanist.” His performance on Cobb sides like ‘Transatlantic Stomp’ do the comparison to his near-namesake no harm at all – in fact, whilst Vic Berton was surely the timpani master bar none, his recorded oeuvre on tuned percussion never approached the complexity of solos like that which we’ve just heard.

Catlett’s quote is a neat link to the last part of Bertrand’s story in the 1920s. When he wasn’t playing shows or recording, Bertrand’s reading ability and percussion skills had earned him a reputation as Chicago’s leading teacher of jazz drumming, and many of the black Chicagoan drummers of the Second Generation, who came of age in the later 1920s, had been protégés of his throughout the decade. In addition to Catlett, Bertrand also coached Lionel Hampton, Minor Hall, Ben Thigpen, and Wallace Bishop, who would eventually replace him in Erskine Tate’s orchestra. Hampton’s memoir included a fond memory of watching his mentor at the Vendome: “He taught me a lot about drums […] I learned from him how to please an audience. He was the favourite musician there, the star of the grand finale […] I remember one day I waited for him at the stage entrance, before the matinée performance. When he showed up, I was too excited to ask him for his autograph. He gave it to me anyway. Maybe he understood.” Another future great drummer, Jo Jones, claimed of Bertrand, “I didn’t know anything about tuning drums until I rubbed elbows with him”.

Bertrand was also highly thought of by his peers. His great friend and rival Jasper Taylor recalled, “Jimmy was an exceptional drummer […] he had a very good left hand, and a very good right hand, he could read music, and he played the xylophone better than anyone at that time”, whilst Harry Dial saw Bertrand play with Erskine Tate and remembered him simply as “one helluva drummer”. On an unrelated but mildly interesting note, it has sometimes been suggested that Jimmy was the brother of Jelly Roll Morton’s wife Mabel Bertrand – but this is not true. Jimmy’s two sisters were named Myrtle and Inez, and both were already married by the time the Mortons tied the knot.

Unlike some of our Heroes, we can put together a reasonably rounded impression of what Jimmy Bertrand was like as a person. Like many of his peers, he was evidently fond of the high life. Trumpeter Lee Collins recalled: “Jimmy was supposed to go to Europe once with Eddie South, the violinist, but he got drunk and missed the boat. Another time, I hired him to come to work with me but he never showed up until five days later – and then he wasn’t able to do anything… [His] trouble was whiskey and women – both have turned many a great jazz musician into a has-been.” This testimony is perhaps strengthened by the fact that Bertrand’s marriage of 1922 evidently ended badly, and in the 1930 census he was listed as a divorcé.

Despite this, in his 1959 interview with Bill Russell (now held in Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive), Bertrand is very hard not to warm to, coming across as an ebulliently cheery, gregarious man. His recollections of his peers are almost universally generous and positive, and by this stage of his life he was certainly an engaging raconteur.

He died the following year in Chicago, the scene of his greatest triumphs.