Heroes #19: Johnny Wells, 1899-1965

There were a lot of terrific drummers in Chicago in those days, [like] Johnny Wells…” – Sid Catlett

With ALEX HILL, 1929

The 1920s drumming Hero we’ll be meeting today is yet another musician who rarely seems to merit a mention in what we might call the ‘mainstream’ narrative of jazz drumming history. Perhaps, rather like his predecessor in these pages (Hero #18, Carleton Coon) this might be because – with a few brief exceptions – Johnny Wells loyally held down the drum chair with just one musical group over a number of years, rather than freelancing around with disparate artists and perhaps gaining more visibility from our point of view. Wading through the audio ‘fossil record’ a century later, if you happened to neglect the moderate (in quantity, but not quality) output of this band, you’d miss his entire recording career.

Yet at the same time, purely by chance, his work happened to be one of my own principal portals into the world of ‘twenties drumming. Back in 2011 or so, fresh from college and expressing an interest in older forms of Jazz, I was lucky enough to be asked to join a band led by a clarinettist in love with the mellifluous tone of of the great Jimmie Noone, who set me off exploring Noone’s discography. As inexperienced as I was then, I took the drumming on these records at face value, little realising just how lucky I’d been. Out of all the music recorded in the 20s, the first really detailed listening I ever had to do just happened to concern a drummer whose playing – whilst being idiosyncratic and very distinctive – really can serve the student as an almost perfect model to copy across a wide range of late-20s rhythmic feels and musical contexts.

John Wells was born in 1899 in Kentucky, both his parents also having been native to the Bluegrass State. We know little of his early life and musical education, but it seems a reasonable supposition that like the majority of our Heroes, he was attracted to percussion from a young age, and likely took lessons from a local musician. He didn’t attend school but nevertheless learned to read and write; skills taken for granted today, but not necessarily so in rural America in the 1900s. Unfortunately, much of Wells’s early adult life is also shrouded in mystery. He followed the Great Migration to Chicago at some early point; either as a child together with his family, during the 1900s or early 1910s, or alone as a young adult in the later 1910s or 1920s. He married aged 17. If he registered for the Great War draft (which is often a good way of establishing where people were living and what they were doing with their lives, just prior to the beginning of Jazz Age) then the record of it must have been lost.

Suffice to say, after his birth we lose track of Wells until he is already in his late twenties, working, we’re told, as a singer and entertainer at a ‘black-and-tan’ cabaret (i.e. one open to patrons of all races) called the Nest. W.H. Kenney, in his excellent book ‘Chicago Jazz’, described the place:

The Nest was owned by boxer Joe Louis’ manager and backer, Julian Black. It presented stylistically innovative jazz as early as 1926 […] The club catered to a wealthy white clientele.”

The Nest was part of a locality becoming famous for hot music and lively times by the middle years of the decade. Situated at the junction of 35th and Calumet Streets, this cluster of clubs was just a few blocks away from the heart of the famous Chicago nightlife district known as the Stroll. Across the street from the Nest was the Plantation Café whose house band, King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, featured drummer Paul Barbarin; next door to the Plantation was the Sunset Café where Zutty Singleton and Louis Armstrong performed nightly with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra (see map). When the Nest was renamed the Apex Club in the autumn of 1926, it also gained a resident house band led by Jimmie Noone, an imposing virtuoso of the clarinet and one of the most important and distinctive reed stylists of the first decade of Jazz. Born in Louisiana and growing up in the city of New Orleans, after several brief visits North Noone had moved to Chicago permanently in 1918, to join an early iteration of Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s Creole Band. He performed and recorded with ‘Doc’ Cook in the early 20s (along with Heroes Andrew Hilaire, Jimmy Bertrand and Tubby Hall) and became a key figure on the South Side’s jazz scene. When Julian Black was looking for a new band to perform nightly for the cabaret at his newly-renamed club, it was the 30-year-old Noone who secured the booking.

Noone’s conception of jazz was subtle, nuanced and distinctly personal, and somewhat at odds with the relentless, wild exuberance expected of much black Chicago jazz of the period – though Noone could blat it out with the best of them when required! His faultless clarinet technique allowed him access to an extended palette of tone and timbre beyond the reach of many of his peers, and ranged from a rich, sobbing low-register when playing ballads, to piercing wails and highly complex syncopated stabs ideal to gee up a red-hot stomp. In an era dominated by great cornet and trumpet players – Louis Armstrong, Red Nichols, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke – Noone followed Anton Lada in eschewing a brass lead altogether, and instead featured two reed players as the frontline; himself and alto saxophonist Joe Poston, whose role was principally to state the melody and allow the leader free rein to express himself. On drums, Noone seems to have initially used Minor Hall, but soon he left to join Mutt Carey’s band in California, and was replaced by Ollie Powers.

Kenney: “The group’s instrumental sound focused attention on Noone’s beautifully clear, centered, and round-toned woodwind style, juxtaposing his warmer, lighter sound to the brassy, New Orleans tradition and featuring an interplay between Noone, a baroque improviser, and Joe Poston […] Noone’s band epitomized sophisticated cabaret jazz. […] Many of the white jazzmen who called themselves ‘The Chicagoans’ frequented the Apex Club in order to listen carefully.”
One of these jazz-crazy youngsters (‘fanboys’, I suppose we might call them today) was budding guitarist Eddie Condon: “We went to the Nest at least five times a week […] Later, when there was some trouble, some drapes were put up and it was called the Apex…”
The Apex Club Orchestra was settled into its new residency and beginning to make a name for itself. A further coup came in late 1927, when Noone convinced an astonishing young pianist from Pittsburgh – Earl Hines – to occupy the piano stool on a permanent basis. Hines had recently been musical director for Louis Armstrong’s Stompers at the Sunset Café (in other words, Carroll Dickerson’s old band, with Zutty Singleton on drums!), and was also regularly making sessions with Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven studio projects. Now his strident, soloistic right hand, smooth tenor-range legato lines, filigree runs and frequent playful displacing of the beat both enhanced and extended Noone’s original concept, and quickly became a standout feature of the group.

And here we return to the story of today’s Hero, Johnny Wells – albeit in unfortunate circumstances. Around the same time as Hines’s arrival at the Apex, the health of the Orchestra’s drummer/vocalist Ollie Powers, another Kentuckian, had began rapidly to deteriorate. Wells, who had already been working regularly at the club as a singer, dancer and entertainer, and may well have sometimes sat in on the drums, was hired to cover percussive duties during Powers’ illness. Wells began playing regularly with the band around the winter of 1927, and rapidly established himself. Stricken with diabetes, poor Powers would in fact never return, and died mere months later – but that is another story.

In early 1928, the singer and impresario Red McKenzie, who was a huge fan of the band, persuaded Vocalion’s recording manager Dave Kapp to visit the Apex Club in person. Kapp was duly impressed and a contract was offered. Thus on 16th May 1928, almost two years after its creation, Jimmie Noone’s five-piece Apex Club Orchestra (the leader and Poston; Hines; Wells; and banjoist Bud Scott) finally made its first recording session. They cut six sides in total, including the romping foxtrot ‘I Know That You Know’.

This record marks something of a rarity among our Heroes’ début recordings. Despite Johnny’s 1899 birth date placing him squarely among the ranks of the first great generation of jazz musicians, his relatively late-blooming professional music career means that even in examining his earliest recorded work, we don’t have to suffer listening through the distortion and crackle of an acoustic record to try to catch an audible glimpse of some ‘recording traps’ somewhere at the back of the room. It’s already 1928, and we’re hearing Vocalion’s electric recording process! Right from the start, therefore, Johnny Wells’s entire recorded milieu was made electrically, and consequently means we never have to hear him playing anything other than full drum kit. The relatively restrained volume – until the last chorus! – and small size of Jimmie Noone’s little band also allows more sonic space for the drums to shine through, and with no bass player we can clearly hear Wells’s propulsive two-beat bass drum throughout the side – indeed, it occupies the entire bottom-end of the record.

An interesting question to consider is whether we’re really hearing what we’re informed Wells was: a singer/dancer who dabbled a bit and took up drumming only within the previous few months – or instead, an experienced professional percussionist. To my ears, it can only be the latter. One of the most impressive elements of Wells’s playing, even on these first few sides, is the slickness and confidence it exudes, with rock-solid timekeeping on both snare and bass drums, tidy press rolls, dextrous cymbal-choking (not an easy skill at fast tempos), and extremely deft dynamic control – all elements that take many years of study to develop, and could never just be picked up within a few months. I’d thus contend that Wells must have studied the drums since childhood, or at least early adulthood, and must have been playing regularly somewhere, with somebody, before his big break at the Apex came along. His playing bears all the hallmarks of a consummate, finished drummer.

Wells is also a very characterful player, with a number of recognisable trademarks that are present even on this very first session. The majority of Jimmie Noone’s oevre falls into one of three categories – low-down blues, sentimental ballad numbers, and blistering hot tunes – and for each one Wells has a distinct modus operandi. For the blues he tends to keep things strong and simple, laying down steady soft press-rolls and occasional cymbal chokes. The ballads he usually plays with great delicacy, but they do often feature an absolutely pounding last chorus. And on the faster tunes, often using the brushes, Wells locks in tightly with banjoist Scott to form a relentless engine, powering the band along with great energy even at moderate volume. Unlike most of his contemporaries, and perhaps inspired by the absence of ‘brassy’ sounds elsewhere in the group, Wells very rarely uses regular ‘sock time’ played on cymbal as a timekeeping device, instead sticking mostly to the drums and only using his cymbal sparingly, for fills.

He also makes prominent and repeated use of pieces of musical vocabulary or ‘licks’. Firstly, he often uses the ‘Charleston’ rhythm as a filling device, examples being [2:44] on the above side, and during codas – both at [2:55] of ‘Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me’, and [3:00] on Noone’s theme tune, ‘Sweet Lorraine’.

Another of his favourite fills involves a clever piece of rhythmic displacement, in which beats (either eighth- or quarter- notes) are grouped in threes. This is nothing particularly new, and forms the basis of the ubiquitous rhythm variously referred to in these pages as ‘Ragtime clavé’/’The Pendulum’ etc. However, Wells’s peculiar twist on this device was to use the lick at slower, more exposed tempos than most players would think to, and furthermore, to leave silent the third beat of each group of three, as heard on the coda of ‘Sweet Sue – Just You’, also recorded during the Apex Orchestra’s début session.

During the very last four bars of the track, just past the three-minute mark, Wells plays the following (this is an extract from a transcription of my own – hence the exclamation):

‘The Johnny Wells lick’ – transcription from the last 4 bars of ‘Sweet Sue’ (1928)

Rhythmic pranks like these, which could easily throw an unwary musician or dancer off their stride, were always part of his rhythm section colleague Earl Hines’s repertoire of tricks – perhaps Johnny got this idea from the pianist and adapted it onto the drums? Whatever its origin, he plays this exact same piece of language (or something very similar) variously on ‘Forever More’ [2:50], ‘Four Or Five Times’ [2:35], ‘Every Evening’ [3:00] and ‘Chicago Rhythm [2:45]. At the faster tempos the lick feels more appropriate and is consequently less surprising. On the ballads, however, its placing is so deliberately obtrusive and so at odds with the context that the passage of time seems almost to be momentarily paused. It’s a weird choice, and I love Wells for it.

‘Sweet Sue’ – today perhaps a rather worn-out vehicle, but one of the big hits of the year in 1928 – is mostly performed with the kind of earnest sentimentality typical of Noone’s ballad work, but, as previously mentioned, explodes into an absolutely rocking final chorus, complete with great humping backbeats supplied by Wells. The contemporaneous Chicago pianist and bandleader Dave Peyton remembered the Apex Club Orchestra as “soft, scintillating and sweet” – which they could be, and Wells could do all that beautifully. But it’s worth remembering that he was also capable of playing with utterly compelling power and groove when he chose to – as could the rest of the band.

In terms of equipment, Wells seems to have stuck to a kit more or less along the lines of the one he’s pictured with at the top of the page – the de rigeur 28” bass drum, separate-tension snare drum, woodblock and heavy Turkish cymbal. By this point in the jazz timeline, a four-beat (rather than two-beat) rhythm in the bass is beginning to become more and more common, and even on this first session it’s a rhythmic gear that Wells often moves into towards the end of a tune, to add extra urgency to the ‘shouting’ choruses. This being 1928, we must also remember that we’re currently deep in the throes of the hand-cymbal craze, and Johnny evidently owned a set (clearly audible on their recording of ‘Every Evening’, during the ‘moaning’ chorus [1:45]) – though his extremely sparing use of them perhaps indicates he wasn’t entirely convinced of their merits.

Around spring 1928, the time these first records were made, the Apex Club closed for good, whereupon the former Apex Orchestra played variously at the Club Ambassador, the El Rado club and the the Alvin Dansant in Chicago, and at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit. During this time they still continued their recording contract with for Vocalion as ‘Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra’, even cutting the famous ‘Apex Blues’ after the fact.

In August they returned to the studio, now with tuba player Lawson Buford in tow, for a session which resulted in a string of classic sides including ‘King Joe’, ‘Sweet Lorraine’, ‘Oh Sister, Ain’t That Hot!’ and ‘A Monday Date’.

Wells keeps to the background for the first two choruses on Hines’s composition, gently propelling the headlong tempo with firm press rolls. A gentle cymbal fill leads us into Hines’s outre piano solo [1:00] behind which we can clearly hear Johnny’s impeccable brush playing, keeping things steady and swinging. He returns to sticks and plays a subtle woodblock/cymbal fill around [2:20] leading us into the wailing out-chorus, during which we hear ‘the Johnny Wells Lick’ again around [2:55], and some more truly punishing backbeats. Again it’s worth making the point: ‘Soft and sweet’? Not necessarily!

In late 1928 Hines left Noone; firstly to travel to New York to record, and, upon his return, to set up his own orchestra at the Grand Terrace hotel. To replace him, Noone initially used Jerome Carrington, then, in an inspired move, hired Alex Hill. The Arkansas-born pianist was known as an imaginative composer and arranger as well an an arresting soloist in his own right. He’d previously been the principal arranger for Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra and played piano in groups led by Jimmy Wade (alongside drummer Edwin Jackson) and Albert Wynn (featuring a very young Sidney Catlett). With Hill, the Apex Orchestra continued to gig around Chicago and made many more records throughout the remainder of 1928 and early 1929, highlights being ‘Tight Like That’ and ‘Chicago Rhythm’. By the spring, Hill’s sparky playing had impressed Vocalion sufficiently that they offered him a solo piano session of his own. However, when he arrived at the studio on 30 March, the pianist had brought Johnny Wells along too – perhaps for moral as well as percussive support.

‘Tack Head Blues’, and its companion ‘Stompin’ ‘Em Down’ sound remarkably full and complex given the obvious limitations of the duo format; proof of the two musicians’ abilities to sustain interest and even excitement over the course of the side. These records are interesting because they allow us a glimpse into a musical little-league that, we’re told, not only existed but thrived – but which was very seldom recorded. Since the 1910s, towards the the bottom of the musical food-chain, pianists had often played solo in minor venues with limited space or budget – bars, saloons, cafes, restaurants, and even small picture houses – and, if they were joined by another musician, it was often a drummer. Yet for whatever reason, these seemingly-ubiquitous piano/drums duos were virtually never recorded, and certainly not by real jazz players of such elite ability. ‘Tack Head Blues’ is therefore among very rarefied company.

Johnny Wells uses brushes throughout the side, locking in tightly with Hill’s striding left hand and providing a firm, swinging foundation for the pianist to lay out a succession of catchy ideas with his right. As Hill goes steadily up through the gears, Wells becomes gradually more elaborate, introducing all manner of ruffs, backbeats and and softly-shuffling ghost-notes to spur the music along. Ironically, the track features no tack-headed tom-tom at all – perhaps Johnny had the Tack Head Blues because he’d split one…?

In the summer of 1929 the Apex band once again had to replace its pianist, following the departure of Alex Hill for the bright lights of New York. Noone seems to have slightly altered his musical direction at this point too for a time, often bringing in guest vocalists and several extra brass players to beef up the band’s sound – at least on their recording sessions. The original version of ‘Apex Blues’ from back in August 1928, for example, was now superseded by a new, brass-heavy rendition much more in line with typical late-20s black Chicagoan jazz. A smart commercial move, perhaps – but at the same time, the idiosyncrasies that make the original configuration so intriguing and delightful more or less go by the board. With more musicians in the room, even on romping-stomping numbers like ‘Off-Time’, Johnny Wells’s superb drumming is also overpowered and all but inaudible – a real shame considering how beautifully he was recorded earlier in the band’s career.

When Noone’s Orchestra finally did return to its original instrumentation, in the last months of the decade, their recorded output was limited to syrupy ballads, with large amounts of space given over to vocals crooned by a succession of guest singers. Wells’s contribution consisted of sensitive brushes, occasional vibraphone chords (such as on On ‘Love – Your Spell Is Everywhere’) and improvised codas played on light choked Turkish cymbal. A perfect accompaniment for the job in question (Johnny evidently was, to quote the title of one late 1929 Noone record, ‘A Good Man To Have Around’) – but sadly, not quite the musical fireworks that we might hope for, and that some of his peers elsewhere in the country were being allowed to put on disc during this period.

Aside from his performing and recording work, Johnny Wells evidently possessed an organising spirit, and devoted a good portion of his time offstage to representing his fellow musicians’ interests:
“Johnny Wells [was] an official in the Negro Musicians Union. One night Johnny told us about a member who had so flagrantly violated a rule that he had to be punished. ‘What are you going to do him, Johnny?’ we asked. ‘I’m going to jack up the Union and let it fall on him!’, Johnny replied.” – Condon.
This position of importance within Chicago’s black musical community would surely have earned Wells an extra degree of respect from his peers, and likely brought him into contact with most of the great black musicians resident in the city beyond those he played with regularly. From this anecdote we can perhaps also hypothesise that perhaps Wells had a good sense of humour and a piquant turn of phrase – although that’s how everyone talks in Condon’s book!

Earl Hines also recalled that Jimmie Noone’s wife was a professional golf instructor, and that after knocking off work at the Apex Club in the small hours, he, Wells and Noone would often play a round of golf before the club opened to its (white) patrons, finishing at around six in the morning. They’d presumably then sleep most of the day before doing it all over again. Another note from the Chicago Defender around that time read that Wells had been “seen darting in and out of buildings on Michigan Ave., and has joined the ranks of the big-time writers”. Sadly I’ve not yet turned up any of this writing – but it’s further proof that Wells was evidently a man who liked to keep busy.

In the 1930 Census we find him living comfortably with his wife Lillian on Garfield Boulevard in the 5th Ward of Chicago, in a rented flat with a radio; Johnny giving his occupation as a salaried professional musician. Lillian was from Wisconsin and the same age as her husband. She was white, and evidently didn’t need to work as her occupation was given as ‘homemaker’.

Johnny continued to play and record with Jimmie Noone’s band for a couple more years, before moving to New York in the late 1930s, where he freelanced around played for a time in the great Chicagoan pianist Joe Sullivan’s band. He died in 1965.