Yet another new kind of article today for Drums In The Twenties – a travelogue of sorts.
In the last week of April of 2022, I and my colleagues in Alex Mendham’s Orchestra were lucky enough to undertake the gig of a lifetime – a week-long residency playing in the grand ballroom of the Queen Mary 2 (the world’s last and only true ocean liner) as she made a 7-day transatlantic passage from Southampton, England, to New York. The Orchestra performed nightly themed shows as part of a re-enactment package put together by Ahoy Vintage Cruises, aimed at providing specialist period lifestyle and dance enthusiasts with the chance to relive a piece of history from the golden days of travel, back in the early part of the last century. The Orchestra’s own beautiful 1930s Premier console set came with us to sea, and the clip brakes on its original caster wheels held it firmly in place onstage despite the gentle rolling of Atlantic swells.
Having never before made it to America – birthplace of the music I treasure so much – the voyage to New York presented an irresistible opportunity to do some new and really hardcore Drums In The Twenties research, involving not just dusty books and obscure corners of the internet for once, but actual boots on the ground! Well, trainers, at least. At the same time, I could also finally hear some of my classic jazz colleagues at their day jobs and on home turf, and possibly investigate some vintage gear hotspots. So I cleared my diary for a few weeks, booked some flights, and set off on a whirlwind DITT mission across America. Here’s how I got on…
Fresh off the ship on a Sunday (and mercifully avoiding being de-loused at Ellis Island) I went straight along to the weekly hot jazz gig at the EAR Inn (326 Spring St.) led by mercurial trumpet maestro Jon-Erik Kellso. Chatting to my immediate neighbours at the bar, I happened to bump into a man whose playing I’d enjoyed many times before via video: Jay Lepley, resident sticksman from my great pal Mike Davis’s fabulous hot combination The New Wonders. After hanging out and enjoying the music at the EAR, the following day I dropped in on Jay performing an open-air gig with venerated ragtime pianist Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Jazz Band at Herald Square in Midtown, not too far from the Empire State building. Jay uses all period wood-shelled drums and has synthesised the playing of many of our mutual Heroes to develop a style of his own which, whilst being deeply informed by the tradition, never falls back on simple imitation.
The following evening I attended the Tuesday jam session at Mona’s (224 Avenue B) where I met and heard another of Terry Waldo’s percussive stalwarts, Andrew Millar, and also Nashville-based Chris Gelb, who happened to be in town. Chris wowed me and everyone else by ‘whipping’ some hot bock-a-da-bock hand cymbals in the style of Zutty Singleton. Needless to say, I gave both he and Andrew a damn good listening-to.
I also had the profound pleasure of having lunch with the real oracle and godfather of New York’s 20s jazz scene – the amazing multi-instrumentalist, historian, arranger and bandleader Vince Giordano. I’ve listened to and loved Vince’s industry-leading Nighthawks Orchestra (which was unfortunately between regular gigs just when I happened to visit, alas) for well over a decade. Along with the great Mr. Giordano for lunch was one of his regular rota of top percussionists, fellow Brit Doug Marriner, whom many years ago was my junior by a few years at Trinity College of Music in London, and is now an up-and-coming young drummer across various types of Jazz over the Pond. Vince kept Doug and I very entertained with a constant stream of funny and insightful anecdotes about obscure 20s drummers, from Herb Weil to Freddie Moore, most of whom he either knew personally when he was a youngster himself or was told about by those who did. I also had the honour of being invited to spend an evening at Vince’s home in Brooklyn; a treasurehouse of 1920s instruments, records, photos and other music ephemera that would put many museums to shame. Learning of my struggles to locate a good two-tone cylindrical woodblock in the UK, Vince very kindly gifted me one from his own stash. Then he demonstrated his collection of early pedal-operated cymbals, including a classic ‘snowshoe’, a ‘Ray Bauduc’ model vertical sock, and this truly bizarre cantilevered contraption, among many other wonders.
Another day, I met up with my hitherto-only-on-Zoom drumming friend Kevin Dorn, whose expertise in and enthusiasm for spreading the gospel of pre-bop style drumming styles has been a source of admiration and inspiration for many years. I got to know Kevin during Covid-19 lockdown via the Early Jazz Drummers’ Roundtable zoom broadcasts, and it was a real pleasure to finally meet up in person, drink good coffee and wax lyrical about Gene Krupa, Big Sid Catlett and Barrett Deems. Kevin also told me to make sure to visit Steve Maxwell’s Vintage & Custom Drums (242 W 30th St.) – a Mecca for New York-based drummers of an old-fashioned inclination. There I goggled over a collection of early bass drum pedals – including a rare 1920s Barry original that would match my collapsible bass drum, and which I’d never even seen a photograph of before. I also chatted to the shopkeeper, Eddie, a friendly bloke who sold me a vintage Ludwig woodblock/cowbell combo mount at a very decent price and showed great knowledge of the city’s drum history, tipping me off that despite being turned into flats, the structure and facade of the original Gretsch instrument factory building is still visible at 60 Broadway in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn just across the river.
When I wasn’t meeting up with musicians or attending gigs and jam sessions, I tried to visit as many sites as possible that were significant in our drumming Heroes’ lives and careers in the 1920s. Highlights included the still-glorious Park Central Hotel on 7th Avenue where Ben Pollack’s band proudly led the charge into 4-beat music in 1928, and the nearby district around Times Square where once the Cinderella Ballroom hosted Vic Moore, the Club New Yorker Chauncey Morehouse, the Kentucky Club Sonny Greer and the Club Alabam Kaiser Marshall among many others. Also, rather sadly, I visited the convenience store that now occupies the former location of Reisenweber’s Restaurant, where the ODJB’s Tony Sbarbaro and Louisiana Five’s Anton Lada first brought Jazz to New York in 1917-9. I looked to see if they had any Marmalade (Clarinet or otherwise). But they didn’t.
On my last day in town I just had time to visit the wonderful and evocative Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens (where I marvelled at a huge stack of original Armstrong Orchestra sheet-music boxes dating from the early 1930s, with what was once Tubby Hall‘s or Lionel Hampton’s pad casually lying on top!) and also to drop in on my dear mate and collaborator (and secretly a tidy drummer, as well as all the other things he is) Colin Hancock, at his place in rainy Brooklyn. There he showed off his ‘Semper Records’ acoustic recording setup (see ‘Library #7’ for all about that), we listened to Loren McMurray records for an hour or so, and I learned a few new facts about the early career of Californian drummer George Marsh, which one day may surface somewhere amongst these pages.
After all that excitement, it was time to leave New York and fly West, to see what residual traces I could find of our Heroes in New York’s precursor as the true epicentre of jazz.
CHICAGO & DAVENPORT
Needless to say, I arrived in Chicago full of excitement at the prospect of spending the best part of a week walking the same streets that were home to so many drumming heroes at the peaks of their careers during the wild days of the 20s. My host in the Windy City was another dear pal who, whilst primarily known as a multi-instrumentalist, historian, arranger/composer and bandleader, is secretly also an excellent drummer as well: the great Andy Schumm. Whilst in town I was fortunate enough to hear Andy’s fantastic Chicago Cellar Boys play their two weekly residencies (the Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen on Sundays, and the Green Mill at 4802 Broadway on Tuesdays), and also joined in numerous raucous jam sessions held nightly in his famous basement studio – often fuelled by Malort, the locally-brewed spirit Chicagoans drink like water.
Among his collection of period instruments Andy has an incredible cymbal, a heavy Turkish 14” or 15” number from the early 20s, and also a gong once owned by Baby Dodds himself, which sounds like it could well be the exact same one he plays at the end of Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Jungle Blues’. Both instruments were given to Andy by the late Wayne Jones, the much-missed drummer from the famous Salty Dogs jazz band.
On one Chicago afternoon the percussionist, collector and period sound-effects expert Nick White brought over his vintage Deagan xylophone and a transcription of ‘Sand Dunes’, an exotic rag foxtrot originally recorded in 1918 by the All Star Trio. With Andy on piano and Cellar Boys saxophonist Natalie Scharf on tenor, we filmed a performance of the tune for Nick’s YouTube channel, which was a true delight to have been a part of.
Sadly I didn’t get time to visit the original branch of Steve Maxwell’s in Chicago that Eddie in New York had told me about – but I did take one fantastic souvenir away with me. Learning I’d had trouble finding a copy in the UK, Dave Bock (a record oracle and nonpareil player of trombone and tuba, as well as being Andy’s closest mate and collaborator) very kindly presented me with a pristine editon of the great drummer Harry Dial’s autobiography, which will doubtless be extremely handy when researching future DITT articles.
Another memory I’ll take with me to my grave was the afternoon spent with Andy and Dave exploring Chicago’s historic jazz sites. On a sweltering day we took in many of the locations detailed in the Drumming Map Of 1920s Chicago; highlights included the former sites of the Friars Inn and of Kelly’s Stables, the old Brunswick Building where a floor of bricked-up windows still marks the location of the soundproof studio where once Paul Barbarin recorded with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, and the former home of Carleton Coon’s Nighthawks – the opulent Congress Hotel near Millenium Park, where a security guard was confused by being asked directions to the Balloon Room. We also journeyed to the South Side to survey the desolate former sites of Lincoln Gardens and Schiller’s Café, and the famous intersection of 35th and Calumet, where once the Sunset Café (resident drummer Zutty Singleton) faced the Apex Club (Johnny Wells) and Plantation Café (Barbarin). The latter two buildings are long gone (replaced by plasticky fast food outlets) but the ancient Sunset Café building still remains, now occupied by a beauty products shop. At the very back of this, behind the racks of shampoo, you can find the stage where every night Louis Armstrong used to stomp off the tempo for Zutty and the band, along with a painted mural of unknown but presumably early date. It was surreal, but deliriously exciting to be there.
My head still spinning from these incredible sights (and the Malort), the following day I took a train across the cornfields down to Davenport, Iowa, the home of one of my oldest and dearest friends in the classic jazz world – that peerless 20s drumming expert, Mr. Josh Duffee. Josh has an extensive collection of beautiful period gear and delighted in showing me around both his percussion studio and also the small town of Davenport, which, sited on the magnificent Mississippi river, was also once the home of Bix Beiderbecke. There is a fine museum in downtown Davenport telling the sweet and tragic story of Bix’s life, which is highly entertaining, informative and enjoyable (though sad), and contains among other things a series of instruments once belonging to Bix and his illustrious colleagues – including a former drum of Chauncey Morehouse’s. Josh and I also made a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Gene Krupa in Calumet City, and to search for Baby Dodds‘s own resting-place, which was sadly not evident alongside that of his brother Johnny’s where we expected to find it, among overgrown and disturbed ground.
The last stop of my trip was in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, visiting my great friend and co-conspirator Andrew Oliver in Portland, Oregon. Andrew has appeared in these pages before thanks to his superlative piano playing on several demonstration recordings, and as well as leading the Bridgetown Sextet he’s also a world-class specialist in Jelly Roll Morton’s piano style (and is yet another secretly-really-good drummer). Whilst in Portland, I was lucky enough to take in a performance by the Bridgetown crew, and to meet and hang out with their superb drummer Tyson Stubelek, of whose name 20s jazz drumming fans would do well to take note.
Another day Andrew, Tyson and I visited Portland’s hub for vintage percussion gear, the Revival Drum Shop (902 SE Sherman St.), where we chatted for a while to Kerry, the shopkeeper. Learning that we were interested in really old drum hardware (particularly, I was after a 20s Chinese tom-tom mount – rare as hen’s teeth in the UK!) he enthusiastically ushered us into a back storeroom lined with cupboards, shelves and filing cabinets loaded to the ceiling with all manner of parts, spares and bits and bobs. In this Aladdin’s Cave I not only found the mount I was looking for among a drawer of clamps and assorted other gubbins, but also an old 2-way nut for a cymbal hanger and a 1930s or 40s z-shaped cymbal L-arm and clamp. Tyson and Andrew also scored some authentic vintage vellum drumheads to upgrade the Bridgetown Sextet’s snare drum. Needless to say we left Revival well pleased with our finds, and delighted to plot another useful mark on the vintage drumming map.
Whilst travelling alone around a continent is a rather daunting prospect, and is certainly an exhausting reality, the trip was nonetheless an absolutely incredible experience. I return to Britain armed with several nifty new (old) bits of gear, a few very useful new books, and a vastly improved understanding of the geography and culture of several key cities where our drumming Heroes lived their lives. I also heard a dazzling array of amazing and brilliant musicians at work, and made a great many new friends. I hope one day I’ll be able to return and do it all again – but in the meantime will treasure the wonderful memories of May 2022, and my first vintage drum adventures in the Land of Jazz.