Date Posted: 2006-12-21
West Coast Jazz
By Paige VanVorst
When West Coast Jazz was the big thing in the early 1950s, everyone associated it with Bud Shank, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and the like. Those of us who follow traditional jazz, however, also followed West Coast Jazz, though in this case it meant the music of Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey and the Firehouse Five Plus Two.
This issue is dedicated to West Coast Jazz, which has always been an important part of our catalog. We’ve got a bumper crop of West Coast-styled releases this time out and we’ll take some time to explore this well-loved genre.
West Coast style traditional jazz is a performance-oriented manifestation of the same sort of back-to-the-basics movement that spawned the publication of Jazzmen and the rediscovery of Bunk Johnson. Jazz was a huge thing during the Swing Era- bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were as big as any of today’s pop stars and teenagers packed theaters to hear their favorite bands and ballrooms did a turnaway business.
But there were people around who weren’t enamored of sixteen men swinging. Men like Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davison rode against the current to gain a toehold in the nightclub business, while Frederic Ramsey, Bill Russell and their crowd traveled around to do some of the first research into the history of jazz.
Meanwhile in California, a bunch of disaffected swing musicians began to work on some of the old jazz numbers of the twenties as a welcome relief from playing dance music from arrangements. The unofficial leader of this group was trumpeter Lu Watters.
A native Californian, Watters went into professional music as a teenager, when he earned $50 for writing an arrangement of Alice Blue Gown for the Phil Harris Orchestra. He soon shipped out with the Carol Laughner Orchestra, doing the regular band-bus thing like all the other young musicians of his day. The Laughner Orchestra caught the eye of Bing Crosby, who used them as the house band on his first radio show. Bing liked dixieland jazz and took to the young Lu Watters, making him his first official arranger.
Watters got a chance to have his own band when he landed a job at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland. The band did well, outdrawing many of the well-known traveling bands, but Watters was dissatisfied. He said that about 1936 he just decided he didn’t want to play any more big band music.
:Lu soon discovered that he wasn’t alone in being bored to tears with big band jazz. A handful of Bay Area jazzmen began meeting for after-hours sessions at the Big Bear Tavern, a roadhouse in the Berkeley hills. Gradually these sessions coalesced into a rehearsal band, which practiced atop the Mark Twain Hotel, but never actually played a job. He reorganized that band early in 1940 when he decided his band had to have two trumpets- his new band included himself and Byron Berry on trumpets, Bob Helm on clarinet, Turk Murphy on trombone, Forrest Browne, piano, Benny Johnson, banjo, Dick Lammi, bass and Gordon Edwards, drums. By that summer, Berry, Johnson and Edwards left, to be replaced by Bob Scobey, Clancy Hayes and Bill Dart.
The Hot Jazz Society began putting on sessions at the Dawn Club, at 20 Annie Street,a former speakeasy fronting on an alley just behind the Palace Hotel. The band became the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, named for a Spanish name for San Francisco, though others have pointed out that the name may also have drug references. The occasional jazz society concerts quickly evolved into a four-night-a-week engagement.
The Yerba Buena Jazz Band was revolutionary- they took jazz back almost twenty years, playing the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and attracting not only record collectors but the general public. San Francisco took to the band in a big way. The band was playing all sorts of things- cakewalks, rags, stomps and blues.
The band made its way onto record in late 1941, cutting seven sides for the JazzMan label, and there was a second series of JazzMan records in 1942. By the time of these records Bob Helm was in the service and the clarinet chores were handled by Ellis Horne. As war clouds deepened, it became apparent the band might have to break up if key members were drafted. The band organized a corporation to run the Dawn Club
As it turned out, only Watters wound up getting called up- he shipped out with the Navy working as a swabbie until they found out he was a musician- he was soon fronting a 24-piece band, and even organized a band-within-a-band to play jazz numbers. His place with the Yerba Buena was taken by Benny Strickler.
During the War the YBJB also appeared around San Francisco with Bunk Johnson, who was riding high following his rediscovery in the rice fields of Louisiana. He spent several months in San Francisco and recorded a series of records with the band in the Spring of 1944,including his only recorded vocal.
The Dawn Club was fifty feet off Market Street, and you entered from the street, went down a long flight of stairs, paid your cover charge and the doorman handed you a sheet showing the evening’s program, with all the numbers for each set listed.
The club had one of the longest bars in San Francisco, with a lot of dark wood and lots of atmosphere. The club attracted the celebrities- when John Huston was filming The Maltese Falcon on location in San Francisco, the cast was usually at the Dawn Club- Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre probably felt right at home, as the club had the same sort of atmosphere as their film. Orson Welles was a big jazz fans and spent considerable time in the club as well.
When Watters returned from the War, things were a mess. During his absence, withholding taxes weren’t paid and IRS were hot after the Dawn Club and Watters. They cut their losses and closed the club.
San Francisco’s music scene changed during the war. The influx of war workers changed the demographics- many of the new residents were from more rural environments and had a taste for country and western music, and nightclubs grew up to accommodate them. A district grew up on San Pablo Avenue, the main thoroughfare running from Oakland to San Pablo. The area around El Cerrito was unincorporated and became a center of night life, both legal and illicit. Gambling, prostitution, bars and lounges flourished, sort of a coastal Reno.
Fan dancer Sally Rand settled in San Francisco after appearing in1939 & 40 at the Golden Gate International Exposition, a fair set up to celebrate completion of the Golden Gate Bridge. After the fair closed Ms. Rand opened the Hollywood Club at 204 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and it flourished during the war. Business tailed off after the war and the club was shuttered.
Enter Lu Watters. They saw opportunity in the vacant club and soon opened Hambone Kelly’s. They took over the club in 1947. It was a large building with a 100 foot long bar and there was room for 400 dancers. The band kept much of the existing decor, which included wild frescos commissioned by Ms. Rand’s companion. There were a number of rooms upstairs, including Ms.Rand’s apartment, which featured simulated leopard skin on the floors and walls. There was also a house in the rear, which had apparently been used entertaining guests at Ms. Rand’s club. The band moved into the building- at one time or another everyone in the band lived at Hambone Kelly’s.
Business was good and the club became popular with the college-age crowd. Watters instituted a series of Sunday-afternoon concerts during the summer months featuring guest artists- Red Nichols, Wingy Manone, Ralph Sutton, Pete Dailey, Doc Evans, Darnell Howard, members of the Condon Crowd, even James P Johnson. The band was also in demand for outside work all over the Bay Area.
The place was probably as ideal a setting for a band as could be imagined- they were their own bosses, they lived right on the premises and they could play 24 hours a day if they wanted. Watters was quite skilled in the kitchen and did quite a bit of the cooking (the menu featured a huge $2 T-bone steak, among other delights), often jumping on the bandstand wearing his chef’s apron.
They were promotion-minded- in addition to the music they showed silent movies and on Thursday nights they offered Charleston lessons.
But there are even problems in paradise. There were differences of opinion between the band members, generally about musical directions and finances, and gradually the original members drifted off, though there was a lot of back and forth movement, with players returning for short periods. Gradually the band evolved into what Watters referred to as the “Whorehouse Five,” a reference to both the Firehouse Five and the activities that took place upstairs when Sally Rand had the building. This group generally included Watters, Bob Helm, Wally Rose, Dick Lammi and Bill Dart. Their music was slightly different from that of the original band due to the absence of a second trumpet and the trombone, but it was a freer-swinging sound and Watters stretched out in a bravura Armstrong style. There was a drop-off in attendance over the years as people came expecting the brass and blare of the old band and left disappointed, though there are Watters fans who favor the Whorehouse Five sides over the classic sides from 1941 and 1946.
During 1949 and 1950 the band recorded 37 sides for Norman Granz, which were issued initially on Mercury, later on Clef, Down Home and Verve, resulting in two and a half LPs by the time 12” LPs became the norm.
Hambone Kelly’s passed into history January 1, 1951. By that time jazz in the Bay Area was in the hands of two well-established bands led by YBJB alumni Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey. The club was briefly reopened later by Scobey as “Alexander’s, ” but it only lasted a short while and the premises became a used-furniture emporium.
Watters basically walked away from the music business when Hambone Kelly’s closed. He’d built a small cabin near Cotati which he called The Sage Hen after one of his compositions, the Sage Hen Strut, and he spent time there collecting rocks and communing with nature. He worked for a while as a cook in a cafeteria in San Francisco, surfaced briefly when hospitalized at the VA Hospital in fairly poor condition. When he got out there were rumors he’d go back in the music business, but a year later they were dashed when he sold his cornet and turned in his Musicians’ Union card.
Watters was apparently quite happy in his little cabin- he kept up a correspondence with his fans and friends and occasionally welcomed visitors, though he was often more interested in discussing politics than rehashing stories of the jazz wars. I remember when I first picked up Watters’ records while in college in the early ‘60’s, I couldn’t believe he’d just dropped out. I made up imaginary bands that included him, thinking about what he’d sound like if he was playing with some of the players of that time, but it was just daydreaming.
We would probably never heard of Watters again without the divine intervention of the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. PG&E decided to build an atomic power plant near where Watters lived. And, as a semi-professional geologist Watters knew what that meant- the plant would be sitting right on top of the San Andreas Fault. It was not just a NIMBY situation- Watters was genuinely concerned about what would happen to the plant during an earthquake.
He returned to the jazz wars briefly to drum up opposition to the atomic plant- he played at outdoor rallies and protests and even made an LP for Fantasy Records- Blues Over Bodega- featuring some of his old bandsmen and some from Monte Ballou’s band along with vocalist Barbara Dane, and there’s been a CD issued featuring a performance at Turk Murphy’s club, Earthquake McGoons, from the same period. Whether it was Watters’ return to music or changing times, the power plant was never built, and Watters returned to his home and his rock garden. He continued his reclusive ways until his death in 1989.
The Sage Hen is now a bed-and-breakfast- there is (God forbid!) a 44-inch plasma TV with a Bose sound system, but they have Lu Watters records you can play while sitting in the “sumptuous leather furniture” admiring the Italian artwork. But you can walk around the yard and admire the trees Lu planted and listen to the birds singing much as Watters did during his days there. Only $285/night or $1000/week. Lu must be turning over in his grave to think of anyone paying that much to stay in his cabin, or outfitting it so far beyond his spartan decor.
LU WATTERS’ MUSIC
What did Lu Watters actually do during his unfortunately-foreshortened jazz career?
Basically he developed a new form of jazz. Historically, innovations in jazz have occurred when a group, trying to replicate an existing music. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings took their inspiration from some of the pioneering black bands in New Orleans but only adopted certain aspects of the music- the ODJB went for the freak effects and frantic rhythms of some of the bands and came up with their own music. The NORK adopted the fuller instrumentation and more relaxed rhythm but still differed from the music they were inspired by, and they, in turn inspired the young Chicagoans of the 1920s who came up with Chicago style jazz based on their attempts to copy the music of the NORK and King Oliver.
Lu Watters did not have the benefit of copying a living band as the earlier bands did- he was exposed to the music of the earlier giants of jazz largely from records which, owing to the crude recording technology of the early 1920s, which was unable to fully reproduce the sound of a jazz band. The King Oliver Band no doubt had a fuller sound in person than on their records- the drummer was limited to a woodblock and the bass player played the banjo as the string bass would have driven the recording apparatus into a swoon.
So Lu Watters didn’t have a good idea of what the Oliver band sounded like when he developed his charts in the late 1930s- he went with Oliver’s instrumentation but opted for a brass bass instead of the nonexistent string bass from the Oliver band, but then, in keeping with the Oliver band’s recordings, had the drummer restrict his playing largely to the woodblocks- Bill Dart advanced to playing press rolls during the waning days of Hambone Kelly’s when Watters was working with a five-piece group.
Watters had the rhythm play a rocking two-beat rhythm which worked well in the YBJB. The music seemed to have an inexorable momentum, and the band worked well within the fairly moderate tempos Watters seems to have preferred; none of that racehorse dixieland that was coming into fashion in the 1940s.
The YBJB learned their music from arrangements- Watters wrote arrangements for all the band’s numbers beginning in the late 1930s but the arrangements were only used until the band were familiar with them- then they played and improvised on their own using the framework they’d memorized when they learned the tune. In the earlier days the band played a strictly traditional repertoire but as the 1940s wore on they added a few pop tunes to the book, particularly in the later days at Hambone Kelly’s.
Unlike almost any other revivalist jazz band, the Watters band used original material- Watters and Murphy each added tunes to the band’s book. Watters wrote Emperor Norton’s Hunch, Big Bear Stomp, Antigua Blues, and Sage Hen Strut, while Murphy contributed the Minstrels of Annie Street and Trombone Rag. These numbers all became standard tunes in the repertoire of the bands that followed in the wake of Lu Watters and Turk Murphy.
LU WATTERS’ INFLUENCE
Lu Watters’ influence began to spread the minutes his music appeared on record in 1941. He had disciples in the Bay Area who came to hear him at the Dawn Club to copy as much music as they could, much as the Austin High Gang crowded the bandstand at the Lincoln Gardens to try to figure out what Joe Oliver was doing. But he had disciples as far away as England and Australia almost from the start- the George Webb Dixielanders in England and Graeme Bell’s Australian jazzmen were early converts to the two-beat cause.
Other early Watters followers in the US included the Castle Jazz Band of Portland OR, the Firehouse Five Plus Two of Hollywood, and Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings of Dayton OH, all of which were active while Watters was still performing.
Band appearing later in the 1950s included the Bay City Jazz Band of San Francisco and Chicago’s Salty Dogs.
In more recent times, bands hewing to Watters’ doctrine included the South Frisco Jazz Band, Ted Shafer’s Jelly Roll Jazz Band, the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, the Devil Mountain Jazz Band, the the Down Home Jazz Band, Bob Schultz’ Frisco Jazz Band, and Jacques’ Gauthe’s Creole Rice Jazz Band, which took San Francisco jazz to New Orleans.
Lu Watters was fairly free with his music- he had piles of arrangements lying around his cottage and young bands would visit and he’d let go of an arrangement or two. Finally he made an deal with Dr Ed Lawless, one of his biggest fans, under which the arrangements were preserved and duplicated and now anyone in the world can buy Lu’s arrangements and start a band. As Bunk Johnson would have said,” they are hot as written.”
One of the things that made the YBJB great was the sterling lineup of musicians- he obviously gave great thought to the sound he wanted and went through several lineups until he had the band he wanted- they were a bandleaders dream- good musicianship, serious interest in the music and the ability to work long hours and keep the customers pleased.
His band spawned two popular groups of long standing- those of Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey. Murphy led his own band for almost forty years around San Francisco while Scobey, who died of cancer at a relatively young age, was successful both in the Bay Area and in the Midwest.
Bob Scobey (1916-63) worked as a dance band musician around the Bay Area until he met Watters in 1938- he joined the YBJB when it was organized and stayed until 1950 except for a three-year stretch in the Army during World War II. He led a group around San Francisco until the late 1950s, usually with Clancy Hayes.
He set up a home base in Chicago about 1957 and worked all over the midwest, also including a European tour as an added attraction with the Harlem Globetrotters. When he returned from Europe he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and struggled along for a year until he succumbed while in Montreal for an experimental treatment.
Turk Murphy (1915-87) became a beloved icon in San Francisco. Born in a small town in northern California, Murphy toured with big bands during the mid-30’s, settling in the Bay Area about the time the Big Bear sessions began. He joined the YBJB when it began, left for two years in the Navy and stayed around until 1949 when he started his own band.
He operated a series of clubs in San Francisco including Easy Street and several incarnations of Earthquake McGoon’s.
Murphy made dozens of recordings and took his music as far as Australia and toured much of the US in the 1950s, when traveling jazz bands were still the norm. He was one of the most beloved figures in traditional jazz and he was honored with a gala tribute concert at Carnegie Hall shortly before his death.
Bob Helm (1914-2003) was the clarinetist with Lu Watters from the start other than during WWII when he was serving in the Army; Ellis Horne filled in and appears on the first YBJB records. Helm was a quirky clarinetist, given to doing the unexpected and he was a beloved member of the San Francisco jazz scene until his death- he worked with a wide variety of small groups after he “retired” from Turk Murphy’s band in the early 1960’s.
Wally Rose (1913-97) was pianist in the band from 1940 on. He was a highly schooled pianist and instrumental in reviving ragtime in the 1940s, playing several rags with rhythm accompaniment on early YBJB records. He continued to be active right up to his death- he was with Turk Murphy until the late 1950s, then worked all over San Francisco as a soloist. He made two very successful ragtime LPs for Columbia Records in the early 1950s.
Clancy Hayes (1908-1972) was the banjoist for much of the band’s existence, though he also spent some time on the drums in the early days of the band. Hayes was a good vocalist and knew thousands of old numbers. He went on to a successful career with his own groups as well as with Bob Scobey .He was one of the original members of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.
Dick Lammi (1909-69) played the tuba with the YBJB and also string bass with the cutdown band during the last days of Hambone Kelly’s; he was also a banjo player. After his days with Watters, he worked with Dick Oxtot’s Polecats and Bob Scobey.
Bill Dart (1915-88) was the band’s only drummer- he worked with Bob Mielke’s Bearcats, Jack Sheedy’s dixieland band and Bob Scobey’s first band after Lu retired.
Lu Watters became a great enigma by dropping out of sight at the height of his career. Fifty-five years later peope are still listening to his music and recording tributes to him. I’m sure he was mystified as well as heartened by the continual attention to his music- he obviously knew exactly what he wanted to so and his arrangements, many of which were written at the beginning of the YBJB, have stood the test of time. There is probably no quicker way to organize a traditional jazz band than to find five or six guys with instruments, send for a pile of Lu’s arrangements and start practicing.
Hopefully, Lu’s name will stand the test of time and people generations from now will still have the opportunity to see what resulted from the collective boredom of a bunch of swing-era refugees.