Date Posted: 2006-03-17
By Paige VanVorst
Eddie Condon is one of the cornerstones upon which the CRC group of labels is based. While he wasn`t one of the group gathered in the Beltone Studios on August 16, 1949, his spirit certainly was there- most of the players in the room that day had been Condonites at one time or another and there was nothing laid down that day that he would`t have heartily approved.
Eddie Condon made his first appearance on Jazzology when J-10 was issued in 1965, and that was the first of very many compilations, including the first-ever complete and chronological release of the fabled Town Hall Concerts. We are reissuing a number of Condon sets this time out and if you`re a Condon fan you can choose between highlights from many periods in his musical career. We`ll take this opportunity to talk a bit about the man and his music.
Albert Edwin Condon was born in Goodland, IN on November 16, 1905. His father was a railroad man and ultimately moved his growing family to Momence IL, a gritty railroad town South of Chicago, where he opened a tavern. Eddie, the youngest of nine children, grew up in a musical environment- his sisters all took piano lessons and by the time he was a pre-teen they had a family quartet with his father on violin, brother Clifford on alto horn, one of his sisters on piano, and young Eddie on ukulele. By the time he was in high school he was absolutely mad about music and left school at the age of sixteen to go on the road with a band, Hollis Peavey`s Jazz Bandits. He stayed with them two years, traveling all around the country, one of many unrecorded and largely-unremembered bands of that era.
Condon left the road in1924 and settled in Chicago. As Eddie put it, "1924 was a good year to be in Chicago. I heard Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong at the Lincoln Gardens and guys like Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and Dave Tough were just learning to play their instruments. I got to spend a lot of time with Bix and the migration of musicians to New York had not yet started. There`s always a right time to be in a certain place. This was the right time to be in Chicago."
Condon worked around Chicago for about three years, taking summer work in some of the resort areas in nearby Wisconsin.
By 1927 the Chicagoans had their act together- they`d been working in various small groups and by 1927 they were finished musicians- slow starters like Bud Freeman had caught up with the faster learners like Jimmy McPartland and Frank Teschmacher; they were ready to record. McKenzie and Condon`s Chicagoans entered the Okeh studios December 8, 1927 and made history. These sides marked the first recordings of what has become known as Chicago style jazz. The players almost all became household words- Jimmy McPartland, Frank Teschmacher, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Jim Lanigan, and Dave Tough. The four sides have been reissued countless times and bands still play the numbers.
Their flowering on the Chicago recording scene was brief- to a man they left for New York within a year. Bix Beiderbecke had gone there first and when the Big Apple didn`t chew him up and spit him back, Condon decided to try the big time, though he said he always intended to return to Chicago when he left initially.
The Chicagoans got to New York at exactly the wrong time- within a year the stock market crash brought the good times to an end and dried up the little recording sessions that the Chicagoans had been relying on to pay the rent.
Luckily for Condon he`d been working with the Mound City Blue Blowers, featuring comb-and-paper virtuoso Red McKenzie, who were then a hot novelty act and still getting some vaudeville bookings and a few recording sessions.
During this period Condon was instrumental in breaking the color line in the recording studios- the Eddie`s Hot Shots session, two Victor sides recorded 2/8/29, featured Eddie, Mezz Mezzrow and Jack Teagarden with Leonard Davis, Happy Caldwell and George Stafford, an unprecedented mixed band. This led to sessions soon after with Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong- Condon suggested the Armstrong date to Okeh, convincing them he hadn`t harmed Victor with his recent date for them. During this period Condon was part of some of the most spectacular jam session recordings of all time- the two 1932 ARC sessions by the
Rhythmakers- Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Fats Waller, Jack Bland, Pops Foster and Zutty Singleton in some of the freest-swinging jazz recorded up til then.
During the 1930s, Condon was just another jobbing musician- he worked on 52nd St with the novelty group led by Mike Reilly and Eddie Farley ("The Music Goes `Round and `Round"), played several engagements on cruise ships, and generally scuffled around New York.
The guys were far from flush during this period- Condon claimed to have been a record collector until he lost his collection when he was locked out of his hotel room for non-payment of rent- he spent a week trying to find someone to put him up and when he went back for his records they were gone and he never replaced them.
The times were riotous during those days- the booze flowed freely, no one had much responsibility, and the partying was 24/7. One time they were smoking marijuana and someone dropped the remaining dope on the mattress and it fell
into the ridges- Condon tried to roll up the mattress and smoke it.
He went into Nick`s in 1937 and that was the beginning of his association with the nightclub business. He started recording in earnest about the same time. He inaugurated the Commodore label with a session cut January 17, 1938. The session was scheduled for the morning after Benny Goodman`s Carnegie Hall Concert as there would be plenty of musicians in town to choose from. This was the first session for an independent jazz label- prior to this session jazz recording was beholden to the normal record labels, whose interest in small-group jazz was limited to the ability of the hot soloists to lay down spontaneous backings behind a number of vocalists on four-tune sessions of pop material.
Condon had put in his time backing Tempo King, Putney Dandridge, Sharkey Bonano and Bunny Berigan on largely-expendable material. Now he was in charge of the session and they could do what they wanted without worrying about some A&R man interfering with their choruses. They were even allowed to stretch out- the 3/23/40 session was devoted entirely to A Good Man is Hard to Find- Eddie and his boys stretch out over four sides- the longest extended improvisation recorded to date, and the harbinger of Condon`s recording sessions of ten years later.
One of Eddie`s associates during this period was cornetist Bobby Hackett.
Hackett had made an attempt to lead his own big band which was entirely
unsuccessful- Bobby was not able to maintain discipline in the group, as it was full of his friends, and they drank just as much as he did. Bobby had assembled a beautiful set of arrangements which were lying unused. Condon was out of work- fired by Nick- and took a small band to Princeton for a private job. The guys got to talking and decided to form a co-operative band and use some of Hackett`s arrangements.
When Condon got back to NY he had a call from Nick- could he come back to the club? Condon talked the whole band back in. As he explained to Nick,"This is a co-operative band," I explained to Nick. "It won`t make any difference what you pay us as individuals. We`ll put it in a pool and divide it equally. "
"Do what you like," he said. "What about a name for the band? How about the Wildcats?"
"The basketball season is over," I said.
"Get a name for yourself or you`ll open as the Wildcats," he said.
"I called up Phyllis Smith (later Mrs. Condon); she was working in an advertising agency.
Give me a name for a jazz band composed of hand-picked musicians,â," I said.
"Summa Cum Laude," she said.
"Don`t talk with your mouth full of food," I said. "I`ll wait until you are finished."
"It means the very best, the tops," she said. "It`s a Latin phrase- In college if you win highest honors, you are graduated summa cum laude. It`s just right for your mob."
I told Nick. He nodded. "I was almost graduated with it," he said, "but who can pronounce it."
"What difference does it make so long as we don`t play it," I said.
"ove in," Nick said.
The Summa Cum Laudes, or the Some Come Louders, as the Ivy League sophisticates who began to frequent Nicks used to say, were one of the earliest small bands to captivate the New York scene. They made a superb series of sides for Columbia in 1940 under Bud Freeman`s leadership and enjoyed a long run at Nick`s.
By this time Condon was becoming a ubiquitous force on the New York jazz scene. He had good connections with the press and his partners all seemed to be involved in the advertising industry, so he was getting good publicity for free.
In 1942 he was tapped to record a series of four Town Hall jam sessions to be distributed to South American radio outlets . They were apparently mastered but never distributed and no copies have surfaced. The idea remained with Eddie and his people, however, and surfaced two years later with a new series of staged jam sessions. There were a few local shows beginning at the end of 1943 and by early 1944 Condon and his mob were ready for the big time. They hit the ground running May 27, 1944 and ran for almost a year, broadcasting initially from Town Hall, later from the Ritz Theater.
By the end of the series Eddie was a household word and he took advantage of his status to open his own nightclub. He signed the lease for the old Howdy Club, 47 West Third St, in Greenwich Village on Friday, July 13, 1945 and opened the club December 20. The original band included Wild Bill Davison, Joe Marsale, Dave Tough, Gene Schroeder, Brad Gowans and Bob Casey. Joe Sullivan worked as intermission pianist. The club was a success from the first and became a New York institution. Condon worked the room, taking care of customers and occasionally sitting on the stand with his pork chop, a name he always applied to his guitar, which was always a four-string Gibson.
The club became a hangout for show business celebrities as well as the literary crowd. John Steinbeck and John O`Hara were regulars along with most of the working journalists in New York.
Condon was probably the first jazz musician to appear on television. In 1942 there were a handful of TV sets in New York but CBS broadcast four Condon concerts before wartime restrictions cut the series off the air. He returned to the air in 1947 with a regular series on local station WPIX which developed into a sustaining NBC series, Eddie Condon`s Floor Show, which ran on Saturday nights for about a year.
Condon took up writing about the same time, completing an autobiography, We Called It Music, in 1947. A few years later he was even called upon to write a jazz column for the New York Journal-American, Pro and Condon, where he`d write about the jazz scene and review records. He continued to record as well, producing a series of excellent Columbia LPs.
Eddie Condon`s continued on Third Street until his lease finally ran out in 1958. He was out of the club business about a year and finally reopened at 330 E 56th St. The second club stayed open until 1967, when Condon retired from the nightclub business.
During the later 50`s and early 60`s, the Condon band was an important attraction overseas, and they toured to the four corners of the world- working jobs all over Europe as well as in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Eddie started to slow down in the early 1970s- his hard life was starting to catch up with him, but he continued working, though by this time he was sometimes appearing for no money, just going along to shake hands and sign autographs, and, if the spirit moved him, a bit of inaudible rhythm guitar. I met Eddie during one of these shows and found him to be a very interesting man, easy to meet, and he autographed the bottle of scotch I was drinking from and the paper bag I was carrying it in (I think I`m still holding the bag- the bottle is long gone.) His last extended work was a tour with the Stars of Jazz, in 1971. Columbia Artists organized a seven-week tour covering twenty-six states for an all-star band including Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Barney Bigard, Art Hodes, Jim Beebe, Rail Wilson and Hillard Brown.
Eddie made his last public appearances at a tribute to him at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival and died the following year, August 4, 1973.
Eddie Condon will be remembered as long as jazz is listened to- he probably did more to promote it than any other musician, and he led a band longer than almost anyone. When he was coming up in Chicago he was surrounded by young
players- he had the tenacity to crawl to the top, leaving behind guys like Wop Waller and Murph Podolsky, rising to the top of the jazz world along with Wild Bill Davison, Bud Freeman and PeeWee Russell. We`re glad to release a number of sets featuring Eddie Condon in honor of his centennial; unfortunately we had a bad storm in New Orleans that threw us off our schedule a bit and we`ve
actually missed his centennial by about three months.
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