© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“There is a paradox here. If Condon and friends started out as avant-garde renegades ("One of the ladies told me it was just like having the Indians in town again"), intent on playing jazz despite the indifference of "the Republicans" who preferred saccharine fiddle bands, they soon became the most cautious of musical populists. The more respectable and intellectual jazz became, the more they relished their reputations as "natural" musicians —the kind who can readily identify with young Eddie's rather disingenuous question, "What's reading got to do with music?" At times, he seemed to regard jazz as little more than a folk art, a non-stop jam session frequently sustained in an alcoholic mist (the children of the Volstead Act, he explains, inebriated themselves with a vengeance, as if to prove that no government could dictate sobriety). That attitude, bound to appeal to fans suffering from unrequited nostalgia, proved contagious, as witness the gee-whiz prose occasionally served up by commentators in the liner copy of Condon's record albums —e.g., ". . .a dozen good guys having a good time. That is, after all, what it is all about" or "This music is roadsters and girls and cutting classes and oranges." … Condon's best work has a spark of its own, and though he sometimes "conducted" more than he played, the bands that bore his name continued to produce memorable work by Russell, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Edmund Hall, Bud Freeman, Kenny Davern, and quite a few other Condon regulars.”
- Gary Giddins, Introduction to We Called It Music
As the title implies, this piece is about two subjects:  how the coming together of Jazz trumpet masters Joe “King” Oliver, Louis “Pops” Armstrong and Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke in the Chicago of the 1920s helped shape the development of Jazz after its formative years in New Orleans and  a brief excerpt on that subject from Eddie Condon’s autobiographical We Called It Music which Gary Giddins has described as “... a definitive statement on the first generation of white jazz musicians and how they saw themselves in relation to the black innovators that they emulated.”
Eddie Condon (1905-1973) pioneered a kind of jazz popularly known as Chicago-Dixieland, though musicians refer to it simply as Condon-style.
Played by small ensembles with a driving beat, it was and is an informal, exciting music, slightly disjointed and often mischievous. The same could be said of Condon's autobiography, We Called It Music: A Generation of Jazz, a book widely celebrated for capturing the camaraderie of early jazz.
Condon's wit was as legendary as the music he boosted. Here is Condon on modern jazz: The boppers flat their fifths. We consume ours." On Bix Beiderbecke: 'The sound came out like a girl saying yes." On the New York subway: "It was my first ride in a sewer."
When his memoir was first published—to great acclaim—in 1947, he was well known as a newspaper columnist, radio personality, saloon keeper, guitarist, and bandleader. He was the ideal man to come up with an insightful portrait of the early days of white jazz, and his book offers nonpareil accounts of many of the jazz greats of that era, including Beiderbecke, Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland, Gene Krupa, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby.
These were the days when jazz was popularly associated with Paul Whiteman and Irving Berlin. Condon considered true jazz an outlaw music and himself an outlaw. He and his cohorts tried to get as close as possible to the black roots of jazz, a scandalous thing in the '20s. Along the way, he facilitated one of the first integrated recording sessions.
We Called It Music, with the 1992 DaCapo paperback version published with an introduction by Gary Giddins that places the book in historical context, remains essential reading for anyone interested in the wild and restless beginnings of America's great musical art, or in the wit and vinegar of Eddie Condon.
The following excerpts from Condon’s We Called It Music will give you an idea of the nature of the writing of the book and afford a description about the dynamics between King Oliver, Pops and Bix in the socio-cultural environment that was Chicago in the 1920s. In its own way, it was a melting pot analogous to New Orleans in the preceding decade but with different elements: the Creole Jazz Band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Wolverines, the Austin High Gang and individual musicians including Benny Goodman and Davey Tough [not to mention Al Capone, the Chicago gangsters and the era of Prohibition brought in by the Volstead Act 1919/1920].
“Ain’t none of them played like him yet,” the title of a Brigitte Berman film taken from a quotation about Bix Beiderbecke attributed to Louis Armstrong, reflects the fact that although the young white musicians in Chicago were heavily influenced by the Black musicians who had come to town primarily from New Orleans, they went on to develop their own musical personalities and styles.
“CHICAGO'S SOUTH SIDE gave jazz a sincere welcome. When King Joe Oliver arrived in 1918 representatives of two bands met him at the station. Eddie Venson wanted him to play at the Royal Gardens Cafe with Jimmy Noone, Bill Johnson and Sidney Bechet were on hand to persuade him to join them at the Dreamland. The discussion shifted from the station to a bar and reached an amicable decision. Oliver joined both bands, playing early with one, late with the other. There was no one to challenge his title of King except Freddie Keppard. Keppard dropped in at the Royal Gardens one night and Oliver took him on in a "cutting" contest. The consensus was that, "Joe Oliver beat the socks off Keppard!”
Back in New Orleans, where he was born in 1885, Oliver learned music slowly. He began in formal fashion, reading notes and playing with a children's band. Once the children's band went on tour and Joe returned with a scar over one eye; someone had struck him with a broomstick. For a while he was called "Bad Eye" Joe. When he first played with the Eagle Band he was sent home because he played "so loud and so bad." He was confused because the players improvised instead of following the score. Gradually he learned the technique of improvisation and eventually produced a stomp of his own, called Dippermouth.
He went to work in Storyville, and there he heard nothing but praise for Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez. It irritated him; in his own opinion he was better than both men. He played in a cabaret at the Corner of Bienville and Marais Streets, with Big Eye Louis on clarinet, Deedee Chandler on drums, and Richard Jones at the piano. One night between numbers the musicians began talking about Keppard and Perez. Oliver stood up and walked to the piano. "Jones," he said, "best it out in B fiat."
Jones began and Joe put his cornet to his lips and blew. He walked out into the street and pointed his horn first at the cabaret where Keppard worked, then at the cafe where Perez was playing. He blew with such power that every bed and bar in the neighborhood emptied. People poured into the street and crowded around Joe, while he blew and blew, swinging his cornet from one target to the other. When everyone knew what he was doing and was satisfied with the way he was doing if, he turned and led the people inside. After that he was King Joe.
In Chicago in 1920 he organized his own Creole Jazz Band and took it to California. Returning to the south side he went again to the Royal Gardens, now re-christened the Lincoln Gardens. In 1922 he decided to send for his boy Louis Armstrong to play second cornet. Louis arrived and stood outside the cafe listening to the music, afraid to go in. He couldn't believe he was in Chicago, hired to play in a band with Papa Joe Oliver.
Louis Armstrong learned to play a cornet in the Waif's Home in New Orleans, to which he was sent for firing a pistol within the city limits on New Year's Day, 1913. Before that he haunted Storyville at night, singing in an urchins' quartet, playing on a guitar made from a cigar box. As he grew he played in cabarets, gin mills, and barrel houses. He spent two seasons with Fate Marable's band on the Streckfus river boats.
He composed a tune which later became very popular and sold it for fifty dollars. He was twenty-two when he arrived in Chicago on the night of July 8th. Listening to Papa Joe he thought, "I wonder if I'm good enough to play in that band." He was. People used to say to Oliver, "That boy will blow you out of business." Joe would smile and say, "He won't hurt me while he's in my band."
Before prohibition poured white patrons into the south side cafes there were white boys gathered around the bandstands at the Dreamland and Lincoln Gardens, some of them startlingly young. Musicians were discovering the new music and listening to its masters. Members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the white jazz orchestra at Friars' Inn, came to listen to their old Storyville colleagues. They listened so well that one of their recordings, Tin Roof Blues, contained more than a surface resemblance to King Oliver's Jazzin' Babies' Blues.
The younger white boys were high-school students — Dave Tough, George Wettling, Francis Muggsy Spanier, Benny Goodman, and a group from Austin High on the west side: Jimmy McPartland, Lawrence Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemacher, and Jim Lannigan. At home these boys practiced and listened to records by the Rhythm Kings and the Oliver band; they were determined to play jazz. They formed small orchestras, played at school dances, and went to the south side or to Friars' Inn to take lessons from the masters of their respective instruments — Baby Dodds on drums, Jimmy Noone and Johnny Dodds and Leon Roppolo on clarinet, Joe and Louis on cornet, George Brunies on trombone.
The star of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings was Leon Roppolo, who played clarinet; the driving force of the band was George Brunies, the trombone player. Both were from New Orleans; both were from musical families; both were veterans of Storyville. Roppolo ran away from home when he was fourteen and played in a band with Bee Palmer's act on the Orpheum circuit; the police found him and sent him home. He worked then at the Halfway House in Storyville with Abbie Brunies, George's brother. In Chicago in 1920 he and George and Paul Mares played at the Cascades Ballroom, where the piano was half a tone off. They organized the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and got a job at Friars' Inn on the strength of their version of Wabash Blues. So enchanted were the Rhythm Kings with Chicago life that after work in the early dawn they rode around for hours on the elevated. Roppolo slowly went mad; he liked to lean against a telephone pole with his clarinet and improvise on the rhythm he heard humming in the wires. He stood on the stand at the Friars' Inn and played chorus after chorus while the customers stopped dancing to listen. The manager begged him to stop so the people could sit down and spend some money. When he was harmlessly insane he went back to New Orleans and Abbie Brunies took him again into the band at the Halfway House and looked after him.
They all knew Bix Beiderbecke, the round-eyed, eager-faced youngster from Davenport with the mousy hair and the marvelous ear. They knew the Condon kid from Chicago Heights, too; he was small, quick-moving, clothes-conscious, sharp-tongued, seldom still, and forever organizing parties, dates, and excursions to the south side. They called him "Slick." He was innocently frank with phonies; otherwise he talked in a mixture of understatement and hyperbole. About Louis Armstrong's cornet playing he would say, "It doesn't bother me." In describing Gene Krupa to George Wettling he said, "He's got a seventy-two-inch heart." He was passionately, deeply devoted to jazz, proselyted constantly in its behalf, refused to solo on his own instrument, and pioneered in the appreciation of Beiderbecke. Bix's playing never bothered him; Bix's indifference to clothes and fresh linen and romance did.
Bix was never actually a person; he was a living legend. Nothing which has been invented about him is as accurately symbolical as the everyday things he did. Without effort he personified jazz; by natural selection he devoted himself to the outstanding characteristics of the music he loved. He was obsessed with it; with the aid of prohibition and its artifacts he drove away all other things — food, sleep, women, ambition, vanity, desire. He played the piano and the cornet, that was all; when he was sick the Whiteman band kept an empty chair for him; when he died no one was glad and many wept.
He was born Leon Bismark Beiderbecke on March 10, 1903, in Davenport, Iowa. As a child he reached to the keyboard and picked out tunes; he knew the air of The Second Hungarian Rhapsody when he was three. He took a few lessons; he didn't learn to read music. On the river boats which came to Davenport in summer he heard jazz. He bought a cornet and taught himself to play; his fingering was unorthodox; he developed a round, full tone which was a wonder and a delight to all who heard it.
For a brief period he attended Lake Forest Academy in Chicago; he won prizes in music and flunked everything else. He listened to the jazz bands in Chicago, and when the players knew him and had heard him they asked him to sit in. He jobbed around with small pickup bands through the Middle West until 1923, when Dick Voynow, a piano player, organized the Wolverines. They made records for Gennett, a small recording studio at Richmond, Indiana, owned by the Starr Company, Hoagy Carmichael heard Bix and brought the Wolverines to Indiana University in the spring of 1924; alter eight return visits on eight successive week ends the Bix legend was begun. The Wolverines toot their place as one of the great white jazz bands; their records were a sensation; Bix was on his way.
In Chicago, young Condon and his friends played the records of the Wolverines and waited impatiently for Bix to hit town so they could hear him on the piano and take him to hear Bessie Smith. Bessie was Empress of the Blues. Ma Rainey, another great blues singer, discovered her in Tennessee, singing for $2.50 a week in tent shows. Bessie had a contralto voice of such power and range and tone, of such richness and adaptability, that there was no one to rival or imitate or follow her. She was unmatched; in the days before the depression Negroes stood in line all over the country to buy her records: Empty Bed Blues, Careless Love, Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out, Young Woman's Blues. She sang many of the blues written by Clarence Williams, the New Orleans piano player who migrated to Chicago, opened a music shop on State Street, and became the publisher of his own songs.
State Street was lined with cafes and theaters where jazz bands played — the Elite, the Pekin, the Fiume, the Dreamland, the Panama, the Rose Garden, the Edelweiss and the Little Edelweiss, the Open Air Gardens, and the Vendome and Lincoln Theaters. There was also the New Orleans Babe's Saloon and Restaurant, and, nearby on Wabash Avenue, the Dusty Bottom open air cafe. Wandering from saloon to saloon was a man named Jimmy Yancey, a piano player with a strong, rolling, rhythmic bass. Jimmy had been a vaudeville performer; now he was a favorite at rent parties. When things were low just before dawn he played his Five O'clock Blues. Others picked up his style—Pine Top Smith, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis. It was given a name, boogie woogie.
Jazz was not considered a proper profession for well-bred young white men; band leaders who dispensed popular music were as disapproving as parents who revered Beethoven. The Austin High boys and their friends had to work in cabarets and speakeasies; Al Capone and his lieutenants replaced the madams of Storyville as sponsors for the new music. Playing in small groups, experimenting with techniques, the youngsters developed a style based upon but different from New Orleans jazz. The beat was pushed and nervous, the tympani had the urgent sound of Indian drums; there was tenseness, almost frenzy, in the solo flights of the horns; there was not the unhurried, effortless, relaxed mood of Negro jazz.
Improvisation by adolescent white boys reared in polite homes was bound to be different from the conversational instrumentation of colored men belonging to a minority of thirteen million submerged in the freest nation on earth. It was a fresh expression, a new voice; it was first heard outside its habitat when in 1928 Okeh released a record made by seven of the youngsters: Frank Teschemaker, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Sullivan, Jim Lannigan, Gene Krupa, and Eddie Condon. Condon organized the band, Red McKenzie arranged the recording date.
McKenzie was an ex-jockey, born in Holy Name parish in St. Louis in 1899, the last of ten children, christened William. After breaking both arms in his chosen profession he retired and hopped bells at the Claridge Hotel in St. Louis. Standing on the sidewalk waiting for patrons to arrive he folded a piece of paper over a comb and blew tunes to amuse himself. Across the street a Negro bootblack played a phonograph and beat out the rhythm on his customers' shoes. A young clerk named Dick Slevin came out of Butler Brothers Store with a kazoo' and hummed along with the music. McKenzie crossed the street and joined in. Slevin knew a man named Jack Bland who played a banjo. Bland, Slevin, and McKenzie began playing together. They went to Chicago with Gene Rodemich’s band as a novelty. Isham Jones got them a recording date with Brunswick. They played Arkansas Blues and Blue Blues; the records sold more than a million copies. The Mound City Blue Blowers, as they called themselves, went on tour. In Atlantic City McKenzie met Eddie Lang, another banjo player. McKenzie persuaded him to take np the guitar and join the Blowers. It was Lang who so popularized the guitar that the banjo disappeared from jazz orchestras. Before that happened McKenzie met another banjo player in Chicago, took him into partnership, and brought liim to New York.”
[That other banjo player was Eddie Condon …. To be continued].