At the most recent (November 2013) San Diego Jazz Fest, a friend introduced a smiling woman to me with these words, “Michael, this is Vonne. Her father was Tommy Thunen.” I was very excited, and told Vonne so, for I knew her father’s name for years: as the second or third trumpet player on many Red Nichols recordings. She was happy that I was so excited, and she promised to send more about her father.
The children of jazz heroes — a rare breed — fascinate me. Many of the musicians I admire were childless, or their relations with their children were less than ideal — so my occasional attempts to speak with these survivors have not always been successful. Nephews and nieces, grandchildren and cousins have surfaced but little substantial has come of these brief contacts. (A notable exception has been the interchanges I’ve had, documented in JAZZ LIVES, with the very generous son of Leo McConville, a trumpeter who probably sat alongside Thunen many times in the late Twenties and middle Thirties.)
But Vonne clearly remembers her father with affection:
My dad, Tommy Thunen, played with Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, and later Russ Morgan. As you probably know, Russ Morgan played at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley for a number of years. My dad played with Abe Lyman’s Orchestra in the 30’s I believe. He also played on two radio programs in New York. One was called “Waltz Time” on Friday nights and the other was “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” on Sundays. I believe it was one of the major radio stations in New York.
In later years he was living in San Fernando Valley and played with a band led by Rosy McHargue at a place called The Cobblestone, and he also played with Rosy in Las Vegas. Musicians have told me that he had a “sweet” sound. He also played cornet and alto sax. One of his first “gigs” was at age 13 when he played at an Armistice parade at the end of the first World War.
My own investigation into Tommy’s recorded work as documented in the “jazz” records to be found in Tom Lord’s discography shows him to be a New York regular who traveled in fast company: not only with Nichols, but the Irving Mills recording groups that used men out of the Ben Pollack Orchestra, starting in 1929.
Tommy played alongside Gene Krupa, Jimmy McPartland, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Larry Binyon, Ray Bauduc, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Mannie Klein, Dave Tough, Red McKenzie, Pee Wee Russell, Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller, Irving Brodsky, Joe Tarto, Mickey Bloom, Rube Bloom, Babe Russin, Adrian Rollini, Tommy Dorsey, Tony Parenti, Annette Hanshaw, Eddie Miller, and other New York Reliables — all of this in 1929-30. He surfaces again on some hot recordings by the Abe Lyman band in 1933, and then not again until working with Rosy McHargue in 1957, and — fittingly — he is the sole trumpet, out in the open, on his final recordings with Jack Teagarden in Jack’s Sextet that same year: the soundtrack from a television program, a July appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, and a promotional record of the Marlboro cigarette jingle in September — alongside Jerry Fuller, Don Ewell, Stan Puls, and Monte Mountjoy.
I can’t offer JAZZ LIVES readers tangible evidence of Tommy’s sweet sound, but here are two records where he is said to be playing. Is that him on the bridge of I’VE GOTTA HAVE YOU? (The pleasure of hearing Red McKenzie — and tenor saxophone soloing by Pee Wee Russell — makes up for all uncertainties.)
Other recordings on YouTube might have Tommy in the personnel: a search will turn up some lovely music from Annette Hanshaw, among others.
But now for the photographs!
Here’s bandleader Abe Lyman, inscribed to Vonne:
“Jean Wakefield and her Mischief Makers”:
All I know about mischievous Jean is she and the Makers are listed in the radio section of the Berkeley, California, Daily Gazette for Saturday, November 7, 1931, broadcasting over KLX at 7 PM. (Airchecks, anyone?) To me, the most important part of that photograph is the inscription on the left.
Here’s a band appearing at a nightspot with its own kind of transient fame, Fatty Arbuckle’s Cobblestone Cafe:
and some needed identification:
I haven’t found any reference to the Cobblestone Cafe, although I don’t have a biography of Arbuckle at hand. He was dead in mid-1933 and this photograph is from some decades later. Aside from Tommy, the most famous musician, pianist Arthur Schutt, who lived until 1965, is hidden from view. Clarinetist Gene Bolen, however, recorded from the late Fifties onwards, so I await informed speculations about a more precise dating.
Rosy McHargue and his Dixieland Band, dated 1953:
I hope we will find out more about the life and music of Tommy Thunen, not only from his daughter.
I think of him as a professional musician who is now characterized, if at all, as a “jazz musician,” then a “studio musician,” perhaps a “Dixieland jazz player.”
But the music we hold dear is not simply a matter of famous soloists and stars, the people about whom biographies are written, but of reliable professionals whose names aren’t famous, indispensable craftspeople nevertheless. These quiet men and women might appear predictably bourgeois, not exciting. But any communal art form — be it jazz, the symphony, or the theatre — needs people one can count on to be on time, well-prepared, clean, sober, expert. After the fact, people tell tales of the brilliant musician who is also unpredictable — but such artists are at best hard on everyone’s nervous system. But we are more intrigued by Jack Purvis or Charlie Parker than Mannie Klein or Hilton Jefferson.
How many beautiful players were there who did their work superbly but never got interviewed, whose names were known only to fellow musicians and discographers . . . who made the whole enterprise of music go on as it did?
I’d like to see books called THE JAZZ PROFESSIONALS — consider among thousands Harold Baker, Buster Bailey, Murray McEachern, Helen Humes and Nick Fatool — people who didn’t lead bands or win Metronome polls, but who were the very foundation of what we take for granted.
And Tommy Thunen, about whom we now know a little more, thanks to his daughter.
May your happiness increase!