Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft was a pianist and jazz fancier and eyewitness in the Twenties: you can read his first-hand recollections of Jack Pettis, Bix, Bud Freeman, the Wolverines, and more, in a 1961 interview he did for the Tulane University archives. And if you search this blog, you’ll find a series of video interviews I did with Squirrel’s friend and life-student, Hank O’Neal. But from the early Thirties on, he and his wife Jane opened their Evanston, Illinois home to their jazz-musician friends, who brought their horns and voices. (In the 1940 census, it’s listed as 1144 Asbury Avenue, for those who wish to make pilgrimages.)
Early on, the sessions got recorded on disc; later, their friend John Steiner used his tape machine. The collective fun is evident from the first note — their expertise, too, as no one misses a key change. And the easy friendship of artists who aren’t competitive but communal is also immediately apparent. True, it isn’t a polished recording session; there’s the hiss of much-copied tape; many of the performances are incomplete. But the pleasure of artists playing for themselves and a small convivial audience is precious. Red isn’t always perceived as such a lyrical player, but hear him — and his friends — blossom in easy, romantic fashion throughout.
The players are Nichols, cornet; Joe Rushton, bass sax (clarinet on SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH); Jack Gardner, piano; George Kenyon, mellophone; Jack Howe, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Bill Priestley, guitar; Phil Atwood, string bass. EASTER PARADE / INDIANA / OH, BABY! / THE GIRL FRIEND / HONEYSUCKLE ROSE (excerpt) / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ / LOUISIANA / BALLIN’ THE JACK / SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH / LIMEHOUSE BLUES / SUGAR / TEA FOR TWO (one and two) / AFTER YOU’VE GONE (incomplete) //. The original tape is thanks to John L. Fell, whose source may have been Joe Boughton. Other sessions at Squirrel’s were issued on a series of ten-inch lps; this one wasn’t. I don’t know if Nichols was still under contract to Capitol Records or he thought this recording too loose for the general public. But it sounds so delightful:
And, no, the vault of joyous treasures isn’t about to be emptied any time soon. Here’s to collectors like my dear departed friend John L. Fell, who showed me that music is meant to be shared with those who love it just as much. . . .that the other side, the more important side of “collecting,” was “giving.”
On the subject of giving, the reigning Nichols authority, Stephen Hester (who, with his father, has done beautiful deep research on all things Red) sent me this photograph a few minutes ago — Red and Joe Rushton at the session (note Red’s cloth mute!). Thank you, Stephen!
May your happiness increase!