Tag Archives: Emmett Hardy

CONSIDERING THE MYSTERY: “THE BOSWELL LEGACY,” by KYLA TITUS and CHICA BOSWELL MINNERLY

I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data.  Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence.  So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.

After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940.  We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.

The Sisters when young.

The Sisters when young.

But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.

BOSWELL LEGACY cover

The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures.  During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician.  (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)

But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name.  The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries.  “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”

Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet.  So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation.  Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction.  In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom.  But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible.  And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness.  Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).

(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)

The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there.  The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence.  We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts.  Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.

I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout.  One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk.  No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly.  When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.

The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio.  Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded.  They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television.  But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.

But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women.  And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.

At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened.  Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces?  Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy?  Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.

Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment.  It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.

The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups.  To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations.  I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the  Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents.  Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.

Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)

Enough words.  Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:

No one’s replaced them; no one ever will.

May your happiness increase!

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“BIG EASY BIG BANDS: DAWN AND RISE OF THE JAZZ ORCHESTRA,” by EDDY DETERMEYER

A successful book on jazz has to be accurate, unbiased, and deep.  The writer shouldn’t twist evidence to fit an ideology; (s)he has to base conclusions on solid research; ideally, the book has to contain something new.

Eddy Determeyer’s new book on New Orleans “big bands” is successful in these ways.  I knew his work from his 2009 RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS: JIMMIE LUNCEFORD AND THE HARLEM EXPRESS — a beautifully thorough and lively study of that band and its somewhat elusive leader — so I was eager to read BIG EASY BIG BANDS.

BIG EASY BIG BANDS

It’s a fascinating book because it focuses on an aspect of New Orleans jazz and dance music that we knew existed but that apparently never received such loving attention — “orchestras,” groups larger than five or six pieces, relying on written arrangements — from the teens to the present day.

Determeyer’s scope is broad: in this book, one finds Louis Armstrong and Joe Robichaux, Champion Jack Dupree, Aaron Bell, Benny Powell, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Wallace Davenport, Sam Lee, Ed Blackwell, Dooky Chase, “Mr. Google Eyes,” Papa Jack Laine, and many others.

That a number of those names are less familiar is the point of the book, and testimony to the hard work behind it.  For one thing, Determeyer has shown by his research that there was a vital musical tradition in New Orleans running parallel to the one that most of us acknowledge: street musicians, small improvising bands, larger marching aggregations.  But — so runs the accepted myth — the “big bands” came out of Kansas City, New York, and Chicago, leaving New Orleans as a kind of improvisers’ Eden, both pure and somewhat behind the curve.

Determeyer’s research, from Congo Square to hard bop, shows that there was much more going on: picnics at Milneburg, steamboats and minstrel shows, Sam Morgan’s band, the excursion boats — with Fate Marable in charge (including drummer Monk Hazel’s account of a cutting contest between Emmett Hardy and young Louis (where Louis is reputed to have said, “You is the king!).

One of the strengths of Determeyer’s book is that the reader glides happily from one vivid anecdote to another: Huey Long saws off one leg of a three thousand dollar Steinway grand so that it can get into a club; Joe Robichaux, forty years later, is nearly done in by the erotic / financial insistence of a Japanese prostitute.  Cap’n John Handy sits in with his younger namesake, John Handy, and they have a good time.

It’s a thoroughly entertaining and informative book — stretching from the 1700s in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina — with a number of surprising photographs, an index, and clear links to research sources.

You can purchase a copy at the Determeyer’s webstore — BIG EASY BIG BANDS is surprisingly affordable.  It will entertain and enlighten . . . what more could we ask?

May your happiness increase.

IT’S A MYSTERY

This photograph has turned up again in the JAZZ LIVES archives.  It’s clearly a hot band, but little is known about the musicians.

One reader speculated that this was an otherwise undocumented Wooden Joe Nicholas street band — possibly playing FIG LEAF RAG before answering a request for MILK COW BLUES.

It has been proven through use of an electron microscope that the figure, far left, may be playing a green plastic alto, a precursor of Charlie Parker in 1951.

That the smaller trumpeter in the middle (with red shoes) may be Jack Purvis has not been ruled out, although he more strongly resembles Emmett Hardy.

It might be a Woody Herman small group.

May your happiness increase. 

“AN AFFECTIONATE TONE”

That phrase is how cornetist Jimmy McPartland remembered the sound of Bix Beiderbecke’s playing.  It applies just as well to a book about Bix by the late Rich Johnson (with Jim Arpy and Gerri Blowers): BIX: The Davenport Album.

And an album is what this book is — nearly seven hundred pages of newspaper clippings, first-hand reminiscences, and photographs detailing Bix’s life and music.  Now, given that there have been a number of biographies of Bix, one might ask why such a book needed to be written.  But from the first page, it’s evident that Johnson was a masterful researcher, and that his diligence allows us to hear the now-silenced voices of people who knew Bix — primarily from his home town of Davenport, Iowa.  So it’s not the usual chronicle of gigs played, punctuated by comments from famous musicians.  (The book does, by the way, have comments from Bix’s famous colleagues, including Hoagy Carmichael, Armand Hug, Benny Goodman, Wingy Manone, and Louis Armstrong — but they are delightful ornaments to Johnson’s wider view.)

The people who knew Bix as a friend, a schoolmate, and a member of the community offer their voices and memories: many of them born in the earliest years of the last century.  These sweetly affectionate narratives make us see Bix anew: not simply as a phenomenal cornetist and improviser, but as the boy next door, one of the gang of kids.  The effect is very touching and intimate, as if we had been invited into their homes to drink tea and chat.

Here’s Leon Wermentein (1902-89): “I remember one Halloween night that he came to our neighborhood.  There was an old maid sourpuss everybody was scared to death of.  We dumped ashes on her porch and then rang the bell.  Bix was the last one to jump away a the door opened.  The old maid reached out, grabbed Bix and yanked him into the house.  Well, we didn’t know what would happen.  We all sat across the street staring at the house and wondering what she was going to do to Bix.  After about ten or fifteen minutes, the door finally opened and out came Bix carrying two big bags of cookies.  That’s the kind of guy he was.  He could win anybody over.  He was a charmer.”

We hear from Theresa Beyer (1911-2003) sister of Carlile Evans — in whose band clarinetist Leon Rappolo and cornetist Emmett Hardy played: “[Roppolo[ lived with us.  I remember many a night waking up and hearing him play clarinet.  He couldn’t read or write music, but boy, could he play.  The only thing . . . the only bad thing . . .he moked muggles, I think they called it.  My brother tried to get him to quit but he never did.”

Rolla Chalupa (1904-98), the Davenport postmaster, recalled Sophie Tucker’s appearances at the Columbia Theatre, where Bix (still in school) played cornet in the pit orchestra some nights and on weekends — and Tucker always introduced Bix as “the greatest trumpet player in the world.”

The book offers the sweet memories of Thelma Griffin, Bix’s Valentine in 1921: “I’m a pianist myelf and listeners tell me I have a different style.  It’s one that Bix taught me, how to play Somebody Stole My Gal, with a beat at the end where he’d come in on cornet.  Bix was just a wonderful guy.  I can’t believe some of the things they say about him today.  He and I were jut friends, even if the Valentine I’ve kept all these year does say To my sweetheart.  He was friendly, but shy.  I never dreamed that Bix would reach the status he did.  I moved to Springfield about the time he started on his road to the top bands.  We corresponded for a while, but I didn’t save his letters.  Sometimes I wish I had, now that he’s famous.”

And there’s more — the reminiscences quite affectionate, even Chet Salter, who remembered perhaps seventy years after the fact that Bix still owes him eight dollars for a pair of football shoes. 

Of course, since some of the incidents of Bix’s life are less fortunate — his alcoholism for one — Johnson does not ignore them, and I learned more about the “cure” at the Keeley Institute than I had expected.  But the overall tone of the book is anything but tragic or critical: it is a generous, sometimes sprawling valentine to Bix from the people who loved him — as a person as well as a musician.