Tag Archives: Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee

LEGENDS REVISITED: THE SONS OF BIX (Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978: Tom Pletcher, Don Ingle, John Harker, Don Gibson, Russ Whitman, Dave Miller, Glenn Koch) with an APPRECIATION by DAVID JELLEMA

Of course, the Legends are Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Adrian Rollini, and their majestic colleagues.  But from this distance — can it be a little more than forty years ago? — Messrs. Pletcher, Ingle, Harker, Gibson, Whitman, Miller, and Koch are legendary as well.

I asked someone who is too young to be a legend but certainly plays like one, David Jellema, to write an appreciation of this band, this video, and Tom Pletcher, and I am delighted to present it to you.  David, whom I’ve known for more than a few years, is a world-class cornet and clarinet hero, hot and lyrical, his work intelligent and passionate, his style all his own even when he is paying tribute to the Masters who have inspired him.  At the end of this presentation, I’ll share a few videos where David shines and list a few sessions that delightfully showcase his work.

But now, to the Sons, through David’s affectionate and perceptive lens.

In the 1970s and 80s, many of the founding fathers of jazz and swing, although in their twilight years, were fortunately yet with us. It was also a great time for the second generation of jazzmen not only to be personally influenced by the ancestors, but to be mingling and collaborating to make their own unique sweet preserves of musical fruits. Bands featured at many of the revival traditional jazz festivals tapped specific, living veins of American jazz heritage.

There were a few bands on the scene that dedicated themselves to the memorialization of the legend of Bix Beiderbecke, some featured over the years at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society jazz festival in Davenport, Iowa where Bix was born. One such specialty band, western Michigan’s “The Jackpine Savages,” formed in 1971, had the expected repertoire of traditional jazz standards and many tunes that Beiderbecke had recorded, but had the honored distinction of including leader Don Ingle (Baldwin, Michigan) on valve trombone and vocals, and Tom Pletcher (Montague, Michigan) on cornet.

Ingle’s father, Ernest ‘Red’ Ingle, played tenor sax and violin,and over his career had recorded with Ted Weems, Spike Jones Orchestra, and his own group,the Natural Seven. For an engagement in Cincinnati in May and June 1927, Red appeared on tenor sax with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. So Don Ingle (1931-2012, who, as an infant, had been held in Bix’s own arms), inheriting his father’s music, humor, and artistic talents, was tutored on cornet by Red Nichols, on arranging by Matty Matlock, and played at Chicago’s Jazz Limited in the mid ‘60s. When he formed The Jackpine Savages in the early 1970s to play at the Lost Valley Lodge on Lake Michigan’s shore near Montague (also for various appearances locally and at aforementioned festivals), he switched to the valve trombone and hired local business-man Pletcher to play the cornet.It was just a few years later that Ingle collaborated with Chicago-based bandleader and piano player Don Gibson (Al Capone Memorial Jazz Band) in forming the Bix-style repertory band heard here, the “Sons of Bix,” whose repertoire and arrangements were primarily informed by Bix’s recordings and as well by period tunes Bix may have played.

This cornet player, Tom Pletcher (1936-2019), was fortunate to have been born to a sterling jazz trumpet player who had played in a few of the earliest jazz groups in collegiate circles. Stewart (“Stu” or “Stew”) Pletcher had friends and associates among the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, and Roy Eldridge (who had once exclaimed to young Tom sweet profanities of praise about his dad), and played professionally for Ben Pollack, Smith Ballew, Red Norvo. Young Tom had the nurturing environment of the earliest of the jazz pioneers even in his home growing up; and at 15, hearing his first Bix record, decided to take up the cornet. After formative youth years on the West Coast, adult Pletcher ended up taking over his grandfather’s decorative metal business in the White Lake, Michigan area (something his jazz musician father was not in position nor disposition to do) throughout a good deal of his life. This metal fabricator shop was a little more than 7 miles from where Ingle’s band would play at that lone restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan shores.

Pletcher’s fascination with Beiderbecke’s music led him into remarkable musical circumstances and personal associations that fueled and lent credence to his knowledge of Bix’s life and music. He corresponded with and visited the homes of the guys who had known and played with Bix. As a layman, he was diligent in seeking, and lucky in finding, not only information, facts, and stories about Bix, but even unseen pictures and a previously unheard recording, thereby to a small degree aiding in the research of Phil Evans toward two different exhaustive books about Bix. In that respect alone he deserves some credit toward the shaping of a factual account of Bix’s life beyond romantic and apocryphal mythologies and fantasies, something the dreamy jazz icon was victim to even before his tragic early death.

Pletcher’s acute intimacy with Bix’s music found its real recognition, however, in how he played a Getzen Eterna cornet(–one from 1965 that Ingle sold to him when Tom joined the Jackpines, and another large bore Eterna he bought in 1987). Certainly Pletcher had been influenced by his own father, Stu, and the musicians Stu associated with (especially Armstrong and Teagarden). Pletcher was an avid fan of Bobby Hackett, and often could deliver a solo sounding convincingly like the gentle man from Providence. He loved the recordings of Bunny Berigan, listening til the end of his life. Tom had acquired and absorbed all the lp records of Chet Baker. (Pletcher was also a keen listener, with Bix, to the music of the French Impressionist composers, Debussy, Ravel, and Delius, beautiful sounds that also influenced how he felt the music.) So a broad base of jazz (and classical) sounds made for a rich depth and diversity of the ideas that he expressed on the horn: he didn’t just play Bix’s licks or try to copy Bix. (The note-for-note tribute solo features like “Singin’ the Blues” mark the rare exception).

It was the extent to which Pletcher had absorbed and internalized technical aspects of Bix’s playing (attack and articulation, tone, vibrato, dynamics, effects and idiosyncrasies, and often, humor) without slavishly or consciously copying Beiderbecke that allowed him the acclaim among fans and musicians, contemporaneous to his generation and that of Beiderbecke’s, that he had come closest to Bix’s sound and spirit of anyone to date. All the other influences that had seasoned his playing allowed him freedom to express his own modern feel of the Bixian sound, keeping those sounds fresh.

Among musicians in the 1980s and early 1990s, he would be the first call to sit in “Bix’s chair” for a host of projects that recreated that period in repertory bands. While yet still alive, Bill Challis, the Bix-friendly arranger for the famous Jean Goldkette Orchestra and Paul Whiteman Orchestra (and the man who transcribed and published Bix’s piano compositions), joined with protégé Vince Giordano to do some newer, expanded renditions of songs from the Goldkette years, including tunes Bix had recorded and some he hadn’t. Legendary piano demi-god and musical powerhouse Dick Hyman had Pletcher featured in a 92nd Street Y concert in New York City (and subsequent CD for Arbors Records) called “If Bix Played Gershwin,” a delicious pallet of all Gershwin tunes rendered as if they had been played in some of the formats that Bix had been grouped in. (Actually, only one Gershwin song from the concert was one that Bix had recorded, “Sunny Disposish.”) An Italian film producer had Pletcher playing the Bixian lead and solos for the stellar soundtrack of a not-so-stellar film loosely based on Bix’s life called “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend.” John Otto’s “Hotel Edison Roof Orchestra” made in two recordings the perfect setting for Pletcher’s sound: hot jazz arrangements from Jean Goldkette, California Ramblers, Ted Weems, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Frank Skinner, and more.

A word must be said about one of Pletcher’s longest standing gigs of fairly consistent personnel. Pletcher played yearly among a group of musicians who gathered to play at Princeton 50th class reunions (months of June, 1975-1981), partly to entertain alumni, but mostly to enjoy their own private ongoing reunions of musicians who were fond of Bix’s music and some who were there when Bix played at Princeton near the end of his life. Squirrel Ashcraft, Bill Priestley, Jack Howe, and other Princeton grads had continued playing music under Bix’s spell at jam sessions in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; they were joined by later Princeton grads like Ron Hockett and Doug James, and collegiate and commercial band alumni like Spencer Clark, Bud Wilson, and Bob Haggart. The music had Eddie Condon-like small group spirit and freedom, and a relaxed approach. Live recordings from these were privately issued on vinyl for the musicians, friends, and alumni. They too called themselves “Sons of Bix.” They later went into Jazzology studios to record formal lps under Haggart’s name, with arrangements on “Clementine” and “In a Mist” by Hockett. They also did a number of private parties on the east coast that carried the reunion flames forth, one among many in Vero Beach which produced a nice album of cassettes with a complete 8-page history of the various “Sons of Bix” configurations over the decades, written by Jack Howe.

The Sons of Bix that you hear in this video (originally calling themselves, tongue in cheek, “The Sons of Bix’s”) only have Pletcher in common with the Princeton Reunion Sons of Bix, although their personnel may have had associations in the Evanston, Illinois jam sessions at Squirrel’s. These SOBs had three lp albums that were released (“A Legend Revisited” on Fairmont Records;“Ostrich Walk,” “Copenhagen”both on Jazzology). One was recorded but not issued on vinyl, and only in part much later online, called “San.” They played at the popular traditional jazz festivals like San Diego, Central City, and Sacramento. They toured Europe in 1979, playing in numerous countries and at the Breda Jazz Festival. (That is no small feat for loads of luggage, many horn and drum cases, a bass sax, train schedules and coaches, plane rides, small alleys, streets, and bars, wives and my own tagging aunt and uncle..)

In their “first East Coast appearance,” introduced here by the director of the DC-area Manassas Jazz Festival, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, the personnel consists of Glenn Koch, drums; Don Ingle, announcer, valve trombone, arranger, co-leader; Don Gibson, piano, arranger, co-leader; John Harker on clarinet and alto sax; Dave Miller, banjo and guitar; Tom Pletcher, cornet; and Russ Whitman, bass saxophone. In this video you’ll hear six songs that Beiderbecke had recorded, and one traditional tune they occasionally played.

I heard this band live for the first time at this very festival. I was a little boy, almost 14, with a bowl-cut Dutch-boy head of blonde hair and corduroy pants climbing high over white socks. I joined some of them for a brief after-hours jam session, along with another young Bix-Pletcher protégé named Ralph Norton, whose hair was slicked back and parted down the middle. (By the next time I heard them live, Ralph and I were in a cordial race to see who could part with his hair first.)Fast forward. In August 1987, I was just graduated from college, and for that summer was at my family farmhouse near Montague, Michigan (within a 12-minute walk from the Lost Valley Lodge where I first had heard the Jackpine Savages as a lad). The Sons of Bix had two appearances in the area the 8th and 9th, one at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp with guest Marian McPartland, in which she joined the band for a standard, played “In a Mist” solo, and did a haunting duet of “Stardust” with Pletcher. The next day,the SOBs were at a country club near Muskegon. Tom was playing that weekend on a brand new, large-bore Getzen Eterna, and any adjustments he needed to get used to the feel of the new horn on its maiden voyage Saturday night had been made into a crackling performance for the local jazz society the next day.

Unfortunately, life was making demands on me that did not allow me any further opportunities to hear this band live. But the lp records had to suffice, and the magic had been done on me. In either case, here was a band that liked playing together, liked the specific material they were reviving and reshaping, played with energy and cohesion, joked and giggled a lot. They had intelligent arrangements when needed, they could hug the ballads, and could fire up listeners with the standard barn-burners of the genre. Each musician was a seasoned, veteran master at his craft. Each one had remarkable personal connection to his antecedents at a time when some of those musical forebears were still alive to enjoy their own memories and these new achievements.

I have resisted a number of other opportunities herein to insert myself further into the narrative about this band and its roots, about Ingle, and especially about Pletcher. I will simply close with a note of gratitude to them for their loving treatment of their musical heroes and their influence on the younger musicians they had the chance to shape, to the two horn players that especially mentored me, to all the other musicians who play in these sounds, and finally to the historians, archivists, and documenters that have the cultivating hands in making this tree continue to grow in the shape of a musician from Davenport, Iowa.

And now, that 1978 session.  SUSIE / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / BORNEO / CARELESS LOVE / THOU SWELL / CLEMENTINE / FIDGETY FEET // Introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee: Tom Pletcher (cornet), Don Ingle (valve trombone), John Harker (clarinet), Don Gibson (piano), Russ Whitman (bass sax), Dave Miller (guitar, banjo), Glenn Koch (drums).

Back to David for a rewarding short interlude.

What could be nicer than four friends romping through a jazz evergreen: Albanie Falletta, David, Jonathan Doyle, and Jamey Cummins in 2014:

More friends, the Thrift Set Orchestra (yes, that’s Hal Smith!) in 2013, doing KRAZY KAPERS:

Many of the same rascals, plus the wonderful Alice Spencer, in 2014:

You can also hear David on the Brooks Prumo Orchestra’s THIS YEAR’S KISSES, two sessions by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet, THE ROAD TO LEAVING and LIVE AT THE SAHARA LOUNGE, as well as FLOYD DOMINO ALL-STARS.

May your happiness increase!

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

RUEFUL AND LOVELY: “TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL”: JOHNNY WIGGS, RAYMOND BURKE, GRAHAM STEWART, DANNY BARKER, BOB GREENE, FREDDIE MOORE (Manassas Jazz Festival. December 2, 1972)

Be forewarned: the visual quality on the performance that follows is sub-standard, although you can get used to it.  This is what much-transferred forty-years-old videotape looks like, but the audio is loud and clear.

This video is a valuable document, because I don’t know of any other performance footage of cornetist Johnny Wiggs and clarinetist Raymond Burke — lyrical heroes of mine — here accompanied by Graham Stewart, trombone, Bob Greene, piano, Danny Barker, guitar, Freddie Moore, drums: Johnny Wiggs’ Bayou Stompers, introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, sometime singer / kazooist and eternal jazz lover – festival creator.

The song is elusive — TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL — and I couldn’t find any lyrics online, but the opening phrase so neatly fits the title that I am sure JAZZ LIVES readers can (silently) invent their own narratives with the proper scansion.

I am amused by Raymond Burke’s endearing personal choreography — his body mirrors what he is playing more than is true with many players.  And his tone is so singular, sweet-tart in the manner of Ed Hall — but you wouldn’t mistake one player for the other.  A great underacknowledged poet of the clarinet.

Wiggs continues to astonish.  He saw Joe Oliver in New Orleans (I seem to remember this was 1919) and Oliver left a lasting impression.  But then Wiggs heard Bix and those wandering odes took over — haunting but always mobile.

I hear in Wiggs, who was 73 at the time of this video, a sweet, sad evocation of what Bix might have sounded like had he lived on this long.  Wiggs’ music plunges forward while looking over its shoulder in a melancholy, ruminative way.  And although Wiggs recorded early (1927) and from 1949 into the fifties, his late work fully expresses a kind of autumnal sensibility, delicate without being timid or maudlin — the sweet voice of an elder who has seen a great deal and knows that life is sadly finite but celebrates that life with his cornet.

One other thing occurs to me, with special relevance to my own video efforts, where musicians justly want the performances that will be disseminated and preserved for posterity to be as free from flaws as possible.  Anyone who watches this video to the end — and why wouldn’t you? — notices a small train wreck (with no one hurt) because the band is not clear whether to go on or stop. I find this, like Burke’s body language, quite endearing.  I’d rather have imperfect Wiggs and Burke than know that this flawed performance had been consigned to the trash.

This video — although I do not know the originator — comes to us through the loving diligence of trumpeter / archivist Joe Shepherd, Sflair on YouTube, someone who cares a great deal for and about this music.  Thank you, Joe!

May your happiness increase.