Tag Archives: Robert Dupuis

PHYLLIS GER RECALLS HER FATHER, MORT STULMAKER

Can you identify the players in this 1939 Charles Peterson photograph?

Readers will recognize (from left) Eddie Condon, exhorting; Bobby Hackett and Jimmy Dorsey, keeping an eye on their leader, Zutty Singleton, peering around the corner; Pee Wee Russell, aiming for the clouds.

But the left-handed and bespectacled string bassist in the rear of the ensemble is less familiar.  His name?  Mort or Morty Stulmaker.  Although his jazz career was brief, he played and recorded with the best musicians and vocalists of the time: Bunny Berigan, Red McKenzie, Condon, Joe Marsala, Stan King, Jack Teagarden, Dave Tough, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, Brad Gowans, Billy Butterfield, Lee Wiley, Red Nichols . . .

I thought he would be one of the mysterious, shadowy figures of jazz, not only because he was a bassist, but because apparently no dramatic story attached to his life.  I was delighted to meet Phyllis Ger, a jewelry designer who also volunteers at the Louis Armstrong House Museum — and to find out that she was Mort’s only child.

Phyllis and her father, 2012

Here is what Phyllis told me on a pleasant afternoon recently.

My father liked to be called Mort or Morty. His first name was Morton, but the only person he allowed to call him that was his sister. The family name is German, practically always misspelled with an “H” (Stuhlmaker) which would always aggravate my mother but never seemed to bother Dad.

He was born in Albany, New York, in 1906 and had two brothers and one sister. Dad came from a musical family. His mother played piano, his father and two brothers played the violin. There must have been piano lessons because Dad was a trained musician. He started his career playing piano accompanying silent movies when he was in his teens. I don’t know how he made the transition to bass from piano. He was a left-handed bassist which was not that common.

Both sides of my family were from the Albany-Troy, New York area. But, of course, Dad could not make a living as a musician up there, so he moved to New York City. Although I was born in Manhattan, I was two years old when we moved to Albany. Dad would spend weekends at home and travel back to the city during the week to pick up some gigs. After six years of a fabulous time growing up in Albany surrounded by all my cousins, aunts, and uncles, my parents made the decision to move back to NY where we could all be together permanently.

Dad was very unpretentious. He didn’t speak about his life as a musician to me very often. He said it wasn’t a profession that he was that proud of even though he played with some of the greats. He felt that musicians were never given the credit they deserved. But, he never said that there was anything else he had wanted to do; you make a living at something and you stay with it. So, when he married at age 39, he left the life of a traveling musician and became an organ teacher and salesman at Macy’s 34th Street in  New York City. Dad also taught at Aeolian on 57th St. for several years. In addition, he had many private students.

My Dad was a very sensitive and compassionate person. He was not good with handling financial matters and left that to my mother. I could never see him actively promoting himself. That was just not his personality. He was devoted to Mom and me. I am an only child (and not spoiled). They were determined not to spoil me. When I asked Mom why she waited until she was 39 to marry, her response was: “I was waiting to meet your father.” And, so, a marriage of 44 years resulted.

Mort and Ruth on their wedding day

I started to do research about my Dad about five years after his death in 1988 at the age of 82. Since I knew so little about his background, I was amazed at the amount of material I discovered. I didn’t know he played bass with Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, Bunny Berigan, and many others. When Did did speak sparingly about his background, Bunny’s name came up quite frequently. As part of my discoveries, I was fortunate to get to know Bob Dupuis, author of the first biography about Bunny entitled: BUNNY BERIGAN: ELUSIVE LEGEND OF JAZZ,. From 1998-2001 I attended the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee in Fox Lake, Wisconsin (Bunny’s hometown). This tribute weekend was originally organized by Bunny’s daughter, Joyce and her husband, Ken Hansen. What a thrill it was for me to be a part of that weekend! Sadly, both Joyce and Ken have passed. But, the Jubilee is still taking place each year (May 18th-20th, 2012) under the very capable leadership of Julie Flemming. I will be attending this year after an absence of 11 years. Even though I do not play an instrument, I got Dad’s creative genes in another way. I am a jewelry designer and will be displaying my music-themed pieces at the Jubilee. Please come and join us for a wonderful weekend of jazz.

I knew Dad played with Artie Shaw. I contacted Mr. Shaw who was in his eighties at the time. An assistant to him answered my letter but unfortunately Mr. Shaw had no recollection of my father. I think I may attribute that to the aging process. I also spoke with Joe Dixon when he was presenting a concert at a library on Long Island. I was able to visit with Buddy Koss and his wife for a lovely visit and that was very nostalgic for me. But, sadly, nobody’s left now. Dad was very much respected by other musicians. He played at Hoagy Carmichael’s wedding, who had handpicked the musicians he wanted. Dad was part of the first mixed band to play on 52nd St. with Joe Bushkin, Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Red Allen. Dad was quite friendly with Joe. That’s me proudly pointing to my Dad in the photo.

Mort, smartly dressed, in later life

Here’s Mort as a member of the Tempo King band — clearly a Fats Waller-inspired group, oddly enough, recording for Bluebird in 1936 (Waller’s label) with Marty and Joe Marsala, Queenie Ada Rubin, Eddie Condon, Mort, and Stan King:

And with the pride of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Bunny Berigan, late in 1936 — where you can really hear his strong rhythmic pulse on THIS FOOLISH FEELING:

I’m hoping that some JAZZ LIVES readers have other information to add to our knowledge of Mort Stulmaker: send it here as a comment or if  you’d like to get in touch with Phyllis, email me at swingyoucats@gmail.com. and I will pass it along to her.

May your happiness increase.

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“MR. TRUMPET: THE TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS, AND TRIUMPH OF BUNNY BERIGAN” by MICHAEL P. ZIRPOLO

Even people who know little of jazz or the Swing Era have probably heard trumpeter, singer, bandleader, and mythic figure Bunny Berigan (1908-42) in some context.

His Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is used in film soundtracks and elsewhere as a quick way of summoning up days gone by.  Other touchstones are Berigan’s solo on MARIE with Tommy Dorsey and on 1936 Billie Holiday sessions.

Those of us who know that music well have heard Berigan on his own, with Goodman, the Boswell Sisters, Mildred, in jam sessions and airshots.  Like Bix Beiderbecke, he became a mythic figure quickly, and people regard him with a mixture of love, admiration, and pity.

Here is a rare film clip of Bunny in summer 1936, singing and playing with the Fred Rich band:

In that performance, one hears Berigan’s astonishing adaptation of Louis — with his own sound and majesty, as well as his charming singing.  Bunny remains a monumental figure, someone who threw himself into every solo, leading the section when he wasn’t playing: someone who seems to have given his life to the music.

The other fact of Berigan’s short life is his alcoholism.  Other narratives have compressed his existence into two parallel assertions: he played splendidly and he drank himself to death.

But Michael Zirpolo’s new biography of Berigan goes beyond the formulaic.  It is a great accomplishment and an addictive pleasure.

And it’s not great merely because it contains new information on every one of its 500-plus pages.  Zirpolo had access to the lifework of Bozy White, who had been collecting information about Berigan for more than half a century.  MR. TRUMPET makes wise use of that mountain of information.  Often biographers are content to arrange their material in chronological order and unload it on the reader, who smothers under the avalanche.  This book moves judiciously through Berigan’s life — his personal entanglements, his economic mistakes, his glorious recordings — without getting bogged down in any one aspect.  Zirpolo’s book has a powerful predecessor, Robert Dupuis’ 1993 biography of Berigan, which gave us much more insight into Berigan the musician and the husband than we had had before (taking into account the subjectivity of an embittered spouse).  But with all respects to Dupuis, this is the Berigan book: I think no one will surpass it.

From the start, this book shows us someone who decided, early on, to broaden the scope of his investigations into Berigan’s life: Zirpolo is curious about not only Berigan but the musical, emotional, and financial world in which he lived.  Rather than simply lining facts up one by one, peanuts in a row, Zirpolo loves to ask HOW and WHY and (even better) IS THIS TRUE?  Many myths have attached to Berigan, and Zirpolo examines them closely.

Of course, the biography follows Berigan through his brief life as thoroughly as possible.  If a reader wants to know where Berigan was on August 8, 1938, (s)he will have a good chance of finding out not only where but what was happening: not only that, but how the events of that day stand in relation to the past and future.  One of the greatest assets of this book is the substantial number of first-hand narratives: Bozy White seems to have assiduously interviewed everyone who ever played once in a band where Bunny was present, and these recollections constantly bring human voices into the book.

Thus we have Bunny not only as the superb trumpet player, the bandleader concerned about how his band should sound, the terrible businessman, the man in thrall to alcohol, the playful, childlike individual — serious about very little except his music.

And what music!  Here is one of my favorite Berigan solos — fearless and impassioned — with Bud Freeman, Claude Thornhill, Eddie Condon, Grachan Moncur, and Cozy Cole:

Zirpolo’s book is a fine mixture of all the things I’ve mentioned, sustained by his own admiration for his subject.  The biography is never idolatrous — when Bunny does something disastrous, Zirpolo presents the facts and their consequences — but it’s always charming to see a biography where the writer, in the best old-fashioned way, loves his subject in particular, is passionate about history, and (as a useful sidelight) is thrilled by New York City, where Berigan spent so much of his life.

Even a reader who knows Berigan well will find surprises (not the least of them being rare photographs) but the novice might use this book as an introduction to the musical life of the United States in this period: endnotes give us brief biographical sketches of everyone whose path crossed Berigan’s.

As an interlude, here is a Disney song from 1938 — with a vocal by Gail Reese, two solos by Bunny (one muted, one open), and drumming by Dave Tough:

Zirpolo began this book through a childhood experience — watching his father in tears listen to Bunny’s music.  Later he learned that his father had seen the Berigan band and remembered it clearly.  One of the aspects of this book that I find most endearing is Zirpolo’s understanding that we all have deeply complicated inner lives.  So rather than decide early on to insert the facts into one conceptual framework — Berigan “the tortured soul,” the “doomed alcoholic,” a man who could never “get started,” he has watched Berigan from angles that change as the chronicle moves on.

Ultimately, the biography chronicles the triumph of Bunny Berigan: cirrhosis ended his life, but his music has its own lasting existence.  You can find out much more about Berigan and this remarkable book (including a photo gallery full of marvels) here.