Video by the multi-talented Katie Cavera:
The Magic Horn of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei
by Hal Smith (originally published in JUST JAZZ)
It has been nearly 40 years since I first heard the cornet magic of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei…
In the mid-‘60s I was a dedicated fan of the San Francisco style as played by Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, the Firehouse Five and…Vince Saunders’ South Frisco Jazz Band. In 1966 my parents had taken me to Huntington Beach, California where the South Frisco band played weekends at the ‘Pizza Palace’. We became instant fans of the SFJB after that first evening and made regular trips up from La Jolla to catch the band on weekends. The band members were especially kind to a young fan. Washboardist Bob Raggio, then an employee of Ray Avery’s ‘Rare Records’ was particularly helpful in locating several out-of-print Murphy and Watters LPs for me.
Late in 1967, Bob sent a note along with an LP he had found for me. The note mentioned that on the coming weekend, a ‘very special edition of the South Frisco band would perform at the Pizza Palace, with ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei on cornet.’ I had heard of Ray Ronnei, but had not actually heard him play. 1 Even so, my parents accompanied me to Huntington Beach to hear the band.
At the Pizza Palace we settled in at a table, not knowing quite what to expect, when the band took off on ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’. Ray Ronnei’s brassy, staccato attack and almost surrealistic phrasing was like nothing I had ever heard! 2 It was a glorious and unique sound; one I still have not recovered from! The tune selection was a radical departure from the San Francisco repertoire I was so used to: ‘Bogalusa Strut’, ‘Salutation March’, ‘Big Chief Battle Axe’, ‘One Sweet Letter From You’, ‘Ugly Chile’, ‘Blue Bells, Goodbye’, ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’, ‘Bugle Boy March’ etc. This night at the Pizza Palace the first time I had heard any of these numbers! 3
When the performance ended—much too soon to suit me!—we headed home to La Jolla. My head was spinning from the spellbinding sound of Ray Ronnei’s cornet. Despite my continuing interest in the San Francisco style, I wanted to hear this hornman again—as soon as possible! I did not have to wait too long, as South Frisco’s cornetist Al Crowne took a leave of absence from the band in 1968. His replacement: Ray Ronnei! My family made dozens of journeys north to Huntington Beach during Papa Ray’s tenure with the South Frisco in 1968-69.
The SFJB lineup varied during this period. 4 Trombonist Frank Demond moved to New Orleans and was replaced on by Eric Rosenau, then Roy Brewer. Mike Baird was usually on clarinet, though Jim Bogen and soprano saxophonist John Smith sometimes filled in for him. Ron Ortmann was the regular pianist, spelled at times by Dick Shooshan, Bill Mitchell and Robbie Rhodes. Tubist Bob Rann was usually present, with Mike Fay on string bass in Rann’s absence. Banjoist-leader Vince Saunders was a constant, as was washboardist Bob Raggio—until the latter moved to Pittsburgh to play at baseball star Maury Wills’ nightclub. But despite the shifting personnel, that distinctive cornet sound continued to ring joyously over the ensembles.
When the South Frisco repertoire expanded, three of the ‘new’ tunes—at least new to me—caught my fancy: ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man’, ‘Messin’ Around’ (by Cook and St. Cyr) and ‘Flat Foot’. These three have been my favourite ‘trad’ numbers since hearing Papa Ray play them in 1968. Though Vince Saunders was the bandleader, he frequently let Papa Ray kick off tunes. The latter tended towards brisk tempos and kicked them off old-style, i.e. ‘one-two-three-four ONE! TWO! With only a little imagination I can still hear the powerful band roaring through all-ensemble versions of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and ‘Cakewalking Babies’ (with Papa Ray playing the same burst of capsicum on the outchorus that Mutt Carey played on the ‘New Yorkers’ record of the same tune). The South Frisco Jazz Band in 1968-69 was truly one of a kind.
In 1969, Papa Ray left the South Frisco group and Al Crowne returned. Earlier, the band recorded an LP for the Vault label entitled ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man.’ Unfortunately, that LP has not yet been reissued on CD. However, Ted Shafer’s Merry Makers Record Company has released a CD of the South Frisco Band live at the Pizza Palace, recorded in 1968 by clarinetist Ron Going. This disc ‘tells the story’ of just how exciting a time 1968-1969 was for fans of Papa Ray’s cornet work.
While still a resident of Los Angeles, Papa Ray played with the Salutation Tuxedo Jazz Band, Crescent Bay Jazz Band and other groups. Before signing on with South Frisco, he worked with Ted Shafer’s Jelly Roll Jazz Band in the Bay Area. He returned to the Jelly Roll Jazz Band temporarily in 1969. I was able to enjoy his music via tapes made previously at the Pizza Palace, LPs by the El Dorado Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Jazz Band and the then-new South Frisco LP. On one occasion, our family was watching a San Francisco Seals hockey game on tv. After a Seals goal, a jazz band in the stands struck up ‘Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight’. Clarinetist Bob Helm and trombonist Bob Mielke were instantly identifiable, as was the peppery cornet—Papa Ray, of course!
I continued to see and hear Ray Ronnei on his visits to the L.A. area. Sometimes he would play at a Sunday-afternoon jam session at one of the local jazz societies. On one memorable occasion, I was asked to play a set with Papa Ray, Dan Barrett, Ron Going, Dick Shooshan, Doug Parker and veteran New Orleans bassist Ed Garland. I don’t have a recording of this session, but at least I got a photo!
Living away from California, I would hear occasional news concerning Ray’s appearances on various jobs. Later, there was a disheartening rumor that he had quit playing. I had the recordings to listen to, but still hoped to hear the ‘real thing’ again some day. In the early ‘90s I returned to California and wound up playing once a week at the ‘Hofbrau’ in Fullerton (Orange County), California. The bands in rotation at the time included Gremoli, Evan Christopher’s Quintet and my own Frisco Syncopators. One night, Mike Fay came to hear the band—with Papa Ray in tow! Ray looked the same as he had the last time I saw him, in the ‘70s. What a blast it was to see him, and in good health at that.
Later, when key personnel became unavailable to play the Hofbrau, the Frisco Syncopators gradually became the New Orleans Wanderers. Papa Ray was still making an occasional appearance at the club, though I had not been able to induce him to play. But Mike Fay stepped in, describing the band’s sound and repertoire and we managed to get Ray on cornet! With Alan Adams (trombone), Mike Baird (reeds), Vic Loring (banjo), Mike Fay (bass) and myself on drums, we hit ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’. It unleashed a flood of happy memories, of good times at the Pizza Palace. And best of all, Ray had his lip and his drive. No one had to shoulder an extra load that night! I still don’t know why I didn’t take a tape recorder. Unfortunately, no one recorded us that night! The lack of recording is all the more unfortunate because Ray was unable to make the job on a regular basis. The Golden Eagles’ Ken Smith stepped in and became our regular hornman.
My last encounter with Papa Ray was in 1995, when the Wanderers recorded a session for release on cassette. We assembled in Mike Fay’s living room in Claremont, California and saw that a guest was settling in to listen to the session. Papa Ray was happy to see his musical friends and obviously enjoyed our performances. He would not join in on cornet, but we managed to coax him into singing ‘How Long Blues’, which was released on the cassette.
Since then, I continue to hear that Papa Ray has taken part in occasional sessions and the report invariably includes the line ‘He sounded as great as ever’. I am sure the reports are true. Hearing Papa Ray Ronnei on cornet has always been a magical experience; one of the biggest thrills I have experienced in jazz. To me, he will always be one of the greats!
- I never heard the El Dorado Jazz Band in person. They played mostly in bars where a teenager could not enter, according to California state law. I bought the El Dorado Epitaph and Item-1 LPs after hearing Ray with the South Frisco band. The band finally broke up in mid-1966, but this ‘special edition’ of the South Frisco Jazz Band would be composed almost entirely of El Dorado veterans.
- At the time I was unfamiliar with the recordings of Freddie Keppard, Abbie Brunies and especially Mutt Carey, who were the premier inspirations for Ray Ronnei. (Ray studied with Mutt Carey in the late ‘40s).
- I discovered Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Ory and ‘British Trad’ after hearing this ‘New Orleans’ version of the South Frisco band. Bassist Mike Fay played that night, as did pianist Dick Shooshan. Besides hearing Ray Ronnei for the first time and hearing a wealth of ‘new’ tunes, this was my first exposure to New Orleans style string bass and Jelly Roll Morton type piano.
- There were surely more substitutes and guests with the South Frisco Jazz Band during this period. My listing is based on those I actually heard, or who were recorded at the Pizza Palace.
P.S. Ray Ronnei, born in 1916, is happily still with us! Although he no longer plays the cornet, his composition SALTY BUBBLE can be heard in the 2009 Woody Allen film WHATEVER WORKS, and Ray plans to continue composing! The original recording can be purchased here: http://www.worldsrecords.com/pages/artists/r/ronnei_ray/ray_ronnei_64328.html