Author: Whyatt, Bert
Date published: December 1, 2010
Journal code: IAJR
In the course of a US jaunt in 1979 Derek Coller and I spent a few days in Chicago. There, thanks to collector Jim Gordon, we were able to visit long-established pianist Oro 'Tut 'Soper at his home on Addison Street on the near-North Side. He was very friendly and entertaining and later I had a great deal of correspondence which eventually added much to my biography of Muggsy Spanier, published in 1995.
In some of my letters I asked him to talk about the Chicago clubs and bars and something of the musicians, particularly pianists. The following are carefully edited transcriptions of Tut's comments. I started by asking him about a prominent jazz venue in the Windy City.
The Panther Room at the Sherman Hotel
"Well, let's say a high class joint. There were middle class joints and low class joints. The Liberty Inn was a low class joint, located at Clark and Erie Street on the near north side of Chicago. In my memory there were four pianists who worked the back room or café part of the Liberty. They were Morrie Krumbein, Art Hodes, Clayton Ritchie, and myself. The last took my place when I left working there the last time. The Liberty Inn was originally the 70 Club [and] I played this too. Joints were usually called [that] if they had a bar and were very flexible as to locations and connections. A restaurant might be next door with a sliding panel and you could order food with your drinks. [Others] had a small dance floor or some kind of stage where people could either dance or watch a floor show. The type of neighborhood generally classified joints as being low-down, or middle."
"Floyd Towne and his Men About Town band was a wonderful seven-piecer with John Italiano (Lane) on clarinet and alto. Bill Dohler played first alto and Floyd on tenor and Dick Donohue was on trumpet and the arranger. Art Hodes was pianist and Van Hook the bass man. They played about a block south of us by the Wabash Avenue Bridge, a place called Harry's New York Bar. I was working at the Subway at this time (about 1935?) and then I joined and stayed for about a year and a half doing local and one-nighters around the bordering states."
"I first played with Wingy [Manone] when he arrived in Chicago, from New Orleans around 1928. That was the 70 Club and Liberty Inn. I played many gigs, too many to remember, with him and also worked steadily with him as the leader at a place called My Cellar at Clark Street, just north of Lake Street on the east side, and it was a downstairs middle-class joint, food, small dance floor and level stage. He literally blew the roof off on many a night to a capacity filled dance floor. It was a cozy room, fairly large and had red and white table cloths accompanied by candlelight. The My Cellar band was only four pieces. Piano, me, Wingy trumpet and leader, Buzzy Knudsen clarinet and Dash Berkus [sic: Burkis] drums who was a great time drummer. A few years later Louis Armstrong played there with a fairly large band. The name had been changed to the Liberty Club. I won't forget that because I met Louis for the first there and with a group of three or four other guys, smoked a bit of stuff called marijuana. It was fun and Louis was waxing philosophical too. Wingy left Chicago I think in 1951 or 1952 he came back and I worked an enjoyable couple of weeks at the Silhouette Club. I'm pretty sure that Doc Cenardo was on drums for this job [with] Bob McCracken on clarinet, originally from Texas, eventually went back there and died there. We didn't have a bass and the trombone man's last name I can't remember - George - played very well and was quite a soloist."
"Charlie (LaVere) Johnson was quite an intellectual, cleancut, likeable, kind of high class. A good piano player. Played with Clyde McCoy for quite a long while then went to the West Coast and did great at movie studio work. My recollection of the way he played is certainly not in the Jess Stacy - Earl Hines tradition. LaVere played a full piano, sort of rolling style. Not Bixian, though he'd have liked it to be. He did not play strident octaves."
"David Rose, his real name was Dave Rosenberg, was a close and personal friend who I tremendously admire and a wonderful gentle man who writes arrangements with the speed of someone writing a letter and what beautiful notes he makes. He decided not to be too deeply involved with the jazz clique but he knows his jazz."
"I knew Mel Grant almost as long as I know Art Hodes. Mel was a truly great pianist and a fair composer although I don't have any great idea how much he composed. I have a score on a ditty of his entitled In a Quaint Gypsy Tea-Room; very Mozartian. As Mel was a 6'3'' 235 pounds man, he was a good size. He had a good sized temper too but under control most always. His playing as he matured got to be fabulous only he developed very painful arthritis and marital difficulties started him drinking. For about six months we worked a job alternating shifts in the middle 50s at The Backstage, a strip-tease joint; a good job for a piano player and you always got your pay. He quit playing and opened a restaurant specialising in barbecue in a town called Rockton in Illinois. I played there for a week with trumpeter Bob Scobey."
"I knew Frank Melrose well enough to be able to discuss this and that. He was quite a drinking man. He could play early jazz and ragtime, boogie and blues as well as it ever could be played and he only used his ear. He didn't develop his music reading ability at all. Very friendly, social guy, loved the blacks and loved to mingle with them. He was murdered by one of them after a drunken argument over nothing. Pete Daily, trumpet player, was with him in some black and tan restaurant earlier."
"Floyd Bean and I were were quite close friends. After he left Muggsy (exactly when I don't know) he joined George Brunies at the 1111 (Eleven Eleven Club) on West Bryn Mawr in Chicago. He stayed on year after year and played on a piano in such horrible condition (I know; I sat in on a set which was quite enough for me) that it's a true wonder to me that he could have held on to his sanity. Floyd, as I knew him, was not a very happy man. His wife was a bundle of negativity and after he married her I seldom saw him unless it was professionally. A good musician and a fine arranger. Played with the progressive jazz band of Boyd Raeburn during the war years at the Down Beat Room. I played next door but never caught that band."
"George Zack and I were friends. He knew I loved and respected him and he in turn returned the muted feeling. He was a huge man, about 6'3'' and solidly built. His piano hands were the largest ever, I think he could stretch a twelfth. His father was a Chicago symphony clarinettist and George's musical education was very well based. A really great jazz pianist who also liked to sing Hoagy's Snowball."
"You would have liked Joe Sullivan. Not only was he one of the greatest but he was an easy going friendly guy; very intelligent and always learning."
"At various times Soper wrote anecdotally on several musicians including one Stanley Norris who played alto on a Paramount Chicago record of mid-1928: I knew and played with Stan with the Midnight Serenaders. A very good alto man standing six foot-six."
"Floyd O'Brien, John Mendell and Rollo Laylan (later Wally) on drums and I worked a job in Janesville, Wisconson's Chateau La Mar, around 1930 or 1931. There was a magazine called Jazz of which twelve issues were published. Catherine Jacobson did a story on me in one of the issues and a picture of the band is shown along with a shot of me.
Fazola and Pee Wee Russell are still considered the best of jazz clarinettists. Charles Russell - can you imagine - I played with him in Eddie Condon's band in the first two weeks of October 1950. He did not touch a drop of any kind of alcoholic beverage whereas Eddie could hardly lift a shot glass with both hands because of shaky nerves. Pee Wee surprised me very pleasantly by his friendly, gentlemanly manner and Eddie was superb."
"Morrie Bercov, a hell of a clarinet player. I knew him before he left Chicago for New York and whatever fame he garnered. I knew him before his marriage, an extremely caustic, sarcastic and difficult man to know, let alone like. He made enemies so easily. But he and I had never had the slightest difficulty. For some reason or other we got along yet it was never close at all. He was extremely intelligent and may have been a very well educated person. Yes, Morrie could easily have been mistaken for Teschemacher; their approach to jazz was identical. They were contemporaries, of course, but Tesch had more on the ball, was more liked and better known because of his naturalness. I was playing in a three piece jazz group in a Chinese restaurant on West Madison Street. We had sax, drums and piano."
"Tesch would come and sit in with us night after night when he wasn't working. He was such a guy to know. He was a light-complexioned man, clean, well-dressed, wore a Homburg but mostly liked caps. He played for a while at the Merry Gardens ballroom with Joe Kayser only five blocks from my home and at that time Dave Rose was on piano and Danny Alvin on drums. Tesch had such a magical command of the entire band and his playing forced it to heights that I'd never ever heard equalled before or since. We played a few small gigs together and I will always thank God for having known him."
"[clarinettist] Bud Jacobson I've worked with for over a year at the Subway Café. Bud was a practical musician; he could make small arrangements [and] could play the piano and did so towards the end. His talents were very mediocre but he was a literate and knew his jazz. His instruments were a disgrace, pads always leaking, keys held together with rubber bands. Bud was a real friendly guy and most everyone liked him."
"There was only one jazz musician and pianist who I heard and who taught me mentally and spiritually about the great conceptions and victories over the mundane. Earl Hines not only taught me but he taught Sullivan and Stacy and countless others. His rhythmic freedom, expressed so freely and free of carnality, was unbelievable. We heard him at his peak, consistently great."
"I heard him once a week for a full year when he played with Jimmie Noone's Apex Club orchestra. He and I were were very close mentally. He had me play for him at the Apex and he had me sit in with his Grand Terrace orchestra and he always insisted when I arrived to stand next to him. The way the set-up existed made this possible; he had a small baby-grand to play. He always insisted for me to try to find myself in my playing and not try to copy him nor anyone else. He philosophised and made this open-sesame possible for me. He wanted me to be able to fly and not drag my jazz. Hines could play 24 choruses and keep that marvellous pulsation going and swing as Louie swung the trumpet. Earl certainly swung the piano. All through 1927 and 1928 every Monday night I was at the Apex and as great as Earl played so also was Jimmie Noone great. It's too bad in a way that Earl's star was on the rise but Jimmie's never came up."
"Now when I sit down to play I don't consciously think of sounding like anyone, but jazz - true jazz - is a combination of energies that are released through the idiom of jazz. I hope to contact these energies that are automatically captured in the form of the music we're playing and, according to the individual, the success or failure depends on himself and possibly on his audience."
I asked Tut Soper to tell something of his recording experiences so he spoke of the Marty Grosz session(s):
"Many weeks and much partying were involved and although I did receive $100 I had to regard that as a token part payment. I figured at least $500 - never got it. You asked me to expand on this type of happening. Well, in the course of human events mysterious forces are working. I had never even heard of Marty Grosz until he called me and asked if I'd be interested. Because of mutual friends that had their names mentioned I felt at ease, I accepted and made the full commitments. In the case of the John Steiner recordings there was no pay either - but got lots of fame - and because unions and union contracts are so obnoxious to our freedom we do not exhibit a business judgement and trust our leaders and the people whom we deal with to be fair and honest. They usually aren't."