The Mystery Trombonist in Bix and Tram's Singin' the Blues Bill Rank or Miff Mole?

The Case Pursued by Albert Haim.






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Publication: IAJRC Journal
Author: Haim, Albert
Date published: June 1, 2011

The Bix and Tram February 4, 1927 recording of Singin' the Blues, a composition by Con Conrad and J. Russell Robinson, represents a milestone in the history of jazz. Because of its significance and influence, the recording, OKeh 40772, was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1977 and in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005.

The two most widely consulted modern discographies, Brian Rust's [1] and Tom Lord's, [2] list Bill Rank as the trombonist in the recording of Singin' the Blues.

Bill Rank was the trombonist in almost all Bix and Tram and Bix and His Gang recordings of 1927 and 1928. However, there is strong evidence, from witnesses' accounts dating from the 1930s, that Miff Mole replaced Bill Rank in this particular recording. It is therefore, surprising, that the recent discographies still list Bill Rank as the trombonist. In fact, throughout the decades, discographies have oscillated between Bill Rank and Miff Mole as the trombonist. As recently as 1981, Brian Rust wrote, in the sleeve for the World Records album, Label SH 413, Bix Beiderbecke-The Studio Groups 1927:

"The question of whether Miff Mole or Bill Rank played on Trumbauer's SINGIN' THE BLUES is still fascinating, and in view of what several musicians say, it looks as if Miff was present. Listening to it closely, I would say there is so little trombone to be heard, it could be almost anyone! I would never quarrel with anyone who said it was Miff, but at the same time, I wouldn't argue about its being Bill Rank. Maybe Miff was called in because Rank had to leave for some private reason, and Miff, who could imitate anyone, was the obvious choice for a deputy? The OKeh files do not name any musician on trombone."

Although Rust appears to favor Miff Mole as the trombonist, all editions of Rust's discographies (1961-2002) list Bill Rank.

The first discographical information about Singin' the Blues that I know of is found in Hugues Panassié's Le Jazz Hot.[3] Panassié informs us that the first record made under the name "Frankie Trumbauer and his orchestra" was recorded in 1927 and was made of two titles: Singin' the Blues and Clarinet Marmalade (Odéon 165093),[4] and that Bill Rank was the trombonist.

The second published discography of this historical side is found in the March 1935 issue of Jazz Hot (the first issue of the French magazine), where Charles Delaunay published an article with a Bix discography. This is a preview of his Hot Discography that was published the next year. The trombonist is listed as "Billy Rank." The 1938 edition of the Hot Discography also lists Billy Rank. [5] However, the 1948 edition [6] assigns the trombone part to Miff Mole.

Beginning in 1940, George Avakian produced a series of reissue albums for Columbia, the "Hot Jazz Classics" line. Set C-144, "Bix and Tram, was the 20th in the series, and was released in September 1947.

It will be seen that Bill Rank is listed as trombonist.

In 1950, George Avakian produced three LP albums entitled The Bix Beiderbecke Story. (ML series). Vol 1 consisted of the Bix and His Gang recordings; vol 2 contained Bix and Tram recordings; finally, vol 3 had recordings of Bix during his Whiteman days plus Bix's own recording on piano of his composition In A Mist, and several Bix and Tram sides. The LPs were available for about 20 years, and were resissued twice. The GL series was issued in 1952, the Cl series in 1956. The series had the same content but different covers. Volume 2, the volume which included Singin' the Blues was issued as ML 4812, GL 508 and CL 845.

George Avakian's discography on the back of the album cover informs us that the trombonist in Singin' the Blues is Miff Mole.

The first full biography of Bix Beiderbecke was published in 1958 by Charles Wareing and George Garlick. [7] It included a discography where Bill Rank is assigned the trombone part. The same assignment is found in subsequent biographies of Bix Beiderbecke. [8], [9], [10] and in a Bix disco-biography [11]. The last Bix biography correctly gives Miff Mole as the trombonist. [12]

Specialized discographies such as Jimmy Dorsey's [13], Frank Trumbauer's [14], and Eddie Lang's [15] all identify Bill Rank as the trombonist. However, the revision of Jimmy Dorsey's discography, [16] lists Miff Mole as the trombonist.

An obituary for Miff Mole published in Down Beat, Vol. 28, No. 12, p.11, June 8, 1961, includes the following sentences, "Mole also made records during his period as a sideman. The most famous was Singin' the Blues under the leadership of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer."

Discographical information is also found in liners and booklets accompanying albums. For example, The Giants of Jazz set on Bix, STL-J04, Columbia Special Products P3 14778, issued in 1979, assigns the trombone part to Bill Rank, So does Vol 1 of the Bix Restored set issued in 1995 by Origin Jazz Library.

In the liners for the Bix CD in the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces set Bix Beiderbecke, Volume 1, Singin' the Blues, CK45450, issued in 1990, the trombonist is listed as Miff Mole with the notation, "Confirmed by Frank Trumbauer in Rhythm Magazine, July 1939." This publication is also cited in the booklet that accompanies the Mosaic set The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions (1924-36). Nevertheless, Bill Rank is listed as the trombonist in the Mosaic set.

But in a note following the roster of musicians in Singin' the Blues, we find the following statement :

"In the July 1939 issue of the British Magazine Rhythm Frank Trumbauer stated that Miff Mole had replaced Rank on Singin' the Blues. No other confirmation of this has surfaced."

As a matter of fact, there is another document where the replacement of Bill Rank by Miff Mole is documented. But first, I present a scan of the relevant article in Rhythm.

Trumbauer indeed stated, in a letter to Ralph Venables, that "Miff Mole replaced Bill Rank in Singin' the Blues."

Although Frank signed the letter 'Trumbauer', we expect, it turns out that on March 18, 1938, a few months before he wrote the letter to Venables, Trumbauer had opened at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles as the Frank Trombar Orchestra. He explained the reason for the change in name in his autobiography, "I was selected as the leader ... and since it was a new beginning, I felt that I owed myself a new name, so we used: Frank Trombar and his Orchestra."[14]

The second document in support of the replacement of Bill Rank by Miff Mole was, in fact, published earlier than the Tempo article. Jazz historian and record producer Warren Scholl "met Tram in December 1933, while Tram was staying with Bill Rank and his wife in Astoria. Scholl interviewed Bill Rank during his first meeting with Tram for an article that later appeared in the April 21, 1934 issue of the Melody Maker." [14]

Rank also was the trombonist in all the recordings of Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang.

We now have two contemporary witnesses' accounts of Miff Mole being the trombonist in the 1927 Bix and Tram recording of Singin' the Blues: the band director, Frank Trumbauer, and the trombonist himself, Bill Rank, who, in an interview, remembered being in every Bix and Tram record, with the single exception of Singin' the Blues. There is little doubt that the trombonist in Singin' the Blues was Miff Mole.

Conclusion

It must be emphasized that the correct identification of Miff Mole as the trombonist in the Bix and Tram seminal recording of Singin' the Blues was made in readily available publications in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the two most widely used jazz discographies in the 21st century continue to list Bill Rank as the trombonist, and most reissues of Singin' the Blues in currently available CDs also assign the trombone part to Bill Rank. The present account illustrates clearly the fragility of discographical information.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Enrico Borsetti (Italy) and Mike Thomas (England) for scans of the articles in the Melody Maker and Rhythm, respectively. I thank Russell Barnes (England) for a copy of the Frank Trumbauer letter to Ralph Venables. I am grateful to Ken Bristow (England) for transcribing the relevant text from the World Records album Bix Beiderbecke-The Studio Groups 1927. I thank Nick Dellow for information about the identification of Bill Rank as the trombonist in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th editions of Rust's Jazz Discography.

[1] Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942) by Brian Rust, Mainspring Press, Denver CO, 2002.

[2] The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord, http://www.lordisco.com.

[3] Hot Jazz by Hughes Panassié, les éditions R.-A. Corrêa, Paris, France, 1934.

[4] Trumbology was also recorded in that session.

[5] Hot Discography by Charles Delaunay, 1938 Edition Corrected and Reprinted in the United States of America, Commodore Music Shop, New York, 1940.

[6] New Hot Discography by Charles Delaunay, The Standard Directory of Recorded Jazz, Edited by Walter E. Schaap & George Avakian, Criterion, New York, 1948.

[7] Bugles for Beiderbecke by Charles H. Wareing and George Garlick, Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London, England, 1958.

[8] Bix, Man and Legend by Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans with William Dean-Myatt, Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York, 1974.

[9] Bix Beiderbecke: Sein Leben, Seine Musik, Seine Schallplatten by Klaus Scheuer, Waakirken-Schaftlach, Oreos Verlag, Germany, 1995.

[10] Bix: The Leon Beiderbecke Story by Philip R. Evans and Linda K. Evans, Prelike Press, Bakersfield, California, 1996.

[11] The Bix Bands: A Disco-biography by Vittorio Castelli, Evert (Ted) Kaleveld, and Liborio Pusateri. Raretone, Milan, 1972.

[12] Bix: the definitive biography of a jazz legend : Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke by Jean Pierre Lion, Continuum, New York, 2005.

[13] Jimmy Dorsey, A Study in Contrast by Robert L. Stockdale, Studies in Jazz No. 30, Institute of Jazz Studies, The Scarecrow Press, 1999.

[14] Tram, The Frank Trumbauer Story, by Philip R Evans and Larry F. Kiner with William Trumbauer, Studies in Jazz No. 18, Institute of Jazz Studies, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, NJ, 1994.

[15] Feeling My Way, A Discography of the Recordings of Eddie Lang 1923-1933 by Raymond F. Mitchell, Self-published, 2002

[16] The Dorsey Brothers: That's It! by Robert L. Stockdale, Lulu.com, 2008.

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