Discussions of the post-WW2 evolution of modern jazz usually center on its progressive tendencies and the birth of Bop. Little mention gets made of the enormous post-war craze for “traditional” Dixieland jazz, which reached its high-water mark in the late Forties, when artists like Pete Fountain, Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), Al Hirt, and Eddie Condon (to name a few) began to make a name for themselves with perky banjo and piano-inflected “old timey” jazz. There’s a reason most of that music doesn’t get discussed today: it’s mostly forgettable. Many of the musicians had great talent (especially Pete Fountain, who by any measure was a virtuoso clarinetist in his prime), but when I hear their recordings today they strike me as vapid – music by old white guys, played for other old white guys. When put beside recordings from the period by artists who actually came out of the New Orleans street jazz tradition – artists like George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory – one instantly hears the lack of primitive expression and authenticity in these revivalist jazz bands. It’s ersatz, cleaned-up jazz, made for country-clubbers and good ole boys, only marginally more interesting than the schmaltzy dance-band stylings of Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk.
An exception, at least to my ear, is the now almost forgotten San Francisco trumpeter Bob Scobey, who from the late Forties to about 1960 led one of the scorchingest six-piece ensembles of the post-war era. Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band was the house orchestra of the legendary Oakland jazz club Victor & Roxies, and to have seen them in their prime must have been quite a thrill. Like other Dixieland revivalists, Scobey stuck pretty closely to trad jazz standards, but what set him apart was his absolute swinging virtuosity on his instrument – his breaks and solos were always far more inventive and energized than they needed to be to meet the relatively low bar set by most other Dixieland revivalists. He also surrounded himself with some wonderful Bay area musicians, including the big-blowing Jack Buck on trombone and the inimitable (if occasionally grating) Clancy Hayes on banjo and vocals.
Like most else I know about traditional music, I owe my familiarity with Scobey to my dad, Jake Bair, who died in 2009. Scobey made an influential tour of college campuses in 1956, when Jake was still an undergraduate at Rutgers, but I never thought to ask him if he saw the band play live or not. What I do know is that by the end of the Fifties Scobey’s band was the height of bohemian cool on American college campuses. His tunes were a staple of college-town jukeboxes, and he was even featured in a hip Marlboro cigarette ad that aired during the Dobie Gillis show. Jake once described for me a wonderful scene in a pool hall where one night Scobey’s three-trombone arrangement of “I Wish I Was In Peoria” came on the jukebox, infusing my father with such a rush of euphoria that he promptly ran three straight racks of nine-ball and went home with fifty dollars in his pocket (whether he managed to run all three racks within the roughly two-and-a-half-minute duration of the song, I can’t tell you – ever the fabulist, he might have been making the whole thing up – but the man really could shoot some pool). When I went into the Coast Guard after high school, the line “Why did I ever roam with these sailor boys / I should have stayed back home in Illinois” often crossed my mind, but I never got to be the pool shark my father was.
Among the hundreds of old jazz, blues, string-band and bluegrass LPs I grew up with on the farm in West Virginia, there was always that stack of scratchy Scobey 10-inches in the music room (yes, we were hippies, but we had a music room – and the rules for using the equipment were very strict!). It took me until high school to begin to appreciate traditional jazz, but once I did Scobey became one of my favorites, and despite my general distrust of such “throwback” music I’ve never lost my taste for his records. Mind you, there’s nothing intellectual or even particularly original about this music – it is, as advertised on the album label, “good time jazz,” made for barrel houses and beer picnics. But for all that, there’s a clarity, vivacity and sweetness in Scobey’s line that sets him apart and keeps these records sounding fresh fifty years later.
Bob Scobey died young, of stomach cancer, in 1963 – perhaps contributing to his obscurity now – but before he left us he and his band recorded several hundred sides, mostly on Lester Koenig’s ‘Good Time Jazz’ label. Most of this oeuvre has, thankfully, been re-issued digitally, meaning I can keep those old 10-inches on the rack where they belong. Here’s a little three-song sampler of Scobey’s talents, starting out with that version of “Peoria” I was talking about (check out the kray-zee trombone trio – Jack Buck, Bob Mielke, and Marshall Nichols – on the second chorus); followed by Scobey’s treatment of the old New Orleans standard “Closer Walk With Thee,” where he really shows off his phrasing and tone; and concluding with the one Scobey tune some of you are likely to have heard – his great version of “Ace in the Hole,” a great ensemble piece and certainly one of Clancy Hayes’s finest vocal performances. Click HERE, enjoy, and explore!