By Dave Radlauer
WILLIAM HUGH BARDIN, trombone
b. San Bernardino, CA 12/15/1924 d. Oakland, CA 2011
Jazz trombone player Bill Bardin was skilled at playing gutty two-beat stomps, sophisticated four-beat swing, or lowdown blues. A stalwart of traditional jazz, second to none in the Great Revival, he was featured for decades in the top ensembles of the East Bay scene.
He had an eloquent tone and powerful instrumental voice. Whether you love Kid Ory’s tailgate trombone, Jim Robinson’s New Orleans revival style or the smooth swing of his friend Dicky Wells, Bill Bardin is your man for tasteful, expressive jazz trombone.
Bill knew he was lucky, and said so. During World War II at age 17, Bardin substituted for Turk Murphy in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the Dawn Club by special dispensation of the Musicians Union. He shared the legendary 1942 broadcasts with gifted, but doomed trumpeter Benny Stickler. Bill was often befriended and taken under the wing by more experienced musicians, such as Pete Allen, Burt Bales, and Ellis Horne. Bill was part of the crew that launched the Bearcats around 1955 at the Lark’s Club in Berkeley. No interloper, Bill was bandleader Bob Mielke’s sole alternate and understudy. During the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Bill Bardin played key roles in the ensembles of Dick Oxtot, P. T. Stanton, Earl Scheelar, and Barbara Dane. Bardin never ran a band, and sadly, made few commercial recordings in a career of nearly seven decades.
As a young man, Bill was encouraged to play music by his mother. Though he’d wanted to play jazz cornet like Louis Armstrong, he got stuck with trombone and never changed. He played improvised jazz for the first time at Valenti’s Bar in Lafayette sometime before 1940. It was a good band with P.T. Stanton on cornet and occasionally guitar, and Pete Allen on alto sax or clarinet. In a 1994 interview San Francisco, Bardin described the experience.
Oh, it just knocked me out! The first time I played with a four-piece rhythm section—and it was really great. Later on [we] had jam sessions in Pete Allen’s mother’s living room in Berkeley.
At the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, he heard his lifelong inspiration, trombonist Dicky Wells, with the Count Basie Orchestra. Bardin later emulated the way Wells focused the band’s sound, using “harmonic nudges here and there.”
The Dawn Club with Benny Strickler - 1942
Benny Strickler (1917-1946) was a gifted jazz trumpet player from Arkansas. Bill Bardin, who shared the bandstand with him, praised his bouncy trumpet sound and the way he “knew how to place his notes so that the whole band would swing.” In the 1930s, Strickler had minor success in Los Angeles and with touring dance bands. In the late summer of 1942, he was brought into the Dawn Club to replace Lu Watters, who was away in the Navy. At the same time, Bill Bardin was standing in for trombonist Turk Murphy, and Burt Bales had taken over for Wally Rose on piano.
Strickler had recently concluded an intense year with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys at the apex of its artistic and popular success. They broadcast out of Tulsa, recorded in Hollywood, and broke ballroom attendance records up and down the West Coast.
But within weeks of moving to the Bay Area, Benny became too ill with tuberculosis to carry on, to the point of hemorrhaging as he struggled to play. The 25-year-old trumpeter departed San Francisco under a doctor’s care, never to perform again. The release of legendary Dawn Club air checks with Benny Strickler and Bill Bardin cemented their niche in the traditional jazz pantheon.
Regarding Turk Murphy and Bunk Johnson
Trombonist Turk Murphy (1915-1987) was a noteworthy influence on Bardin’s early style.
I started as a Dicky Wells fan. Still am. Then I became aware of Turk and became a Turk imitator. I believe that I can safely say I am the first of the Turk imitators. And I no longer am.
Bardin continued subbing for Turk with Yerba Buena during the wartime years.He was again engaged with YBJB musicians backing Bunk Johnson in his residency at the CIO Hall in San Francisco, 1943 - 44. Excitement about Bunk, the rediscovered Golden Age New Orleans trumpet player, who dated back to Buddy Bolden’s era, galvanized jazz musicians and fans, accelerating the nascent jazz revival.
Buddies with Burt Bales
Bill Bardin lived in San Francisco until about 1950, and just around the corner from Burt Bales (1916-1989). By many accounts, Bales was the most talented classic jazz band pianist to emerge from Northern California. Bardin often listened to him play at the 1018 Club on Fillmore Street, occasionally joining in. He hung around Burt’s apartment listening to records. Amused by his unorthodox views, he described Bales as “a wiggy guy who had original ideas on political matters. My impression was he had a rather high IQ.”
Eclipsed by Mielke
There was a natural, but friendly competition between trombonists Bob Mielke and Bill Bardin. Bill was shy and self-effacing. Bob Mielke had a big personality, ran his own bands, and vigorously hustled gigs. The success of his legendary Bearcats Jazz Band, the best-known brand of East Bay jazz, stuck to Mielke his whole life. Inevitably, Bardin lived in Mielke’s shadow.
Nonetheless, in the original Bearcats at the Lark’s Club, and later in Dick Oxtot ensembles, the two were interchangeable or sometimes performed side-by-side. They both worked for the same bandleaders at festivals, casuals, jam sessions, or traditional jazz society sessions.
"Your Basic Trombone"
The humble motto on Bill Bardin’s business card read “Your Basic Trombone.” For 25 years, unlike many of his East Bay contemporaries, he was a ‘weekend warrior,’ not a full-time professional musician. He kept a day job, driving forklift at a Del Monte canning plant in Alameda, 1957 - 82. Upon retirement, it provided him and his second wife Mili with a comfortable pension. Bardin was fascinated by anything to do with the trombone, brass instruments, and brass bands. He participated in brass ensembles, subscribed to specialist publications, and traveled to conventions of brass music enthusiasts.
P.T. Stanton’s Stone Age Jazz Band - 1973-78
Bill Bardin played a key role in P.T. Stanton’s Stone Age Jazz Band, continuing his close association and longstanding friendship with the oddly brilliant cornet player. Stanton’s unorthodox, personal style intentionally rejected the horn’s clarion majesty for a personal vocabulary of growls, squawks, and strangled tones. P.T. crafted an original band sound independent of Eddie Condon’s Dixieland formula, East Coast cutting contests, or the traditional jazz of Watters, Scobey, and Murphy. He drew inspiration from all points of the classic jazz compass. In the Stone Age Jazz Band, Scheelar put down his cornet and switched to clarinet—which he played with a strong Johnny Dodds-inflected New Orleans flavor—opening a whole new dimension for their improvisation. Their string bass player was Pete Allen (1921-2008). His drive, accuracy, and voluminous tone made him one of the best of the San Francisco revival. In the late 1970s, Bardin was in the elegant ten-piece swing ensemble, Harbor Lights Orchestra, organized and run by Allen.
Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band and The Point
Bill Bardin and Dick Oxtot met in the early 1940s and worked together for the rest of their lives. Bardin was a regular in Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band. Though Oxtot constantly altered his band roster, Bill was a steady fixture from 1972-92. And, he was one of the lucky few regularly working Friday and Saturday nights at The Point in Richmond. Earl Scheelar likened the pair to a bickering couple. Bill was orderly, sensitive, and easily upset by Dick’s off-the-cuff leadership style. Bardin frequently quit or was fired. Inevitably they would make-up and resume working, only to repeat the cycle.
Four Decades with Earl Scheelar
Starting with Earl’s New Orleans House Jazz Band in the late 1960s, Bardin worked in all of Earl Scheelar’s bands, often with Helm playing reeds. Bob Helm (1914-2003) was a singular genius and and co-founder of the San Francisco traditional jazz movement. He became a respected elder, researcher, and memory keeper. In the early 1970s, when Scheelar assembled his Funky New Orleans Jazz Band, he specifically chose Bardin for a front line with Bob Helm on clarinet. That formation, led by Earl’s cornet, carried over into Scheelar’s Zenith Jazz Band, and continued for the better part of three decades.
Bill Bardin was a gentle soul: thoughtful, modest, well spoken. His music had great depth, range and eloquence. Though often eclipsed by Bob Mielke, Bill was certainly his musical equal. A dynamic team player of the East Bay Jazz Revival, he racked up impressive lifetime stats in a career spanning nearly seven decades. Bill Bardin’s largest body of work survives online in live and private session tapes.
Guest Contributor Dave Radlauer is a writer and broadcaster with a special emphasis on West Coast Traditional. For decades his talents have been engaged in the preservation and restoration of historic audio, CD projects, creating museum audio tours, writing children’s literature and driving a bookmobile.
Listen to the music of Bill Bardin at Dave Radlauer’s JazzRhythm.