By Hal Smith
WILLIAM JAMES NAPIER-ASHBURY, clarinet
b. Asheville, NC 9/9/1926 d. Hayward, CA 4/30/2003
Although Bill Napier’s parents were both in show business, there was never anything the least bit showy in Napier’s clarinet work. Whether performing in a traditional band with two trumpets, banjo, and tuba, or with a small swing combination, he always played with heartfelt conviction and created beautiful, rich sounds in every possible musical setting.
Napier began playing clarinet as a preteen and was listening to jazz soon after. One of his earliest influences was Duke Ellington’s clarinetist Barney Bigard. Napier’s family moved to California in 1940 and he was soon introduced to the San Francisco style of the Yerba Buena Jazz Club at a special concert for young people.
Along with trombonist Bob Mielke, Napier and other promising young musicians were mentored by some of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sidemen and formed a group of their own.
A photo from this period shows Napier with mussed hair, contorted face, pointing his clarinet in the air as if playing the hottest chorus in the history of jazz. Many years later, he chuckled when recalling that “a lot of people took that photo seriously!”
Following a hitch in the Army during World War II, Napier freelanced in San Francisco, including an engagement with Wingy Manone’s band at Club Hangover. Napier must have impressed the trombonist in that group, Turk Murphy. In January, 1950. Murphy hired the clarinetist for a concert in Los Angeles, as well as a recording session for Good Time Jazz. Napier’s clarinet on that session is a delight, loose and swinging on “Curse of an Aching Heart," but using more traditional ideas and phrasing on “Ragtime Dance.”
In June, Napier traveled with Murphy to Los Angeles for a summer of appearances with the Circus Jazz Band at the Cinegrill of the Hollywood-Roosevelt Hotel, the Garden of Allah in Seal Beach, the Avalon Ballroom in Santa Monica, and another recording session.
When Turk Murphy returned to the Bay Area, Napier returned to freelancing, including work with bands led by Jack Sheedy and Bob Mielke. He joined Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings in 1952 and shifted his base of operations to the Midwest for two years. Upon his return to San Francisco, Napier joined Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band.
Bob Scobey's Frisco Band
This ensemble played at a variety of clubs, including the Tin Angel, and recorded extensively for Good Time Jazz. Napier’s style and sound was fully formed by the mid-‘50s. There are traces of Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon, Jimmie Noone, Albert Nicholas, and Jimmy Dorsey among others in his playing, but everything still sounds like Bill Napier. Despite his many influences, Napier was endlessly inventive in both ensemble and solo passages. He also played bass clarinet on the 1955 Scobey and Clancy LP.
After a successful tour of the Midwest, Bob Scobey moved his base of operations to Chicago. Napier went back to San Francisco and rejoined Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band in 1957.
The Murphy Band performed as far away as New York City and recorded an album called Music For Losers for Verve. The band’s cornetist was not up to the rigors of recording, so Don Kinch, a veteran of the 1950 Circus Jazz Band, was flown in from Los Angeles to complete the session. Kinch’s and Napier’s playing, especially on the beautiful “Yama Yama Man,” with Napier on bass clarinet, is a genuine pleasure to hear. The album is definitely one of Turk Murphy’s very best.
Napier did not stay with the Murphy Band for long; instead he went back to freelancing in the Bay Area. As before, he played various locations with Bob Mielke’s Bearcats and at Burp Hollow with Bill Erickson. He was with Kid Ory at On The Levee in 1959, and also played briefly with Joe Sullivan’s Jazz Band. Napier worked most frequently at Pier 23. In 1967, after leaving the club, he was struck by an automobile and seriously injured. A benefit was held for him at Pier 23 on October 1, with music provided by Turk Murphy, Wally Rose, Bob Mielke, Burt Bales, Clancy Hayes, Red Gillham, Cyril Bennett, Pat Yankee, Carol Leigh and others. Napier recovered, but had to wear a special orthopedic shoe which gave him a club-footed appearance.
During the 1970s, Bill Napier was one of the busiest musicians in the Bay Area. He worked with Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band, Ev Farey’s New Bay City Jazz Band, the Delta Jazz Irregulars, and the Powell Street Jazz Band, a quartet playing for tips on the streets of San Francisco. When Bob Helm returned to Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band in 1973, Napier took his place with Bob Mielke’s Swingin’ A’s, the strolling quintet which performed for the Oakland A’s baseball team.
Helm continued to win the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California poll as favorite clarinetist, but his schedule with Murphy would not allow him to participate in any concerts by the All-Star band. Napier was the runner-up every time, and played brilliantly alongside the other All-Stars at the NOJCNC concerts.
Bill Napier performed with yet another All-Star group, the short-lived San Francisco Style All-Stars, which was assembled by NOJCNC president Dave Walker. This group also included Ev Farey and Bob Neighbor on trumpet, Bob Mielke on trombone, Norma Teagarden on piano, Monte Ballou on banjo, and Bob Short on tuba. A European tour was planned for the band, but fell apart when Short was killed in an airplane accident and Ballou suffered a major heart attack. On private recordings of all these groups, Napier’s clarinet playing is as inventive and inspiring as ever.
As is the case with many eccentric geniuses who played clarinet, Napier would sometimes become lost in his own world. At a boisterous benefit for Clancy Hayes at Earthquake McGoon’s in 1970, Napier performed with his Pier 23 Jazz Band. He stepped onstage, went to the microphone, and over the hubbub of the crowd announced, “Here we are!” After a few seconds of introspection, he then asked “Where are we?”
Another time, at a concert in front of a large audience, the announcer asked each musician in the band why they played music for a living. Napier responded “Well, I have to pay my taxes,” resulting in appreciative laughter from the musicians as well as the listeners. His usual demeanor was often that of a courtly Southern gentleman; however, he also possessed a great down-home sense of humor and delighted in deliberately mispronouncing words in Southern dialect.
The Golden State Jazz Band
At the end of the 1970s, Napier joined a new group led by Ev Farey, The Golden State Jazz Band. This ensemble played Friday afternoons at Vic’s Place, in San Francisco’s Financial District. The band finished playing in time for Napier to play night jobs with Oxtot and others in a variety of locations. The band recorded for Stomp Off in 1979 and the highlights of the album are, without a doubt, Napier’s clarinet playing. By turns, the clarinet sounds soulful, introspective, playful, and even fiery. He was definitely familiar with the traditional solos played by clarinetists such as Johnny Dodds, but almost always improvised freely. Once, when cornetist Chris Tyle sat in with the Golden State Jazz Band, he quoted a famous hornman’s solo. Napier followed with a spur-of-the-moment improvisation, but wound it up with Muggsy Spanier’s ending from a 1928 record. Napier lowered his horn, smiled at Tyle and asked, “Was that ‘traditional’ enough for you?”
1980s and beyond
Napier’s next musical associations began in the 1980s, when he played in the first version of cornetist Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He also began a long association with bassist Robbie Schlosser, who had successfully led the Magnolia Jazz Band for several years. Schlosser put together a trio with himself on bass, Napier on clarinet and excellent guitarists/banjoists such as Paul Mehling and Larry Scala. The Magnolia Trio became Napier’s main source of work for the rest of his life, though he also played several engagements with Bob Mielke’s New Bearcats.
Bill Napier died of cancer in 2003. Musicians of every description admired his style and his easy-going personality and dedicated professionalism. Above all, he was one of the greatest jazz clarinetists, in a class with all of the distinguished reedmen he claimed as inspirations.
Dixieland Rhythm Kings Riverside RLP 2504 (10” Vinyl LP; out of print)
Dixieland Rhythm Kings: Jazz in Retrospect Riverside RLP 12 – 289 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Dixieland Rhythm Kings: Two Beat Bash Jazztone J 1273 (Vinyl LP; out of print. Reverse by Tony Parenti)
Golden State Jazz Band: Alive and at Bay Stomp Off SOS 1006 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Patrice Hahn and Tony Marcus: Leftover Dreams Tuxedo Records/CD Baby
Clancy Hayes: Swingin’ Minstrel Good Time Jazz 10050 – 2
Paul Mehling: Classic Jazz (cassette; no label or catalog number)
Buddy Lee: Buddy Banjo Buddy Records 6 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
George Lewis and Turk Murphy at Newport Verve MGV 8232 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Bob Mielke’s Bearcats: Live at the Sail’N 1958 Arhoolie 1099 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Turk Murphy Favorites Good Time Jazz CD 60611
Turk Murphy Favorites Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz FCD 60 – 026
Turk Murphy Jazz Band: In Hollywood San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation CD 102
Turk Murphy: Music For Losers Verve MGV 1013 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
New Orleans Stomp (2 CDs) Jasmine JASCD 461 (Includes three tracks from Verve “George Lewis and Turk Murphy at Newport”).
Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band: Down In Honky Tonk Town Arhoolie 4010 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band with Diane Holmes Arhoolie 4007 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band Jazzology JCD 206
Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band: Everything Is Peaches Down In Georgia GHB BCD 406
Bob Scobey’s Band Verve MGV 1001 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Beauty And The Beat RCA Victor LPM 1344 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Bourbon Street MGV 1009 Verve (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Direct From San Francisco Good Time Jazz CD 12023 – 2
Bob Scobey: Frisco Jazz ’56 (2 CDs) Jasmine CD 496 (includes all tracks from Direct From San Francisco, Bob Scobey’s Band, The San Francisco Jazz Of Bob Scobey and Beauty And The Beat).
Bob Scobey: The San Francisco Jazz of Bob Scobey Verve MGV 1011 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bob Scobey: Scobey and Clancy Good Time Jazz CD 12009 – 2
Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band with Clancy Hayes Good Time Jazz CD 12006 – 2
The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957 GHB BCD 285
The Great Bob Scobey and his Frisco Band Vol. 1 Jazzology JCD 275
The Great Bob Scobey and his Frisco Band Vol. 2 Jazzology JCD 285
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Clute, Cedric; Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: Meet Me at McGoon’s. Victoria, B.C., Canada 2004. Trafford Publishing.
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Ginell, Cary: Hot Jazz For Sale: Hollywood’s Jazz Man Record Shop. Los Angeles, Self-published, 2010.
Goggin, Jim: Some Jazz Friends, Vol. 2. Victoria, B.C., Canada. 2006, Trafford Publishing Co.
Goggin, Jim: Turk Murphy: Just For The Record. San Leandro, CA., 1982. San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
Leigh, James: Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life. Los Angeles, CA, 2000 XLibris Books.
Leigh, James: Liner notes to The Unheard Bob Scobey and his Frisco Jazz Band 1950 – 1957. New Orleans, 2007. GHB BCD 285.
Steinman, Michael: The Warm Sounds of Bill Napier (1926 – 2003). Jazzlives website, Aug. 9, 2017 (see Additional Resources).
Conversations with the writer regarding Bill Napier:
Burt Bales, Bill Bardin, Bill Carroll, Kim Cusack, Mike Duffy, Everett Farey, Doug Finke, John Gill, Jim Goodwin, Bobby Gordon, Dick Hadlock, Carl Halen, Bill Hanck, Fred Higuera, Bob Hodes, Wayne Jones, Don Kinch, Jim Leigh, Carl Lunsford, Gene Mayl, Paul Mehling, Bob Mielke, Turk Murphy, Bill Napier, Bob Neighbor, Dick Oxtot, Frank Powers, Wally Rose, Larry Scala, Robbie Schlosser, Bob Schulz, Ray Skjelbred, Jim Snyder, Charles Sonnanstine, Butch Thompson, Chris Tyle, Mike Walbridge.