By Dave Radlauer
ROBERT MIELKE, trombone
b. July 12, 1926
Bob Mielke and the Bearcats Jazz Band
Bob Mielke and his East Bay ensembles were a distinctly independent voice in the great Traditional Jazz Revival that swept through San Francisco and environs in the mid-20th century. By 1955, the Bearcats were leading a second wave of revival jazz that was stylistically not traditional jazz, but New Orleans four-beat swing. In the Bearcats, and Mielke’s bands in general, there was almost nothing of the Watters-Murphy-Scobey two-beat sound.
Bob’s bands were bold and creative. Riffing was a key feature in the Bearcats, typically generated by cornet player P.T. Stanton in coordination with the clarinet or trombone. Fusing Mielke’s love for full-throated New Orleans ensemble polyphony with P.T.’s Basie-inspired riffing created an independent style that was a potent brew.
The Bearcats’ success and original sound was based on the skilled voicing of the horns, accurate driving rhythm, and a broad repertoire. They rejected the Dixieland formula of Eddie Condon’s jam sessions or East Coast ‘cutting contests.’ Instead, they created an independent traditionalist jazz style, drawing inspiration from the New Orleans revival exemplified by the clarinet of George Lewis, from Duke Ellington’s Harlem, and from the Kansas City sound of Count Basie. The Bearcats’ style was a notable second generation alternative to the traditional jazz of Lu Watters, Bob Scobey, and Turk Murphy.
The Lark’s Club, A Berkeley Crucible
The Lark’s Club in Berkeley, where the Bearcats played 1954-56, was the point of origin for an East Bay, four-beat, New Orleans revival jazz movement. The band’s playing was nurtured and seasoned with this, their first steady gig. They played several nights a week, and alternated with other revivalist bands. The club’s integrated clientele was unusual in a racially fraught era. About half were African-American, and half young, white Dixieland fans.
For the next half century, Bob Mielke was at the core of an East Bay contingent in the second wave of the great San Francisco Jazz Revival. Though the Bearcats floundered in the early 1960s, due to personal circumstances and cultural changes, the members remained lifelong friends, reuniting often for special performances.
In the late 1960s, performances shifted to the weekends and to events hosted by traditional jazz societies and jazz festivals. Mielke was named favorite trombonist in a poll by the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California for six consecutive years.
At the end of the 1960s, the spirit of the Bearcats continued in a series of Oxtot-Mielke All Stars bands, gradually becoming Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band. It featured former Bearcats Bill Napier, Bob Mielke and others, with marvelous local musicians including Ray Skjelbred on piano, Jim Goodwin on trumpet, Bob Helm on reeds, and Terry Garthwaite as vocalist, with Bill Bardin sometimes paired on trombone with Mielke.
Mielke Style and Personal Challenges
Bob Mielke was perhaps the most imaginative jazz trombonist to emerge from the San Francisco Revival. He created his own exciting style, fusing elements from Kid Ory’s New Orleans tailgate tradition, the Harlem swing of J.C. Higginbotham, and plunger mute technique of Ellington’s ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton. His model for playing New Orleans trombone parts was George Brunis in the 1939 Muggsy Spanier Ragtime Band records. As a soloist, Bob kept things interesting by being brave enough to take the unexpected path. He was particularly skillful at carrying his solos back into the ensemble, providing excellent support for the other musicians through counterpoint and supportive comping.
In earlier years, Mielke had been a drinker, and could be a hothead. However, he grew into a warm and personable man with a deep understanding of the early jazz music to which his life was dedicated. Being a regional jazz celebrity did not exempt him from tragedy and travail. His wife Frances died suddenly in 1960 from a blood clot, leaving him a widower raising two young sons. Among his new responsibilities was a full-time job with the California Department of Statistics. When the position was moved to Sacramento, he commuted from Berkeley, sleeping in his van in the capitol city several nights a week. Meanwhile he continued performing and maintained his superlative chops.
Oakland Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band
From 1969-92, Oakland Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band brought vintage jazz to ballpark audiences, traditional jazz events, and private parties. It was a solid musical ensemble with a limited role. Much of their repertoire at the Oakland Coliseum was popular tunes, yet the music was always delivered in the three-horn New Orleans/Dixieland format of trumpet, clarinet or soprano sax, and trombone. They performed during half-inning breaks, standing atop the team dugout and playing six or seven minute sets of ‘chorus and a half’ tunes (30 to 90 seconds) or strolling through the bleachers presenting jazz classics, novelties, polkas, and fanfares. Outside the main stadium they performed in the hallways, bleachers, or tailgate lots. Mielke also offered this jolly quintet at jazz festivals and diverse sporting, civic, or casual events. The Swingin’ A’s Strolling Dixieland Jazz Band brought authentic classic jazz and American popular music directly to millions over the decades, a proud legacy for any group of musicians.
Mielke’s Photographic Legacy
As a young man, Mielke had aspirations of becoming a professional or artistic photographer specializing in stark, black and white scenes of gritty urban life. In the 1950s, he shot and printed experimental and compelling jazz photographs.
His vivid Lark’s Club images, seen here, were captured in low light with the assistance of his wife Frances. Over the decades, Bob’s photographs mingled with hundreds of images he collected from other photographers, creating an intimate visual chronicle of the East Bay jazz revival, dating back to the late 1940s.
Today Mielke’s collection of sound and images recall halcyon days when jazz enthusiasts flocked to hear Bob and his associates blowing up a storm.
Bob Mielke and His Talented Associates
Bob Mielke played frequently in a wide range of groups with Ray Skjelbred, Earl Scheelar, Ev Farey, Bob Neighbor, Bill Napier, Burt Bales, and ran his own New Bearcats band during the 1990s.
In the 1980s, Mielke was music director for Barbara Dane’s excellent Good News Bonanza Band. Featuring reedman Richard Hadlock and bassist Pete Allen, the band was an effective vehicle for Barbara’s leftist screeds against war, President Reagan, and Republican policy. Their only album was titled, I Hate the Capitalist System.
Bob Mielke would be quick to credit his many noteworthy fellow musicians without whom he could not have succeeded.
P.T. Stanton (1923 - 1987) cornet, occasional vocals
Although Mielke got the gigs, hosted, sang, and was star trombone player in the Bearcats, it was P. T. Stanton who defined their sound. In his quirky, indirect manner he was musical director of the Bearcats. Stanton called directions on the fly, or led indirectly through his horn by emphasis, cadence, or counterpoint. Taking a limited solo role, he subtly directed the ensemble, maintaining and guiding its momentum invisibly, as if by sleight of hand.
A mute, plunger, or hand was almost always in or near the bell of his instrument, though he played horn un-muted when the music called for it. His cornet style was like no other. P.T. rejected the clarion majesty of the horn in favor of a personal vocabulary of quavering growls, expressive cries, and strangled tones.
Dick Oxtot (1918 - 2001) banjo, vocals, occasional cornet
Dick Oxtot was an appealing performer, fine singer, good composer, and full-time professional entertainer proffering “vintage music with style.” Oxtot played banjo, cornet, string bass, and tuba, and was a matchless gig getter. A popular entertainer, Dick operated his own bands, often using Bearcats band personnel, in a wide range of formats and genres on both sides of San Francisco Bay.
Mielke and Oxtot were associated for more than a half-century. They worked in each other’s bands from their earliest days and were partners in the Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band. Mielke was often heard in Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band and related ensembles.
Pete Allen (1921 - 2008) string bass, occasional vocals Pete Allen was one of the area’s most accomplished string bass players, projecting a throbbing beat with tremendous volume and drive. He was also frequently heard in the bands of Dick Oxtot and Earl Scheelar, where he was paired with Oxtot in an unmatched, hard-driving rock-solid timekeeping duo first heard in the Bearcats.
Bill Napier (1926 - 2003) clarinet
Bill Napier was Mielke’s first alternate clarinetist in the Bearcats when Bunky Colman was unavailable. Bill worked with Turk Murphy, Gene Mayl and his Dixieland Rhythm Kings, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Don Ewell, Ev Farey (Bay City and Golden State Jazz Bands), Dick Oxtot (Golden Age Jazz Band), Robbie Schlosser (Magnolia Band and Trio) and ran the Pier 23 jam sessions 1967-72.
Inventive, reliable and always professional, Napier was among the finest clarinet players produced by the revival. Creating imaginative parts with a wide range of tone colors, he was a brilliant hot jazz musician whose primary influences were Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon, Albert Nicholas, and Jimmy Dorsey. He was Mielke’s closest friend.
Bunky Colman (1932 - 1983) clarinet
Bunky Colman was The Bearcats’ designated clarinet player. A skilled soloist, he had superb tone and jazz technique. He brought tasteful parts to the ensemble with his pleasing blend of New Orleans, Chicago, and swing clarinet styles.
Bunky also worked in the bands of Marty Marsala and Dick Oxtot. During the late 1950s he was a medical student, and became a doctor, which limited his availability for playing jazz. A beloved musician, he died at age 50.
Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie (1899 - 1964) clarinet
Between 1957 - 63, Goudie was a notable figure in the revival and an associate of Mielke, Erickson and Oxtot. Originally from Louisiana, the Creole multi-instrumentalist moved to Paris in 1924, to South America during WW II, and returned to Europe after the war. He came back to the U.S.A. in 1956, settling in San Francisco after 32 years overseas.
In his sixties and still brimming with energy, Goudie found the Bay Area fertile ground for an autumnal flowering of his music. He developed a distinctive clarinet style with a rich, husky tone and flowing lines, reflecting his New Orleans roots, his decades playing swing tenor in Paris, and his advanced musical skills. A memorable figure at almost six and a half feet, ‘Big Boy’ was nearly twice the age of other musicians. He wore a beret and spoke with a strong French accent. By all reports he was a gracious, continental gentleman.
Bill Erickson (1929 - 1967) piano, trumpet, occasional vocals
Bill Erickson was a dynamic force in the revival. Almost completely forgotten today, Erickson directed jam sessions several nights a week at Pier 23 in San Francisco from 1960-67. At Monkey Inn, Mielke joined Erickson in a regular Thursday night combo with clarinet players Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie or Ellis Horne. In the Bearcats, Bill Erickson occasionally played piano. He blew trumpet in closely related variants of the band, including Oxtot’s Stompers at Burp Hollow and the 1959 Estuary Jazz broadcasts from Pier 23.
Richard Hadlock (1927) soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone
Dick Hadlock played alongside Bob Mielke frequently in the Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band, in the New Bearcats 1980s - 90s, and in the ensembles of singers Barbara Lashley and Barbara Dane, or with pianist Ray Skjelbred. Richard Hadlock is a superb clarinet, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone player active in Bay Area jazz since the early 1960s. Richard studied with reed masters Sidney Bechet, Garvin Bushell, and Lee Konitz. His ongoing Annals of Jazz radio series has aired on Bay Area radio since 1959. He wrote Jazz Masters of the Twenties (1965, Da Capo 1988) and has written for a wide range of jazz publications, periodicals and liner notes.
Don Marchant (1921 – 2011) drums
‘Wonderful Don’ worked in many of Mielke’s ensembles from the original Bearcats to Mielke’s New Bearcats. He also played in the bands of Dick Oxtot and Earl Scheelar.
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.