By Hal Smith
BURTON FRANKLIN BALES, piano
b. Stevensville, MT 4/20/16 d. San Francisco, CA 10/26/89
Burt Bales was one of the earliest disciples of Jelly Roll Morton. Though he also loved the music of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines and Joe Sullivan, Morton’s style is the one he is generally associated with, and the one he performed and recorded most frequently.
Bales’ family moved to California when Burt was a pre-teen. His mother helped him develop the ability to play piano by ear.
Eventually he was good enough to play at speakeasies in Northern California. He was freelancing in the Bay Area when he encountered the musicians who eventually formed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band.
Though he did not become part of the original formation, he played with the wartime version of the band at the Dawn Club. He was drafted, but released, by the Army due to his poor eyesight.
During WWII he played with ‘Papa Mutt’ Carey at the Dawn Club and with Bunk Johnson at the C.I.O. Hall in San Francisco. Bales appears on all the recordings by Johnson, which also include Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Pat Patton, Squire Girsback, Clancy Hayes, and Sister Lottie Peavey.
On the Bunk Johnson recordings, as on the transcriptions by the wartime YBJB, the Jelly Roll Morton influence is readily apparent in Bales’ piano work. At the same time, he was developing a highly individualistic style with an extremely powerful left hand and unusual syncopated phrasing in the right.
Burt Bales befriended Bunk Johnson, and the trumpeter stayed at the Bales home during one of his trips to San Francisco. During his stay, Johnson flirted with Bales’ wife, even quietly calling her name after everyone had retired for the night. Burt recalled hearing Bunk calling, “Jea-a-a-ne” in a falsetto voice. Each time, in response, Burt yelled, “Shut up, Bunk! Go to sleep!” When Johnson returned to Louisiana, Bales sent him cartons of Kool cigarettes after receiving a mournful letter from Bunk stating that he could not buy that brand of cigarette in his hometown of New Iberia.
When the Yerba Buena Jazz Band returned to the Dawn Club after the war, Bales was still not part of the ensemble. He played as a soloist in several Bay Area clubs, including the 1018 Club. He also made frequent rehearsals and presumably a few engagements with banjoist/vocalist Clancy Hayes’ Bay City Boys. Hayes may have organized this group in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the Yerba Buena Band and also to promote his own compositions, which—based on Hayes’ home recordings—were played at every single rehearsal. Even guest Jack Teagarden was not immune to Hayes’ call to play “Parsons, Kansas Blues.” However, Teagarden’s presence galvanized Bales, who takes a brief stride solo on the trombonist’s feature, “Lover.” This is one of the first hints at Bales’ ability to improvise in a style other than Morton’s.
At the end of 1947, Bales participated in the first recording session under Turk Murphy’s name, the Bay City Stompers, for the Jazz Man label, and in 1948 recorded with Bob Scobey’s Alexander’s Jazz Band for Ragtime Records. On the Murphy session, his strong left hand and highly rhythmic style compensated for the absence of bass and drums. Turk Murphy described it as a “very full piano." The Scobey band included banjo, bass, and drums but Bales made some valuable contributions to the rhythm section.
Bales played at Hambone Kelly’s in 1949, when the piano chair was temporarily vacant. Recordings exist of Bales with a cut-down Yerba Buena Band that included Bob Scobey, Bob Helm, Clancy Hayes, Dick Lammi, and leader Lu Watters on washboard as he recovered from hernia surgery. Bales’ stomping, barrelhouse style sounds wonderful with this particular combination. As the personnel continued to shift at Hambone’s, Bales also played with a sextet led by Turk Murphy. Live recordings of this group demonstrate Bales’ tremendous percussive sound, once again helping to make up for the lack of drums.
Burt Bales traveled to Los Angeles to record with this same ensemble, and on the same trip played a concert with Murphy’s group at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The group, which alternated with the Murphy Band, consisted of Albert Nicholas on clarinet, James P. Johnson on piano, and Zutty Singleton on drums.
Many years later, pianist Bill Mitchell, who had been present at the concert, remembered the finale where Nicholas and Singleton sat in with the band and Johnson shared the piano bench with Bales. James P. Johnson was another of Bales’ favorite pianists and he continued to play Jimmy’s compositions such as “Old Fashioned Love” and “Jingles” for years.
Still, Morton continued to be his primary influence, as heard on a set of eight piano solos recorded for Good Time Jazz in 1949, on subsequent sessions with Kid Ory’s rhythm men Ed Garland and Minor Hall, and on another date with George Bruns, Joe Darensbourg, Hall, and Jeanne Gayle. Back in San Francisco, Bales played with Wingy Manone, Turk Murphy and other bandleaders at the newly-opened Club Hangover.
In the late ‘40s, Bales’ “very full piano” was often found in other rhythm sections which did not include drums, banjo and/or bass. He worked in trios with trumpeter Jack Minger and guitarist Bill Newman; with clarinetist Vince Cattolica and bassist Dick Lammi; and with clarinetist Slim Evans and vocalist Billie Smith. He also played a concert with Scobey, Murphy, Helm, and Pat Patton alternating between banjo and string bass.
Sometimes, though, the lack of a strong rhythm partner affected Bales’ time, and he accelerated to the point of discomfort for the rest of the band. However, with strong rhythm partners such as bassist Squire Girsback and drummer Fred Higuera, he sounds magnificent on live and commercial recordings with Bob Scobey’s band made in 1950 and 1951. The Morton influence is still paramount in the piano solos, although some characteristic Fats Waller licks are included as well.
The 1950s and 60s
The January, 1950 Good Time Jazz session by Turk Murphy illustrates Bales’ affinity for stride piano on “Curse Of An Aching Heart” and “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Most importantly, the piano solo on “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” does not recall Morton or Waller. Rather, the improvisations are Bales’ own. Hearing this very different sound and style for the first time is an invigorating experience.
During the 1950s, Bales mainly worked as a soloist, though he led groups at the Melody Club and Victor and Roxie’s. He drifted in and out of Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band, and worked some engagements with Bob Mielke’s Bearcats as well as Dick Oxtot’s Polecats. Sometime in 1951 (or possibly early 1952), Bales was arrested, convicted and jailed for possession and sale of marijuana. Though the brief imprisonment was not detrimental to his status in the Bay Area music scene, it did prevent him from accepting an invitation to join Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, which might have been a life-changing career boost for the pianist.
After being released from jail, Bales performed with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band and guest Sidney Bechet at the Dixieland Jubilee in Southern California, then settled in for a long solo residency at Pier 23, on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Within a short time, musicians of every description began to show up for a chance to sit in with ‘The Professor.’ He also worked with trumpeter Marty Marsala’s band, appeared at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival with them, and recorded with the group for ABC-Paramount. In 1959, a Bales-led band including Bob Mielke, Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie, and Dick Oxtot broadcast regularly from the club. Bales was badly injured in 1960 when he was struck by a car after leaving Pier 23. Dozens of musicians performing in four San Francisco nightclubs donated a large percentage of the evening’s income to help defray Bales’ hospital expenses. He recovered fully, but walked with a cane for the rest of his life.
The 1960s were lean years for Bales. He left the steady engagement at Pier 23 and played whatever jobs were offered. His timekeeping had become more erratic, which may have accounted for the lack of playing opportunities with bands. He worked occasionally with Earl Scheelar’s New Orleans House Band, Ted Shafer’s Jelly Roll Jazz Band and a few other groups, but mostly played solo piano.
During the 1970s, Bales’ work situation improved. In San Francisco he played a long residency at Dick’s At The Beach, plus regular appearances at the Washington Square Bar & Grill and the Rose and Thistle British Pub. He performed at the Clancy Hayes Day benefits at Earthquake McGoon’s in 1970 and 1971.
Later, he showed up regularly at Vic’s Place in the Financial District, where Ev Farey’s Golden State Jazz Band performed. There was no piano in the building, but Bales enjoyed sitting in just to sing with the band. Across the Bay in Oakland, he performed at the Serenader, where many East Bay musicians came to sit in.
His memory was sharp, and he enjoyed recounting anecdotes from the ‘40s and ‘50s concerning Watters, Murphy, and Scobey. He also maintained an excellent sense of humor. In conversation with a friend, Bales referred to Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band as “a good Kansas City style band.” He waited for the expected puzzled expression from the friend, who thought of Count Basie as ‘Kansas City style,’ then said, “You know—like Bennie Moten!”
After recovering from a serious illness, Bales made a cross-country trip in 1980, visiting and playing sessions with old friends. By the end of the ‘80s, he was suffering from cancer. However, he took one last trip away from the Bay Area in 1989—appropriately, to New Orleans.
Soon after returning to San Francisco, he passed away.
Burt Bales always admired Jelly Roll Morton above all other pianists, and that inspiration is certainly apparent on his many recordings. The listener will also hear traces of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, and Joe Sullivan in his playing, but the most exciting moments on Bales’ recordings are those when he played his own ruggedly individualistic ideas.
Discography and Further Resources
Out-of-print 78 RPM:
Burt Bales & his Ragtime Piano
(Accompanied by Ed Garland, bass and Minor Hall, drums)
12th Street Rag/Dill Pickles Rag Good Time Jazz 9
Oh, You Beautiful Doll/Canadian Capers Good Time Jazz 10
Burt Bales & the Gin Bottle 3/Gin Bottle 4
(With Joe Darensbourg, clarinet; George Bruns, string bass/trombone; Minor Hall, drums; Jeanne Gayle, vocals)
Angry/Doodle Doo Doo Good Time Jazz 35
Down Among The Sheltering Palms/Cakewalking Babies Good Time Jazz 36
Out-of-print 7” EP:
Burt Bales & his Ragtime Piano Good Time Jazz EP 1006 (includes 4 78 sides – GTJ 9, 10)
Sidney Bechet with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band: Dixieland Jubilee Vogue EP 7073
Burt Bales: After Hours Piano (10”) Good Time Jazz L – 19 (released on 12” LP “They Tore My Playhouse Down”)
Burt Bales: New Orleans Ragtime Euphonic ESR 1210
Burt Bales: On The Waterfront Cavalier CVLP 1010
Burt Bales and Paul Lingle: They Tore My Playhouse Down Good Time Jazz L12025
Burt Bales With The Rose & Thistle Band Sacramento Jazz SJS 20
Jazz On The San Francisco Waterfront: Featuring Burt Bales, Piano and the Marty Marsala Band ABC Paramount 181
Bob Mielke’s Bearcats: Live at the Sail’N 1958 Arhoolie 1099 (one track)
Bob Scobey: Alexander’s Jazz Band Dawn Club DC 12004
Burt Bales and Paul Lingle: They Tore My Playhouse Down Good Time Jazz GTCD 12025 - 2
Burt Bales 1947 – 1961 GHB BCD 13
Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie On The West Coast Vol. 1: 1958 – 1962 Grammercy Records
Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie On The West Coast Vol. 2: 1959 – 1963 Grammercy Records
Bunk & Lu Good Time Jazz GTCD-12024-2 (includes the music recorded in 1944 with Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Bales, Pat Patton, Squire Girsback and Sister Lottie Peavey)
Earl Scheelar’s New Orleans House Jazz Band Featuring Bob Helm Merry Makers CD 50
Earl’s New Orleans House Jazz Band 1966 – 1967 Showcasing Bob Helm Trad Jazz Productions TJP 15
Frank Goudie With Amos White’s Band and Burt Bales American Music AMCD 50
The Scobey Story Vol. 1 Good Time Jazz CD 12032 - 2
The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957 GHB BCD 285
Turk Murphy Favorites Good Time Jazz CD 60611
Turk Murphy Favorites Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz FCD 60 – 026
Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings (4 CDs) 4GTJCD 4409-2 (includes the transcriptions of the Wartime YBJB with Benny Strickler on trumpet and Bales on piano)
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.
Elwood, Philip: Liner notes in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Gleason, Ralph J.: “The World Was A Good Place When They Turned Out For Burt.” SFGate.com, Apr. 1, 2007.
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.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1954 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1953 liner notes for Burt Bales: After Hours Piano. Good Time Jazz Records L- 19. Reprinted in Burt Bales/Paul Lingle: They Tore My Playhouse Down. Good Time Jazz L 12025.
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, 1993. GHB BCD 285.
Conversations with writer
(Note: Burt Bales was a friend of the writer’s from 1972 until Bales’ death in 1989. In addition to hearing him in person many times, we had numerous conversations and played together at jam sessions and jazz clubs.)
Conversations regarding Burt Bales between the writer and others
Alguire, Danny; Allen, Peter; Austin, Claire; Baker, Clint; Bardin,Bill; Carroll, Bill; Carson, Ernie; Dart, Bill; Duffy, Mike; Ecklund, K.O.; Eggers, Marty; Erdos, Bob (fan); Farey, Everett; Gill, John; Girsback, Squire; Goggin, Jim (fan); Goodwin, Jim; Hadlock, Richard; Helm, Bob; Higuera, Fred; Horne, Ellis; Howe, Phil; Jones, Wayne; Leigh, James; Lunsford, Carl; Martyn, Barry; Mayl, Gene; Mielke, Bob; Minger, Jack; Mitchell, Bill; Murphy, Turk; Napier, Bill; Neighbor, Bob; Oakley, Leon; Oxtot, Dick; Pistorius, Steve; Powers, Frank; Probert, George; Scheelar, Earl; Schulz, Bob; Shafer, Ted; Skjelbred, Ray; Snyder, Jim; Smith, John; Spencer, Joe (fan); Tate, Roy; Thompson, Butch; Tichenor, Trebor J.; Tyle, Chris; Valencia, Lee; Walbridge, Mike; Waldo, Terry; Walterskirchen, Karl; Watters, Lu.