Dick Oxtot

Dick Oxtot

RICHARD AGEE OXTOT, vocals, banjo, cornet

b. Beaufort, SC 3/04/1918 d. Albany, CA 12/17/2001

Dick Oxtot has been playing in the San Francisco Bay Area since the days of World War II. He has been a pivot around which an astonishingly large collection of musicians have revolved. Oxtot has been playing a few nights a week in little clubs and big ballparks in every conceivable context.

— Phil Elwood, Liner notes for Golden Age Jazz Band album, 1980

Banjo and cornet player, bandleader and singer, Dick Oxtot was at the center of traditional jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area for a half-century. For decades Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band was a steady favorite at traditional jazz festivals, showcases, and events. A popular singer and excellent rhythm banjo player, he was a mainstay in Bob Mielke and the Bearcats and kept rock-steady time in any rhythm section. Over the years, he acquired several stage monikers: Uncle Dick, the Grey Fox or the Old Polecat.

Early Years Playing Cornet - 1940-55

In the early 1950s, Dick Oxtot co-led the Polecats with piano player K. O. Eckland. Original lineup L to R: Eckland, Bob Bissonette, Bunky Colman, Bob Hoskins, Oxtot, Howard Wood, Bunny O’Brien. Oxtot Collection. Sketch by K.O.

In his youth Dick Oxtot blew cornet. Playing horn in the early 1950s, he co-founded the Polecats Jazz Band with piano player K.O. Eckland in the East Bay and had a notable stint with the Dixieland Rhythm Kings in Ohio.

Toward the late 1950s, he switched to banjo for health, aesthetic, and practical reasons. Playing banjo made it easier to make a living at music, as it was harder to find good banjo players in the area than good horn players.

Dick was also proficient on piano, guitar, string bass, washboard, tuba and E-flat baritone horn, and he continued playing cornet into the early 1960s.

With the Yerba Buena Jazz Band - 1940s

Dick Oxtot was in a second generation of young jazz enthusiasts inspired by Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band (YBJB). He spent many nights at the Dawn Club on Annie Street and became friends with Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Helm and Bill Dart.

An aspiring cornet player, Dick was tutored in the youth band the YBJB sponsored on Sunday afternoons throughout 1942-43. Bob Helm and Burt Bales ran instructional jam sessions at the club for promising musicians. Members of the Gold Coast Stompers included multi-instrumentalist Dick Oxtot, trombonist Bob Mielke, clarinetist Bill Napier and a solid Fats Waller-style piano player, Isabel Garcia.

In 1947, Oxtot loaned Turk Murphy $1,300 for a stake in Hambone Kelly’s, the co-operative East Bay music enterprise and nightclub; the debt was later repaid by Watters. Meanwhile, Dick collected interest on his investment by hanging around after hours at Hambone’s, getting to know Lu’s pet parrot, and once sitting in with the band.

Bob Mielke and The Bearcats Jazz Band - 1955-65

Bob Mielke, Dick Oxtot and Pete Allen in 1956, photo by Bob Mielke.

Dick Oxtot was in the nucleus of players that formed the Bearcats and quickly evolved into a tightly knit ensemble of exceptional talents.

Their success derived from their original fusion of ensemble polyphony, riffing, skilled voicing, accurate driving rhythm and broad repertoire. Dick remained at the heart of an East Bay revivalist milieu for the rest of his life.

Creating a fresh style, these musicians rejected the predominant formulas of Eddie Condon’s Dixieland jam sessions, East Coast ‘cutting contests’ or the traditional jazz style of Lu Watters, Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey.

The Bearcats created a popular and independent style inspired by New Orleans, Harlem and Kansas City.

Singer and Tunesmith

Dick Oxtot with Bill Erickson and Barbara Dane in a publicity shot for Jack’s Waterfront Hangout, San Francisco, 1957. Photo by Bob Mielke.

Dick Oxtot was an excellent singer. Though his delivery wasn’t flashy, he was among the best male vocalists of the Bay Area revival and had a special talent for delivering the blues, ballads and Tin Pan Alley tunes.

With equal gusto, he embraced the 1920s ‘varsity cheer,’ typified by “Yes, Sir, That’s my Baby” or “Yes, We Have No Bananas”—and his nostalgic signature vocal number, “Lindbergh, The Eagle of the USA.”

Oxtot was also a tunesmith, composing both music and lyrics. Some of his tunes enjoyed local popularity; his delightful originals “My Lovin’ Imogene” and “Ain’t Nobody Got the Blues Like Me” were often performed and were successfully recorded by Oxtot and his contemporaries.

Professional Musician and ‘Gig Getter’

Dick Oxtot managed a successful career as a full-time professional musician, though in the early years he occasionally needed a day job and filled in with work as a postman or operated a vending machine franchise.

In keeping with the slogan on his business card —“Vintage Music With Style”—he was exceptionally adept at finding gigs and building an audience. The solid personnel of groups under Oxtot’s leadership often overlapped with, or was identical to Mielke’s Bearcats or the Swingin A’s.

Bob Mielke’s Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band - 1969-92

Oakland Swingin’ A’s in New York City for the 1973 World Series, N.Y. Mets vs. Oakland A’s – midway in a three-year championship streak for the A’s. L to R: Bill Napier (clarinet), Oxtot, team owner Charley Finley (banjo), John Moore (tuba), Bob Mielke (trombone) and Jim Goodwin (cornet).

Dick Oxtot and Bob Mielke were close friends and musical partners almost all their lives, and their partnership was never stronger than in the baseball band. Mielke was the front man, but Dick Oxtot was key to this ensemble with many names— sometimes called the Muleskinners, the Oakland A’s Strolling Dixieland Band or simply Oakland Swingin’ A’s.

This jolly quintet brought classic jazz and popular music to ballpark audiences, traditional jazz events, and private parties for nearly a quarter century. A solid musical ensemble, it had a limited role at ball games, performing at half-inning breaks atop the team dugout, playing six or seven minute sets.

The Oakland Swingin’ A’s repertoire at the Coliseum included popular tunes as well as jazz, yet their music was almost always delivered in the three-horn New Orleans format with trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. In the early days of the baseball band, Bob Helm sometimes played soprano sax. A resourceful promoter, Dick Oxtot managed to find similar work with the San Francisco Giants major league baseball team.

A Love of Country Music

On the first page of his memoir, Jazz Scrapbook, Dick Oxtot confessed a deep affinity and enduring passion for country and string band music. Born in South Carolina and raised in Virginia, he writes that “being a good Southern boy, I was a fan of hillbilly and western music, which I sang constantly.” In his later jazz ensembles, he often adapted, introduced and sang country tunes to excellent effect.

Though jazz was his primary interest and source of income, his entire life Dick performed a wide range of rural music genres: western swing, Bluegrass, country, and folk. Most often he played string bass and occasionally his beloved banjola, a vintage all-wood banjo. In these settings, he projected his voice in a light, clear, declarative style, singing fine lead or harmony vocals.

Oxtot Folk Trio - 1960

Dick Oxtot’s folk music trio.

In the early 1960s, Dick Oxtot invested considerable time and effort in a series of folk music groups.

The Oxtot Trio, also known as the Enigmas and the Goodwill Singers, was a vocal harmony trio supported by autoharp, banjo, and guitar with Oxtot on string bass.

They toured the West Coast, played the famed Hungry i nightclub in North Beach, and cut an album for Fantasy Records. Their album liner notes point out that “Oxtot's arrangements plus harmonic changes worked out by the trio, a stronger drive than that of many groups, and a good beat from the string bass and guitar, are attributes which set [them] apart from the herd.”

Oxtot’s high hopes for the venture are apparent in the large number of tapes, photos, and promotional materials that survive today. His personal cosmetic makeover for the group also speaks volumes of his commitment to the project. Unfortunately, the timing was wrong for the trio.

Their record didn't sell and their agent’s plan for success involved the unwelcome proposition of moving to Los Angeles.

Golden Age Jazz Band - 1970s-1980s

The Golden Age Jazz Band hosted by the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California, 1/16/77. L to R: Dick Oxtot, Bill Napier, Bob Scott, Jim Goodwin, Terry Garthwaite, Bob Mielke, Bill Bardin. Photo by Ed Lawless. Oxtot Collection.

Throughout two decades and four record albums, the Golden Age Jazz Band was consistently popular at traditional jazz showcases, sessions, and festivals. The group was Dick Oxtot’s showcase for a diverse roster of talented Berkeley and Bay Area jazz instrumentalists and singers.

The lineup featured notable musicians, including horn players Jim Goodwin (c. 1975-77), Bob Neighbor (1978-79), Jack Minger (after 1978), George Fleming and Jim Gammon. Outstanding musicians such as Bob Helm, Bill Napier, Earl Scheelar, and Bill Carter alternated on reeds, with Richard Hadlock or Jim Rothermel joining the ensemble in later years.

Pianists were Ray Skjelbred, Fay Golden, Barbara Higbie, Jerry Stanton, and on occasion Dick’s son, Terry Oxtot. Dick Oxtot found most drummers objectionable, but appreciated the work of Don Marchant, Bill Maginnis, Hal Smith, and Henk Wegner, who were all in the Golden Age band at one time or another.

1970s Rolling Jam Sessions at The Ordinary

At the lively, casual Oakland nightspot, The Ordinary, Dick Oxtot drew a young, hip crowd. Trombonist Bill Bardin said it was the first place he ever saw unisex bathrooms.

Among the wide range of talent joining the rollicking jam sessions, Andy Stein played hot and bluesy violin, baritone and various saxophones. Stein soon found a larger audience on radio in Prairie Home Companion and on television in the Saturday Night Live house band.

Singer Terry Garthwaite, best known for her role in the Berkeley-based rock band, Joy of Cooking, was in Oxtot’s entourage at the time. Dick and Terry first performed together in a 1960s folk trio. Performing at The Ordinary and in the Golden Age band, they developed routines to showcase her extended scat vocal jams and stage charisma.

A Mentor for Brilliant Vocalists and Performers

Dick Oxtot was known for talent-spotting and mentoring a succession of brilliant female singers and musicians. He developed a keen ability for spotting diamonds-in-the-rough, often destined for success in other genres. Barbara Dane was a ‘folkie’ introduced to jazz by Oxtot, who went on to fame in jazz, blues and leftist politics. Bassist Laurie Lewis from The Point was hugely successful in Northern California Bluegrass music.

In his memoir, Jazz Scrapbook, Dick Oxtot writes at length about how he recorded Janis Joplin at bars and in his Berkeley home. At least three 1963-64 sessions remain an obscure and tantalizing rarity. By all reports, Dick and his associates blended well with Joplin’s expressive feeling for the blues. Oxtot and his wife Darylene brought Janis to the attention of Turk Murphy, and Joplin auditioned (unsuccessfully) for a gig at McGoons as band vocalist with the Turk Murphy Jazz Band.

A partial list of the many women who were key instrumentalists in Dick Oxtot ensembles includes piano players Jane McGarrigle of the famed Canadian sister duo, Fay Golden of the Monterey Bay Classic and Jubilee Jazz bands, and Linda Wiggins and Barbara Higbie. He also played with tuba player Candy Sealy of the Jelly Roll Jazz Band and the accomplished guitarist and singer Melissa Levesque. Ms. Levesque is now a respected jazz-swing vocalist, known as Melissa Collard.

Richard Hadlock at The Point - 1970s-1980s

Beginning in 1972 and for some two decades, Dick Oxtot played at a bar called The Point in tiny, quirky Point Richmond. The extraordinary trombonist Jerry Butzen, featured there until his death in December 1984, was often replaced by either Bob Mielke or Bill Bardin—and sometimes by Mielke and Bardin as an extraordinary trombone duo.

The Point couldn’t pay high wages, so I had an agreement with the regular players that if they had a higher paying job on any Friday or Saturday, to take the job and I would find a replacement. The arrangement worked well, as generally the subs were up to the standard of the regular player. It also made an interesting diversity of styles and tunes.

Dick Oxtot, in his memoir

Richard Hadlock played reeds for years in Oxtot’s bands at The Point. A superb clarinet, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone player, Hadlock had studied with reed masters Sidney Bechet, Garvin Bushell and Lee Konitz.

Golden Age Jazz Band at The Point, September 1979. L to R: Bob Scott, Bob Mielke, Oxtot, Jack Minger, Laurie Lewis, Bill Napier. Photo by Ed Lawless.

Hadlock’s Annals of Jazz radio series debuted in 1959 and became a mainstay on local airwaves. He also wrote extensively for national jazz publications, periodicals and album liner notes.

Hadlock had a sophisticated outlook that didn’t always gel with Dick’s penchant for entertaining with hokum or 1920s corn, and Dick confessed mixed feelings about their work together:

His [Oxtot’s] jobs ranged from great, to gigs from Hell. We went to a trio job on an open-air, broiling-hot wooden platform. It was me, Dick and a hopelessly inept tuba player. After setting up our chairs we heard Dick moan, ‘Oh, no! I forgot my banjo!’

— Dick Hadlock

A Central Figure of the East Bay Revival

Dick Oxtot, 5/31/72 photographed by Ed Lawless.

Dick Oxtot was a key player in the East Bay jazz revival from 1950 to 2000.

Together with a broad contingent of Berkeley associates, he forged a popular four-beat, traditionalist style. The Grey Fox and his eclectic ensembles encompassed New Orleans, Kansas City, blues, swing, rural song and broad swaths of American popular music.

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 Dick Oxtot at Dave Radlauer’s Jazz Rhythm