By Hal Smith
DON EWELL, piano
b. Baltimore, MD 11/14/16 d. Pompano Beach, FL 9/9/83
Don Ewell became interested in playing piano at age ten. While learning to play classical music, he became aware of recordings by Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Joe Sullivan and other swing era pianists. Ewell also discovered the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson.
He studied classical music at the prestigious Peabody Institute, but soon decided to concentrate on jazz. When Ewell joined the Army during World War II, he played Jelly Roll Morton style whenever an unattended piano could be found. After demobilization in 1945, Ewell went to hear the legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson at the Stuyvesant Casino in New York City.
Johnson had been rediscovered in the early ‘40s by Bill Russell, Dave Stuart and other hot music fans, and they recorded in New Orleans in 1942. These records, together with Lu Watters’ 1941 and 1942 sides, helped to launch the Great Revival of New Orleans Music.
In 1943, a group of jazz fans brought Johnson to San Francisco. He charmed the audience at the Museum of Modern Art, and subsequently was featured in a concert at the Geary Theater, backed by Kid Ory and his sidemen. Though the segregated Musicians Union in the Bay Area would not allow Bunk Johnson to perform with members of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the Dawn Club, he did play sessions with them at the Big Bear Tavern.
The C.I.O.’s Harry Bridges also arranged for Bunk to play with the Yerba Buenans at C.I.O. Hall in San Francisco. In addition, Dave Stuart and others arranged for Bunk, Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Burt Bales, Pat Patton, Squire Girsback, and Clancy Hayes to record for the Jazz Man label.
All of these performances gave a tremendous boost to Bunk Johnson’s revitalized career. He was a major figure in traditional jazz by the time Don Ewell showed up at the Stuyvesant Casino.
Ewell was invited to sit in, and Johnson hired him on the spot for the band’s return engagement in 1946. Not only was this an impressive start to Ewell’s career in jazz; he was also the only white musician to appear regularly with Bunk Johnson’s band.
Though he did not record with the full band, Ewell made several highly-regarded trio recordings with Bunk Johnson and drummer Alphonse Steele for the American Music label, and with clarinetist Albert Nicholas and drummer Baby Dodds for Circle Records.
In the late ‘40s, Bunk Johnson returned to Louisiana and Ewell settled in Chicago. The New Orleans Jazz Revival had spread to Chicago, and there was plenty of musical work for Ewell. He played at Jazz, Ltd. with Muggsy Spanier, Sidney Bechet, and Doc Evans; at the Bee Hive with Darnell Howard, Miff Mole, and Baby Dodds; and in nearby St. Louis with veteran trumpeter Dewey Jackson and the gifted clarinetist Frank Chace.
While Ewell was in Chicago, the New Orleans Revival was at its peak in California. One of the greatest beneficiaries of the revived interest in New Orleans jazz was Kid Ory. Though he was one of New Orleans’ most successful musicians, Ory decided to try his luck as a bandleader in California.
He performed in the Bay Area as early as 1921, and led the band which made the first jazz record by an African-American band. But Ory spent the mid-to-late ‘20s in Chicago, where he played on the immortal recordings by Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.
Despite his fame as a participant in those classic sessions, Ory’s career took a downturn during the Depression and he went into temporary retirement. He continued to play sporadically, and even sat in at the Dawn Club with Mutt Carey, Minor Hall and other musical associates.
These appearances, coupled with his playing on the ‘20s records, had a profound influence on a young Turk Murphy, and Ory’s dynamic approach to jazz also changed the musical outlook of Yerba Buena clarinetist Ellis Horne.
Ory was officially rediscovered just a couple years after Bunk Johnson and jazz impresario Rudi Blesh hired Ory to assemble the group which accompanied Bunk at the Geary Theater in 1943. Soon after, Ory’s band appeared on Orson Welles’ radio programs for Standard Oil and recorded for Exner, Crescent and Jazz Man. Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band quickly became one of the most popular bands of the New Orleans Jazz Revival. While Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band musicians were serving in the military during the war, Ory’s 60 and 70 year old sidemen were heard at venues all over Southern California. Later, the Ory band performed at clubs in the Bay Area, such as the Green Room at C.I.O. Hall and the Venus Club, and they began a long residency at the Beverly Caverns in Los Angeles. The band was still based at the Beverly Caverns when they received an invitation to perform at Club Hangover. Their first engagement was a smashing success, and Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band became one of the most popular bands in the Club Hangover rotation.
After spending seven years in Chicago, Ewell joined Kid Ory’s band in 1953. In addition to his work with the band, Ewell played intermission piano at Club Hangover for featured bands led by Jack Teagarden, Lee Collins and others. Ewell played on Ory’s recording sessions for Good Time Jazz and can be heard on numerous broadcasts from Club Hangover made during 1954. In addition to his ability to recall the sounds of Morton, Johnson and Waller, Ewell’s playing from this era also showed the influences of Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, and Jess Stacy. He was able to synthesize all these elements and still retain an individual, instantly-recognizable style of his own.
Don Ewell with Turk Murphy's Jazz Band 1955
After leaving Ory in 1955, Ewell played a variety of engagements at venues around the Bay Area, such as accompanying the rising pop star Johnny Matthis, playing at the Tin Angel with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band and Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, and accompanying vocalists performing Bob Helm’s and Weldon Kees’ compositions at the “Poet’s Follies.” In 1956, Ewell recorded for Good Time Jazz in Oakland with a trio – Darnell Howard on clarinet and Minor Hall on drums. (Howard was working with Earl Hines and Hall with Kid Ory; both bands were in the rotation at Club Hangover). The recording was a success, and resulted in another session in 1957 with the addition of bassist Pops Foster, who was also part of the Hines band. He also performed a studio recital at radio station KPFA in Berkeley, hosted by Bay Area jazz authority Philip Elwood. The KPFA broadcast is considered by many to be one of Don Ewell’s greatest performances.
Ewell with Bob Hodes' Jazz Band 1957
Also in 1957, Ewell joined the ill-fated band led by trumpeter Bob Hodes, a transplanted Ohioan. Though the personnel included top-rank musicians (Bob Helm, Charles Oden, Bill Dart, Jim Leigh), it failed to catch on with jazz fans and a proposed record date for Good Time Jazz also fell through. As bookings for Hodes’ band sputtered out, Ewell received an invitation to join Jack Teagarden’s Sextet, which was based in Chicago. He jumped at the offer and left the Bay Area to work full time with Teagarden’s very active touring band.
Ewell stayed with Jack Teagarden’s Sextet from 1957 until Teagarden’s death in New Orleans in 1964. During that period Ewell recorded extensively with Teagarden and toured Asia with the band. While living in Chicago, he also recorded with guitarist-banjoist Marty Grosz and played sessions with Grosz and Frank Chace which were privately recorded, and highly prized by collectors. After Teagarden died, Ewell stayed in New Orleans, playing and recording with George Lewis and other musicians who worked at Preservation Hall. He played briefly with the Dukes of Dixieland, and traveled to Canada to work in a duo with Willie 'The Lion' Smith. Jazz critics hailed the recording that resulted from the Ewell-Smith duets, as well as the solo piano records from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that he made for Chiaroscuro and Fat Cat's Jazz. Later, Ewell was based in Florida, where he played with Andy Bartha and others.
He became a bike rider, but suffered major injuries more than once when his bike was struck by cars. Ewell recovered from the first couple of accidents, and was able to tour England, Japan and Australia in the 1970s, and also recorded an outstanding solo session for Chiaroscuro. By the late 1970s, the cumulative effects of the bike accidents affected his ability to play stride piano, particularly at fast tempos. Still, he made successful appearances at the Manassas Jazz Festival and at Hanratty’s in New York City. His last engagements were in the Twin Cities in 1983, an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, and two nights at the Hall Brothers’ Emporium Of Jazz in Mendota. Among Ewell’s admirers were Count Basie, who stated, “Don didn’t miss a note,” and Eubie Blake, who said, “You talk about great piano players! You know Don Ewell? Plays as the old time stars, but better. He’s the greatest piano player I ever heard!”
Don Ewell in Bay Area Concert - 1957 KPFA Studios
Don Ewell, piano
Philip Elwood, announcer
Side A: Mandy, Make Up Your Mind; Michigan Water Blues; Blue, Turning Grey Over You; Save It, Pretty Mama; Just You, Just Me; Sweet Substitute; Frog-I-More Rag; Everybody Loves My Baby; I Want A Little Girl (runoff).
Side B: I Want A Little Girl; All By Myself; Mecca Flat Blues; Handful Of Keys
Note: Although there is a copy of Don Ewell's 1957 KPFA Studio Recital in the archive, parts of some tunes are missing from the tape. SFTJF Curator Hal Smith was able to obtain a complete recording of the broadcast from Joseph Spencer, a San Francisco jazz collector from Portland, Oregon.
Additional Bay Area Recordings by Don Ewell
Lee Collins: Club Hangover Airshots vol. 2 with Don Ewell Jazz Crusade JCCD 3057
Barbara Dane: Trouble In Mind (with P.T. Stanton, Bob Mielke, Darnell Howard, Pops Foster, Bill Young) San Francisco Records M 33014 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Music to Listen to Don Ewell By (with Darnell Howard, Minor Hall) Good Time Jazz CD 12021
Don Ewell: Man Here Plays Fine Piano (with Howard, Minor Hall, Pops Foster) Good Time Jazz CD 10043
Don Ewell: Free And Easy (with Howard, Hall, Foster) Good Time Jazz CD 10046
Turk Murphy: New Orleans Shuffle Columbia CL 927 (Vinyl LP; out of print)
Note: The music from CL 927 is included on Turk Murphy: New Orleans Stomp Jasmine JASCD 461 (two-CD set). The remainder of the material on the CDs is taken from other Columbia and Verve LPs.
Turk Murphy: 1956 Recording Session with Murphy, trombone; Don Kinch, trumpet; Bob Helm, clarinet; Dick Lammi, banjo; Ed Garland, string bass. Columbia unissued
Albert Burbank with Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz Band (Club Hangover broadcasts) Storyville STCD 6010
Kid Ory Plays The Blues (Club Hangover broadcasts) Storyville STCD 6035
Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band Live at Club Hangover (two-CD set) Acrobat ADDCD 3070
Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band 1954 Good Time Jazz CD 12004
Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band 1955 Good Time Jazz CD 12008
Jack Teagarden: The Club Hangover Broadcasts Apr. 3, 10, 17, 24, 1954 Arbors ARCD 19150-51 (two-CD set)
Note: Ewell plays intermission piano on the Apr. 17 and 24 broadcasts only; Lil Hardin is the intermission pianist on the previous broadcasts.
Avakian, George; Carruth, Hayden; O’Neal, Hank; Riddle, Bill: Liner notes to Don Ewell: Solo Piano Chicaroscuro CD 126/127, 2003
Bailey, Sid: Greatest Slideman Ever Born: A Discography of Edward 'Kid' Ory. Self-published, West Sussex, United Kingdom, 1996
Collinson, John and Kramer, Eugene: The Jazz Legacy of Don Ewell. Storyville Press, Essex, U.K., 1991
Hazeldine, Mike: Bill Russell’s American Music. Jazzology Press, New Orleans, 1993
Hazeldine, Mike and Martyn, Barry: Bunk Johnson: Song of the Wanderer. Jazzology Press, New Orleans, 2000
Hayakawa, Dr. S.I.: Liner notes to Don Ewell: Man Here Plays Fine Piano Good Time Jazz 10043, 1961
Koenig, Lester: Liner notes to Music To Listen To Don Ewell By Good Time Jazz 12021, 1957
Lucas, John “Jax”: Liner notes to Don Ewell: Free And Easy Good Time Jazz 10046, 1962
AUTHOR'S CONVERSATIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE REGARDING DON EWELL
Bales, Burt (musician); Buck, George H. (record producer); Chace, Frank (musician); Davis, Eddy (musician); Dickie, Neville (musician); Ewell, Don (correspondence); Grosz, Marty (musician); Jones, Wayne (musician); Kawai, Junichi (musician); Leigh, Jim (musician); Mayl, Gene (bandleader); Murphy, Turk (bandleader); Nelson, Sterling (concert promoter); O’Neal, Hank (record producer); Powers, Frank (musician); Royen, John (student of Don Ewell); Smith, Birch (musician; record producer); Thompson, Butch (musician); Toyama, Yoshio (musician)