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The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection The Charles N. Huggins Project

Lu Watters

Lu Watters' parents, 1930's

LUCIUS 'LU' WATTERS, cornet and trumpet

b. Santa Cruz, CA 12/19/11 d. Cotati, CA 11/5/89

Lu's family moved to Rio Vista, California, near Sacramento, where he grew up and attended St. Joseph’s Military Academy and learned to play bugle and trumpet.

Lu was performing professionally while still in high school, working in bands on cruise boats. This delayed Lu’s graduation, but he managed to win a scholarship to study music at the University of San Francisco, where he continued to play professionally.

Lu was well-known in San Francisco as being a number one, first call, lead trumpet player for studio and hotel bands. In the 1920s and 1930s, that was a big deal.

— Clint Baker

The Lu Watters Sound

Lu was not only a talented musician, he also produced a well regarded sound. A natural lead player, Lu performed with confidence and a big tone that carried well whether he was part of a ‘sweet’ swing band or a raucous hot jazz ensemble. Originally influenced by trumpeter Red Nichols, Lu later found more affinity with the playing of Louis Armstrong. More on Turk & Lu Sound...

Lu Watters’ first recording was made in San Francisco in 1929 with Jack Danford’s Hotel Ben Franklin Orchestra. Lu takes a solo on “Alabama Stomp,” which shows a definite Red Nichols influence. Many cornetists and trumpeters from the era were inspired by Nichols’ cornet playing.

Lu’s style changed considerably by the time the Yerba Buena Jazz Band returned to the Dawn Club in 1946. After the war, he played with a sharper attack. There is also more of a Louis Armstrong influence. I hear quite a bit of similarity to Armstrong’s vocal accompaniments in the ‘20s. It is an almost rhapsodic quality, and is especially effective on slower numbers. Watters made no secret of his admiration for Armstrong. When Philip Elwood interviewed him for the Watters Retrospective radio series in 1957, Lu told him, “Louis is 99 percent of jazz, anyway.”

– Hal Smith

Lu On the Road

The demands of working nights in hotel bands as a union musician and taking university courses during the day was too great, and Lu left college to pursue music full time, touring with popular dance bands.

Lu was on the road with the Carol Lofner Orchestra, a typical popular band of the early thirties, with two violins, three brass, three saxes, rhythm section and girl vocal trio. They played almost every state west of the Mississippi. There were long jumps and sudden changes in temperature; one week they were in the warm climate of New Orleans, the following week it might be twenty below in St. Paul. Lu and the other trumpeter in the band divided the lead parts, and Lu was constantly improving his instrumental technique.

Lu found opportunities to play jazz. When the band was at the Club Forrest in New Orleans for a two-month stand, he sat in with a wonderful small jazz band. "I don't remember the names of the musicians," he recalls. “They would ask me to play with them at night, and in the morning they would take me fishing on Lake Pontchartrain. The clarinet player had a home-made instrument with no keys, just holes, and still got a fine sound.”

Lu was profoundly impressed by these direct contacts with New Orleans jazz early in his musical life, and the marks they left have stayed with him ever since. After five years with Carol Lofner, Lu returned to San Francisco for a brief stay, then went on the road again, this time with a cooperative band under the nominal leadership of Chuck Glasspool. Several musicians Lu admired were in this group: Squire Girsback on bass, Jimmy Briggs on the other trumpet, and Paul Lingle on piano. After engagements in Reno and Ogden, the band broke up in Phoenix.

– Lester Koenig liner notes on Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, The San Francisco Style: Vol. 3 (Good Time Jazz 12003)

Work was picking up in San Francisco as the 1930s came to an end, and musicians who had been on the road touring were able to come home and earn a living. The 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in particular offered many opportunities for employment.

Golden Gate International Exhibition, 1939. Collection of Anna Newman
Golden Gate International Exhibition, 1939. Collection of Anna Newman
Ticket to Golden Gate International Exhibition, 1939. Collection of Anna Newman

The San Francisco World's Fair in the late 1930s at Treasure Island seems to be a pivotal moment for many musicians because they were able to get work locally.

– Clint Baker

Sweets Ballroom Orchestra

Before forming his famous Yerba Buena Jazz Band, in 1938-39 Lu created the Sweet’s Ballroom Orchestra, a conventional big band with eleven pieces including Bob Helm and Bob Scobey. The group drew record crowds when they performed at Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, California.

Sweets Ballroom Slideshow - Listen Here...

In spite of its success at Sweets, Watters was dissatisfied with his big band. Going a step further, he determined to form a small band entirely according to his own ideas of jazz, and find out just how the public would take it.

– “That Frisco Jazz Band” by Bill Colburn and Gene Williams, Jazz Magazine, August 1942

Big Bear Tavern

Sketch of the Big Bear Tavern by Bob Helm

In 1937 Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Paul Lingle, and other like-minded musicians began collecting records, studying music theory, and teaching themselves to play in the traditional New Orleans style. Before forming the Yerba Buena Jazz Band in 1940, Turk and Lu played together regularly at the Big Bear Tavern jam sessions in the Berkeley Hills.

The musicians would work their jobs, and then they would hightail it over to the Big Bear and practice playing their music. That was where it all started. Lu really formed his vision of how it was going to work playing at the Big Bear.

– Clint Baker

Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the Dawn Club

Lu’s new band found their footing and a growing audience, and they were able to move from the Big Bear Tavern to the Dawn Club in downtown San Francisco. At the Dawn Club they performed as the Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band under Lu's leadership.

The Hot Music Society helped grow the Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band. They had been using the Dawn Club as their meeting point, and there were jam sessions before the actual Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band was formed to promote this new idea of actually having a jazz club.

– Clint Baker

It was a real accomplishment for Lu Watters to organize such a diverse set of individual musicians—with seven idiosyncratic ideas about how the music should be played—to get them all going in the same direction and ultimately create a brand-new sound in jazz: San Francisco Style.

– Hal Smith

The Dawn Club was a basement nightspot located next to The Palace, a prominent hotel in downtown San Francisco. Initially performing under the auspices of the Hot Music Society, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band was wildly popular with locals and visitors alike and became the regular band. Performing, arranging, and composing in the New Orleans style, Lu’s music was notably at odds with the ‘sweet’ music popular at the time.

As far as the San Francisco sound, Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena band set that standard. It was different than other bands. It was different than any band that had ever played. It was kind of like King Oliver's band, but it was not; it was different. The rhythm was a little bit different, and also, Lu wrote original tunes for the band, so there were some new tunes being introduced. It was a unique, special sound, and everything that came after that was influenced by it. The Murphy band, everything, in the San Francisco style was influenced by it.

– Jim Cullum
Nesuhi Ertegun, Darnell Howard

Dave Stuart, owner of the Jazz Man record shop and label, saw potential in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sound and furthered both Lu's band and the Great Revival by recording the group.

Stuart recorded several influential 78s of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band for the Jazz Man label in the 1940s.

Nesuhi Ertegun, brother of Ahment Ertegun, who founded Atlantic Records, later acquired the Jazz Man label and continued to work with many Yerba Buena alumni.

Radio airplay, along with positive critical response to the recordings among the record collecting community, brought Lu and the YBJB to national attention.

The essential strength of the Watters band is the quality of its ensemble playing. Its solidity, power and rock have to be heard to be believed. The band really plays together.

– Nesuhi Ertegun in Clef Magazine, 1946.

It was young people's music, which is ironic because it was old music, but due to the energy of the music and the way that Watters presented it, young people went out and heard the band.

– Clint Baker

It is not unusual to hear Watters’ records being played on one of the local stations’ jazz programs, or on jukeboxes throughout the city.

– “That Frisco Jazz Band” by Bill Colburn and Gene Williams, Jazz Magazine, August 1942
Hot Music Society of San Francisco, Calif. presents Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, August 25, 1941

The War Years

Like most of the founding Yerba Buena Jazz Band members, Lu served in the military during WWII. Stationed in the South Pacific, Lu led a Navy big band, and switched from cornet to trumpet in order to more comfortably perform lead parts. Lu also learned to be a chef, skills he employed after the war both before and after retiring from music.

Article from NATS Packet May 1946 featuring Lu Watters
Article from NATS Packet May 1946 featuring Lu Watters

When I got over to the Hawaiian Islands, I was a first class aviation machinist mate, the world's worst mechanic. ... the executive officer came to me and said they were organizing a big band. He said the captain would like you to take charge of it. ... The executive officer used to come down to the Dawn Club.

– Lu Watters, interviewed by Ed Lawless

Hambone Kelly’s

Photograph from Hambone Kelly's cartoon of Lu Watters in chef's garb with trumpet under arm and a plated hambone
Hambone Kelly's menu
Lawless, Ed

Despite the success of the YBJB at the Dawn Club, it closed down New Year’s Eve, 1946. Financial and long-standing tax problems contributed to the demise of the club.

Lu reopened in a much larger space which the band could own and run collectively. Originally a strip club owned run by Sally Rand, Lu renamed the place Hambone Kelly’s and opened for business in 1947.

Located outside El Cerrito, Hambone Kelly’s was near a dog track and a strip of nightclubs and gambling venues. Lu counted on the post-war entertainment boom and the band’s popularity to ensure crowds would make the long journey across the bay from San Francisco.

It's hard to imagine nowadays what that was like, but there wasn't much out there, and it was kind of a sin district. They had this idea they are going to attract a lot of people. And they did do well initially, but it was a long trip.

– Clint Baker

Hambone Kelly’s was an expression of Lu Watters’ larger than life personality. His musical vision encompassed an idealized lifestyle for his band. Lu presented movies, offered dining, and included rooms above the club where band members and their families could live. Lu was the chef, Turk Murphy provided mechanical and construction expertise, and patrons experienced long wait times for their food.

I had a friend who went to Hambone Kelly's in 1950, and ordered a hamburger, and he said he waited an entire set, and all of an intermission, and at the very end of the intermission, Lu came out of the kitchen with his hamburger and put it on the table in front of him. And he said, "It was the best hamburger I ever had."

– Hal Smith

Lu was kind of a bohemian character. He was not a PR man or a salesman or a real good frontman for the band. He was a great musician. Great artist. But he was kind of a weirdo. So, when they went into Hambone Kelly's, he was the chef in the back. Lu loved to cook, and that was one of his passions as well. So he was the guy in the kitchen.

– Jim Cullum

Lu hoped for a utopian Ideal where musicians shared equally in musical and financial risk and reward. However, when the initial success of Hambone Kelly’s began to wane, band members were not paid regularly and Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, and Wally Rose were forced to leave. Then, Lu developed health problems.

Hambone Kelly’s closed New Year’s Eve 1950, and Lu Watters retired from musical life. Bob Scobey purchased and ran the club briefly, but was unsuccessful. Several Yerba Buena Jazz Band recordings were made at Hambone Kelly’s, all under Lu’s Down Home label and Norman Granz’s Mercury label.

Lu Watters’ greatest disappointment as a musician and bandleader was the failure of Hambone Kelly’s. The early days of the club, with 26 cocktail waitresses available to serve the patrons, the capability to feed 600 diners, and the radio announcer touting “Parking for 400 Cars!” shows Lu’s optimism for the operation to be a major success. But when key musicians left, the crowds fell off and it became obvious that the club would have to close, I believe that soured Lu on the music business for good and convinced him to quit playing entirely.

– Hal Smith
Lu Watters at Hambone Kelly's
Turk Murphy, Lu Watters , Bill Dart and Don Kinch
Turk Murphy, Lu Watters, Bill Dart and Don Kinch at Hambone Kelly's
Lu Watters plays as Turk Murphy looks on at Hambone Kelly's

Bodega Bay Benefit

Lu returned to the San Francisco Bay Area music scene briefly in 1963 to perform benefit concerts in support of anti-nuclear causes. He recorded a new album, Blues Over Bodega, and he performed at Turk Murphy’s San Francisco jazz club Earthquake McGoon’s with other Yerba Buena Jazz Band members.

In the 1960s, Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E, was going to build an atomic power plant close to where Lu lived at that point, which was Cotati, California, north of San Francisco, very close to the San Andreas Fault. This is really not the place to put an atomic reactor. So Lu began to protest..

– Jim Cullum

On January 2, 1951, Hambone Kelly’s closed its doors and Lu retired from the world of jazz. He gave away his horn ("The only thing I kept was the mouthpiece; I didn’t want to be tempted.") and did not play again until Memorial Day this year, when he blew half a dozen tunes with Turk Murphy, one of the numerous Watters’ alumni, up at Bodega Head.

– Ralph Gleason, San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 1963
Open Letter written by Lu Watters expressing concern over pending Bodega Bay power plant
Legendary Lu Watters Returns to the City, Ralph Gleason
Lu Watters, Thad Vandon, Bob Neighbor, Bob Short and Turk Murphy

Lu the Naturalist

After retiring from life as a professional musician in 1951, Lu moved to Cotati where he pursued his interests in geology and explored the local ecology. He also worked as a professional cook at a nearby hospital.

Lu continued to share his experience with younger musicians. He had many visitors eager to learn about traditional jazz, and Lu gave many interviews. Lu was married to Pat Joyce, but they divorced and never had children. He died on November 5, 1989.

He moved to Cotati and he would walk on the beach and pick up driftwood, a couple hours every day. When I went to his house, his whole yard was full of driftwood. His house was a modest, cinder block house. He had built the walls and everything himself.

– Jim Cullum
Lu Watters at his desk at his home, later in life
Lawless, Ed
Lu Watters and Bob Helm playing at Lu's home
Lu Watters at his home in Cotati, California on porch
Lawless, Ed
Lu Watters in chef's clothes at Santa Rosa Hospital
Lu Watters and Leon Oakley