Muggsy Spanier

Muggsy Spanier with Miff Mole, tb. Photographer Peter Martin. Courtesy of the Hal Smith Collection.


b. Chicago, IL 11/19/01 d. Sausalito, CA 2/12/67

'Muggsy' Spanier started out as a drummer, but switched to cornet at an early age. By 1920 he was playing professionally and began listening to the great African-American musicians who called Chicago home, in particular cornetist Joe 'King' Oliver. When he was barely into his 20s, Muggsy was invited to sit in with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was an experience that the young cornetist would never forget, and Oliver’s sound remained his biggest influence for the rest of Spanier’s life. In addition, the doorknob mute which Oliver gave to Muggsy was used ever after on every engagement and recording.

Throughout the ‘20s, Spanier worked with top bands such as Ray Miller’s and Ted Lewis’ and also recorded some of the earliest examples of Chicago-style jazz, such as the Chicago Rhythm Kings version of “I Found A New Baby” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” with Frank Teschemacher, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa and others.

In the 1930s, Muggsy continued to work with Ted Lewis, and also made a classic record date with the Mound City Blue Blowers, including Red McKenzie, Jimmy Dorsey and Coleman Hawkins. Some of Ted Lewis’ record dates also featured hot jazz musicians Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Teschemacher, Dorsey, Brunies and more. After leaving Lewis, Spanier played with the orchestra led by drummer Ben Pollack. While Pollack’s group was performing in New Orleans, Spanier was rushed to the Touro Infirmary, suffering from a perforated ulcer, plus complications. His life was saved by Dr. Alton Ochsner, and subsequently Spanier composed “Relaxin’ at the Touro,” which became his theme song, and “Oh, Doctor Ochsner!”

After recovering from the illness, Spanier returned to Chicago and organized his most famous ensemble, Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band. This combination recorded sixteen sides for Bluebird, a subsidiary label of RCA Victor. The recordings were hailed by critics and musicians alike when they were released, and are still considered some of the finest examples of recorded Dixieland. Though the recordings sold well, the band was unable to find enough work to keep it going.

Muggsy Spanier, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1946. Photographer, William Gottlieb, Library of Congress.
Muggsy Spanier, Nick's Tavern, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946. Photographer, William Gottlieb, Library of Congress.
Pee Wee Russell, Muggsy Spanier, Miff Mole, and Joe Grauso, Nick's Tavern, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946. Photographer, William Gottlieb, Library of Congress.

Muggsy Spanier traveled to New York City and participated in two more classic sessions: Milt Gabler’s four-part “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” for Commodore and a quartet with Sidney Bechet, released by the Hot Record Society. Upon returning to Chicago, Spanier accepted an invitation to join the Bob Crosby Orchestra, and he stayed with that group less than a year before attempting to form his own orchestra. That enterprise lasted until 1943, at which time Spanier went to work at Nick’s in Greenwich Village. He recorded numerous sessions under his own name, appeared on Eddie Condon’s broadcasts from Town Hall, Rudi Blesh’s This Is Jazz broadcasts and even briefly rejoined Ted Lewis. The New Orleans Revival was gathering momentum, but Spanier continued on with the small-band jazz he had always played, as exemplified by the Ragtime Band and Bechet recordings. He had no use for the music played by Lu Watters and Turk Murphy, and particularly disliked the sounds of banjo and tuba. Once, when working with a drummer who was playing in the older style, Spanier whirled around and yelled “Hey! Would you wear your grandfather’s shoes?”

Muggsy was based in Chicago in the late ‘40s when he married Ruth M. Gluck, who took care of him and encouraged him through lean periods for the rest of his life. Spanier played briefly at Jazz Ltd., then organized his own sextet for touring. In 1950, Spanier received an invitation to perform at Club Hangover in San Francisco for the month of April. When speaking with writers for Downbeat and other jazz publications, Muggsy was outspoken regarding the music played by Revivalists. Many Bay Area fans of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band were outraged. However, Spanier’s initial appearance at Club Hangover attracted sizeable audiences, and at the end of April the band was invited to return as soon as possible. The Spanier band did return to Club Hangover in the fall of 1950, but the leader himself continued to live in Chicago. The band toured constantly during the ‘50s, and played at Club Hangover several times when other engagements included clubs in the western United States. During an era when racially-mixed bands were still not a common occurrence, Spanier’s group nearly always included African-American musicians, and Hispanic clarinetist Phil Gomez toured with the band for over a year starting in 1953.

In 1957, the Spaniers sold their home in Chicago and relocated to the Bay Area, first San Francisco and finally Sausalito. Soon after arriving in San Francisco, Spanier went to work at Club Hangover as a featured sideman, with Earl Hines’ All-Stars. He stayed with Hines until 1959, occasionally taking off for outside engagements and tours. He also led bands at the Tin Angel, and continued to perform there after Kid Ory purchased the club and renamed it On The Levee. In 1963, Spanier led a hard-driving band which included Jimmy Archey, Darnell Howard, Joe Sullivan, Pops Foster and James Carter at Dominick’s in San Rafael. The same year, with Bob Mielke on trombone and Earl Watkins on drums, the Spanier ensemble appeared on Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual television program. Between songs, Muggsy reminisced about King Oliver with host Gleason and made disparaging remarks about Dixieland, describing the music he played as “Jazz and Swing.” By 1964, failing health caused Spanier to cut back on his performance schedule. An appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival weakened his already fragile condition. He passed away in Sausalito in February, 1967.

Bay Area Recordings Featuring Muggsy Spanier

Earl 'Fatha' Hines Live at the Crescendo Vol. 2 GNP-Crescendo GNPD 9054; Earl 'Fatha' Hines Featuring Muggsy Spanier: Live in San Francisco, 1957 Grammercy Jazz 388; Earl Hines All-Stars Featuring Muggsy Spanier: Live at Club Hangover, San Francisco Apr. – May 1957 Acrobat ADD CD 3174 (two CD set); Earl Hines/Muggsy Spanier All Stars: The Chicago Sessions Storyville STCD 6037

Note: There is duplication of material between the CDs listed above. Despite the fact that GNP-Crescendo 9054 and Storyville 6037 indicate different venues, all the tracks were recorded at Club Hangover. Though the GNP CD is labeled “Vol. 2,” there is no “Vol. 1” in existence.

Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band: Live at Club Hangover Apr. – May 1953 Acrobat ADD CD3095 (two CD set)

Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland All Stars at Club Hangover, San Francisco 1953-54 Storyville STCD 6033

Note: There is duplication of material between the two CDs listed above.

Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual: Muggsy Spanier/Joe Sullivan Idem Home Video ‎– IDVD1007

Note: Tracks 1-4 come from the television program described in the text, above. The remainder of the performances are piano solos by Joe Sullivan, from a different “Jazz Casual” program.



Sudhalter, Richard: Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz 1915 – 1945. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999

Whyatt, Bert: Muggsy Spanier: The Lonesome Road. Jazzology Press, New Orleans, 1995


Boeddinghaus, David (musician); Carroll, Phil (fan); Devore, Charlie (musician); Gordon, Bobby (musician); Grosz, Marty (musician); Hadlock, Richard (musician; writer); Ingham, Keith (musician); Kellso, Jon-Erik (musician); Mayl, Gene (bandleader); Mielke, Bob (musician); O’Connell, Joe (relative of Ruth Spanier); Powers, Frank (musician); Schumm, Andy (musician); Spanier, Ruth (wife); Tate, Roy (musician); Tyle, Chris (musician)