The Great Jazz Revival

In the late 1930s, two parallel movements resulted in the phenomenon known as The Great Revival. One branch of the movement involved record collectors and writers such as William Russell, Dave Stuart, Bill Colburn, Neshui Ertegun, and Lester Koenig. They wrote articles about early jazz records, published magazines aimed at devotees of vintage jazz, and eventually made contact with some legendary figures such as trumpeter Bunk Johnson (who claimed to have played in Buddy Bolden’s band) and trombonist Kid Ory (who made the first jazz record by an African-American band in 1922, and who played and recorded with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton).

The other branch of the Great Revival was centered in San Francisco, where young musicians like Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, and Bob Helm desired to play the music from the Golden Era of hot jazz rather than the swing style that was currently popular.

Hal Smith
Kid Ory, 1960's
Kid Ory, 1960's
Lawless, Ed

The music of the Revival was driven by the 1920s sounds of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton. In 1938, when Lu Watters and Turk Murphy first set out to perform early 20th century New Orleans-style jazz, the music was nowhere to be found. Hard to imagine today, but by the late 1930s, hot jazz had been all but erased from history.

Not one traditional-style band was still performing. Bunk Johnson was working in the rice fields of New Iberia. King Oliver was sweeping floors in a pool hall. Louis Armstrong was a popular entertainer fronting a swing dance band. Recordings of Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band could only rarely be found in junk stores or attics. Sheet music was out of print.

Kid Ory was rediscovered in Los Angeles and began leading a world-class band on broadcasts featuring Orson Welles. Beginning with these broadcasts, Ory’s band eventually became one of the most popular of the Great Revival. The recordings by Johnson, Ory, and Watters were distributed overseas, and younger musicians were influenced by the sounds heard on Jazzman and American Music 78s.

George Lewis took over the Bunk Johnson band and enjoyed a more successful career than his predecessor. Lewis’ 'singing clarinet' and his band’s relentless drive were major influences on young musicians around the world. Lewis’ inspiration, as well as his sidemen’s, continues to this day in nearly every corner of the globe. In Southern California in the late ‘40s, Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band attracted large crowds everywhere they performed. A few years later, they became a huge draw for Club Hangover in San Francisco. During this period, Ory recorded extensively and lived comfortably off the royalties for his classic composition “Muskrat Ramble.” His band toured Europe in 1956 and 1959, and he operated a club in San Francisco called On The Levee.

Hal Smith
Jazz Man Record Label

Jazz Man Records

A haven for record collectors, the Jazz Man record shop in Los Angeles, California opened in 1939, selling exclusively 78 RPM records of jazz music in the pre-swing style. Started by Dave Stuart, the shop drew musicians, filmmakers, and celebrities to buy, sell, and trade classic New Orleans style sides, as well as reissued and new recordings on labels like Commodore and Hot Record Society. Inspired by the success of the Commodore label, (produced by the Commodore record shop in New York), Stuart set out to create his own label and to cement his legacy as a traditional jazz authority.

Stuart recorded Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band in three pre-war sessions during 1941 - 42. Released in albums as well as singles, the recordings were well received by fans and critics alike, and they brought the Watters' band to national attention through collecting publications like The Record Changer, as well as jukeboxes and radio play. Stuart also recorded trumpeter Bunk Johnson, and partnered with Nesuhi Ertegan, brother of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet, to release four previously unreleased sides performed by Jelly Roll Morton. The Jazz Man shop passed through several hands until it closed in 1983, and the label and masters were purchased by Ertegan in 1946.

04 Listen - Lu Watters Sweets Ballroom Orchestra
04 Listen - Lu Watters Sweets Ballroom Orchestra

The performance of "St. James Infirmary," heard on the soundtrack, was played by the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, circa 1941 - 42. There is a recording of the song by the Sweet's Ballroom Orchestra in the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation's archive, but the original is damaged, resulting in a long segment of surface noise that makes the music nearly impossible to hear.

We selected the Yerba Buena recording, with a similar routine, to illustrate how Lu Watters' musical ideals continued on from the large orchestra of the late '30s to the smaller Yerba Buena ensemble of the early '40s.

The Yerba Buena Jazz Band gained popularity, performing regularly at the Dawn Club in San Francisco and broadcasting over KYA. Although Bob Crosby’s Orchestra featured a few classic numbers from the ‘20s, the YBJB revived long-dormant compositions by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, as well as marches, popular songs of the teens and twenties, cakewalks, stomps, blues, and classic ragtime. Bunk Johnson’s comeback included trips to San Francisco, where he played with the Yerba Buenans who were not overseas with the Armed Forces. He also recorded in San Francisco, Los Angeles and several more sessions in New Orleans before making a triumphant trip to New York City.

The Yerba Buena crew played a lively 2/4 rhythm that kept the dance floor packed and created a powerful sound that literally caused jaws to drop in the audience. Led by Lu Watters, the trumpet lead alternated between Watters' direct, on-the-beat playing and Bob Scobey's urgent, probing style. The counterpoint was left to Turk Murphy on trombone. His brassy slides and smears were the exclamation point of the front line. Clarinetist Bob Helm’s serpentine explorations of the harmony parts provided the perfect complement to the very full sound of the brass.

The sound of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, with Watters and Scobey on trumpets, has often been compared to the 1923 recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The trading of lead and second parts by the cornets/trumpets and the ensemble playing by Murphy and Helm did bear a resemblance to Oliver’s front line. However, the uncompromising 2/4 time played by the Yerba Buena rhythm section was much closer to Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra of the 1920s than to Oliver’s. Pianist Wally Rose played a rollicking, raggy style that utilized both ends of the keyboard. His performances of rags with the banjo, tuba, and drums became the standard for generations of pianists. Banjoist Harry Mordecai strummed with a metronomic beat, alongside the waves of splatted bass notes emanating from Dick Lammi’s tuba and the steady drive of Bill Dart’s woodblocks, choked cymbal and Chinese tom-toms.

Hal Smith
Sailors at Sweets Ballroom. Source: Anna Newman

The Great Revival gained further momentum as wartime servicemen and workers came to San Francisco's bases, ports, and shipyards. They were eager for a good time with dancing, and nightlife flourished.

Lu Watters often said the foundation of the traditional jazz he played was dancing. Like his hero Joe 'King' Oliver, who got the crowds up on their feet at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens, Watters loved to play to a packed dance floor.

Late at night, after last call, with tables strewn with empty glasses and the lights low, the YBJB band would often wind down with a haunting, slow blues by W. C. Handy—”Friendless Blues.”

During the 1950s, George Lewis’ music soared in popularity overseas—particularly in the United Kingdom—resulting in a “Trad Boom.” Bandleaders such as Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Monty Sunshine were heavily influenced by the Lewis sound. When Lewis himself toured Europe, it must have seemed as though the coals had been returned to Newcastle!

Though Lu Watters retired from music in 1951, two of his sidemen, Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey, lead their own successful bands for many years. Other groups influenced by the YBJB included the Castle Jazz Band, Bay City Jazz Band, Firehouse Five Plus Two, Dixieland Rhythm Kings, South Frisco Jazz Band, and the Happy Jazz Band. Lester Koenig’s Good Time Jazz record company became one of the most important labels during the Revival, featuring numerous recordings by Watters, Scobey, Murphy, Ory, Lewis, The Firehouse Five Plus Two, Don Ewell and others.

Performances of traditional jazz in the 21st century are not as frequent as in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but there will always be an interest in the music thanks to the tireless efforts of Russell, Stuart, Colburn, Ertegun, Koenig, and of course the musicians they championed during the “Great Revival.”

Hal Smith