By Hal Smith
Walter Rose, piano
b. Oakland, CA 10/2/13 d. Walnut Creek, CA 1/12/97
Wally Rose was born in Oakland, but lived in Honolulu, his family’s original home, in his early youth. Later, he went to school in Oakland and San Francisco and studied piano with Alice Eggers and Elizabeth Simpson. Rose’s interest in ragtime was likely due to his exposure to piano rolls. Some ragtime historians have noted a similarity in Rose’s style to the playing of Charley Straight and other ‘novelty’ pianists who recorded piano rolls.
After graduating high school, Rose played with several well-known dance bands, including Anson Weeks, and performed on cruise ships through the 1930s. Around 1940, he met Lu Watters and the musicians who would eventually form the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Rose attended some of the after-hours sessions at the Big Bear Tavern in the Oakland Hills where his keyboard technique and his ability to read music impressed Watters.
Key Player in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band
After pianist Forrest Browne left the ensemble, Watters invited Rose to join the Yerba Buena Jazz Band (YBJB) in 1941. He played with them at the Dawn Club and was heard on all of their KYA broadcasts.
Rose participated in the first two recording sessions by the YBJB in December, 1941 and March, 1942, and was responsible for the single best-selling disc of either session, “Black And White Rag.” He was backed by Clancy Hayes and Russ Bennett on banjos and Bill Dart on drums. The 78 sold a tremendous number of copies and should be credited with launching a revival of interest in ragtime.
Animated, Bouncy Style
When World War II broke up the Yerba Buena Band, Rose served in the U.S. Navy. After his discharge, he was back on piano when the band returned to the Dawn Club in March, 1946.
Wally Rose’s piano was an integral part of the YBJB’s success. His keyboard style utilized the lowest bass notes and the highest treble notes, which made it possible to hear him over even the loudest ensemble passages. He performed at least one rag, and usually more, with the rhythm section every night at the Dawn Club.
He told pianist/author Terry Waldo, “I never hesitated to build up the rags … Watters could never get enough banjo!” Indeed, Harry Mordecai’s banjo, Bill Dart’s woodblocks, and Dick Lammi’s enthusiastic bass and tuba playing might have overwhelmed a lesser pianist, but Rose is heard loud and clear on all the recorded ragtime numbers with the Yerba Buena rhythm section. His animated, bouncy style helped classic rags appeal to a wide audience.
After the Yerba Buena Band left the Dawn Club in 1947, leader Lu Watters found a new location for the band to perform, a large nightclub in El Cerrito, on the east side of the Bay. The club was named Hambone Kelly’s, and Watters proposed making the it a co-operative, with the musicians able to live on the premises and to share in the profits. Rose objected to the idea, and asked to be paid as a salaried performer. He stayed through 1947, but left the following year.
Almost 40 years later, a researcher asked Rose why he left Watters’ band. Rose replied, “Because he didn’t pay me!” Before exiting, Rose played on Bob Scobey’s first recording as a bandleader, for the Trilon label. Rose plays his typical buoyant style on all the sides and is featured on “Grizzly Bear Rag,” accompanied by Mordecai, Dart, and bassist Squire Girsback.
For over a year, Rose put his highly-developed keyboard technique to work playing light classical music. Finally, an emissary dispatched by Lu Watters convinced Rose to return to the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and Hambone Kelly’s. Though he was in and out of the band for the next two years, Rose was present on all the group’s 1949 – 50 recordings for Watters’ Down Home and Norman Granz’s Mercury label, as well as the regular broadcasts on KLX.
1950 marked the beginning of the Ragtime Revival in earnest. Pianists and bands across the U.S. were making hundreds of ragtime and honky tonk records. Good Time Jazz, sensing the trend, recorded Wally Rose accompanied by Squire Girsback on bass and Kid Ory’s great drummer Minor Hall. The session produced new versions of some rags which Rose had previously performed with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, including “The Easy Winners” and “Pineapple Rag.” The record label read Ragtime Classics by Wally Rose. A second session, with Rose accompanied by drummer Monte Mountjoy, resulted in four more rags on two 78s.
Hambone Kelly’s closed on January 1, 1951, and Rose immediately began to freelance, once again playing light opera, gypsy music, and occasional gigs with Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy and the Firehouse Five Plus Two (“I loved to hear the siren going off!”).
Wally Rose’s 1951 – 52 Good Time Jazz recordings with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band are excellent illustrations of his abilities as a band pianist. He literally sparkles above the ensembles and Clancy Hayes’ vocals on “Ace In The Hole” and “Sailin’ Down The Chesapeake Bay,” and makes the most of the piano solos on “Chicago” and “Sidewalk Blues.”
Rose enjoyed his time with Scobey, especially playing in the rhythm section with drummer Fred Higuera. Many years later, Rose recalled Higuera fuming over a tempo with which the pianist had kicked off. He was still scowling at the end of the performance when Rose playfully asked, “Are you going to be mad at me for the rest of your life?” Obviously the incident was soon forgotten, as Rose enthusiastically proclaimed Fred Higuera to be “the best drummer I ever played with!”
Italian Village Stellar Lineup
Meanwhile, Turk Murphy had been struggling to keep a band going until jazz activists Charles Campbell and Bill Mulhern set up a concert for him at the Italian Village in San Francisco on January 6, 1952. In addition to Murphy, the stellar lineup consisted of Bob Helm on clarinet, Don Kinch on trumpet, Monte Ballou on banjo, Bob Short on tuba, Claire Austin as vocalist—and Wally Rose on piano. When listening to the live recording of the concert, the musicians’ enthusiasm and unquenchable spirit are evident even now.
It inspired Turk Murphy to keep the band going and the Italian Village was his base of operations for over two years. Kinch and Ballou, based in Portland, Oregon, did not stay with the group. However, Bob Short, also an excellent cornetist, was willing to double, and Dick Lammi was brought in to play banjo. The quintet performed regularly at the Italian Village and also made a series of outstanding recordings for Columbia. Rose is heard to good advantage on “Barrelhouse Jazz,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and especially “The Music Of Jelly Roll Morton.” With Short on tuba and Murphy on washboard, Rose recorded a second version of Ragtime Classics for Good Time Jazz in 1953, with eight rags from the original group of twelve, which were issued on a 10” LP. He recorded additional rags as piano solos, for a Columbia 10” LP.
The Turk Murphy Jazz Band went on tour in 1954, playing for enthusiastic audiences in the Midwest and the Northeast. The tour was a great success, and gained many new fans for the band. The ensemble recorded Dancing Jazz for Columbia, plus a second album of rags and cakewalks which remained unissued for over 40 years.
One of the numbers on that session was an original by Wally Rose,“Wedding Cakewalk.” It is a wonderful composition, incorporating elements of the ragtime era as well as the Traditional Jazz Revival.
Rose left the Murphy Band in 1955, to be replaced by his star pupil, Pete Clute. Through the rest of the decade, Rose found plenty of work. He led his own groups at the Tin Angel with New Orleans blues singer Lizzie Miles and at Easy Street with Barbara Dane.
He also worked as a soloist at Goman’s Gay ‘90s, the Palace Hotel, and other venues. In 1957, he performed at the Dixieland Ragtime Jamboree, benefiting the Musicians’ Pension Fund, where, in addition to leading his own Dixieland band, he was the featured soloist on “Rhapsody In Blue” with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
He recorded Cakewalk To Lindy Hop for Columbia, which demonstrated the music which accompanied dances from ragtime to swing. On this LP, as well as on nightclub engagements, Rose proved that he was not a traditional jazz purist. Instead, his bands included musicians who were as comfortable with the repertoires of Ellington and Basie as with those of Armstrong and Morton.
Key players who worked with Rose’s bands include Jack Minger on trumpet, Jerry Butzen on trombone, Vince Cattolica on clarinet, Norman Bates on bass, and Cuz Cosineau on drums. Rose also played the Yerba Buena style and repertoire at the Sail’N with the Bay City Jazz Band. He closed out the decade by recording a third version of Ragtime Classics for Good Time Jazz. This time, all twelve rags which were recorded between 1950 – 1953 were included, and the accompanists were Morty Corb on bass and Nick Fatool on drums. Rose disliked this recording intensely. He recalled, “Those men just ruined my music!”
Changing musical tastes in the 1960s made it difficult for traditional jazz musicians to find steady employment. But Wally Rose, drawing upon his vast knowledge of popular music and his engaging personality, was seldom unemployed. For over a decade, he appeared at clubs such as Gold Street and the Cirque Room at the Fairmont Hotel. He also played occasional intermissions at Turk Murphy’s club Earthquake McGoon’s.
When Lu Watters recorded Blues Over Bodega in 1963, Rose seemed to be enthusiastic for a chance to reunite with his ex-bandleader. He brought a joyous spirit to the rhythm section on the medium and slow tunes, played with a relentless drive on “San Andreas Fault” and “Emperor Norton’s Hunch,” and performed a masterful version of “Pork And Beans,” a Luckey Roberts rag, backed by Monte Ballou, Bob Short, and drummer Thad Vandon. Rose also sat in when Watters made guest appearances with Turk Murphy’s band at Earthquake McGoon’s in 1963 and 1964.
In addition, he performed at a benefit concert for bassist Pops Foster and a memorial for Bill Erickson.
During the ‘60s, Rose’s photographic memory allowed him to quickly and accurately answer questions about his days with the Yerba Buena, Murphy and Scobey bands. He kept his mind active by preparing gourmet meals, frequently practicing piano, entertaining guests and decorating his apartment to look like a photo shoot from Sunset Magazine.
Rose continued to work mainly as a soloist in the early ‘70s. He played a benefit for Clancy Hayes at Earthquake McGoon’s, and settled in for a long run as a soloist at the Gold Dust Lounge. At the Gold Dust, he played a variety of old and new pop music and did a stellar job of interacting with the audience. He was also happy to perform rags for any fans who happened to stop in for drinks. After years of staying close to home, Rose performed as far away as the Newport Jazz Festival in New York City and the Oude Stijl Jazz Festival in Breda, Holland. In 1970, he recorded his first solo album since 1953 for Blackbird Records, and a follow-up LP in 1971. Both albums included rags that were new to his repertoire.
Master of the Idiom
There was a second Ragtime Revival in 1973, based on the music of Scott Joplin, heard on the soundtrack of the film The Sting. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was featured prominently in the film, and many people came to know the 1902 rag as simply “The Sting.” It was omnipresent on records, television, and radio and was an essential part of any pianist’s repertoire. During one of Rose’s performances in Breda, a fan yelled out “Play ‘The Sting’!” Rose turned to the band onstage and wearily asked, “O, Sting. Where is thy Death?”
Rose continued to learn new rags, and even to compose his own. A 1982 Stomp Off LP included “Ed’s Echoes,” dedicated to longtime friend Ed Sprankle, and “First Step One-Step.” He also composed “Vignette” and played it on a contemporary piano roll. In 1988, the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation recorded an album called The Two Sides Of Wally Rose. One side contained some of the popular songs Rose performed in piano bars, and the second side consisted of the rags which had established his reputation as a master of the idiom.
In 1993, Rose was invited to record a tribute to Lu Watters’ Blues Over Bodega by the Down Home Jazz Band. In addition to Rose, the session included Bob Mielke, Bob Helm, and Barbara Dane, all of whom performed on the original record. The recording was for the Stomp Off label, which had recently switched over entirely to compact disc releases. With the extra time available on a CD, three piano and rhythm numbers were planned. “Gladiolus Rag” and “Grizzly Bear” had been in Rose’s repertoire since the 1940s, but Charley Straight’s rare “Hot Hands” was suggested for the third piano feature. After Rose tried the music on his piano at home, he called the bandleader and asked in an excited voice, “Where has this rag been all my life?”
Rose was having severe trouble with his eyesight at the recording session, so supersized 11x17 sheets were necessary for him to read the arrangements. Although he was beginning to show signs of aging, his playing on the Down Home CD still sounds lively and adds much to the band’s sound. His memory was also as sharp as ever. When clarinetist Bob Helm produced a chart of “La Rosita” in the key of G, Rose looked at the music, and said to Helm, “We didn’t play this in ‘G’ with Lu! We played it in ‘F’!”
Gentleman of Jazz
Rose was named the ‘Emperor’ of the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in 1993 and later in the year was designated ‘Gentleman of Jazz’ at the Santa Rosa Jazz Festival. He was also one of two ‘Gentlemen of Jazz’ (the other was Bob Helm) at the San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival in 1994. Sadly, Rose was in the beginning stages of dementia when he appeared at the festival in San Diego. He lost his place in the music, forgot how to play familiar songs, and wound up spending much of the weekend offstage, being looked after by a friend. As the disease progressed, Rose was also afflicted with cancer. He passed away in January of 1997.
Wally Rose’s legacy cannot be overemphasized. In the 1960s, pianist Max Morath, considered to be one of the greatest contemporary ragtime performers, compiled a book of classic ragtime compositions by Scott Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb and others. He presented a copy to Rose inscribed, “To Wally Rose – Architect of the Ragtime Revival.” Morath’s assessment of Rose’s contributions was 100 percent accurate. Generations of pianists and fans have learned to love ragtime after hearing Wally Rose play.
(First version of “Ragtime Classics Played by Wally Rose” accompanied by Squire Girsback, string bass and Minor Hall, drums on 25 – 28 and Monte Mountjoy, drums on 44 and 51)
Gladiolus Rag/Frog Legs Rag Good Time Jazz 25
Red Pepper Rag/The Pearls Good Time Jazz 26
Pineapple Rag/The Cascades Good Time Jazz 27
The Easy Winners/King Porter Stomp Good Time Jazz 28
Springtime Rag/Top Liner Rag Good Time Jazz 44
Harlem Rag/Euphonic Sounds Good Time Jazz 51
Out-of-print 7” EP:
Ragtime Classics by Wally Rose, Good Time Jazz EP 1013 (four sides originally issued on GTJ 44 and 51)
Cakewalk To Lindy Hop Columbia CL 782
Honky Tonkin’ Columbia CL 2535 (10”; reissue of CL 6260)
Live From The Dawn Club Fairmont 102 (piano and rhythm performances excerpted from KGO broadcasts by the Yerba Buena Jazz Band from the Dawn Club, 1946)
Ragtime Classics Good Time Jazz GTJ L – 3 (10”; second version of “Ragtime Classics Played by Wally Rose,” accompanied by Bob Short, tuba and Turk Murphy, washboard)
Ragtime Classics Good Time Jazz M 12034 (12”; third version of “Ragtime Classics Played by Wally Rose,” accompanied by Morty Corb, bass and Nick Fatool, drums)
Ragtime Piano Masterpieces Columbia CL6260 (10”; original issue, re-released on CL 2535)
Rose On Piano Blackbird C 12007
The Two Sides Of Wally Rose San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Signature Series SF – 2
Wally Rose Revisited Stomp Off SOS 1057
Whippin’ The Keys Blackbird C 12010
Ragtime Classics Played by Wally Rose Good Time Jazz GTCD 10034 – 2 (third version, with Corb and Fatool)
Wally Rose: Rags – Blues – Joys Solo Art SACD 109
Wally Rose: Whippin’ The Keys Delmark DE 248 (includes “Rose On Piano” and “Whippin’ The Keys,” originally issued on Blackbird)
With Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band:
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Airshots From The Dawn Club Merry Makers CD 16
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Live at Hambone Kelly’s 1950 GHB BCD 93
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Live at Hambone Kelly’s 1950 Vol. 2 GHB BCD 97
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Live at Hambone Kelly’s 1950 Vol. 3 GHB BCD 119
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band At Hambone Kelly’s 1949 – 50 Merry Makers CD 10
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band Vol. 1 1937 – 1943 San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation CD 105
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band Vol. 2 1946 – 1947 San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation CD 106
Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings (4 CDs) 4GTJCD 4409-2
Lu Watters: Blues Over Bodega Good Time Jazz CD 12066 - 2
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Doing The Hambone at Kelly’s Vol. 1 Jasmine CD 2571 (Down Home and Mercury 78s recorded in 1949).
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Doing The Hambone at Kelly’s Vol. 2 Jasmine CD 2590 (the remaining Down Home and Mercury 78s from 1949 plus the Clancy Hayes Washboard Five sides).
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – Live at Hambone Kelly’s Trad Jazz Productions TJP 3
With Turk Murphy’s San Francisco Jazz Band:
New Orleans Stomp (2 CDs) Jasmine JASCD 461 (Includes tracks from Columbia CDs “Barrelhouse Jazz,” “Dancing Jazz” and “New Orleans Shuffle”).
Turk Murphy and Lu Watters: Together Again Merry Makers CD 8
Turk Murphy Favorites Good Time Jazz CD 60611
Turk Murphy Favorites Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz FCD 60 – 026
Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band At The Italian Village San Francisco Merry Makers CD 11
Turk’s Delight (2 CDs) Jasmine JASCD 439 (Includes tracks from Columbia LPs “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Music Of Jelly Roll Morton”).
Weary Blues San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation CD 103
Wild Man Blues San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation CD 107
With Bob Scobey:
The Scobey Story Vol. 1 Good Time Jazz CD 12032 - 2
The Scobey Story Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz CD 12033 - 2
The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957 GHB BCD 285
With Ernie Carson:
Ernie Carson and the Castle Jazz Band: Pink Elephants GHB BCD - 307
With the Down Home Jazz Band:
Back To Bodega Stomp Off CD 1273
With Bob Helm:
Brother Red Trad Jazz Productions TJP 2146 (1967 New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California concert with Bob Helm, Frank Haggerty, Bob Short, Claire Austin)
Clute, Cedric; Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: Meet Me at McGoon’s. Victoria, B.C., Canada 2004. Trafford Publishing.
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Ginell, Cary: Hot Jazz For Sale: Hollywood’s Jazz Man Record Shop. Los Angeles, Self-published, 2010.
Elwood, Philip: Liner notes in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Ertegun, Neshui: “Annie Street Rock.” CLEF Magazine (May, 1946). Reprinted in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Goggin, Jim: Some Jazz Friends, Vol. 2. Victoria, B.C., Canada. 2006, Trafford Publishing Co.
Goggin, Jim: Turk Murphy: Just For The Record. San Leandro, CA., 1982. San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1953 liner notes for Wally Rose: Ragtime Classics. Good Time Jazz Records L – 3. Reprinted 1960.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1954 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Leigh, James: Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life. Los Angeles, CA, 2000 XLibris Books.
Leigh, James: Liner notes to The Unheard Bob Scobey and his Frisco Jazz Band 1950 – 1957. New Orleans, 1993. GHB BCD 285.
Waldo, Terry: This Is Ragtime. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1976.
Conversations with the Writer
(Note: Wally Rose was a friend of the writer’s from 1965 until Rose’s death in 1997. In addition to numerous conversations and extensive written correspondence, I heard him play in person on a number of occasions, visited his home, played with him at jazz festivals, and recorded with him in 1993).
Conversations Regarding Wally Rose Between the Writer and Others
Baker, Clint; Baker, Ramona; Bartlett, Tom; Carroll, Bill; Carson, Ernie; Dart, Bill; Ecklund, K.O.; Eggers, Marty; Erdos, Bob (fan); Farey, Everett; Gill, John; Goggin, Jim (fan); Helm, Bob; Higuera, Fred; Jones, Wayne; Kinch, Don; Kuncl, Jack; Leigh, James; Lunsford, Carl; Mayl, Gene; Mielke, Bob; Mitchell, Bill; Murphy, Turk; Oakley, Leon; Pistorius, Steve; Powers, Frank; Probert, George; Raggio, Bob; Rhodes, Robbie; Saunders, Vince; Schulz, Bob; Smith, Ray; Sonnanstine, Charles; Spencer, Joe (fan); Tichenor, Trebor J.; Tyle, Chris; Valencia, Lee; Walbridge, Mike; Waldo, Terry; Watters, Lu; Wright, Laurence