Jazz break: On Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band, “That Eccentric Rag” and the long departed Rod Cless.


I could go on and on about the entire rich history of jazz in America during the early 1900s, but I won’t. My aim is limited tonight: for you to meet Muggsy Spanier, be aware of his “Great 16” sides of music, and know that “ragtime” is among the components of what we’d now refer to for the sake of convenience as Dixieland.

Britannica has a solid overview.

Dixieland, in music, a style of jazz, often ascribed to jazz pioneers in New Orleans, La., but also descriptive of styles honed by slightly later Chicago-area musicians. The term also refers to the traditional jazz that underwent a popular revival during the 1940s and that continued to be played into the 21st century. See also Chicago style, New Orleans style.

New Orleans was not the only city where early jazz took root at the turn of the 20th century, but it was the centre of that musical activity, and most of the seminal figures of early jazz, black and white, were active there. It is likely that both blacks and whites played the music that came to be known as Dixieland jazz.

New Orleans during the late 19th century was, in effect, two cities: Downtown was home to most whites and Creoles, and Uptown was home to freed black slaves. The strictness of the city’s segregation was evidenced in 1897 with the establishment of Storyville (known as “the district” to locals), a 38-square-block area, designed to isolate such activities as prostitution and gambling, that was split by Canal Street into black and white areas. Virtually every brothel, tavern, and gambling hall in Storyville employed musicians. The unique urban culture of New Orleans provided a receptive environment for a distinctive new style of music.

The scant available evidence (mostly anecdotal) suggests that the black and white musicians of New Orleans shared many common influences, although it would appear that white bands tended to draw on ragtime and European music, whereas black bands also built on their 19th-century ethnic heritage …

J. Russell Robinson was born in Indianapolis and began writing songs while in his teens. “That Eccentric Rag” dates from 1912.

Jazz didn’t really come to be identified as such until just after the Great War, which in turn couldn’t be called the First World War until there had been a Second. Robinson’s tune became a standard, with the first known jazz band recording by the Friar’s Society Orchestra coming in 1922.

Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier, who borrowed his nickname from baseball legend John McGraw, was born in 1901 in Chicago. Like the songwriter Robinson, Spanier’s professional music career began early. He patterned his playing style on Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, the top African-American jazz trumpeters of the day.

Spanier spent the late 1920s and most of the 1930s as a sought-after sideman in name orchestras. While passing through New Orleans in 1938 with the Ben Pollack band, Spanier was diagnosed with a perforated ulcer that required treatment and a prolonged stay in the Touro Infirmary. Back on his feet again, Spanier determined to go out on his own and form a band to play the music he preferred, hence the formation of his popular but short-lived Ragtime Band in 1939.

From an excellent biographical sketch of Spanier:

Before the band broke up they made 16 exceptional hot jazz records: 4 in Chicago and 12 in New York for the RCA Victor Bluebird label. When the first long-play collection of all the sessions was issued, it was entitled The Great 16, and this immediately became the generic name by which they are recognizable to all jazz buffs.

Among the titles was “Eccentric,” shorthand for Robinson’s ragtime composition.

There’s much to be explored about Spanier’s contributions to jazz, but his band mates are far more obscure these days. Trombonist George Brunies began performing at eight years of age, and also played on the aforementioned Friar’s Society recording of “Eccentric.” The clarinetist is Rod Cless, a truly forgotten jazz virtuoso of the period who died at 37 in 1944.

This piece about Cless is well worth the time. Jazzmen of the period, whether black or white, had a fraternal bond that had much to do with relative privation. Then as now, no one want to pay the musicians.

But they believed.

Remembering Rod Cless (Shiraz Socialist)

I recently came upon a stash of old jazz magazines, including some copies of ‘The Jazz Record’, edited by pianist-bandleader Art Hodes and his sidekick Dale Curran between 1943 and 1947. It’s fascinating stuff, full of contemporary reports of what was going on at Nick’s in Greenwich Village and what the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson were up to. The piece reproduced below is from the January 1945 edition of the magazine, and I found it particularly moving. Clarinetist Rod Cless is now all but forgotten, but in the early 1940’s was a well-known and popular figure on the New York jazz scene. He died in December 1944 as a result of a fall over a balcony after heavy drinking, and then drinking some more from a bottle or flask smuggled in to him in hospital. This obituary – by someone who is obviously a close friend – strikes me as worth republishing as an example of how jazz people mourn.

During the last two weeks of February I listened to the Great 16 as a bloc five or six times. Just before that had been an extended period with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, both very different from Spanier’s milieu. I always come back to all of this music at intervals, soak it up again, and try to learn a little bit more than I knew before — as with this column from 2017.

ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (1): Listening to “Dixieland” jazz, and thinking about drinking a beer.