May 8, 2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols, perhaps the most tragically overlooked major jazz figure of the 1920's. Nichols presided over two distict groups of ground-breaking jazz recordings - the 1925 - 1928 sessions with Miff Mole and Jimmy Dorsey that set the standard for small group jazz performances, and the 1929 - 1930 sides by a big band that included Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller (as trombonist and arranger), Jack Teagarden, and Benny Goodman, a band that in many ways paved the way for the Swing Era ensembles that would emerge three to five years later.
In the latter half of the 1920's Nichols was the undisputed king of the New York jazz scene, a virtuoso player who was an almost unmatched sight reader, a gifted hot soloist, and a successful businessman with connections to theaters, music publishers, clubs, recording companies, and prominent dance orchestras. He made literally hundreds of records as a free-lance musician, subbing in studio bands and playing lead cornet and hot solos. His skillful playing and dependability earned him the nickname "Reliable Red."
Nichols arrived in New York in 1924 at the age of 19, by which time he was already a well-known and accomplished dance band musician, touring the Midwest and appearing on records made for Gennett and Edison. His father was a college music professor and trumpeter, and though Red grew up in Ogden, Utah, far removed from the burgeoning jazz scenes of Chicago and New York, he managed to become a first-rate player under his father's tutelage and, most importantly, one who could both improvise lively hot solos and correctly read a written arrangement the first time.
Like so many other young players of his era, Red was introduced to jazz through phonograph records by groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. And like other younger players he was able to understand and emulate true jazz rhythm and phrasing - a skill that many older musicians, schooled in military band traditions and ragtime, failed to develop. Nichols unhesitatingly confessed his admiration for cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and worked to incorporate Bix's phrasing and articulation into his own style. By the time he started soloing on records, he had already developed a distinctive tone and stylistic approach to jazz.
Nichols met trombonist Milfred "Miff" Mole in 1925. Mole had become an idol of hot jazz listeners and the inspiration for a generation of aspiring trombonists through the records that he made with the Original Memphis Five. Mole possessed an amazing technical ability on the trombone and a seemingly endless supply of creative improvisational ideas. Instead of relying on the old-school tricks of smears and glissandos and shakes played with the trombone's slide, Mole fashioned his approach to the jazz trombone based on cleanly-articulated rapid-fire phrases, much like one would expect from a trumpeter or clarinettist. Mole was also an excellent sight-reader, though his easy-going personality made him much less interested in free-lance studio work than Nichols.
The hard-working Nichols and laid-back Mole became a musical phenomenon because of their relentless perfectionism, and their partnership on records lasted until 1929. Among their earliest records together is a superb effort that resulted from Nichols sitting in with one of Brunswick's house orchestras, The Cottonpickers. This August 1925 recording of "Milenburg Joys" has become a treasured possession of jazz collectors and features Nichols along with the regular members of the Cottonpickers band that included Frank Trumbauer, Miff Mole, Rube Bloom, and Ray Bauduc.
Nichols and Mole became a fixture in New York's jazz scene, recording frequently with a regular band that included Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Schutt and Vic Berton. On Brunswick, the band was christened Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, a name that stuck with Nichols throughout his recording career regardless of the actual number of musicians in the band. On Columbia the band was given a standard house band pseudonym The Charleston Chasers. On Columbia's budget Harmony label the band was The Arkansas Travellers. On the Perfect label they were The Red Heads. On the OKeH label they were Miff Mole and his Little Molers. When they recorded for Edison or Victor they were Red and Miff's Stompers.
The records that these groups made are remarkable for their precision, improvisational quality, and the uniqueness of arrangements and original compositions mainly by clarinettist Fud Livingston. Nichols regularly augmented his groups with addtional musicians and instrumentation that included multiple woodwinds and brass, chimes, tympani, the guitar/violin combo of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and the mellophone, a trumpet/trombone hybrid played by Dud Fosdick.
Jazz historians generally point to the 1927 efforts by Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke as the pinnacle of white small group jazz, but the Nichols efforts stack up to them in every regard save for the pure musical genius of Beiderbecke. Even if the Five Pennies' "Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider," made for Brunswick in August of 1927, is an answer to Trumbauer's legendary "Singin' The Blues" recorded six months earlier, Nichols' effort held up against Trumbauer's and eventually outsold it, becoming one of the top ten records of 1927.
By 1929 Nichols' musical horizons were expanding outside the small clique of New York-based jazz musicians that he had worked with steadily for the previous four years. In July 1928 Nichols and Mole recorded two remarkable sides (as Miff Mole and his Little Molers) with a quartet of young musicians who had just arrived in New York from Chicago. "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble," waxed during this session, went on to be a jazz classic and introduced the legendary Chicago jazz clarinetist Frank Teschemacher to a wider audience. As other musicians from Chicago came to New York to seek their musical fortunes, Nichols, ever the astute businessman, became acquainted with them and began to find work for them. Not wanting to compete with these younger thoroughbreds, Miff Mole quietly ended their musical partnership, fulfilling his OKeH recording contract without using Nichols and eventually joining NBC as a staff musician.
When the Ben Pollack Orchestra arrived in New York in 1928 and settled into a regular job at the Park Central Hotel, Nichols became acquainted with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Jack Teagarden, and offered these three Pollack musicians a job with Nichols in the pit orchestra of the new Gershwin Brothers show "Strike Up The Band." Impressed with Miller's arrangements for the Pollack band, Nichols hired Miller to begin arranging music for a series of Five Pennies recording sessions for Brunswick that included the new Chicago musicians.
The first of these sessions took place in April 1929 and resulted in probably the most famous of all Nichols' recorded output, the coupling of "Indiana," and "Dinah," both arranged by Glenn Miller and dominated by the soulful trombone of Jack Teagarden. Throughout 1929 and 1930, Nichols recorded numerous titles with this new bigger band that featured two or three trumpets, two trombones, three reeds, and a full rhythm section. Glenn Miller did most of the arranging and Nichols, Teagarden, and Benny Goodman were the main soloists.
Along with a good selection of pop tunes, an impressive number of jazz classics poured fourth from this band during a surprisingly short period of time - "I Want To Be Happy," "Strike Up The Band," "After You've Gone," "Peg O' My Heart," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "China Boy," "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble," "The Sheik of Araby," and "I Got Rhythm." were all waxed within the span of 18 months. Nichols kept his musicians working during these early Depression days either as sidemen with his own groups, or by finding freelance jobs for them on his recommendation.
Unfortunately for Nichols, his efforts at taking care of other jazz musicians were not appreciated in return. Most of the kids who came to New York from Chicago learned their instruments solely to play jazz, and feared that freelance work with studio or theater orchestras would taint their "pure jazz" approach with "commercialism." Although they were accomplished jazz musicians (and a few - namely Benny Goodman - had risen to the top of the New York freelance roster) most of the Chicago group took non-jazz jobs only to pay the rent. Naturally they made a lot of cracks at the expense of Nichols, who was professionally trained, enjoyed working as a studio musician, and worked as hard at business as he did music. Likewise, Nichols was frustrated by the devil-may-care attitude of younger musicians who seldom had a dollar to their name and were likely to show up to a job late or drunk.
And so Nichols never made it "in" with the young Chicago musicians. Dick Sudhalter's Lost Chords quotes tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, "In the opinion of our group, Nichols was a synthetic player. He was a clever musician and made a lot of records, but he was a very mechanical player." Thus began, probably unconsciously at first, a concerted effort by "pure jazz" musicians to demote Nichols to second-class status. When jazz writers in the 1940's began to chronicle the histories of the original Chicago musicians, their biases against Nichols were plentiful, and became a part of written jazz lore. To this day, many jazz historians continue to minimize the contributions that Red Nichols made to the music.
Even after the star soloists began trickling out of his band in the early 1930's, Red Nichols continued to broadcast, record, and play steadily through the remainder of the decade. In the 1940's and 1950's, Nichols appeared with smaller groups that were throwbacks to his 1920's-era bands. Nichols prospered in the "Dixieland Revival" of the 1950's, recording a number of high-fidelity albums for Capitol that featured good musicians and revived many of the tunes that were hits for him twenty years earlier. In 1959 Hollywood released "The Five Pennies," a largely fictional accounting of his life that starred Danny Kaye as Nichols. Bolstered by the success of the film, Nichols worked steadily on the road and in Las Vegas until a heart attack took his life in 1965.
For the collector
Much of Red Nichols' prodigious output during the 1920's and 1930's has never been reissued. Original 78 rpm recordings by Nichols and his bands on the Brunswick and Bluebird labels are plentiful on the collector's market and can be had for $5 to $10 each. In 1942, Decca Records (which then owned the early Brunswick recordings) released two 4-record 78 rpm album sets of Nichols' original Brunswick recordings. These album sets are also readily available (as are the early 1950's 10" Lp reissues of the same material) for around $10 to $15 each.
Nichols records made under pseudonyms such as The Charleston Chasers, The Arkansas Travelers, and the Louisiana Rhythm Kings are a bit harder to find, as are the OKeH recordings by Miff Mole and his Little Molers and the Victor recordings by Red Nichols' Stompers and Red and Miff's Stompers. In excellent condition these records sell for $20 - $40. The rarest of the Nichols sides from this period are the recordings done for Edison (Red and Miff's Stompers) and Perfect (The Red Heads).
Nichols also appeared on hundreds of studio band recordings led by Sam Lanin, Cass Hagan, Ben Selvin, and others. It is unknown exactly how many recordings Nichols made as a free-lance studio musician, though his distinctive sound is readily apparent on the sides that feature him as a soloist. There doesn't seem to be a real interest in these records among collectors, and so they can be had for the usual $5 - $15 prices that hot dance records of the 1920's bring.
The Lp's recorded by Nichols in the 1950's are currently not available on CD, and do not appear to be of much interest to jazz collectors. They turn up frequently on Ebay for around $10 each.
Timeless Records has compiled two good CD collections of records made by The Charleston Chasers. Jazz Oracle has put together a volume of the Edison recordings by various Nichols groups. The Timeless and Jazz Oracle CD's feature audio restoration by John R. T. Davies, so the sound quality is excellent. Classics Records from France also has a number of piecemeal volumes of Nichols sides that cover The Red Heads, the Nichols/Mole Five Pennies recordings (1925-1927, 1927-1928, 1928-1929, 1929) and the later bands with Teagarden and Goodman (1929-1930), as well as a good volume of Nichols recordings made in 1929 and 1930 as The Louisiana Rhythm Kings. Finally, Hep Records has a good volume of later 1930's Nichols recordings, also remastered by John R. T. Davies.
The Cottonpickers - Milenburg Joys
The Red Heads - A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Red and Miff's Stompers - Feeling No Pain, Delirium
Miff Mole and his Little Molers - Original Dixieland One-Step, Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble
The Charleston Chasers - My Gal Sal
The Arkansas Travelers - Birmingham Breakdown
Cass Hagan and his Park Central Hotel Orchestra - The Varsity Drag
The Five Pennies (with Miff Mole and Jimmy Dorsey) - Ida! Sweet as Apple Cider, Feeling No Pain, Avalon, Imagination
The Five Pennies (with Teagarden and Goodman) - Indiana, Dinah, I Want To Be Happy, Peg O' My Heart, China Boy, Sweet Georgia Brown, Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble
The Five Pennies (1932 revival group with Jimmy Dorsey) - Sweet Sue
Louisiana Rhythm Kings - Lady Be Good, Sweet Sue