There’s nothing like the Indiana countryside, hot jazz tunes on the CD player, and a couple of gin-and-club-sodas to get me waxing philosophical. That’s why the subject of Red Nichols came up on the trip back to Chicago after the West End Jazz Band’s May show at Hudson Lake.
The consensus: Red don’t get no respect.
Mention the guy’s name, and too many people think of (a) Danny Kaye in that lame 1959 biopic, “Red Nichols and His Five Pennies,” or (b) Bix Beiderbecke. In both instances, Red comes up short.
Which is a shame, because Red Nichols was one of the most talented and influential jazzmen of his day. He gigged and recorded prodigiously (more than 4,000 records in the ‘20s alone, most notably on Brunswick), working both with the established jazz stars of the day and the up-and-comers destined to become household names in their own right. Quite simply, the guy played a mean cornet, and his hallmark recordings of the 1920s still hold up today.
Case in point: the long, leisurely versions of “Hurricane” and “Stampede” recorded for Edison in 1926, where Red leads the charge on take after take, his virtuosity and improvisational skills making him a worthy contender to the cornet crown worn by the more famous Bix Beiderbecke.
It might have been that merry prankster Eddie Condon who first unfavorably compared Red with Bix - and many hot jazz aficionados have perpetuated the myth ever since. But while there’s no denying Bix had a tremendous influence on Red - witness Red’s incorporation of Bix’s trademark “rips” and phrasing in his solo work - there’s no denying the man had his own style.
Some observers note that in spite of their similarities, Red’s style was cooler, more polished and detached than Bix’s interpretations. With that in mind, putting Red and Bix’s styles side by side is less like comparing apples and oranges, and more like comparing Macintosh and Red Delicious -- two sweet and tasty versions of the same fruit.
Few could argue that Red was a more technically proficient player than Bix. And no wonder - when Ernest Loring Nichols was born in Ogden, Utah in 1905, his music professor father probably already had designs on his son’s future. He started little Red on cornet at the tender age of four. By the time he was six, Red was the cornet soloist with a boys’ band, and by 12, a member of his father’s orchestra.
Red left home at 17 and headed east to Ohio, where he joined the Syncopating Five, a band that went on to record sides at the legendary Gennett Studio in Richmond, Indiana. He landed in New York in 1923, where he hooked up with trombonist Miff Mole. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
The Red/Miff team went on to make scores of records under a variety of band names - Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, the Arkansas Travelers, the Red Heads, the Louisiana Rhythm Kings, the Charleston Chasers, and Miff Mole and his Little Molers.
And they had plenty of excellent company. Throughout the ‘20s, the best jazzmen in the business worked with Red and Miff, including Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Vic Berton, Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and Pee Wee Russell. Younger musicians like Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw learned the ropes under Red’s tutelage.
During the ‘20s Red also led his own pit orchestra for prominent Broadway shows, including George Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” and “Strike Up the Band.” Along the way he met and married Willa, a dancer in the George White “Scandals.”
In the 1930s, when hot jazz began to segue into swing and radio rose to prominence, Red didn’t miss a beat. He toured with his own big band throughout the decade, and found plenty of work in radio, including the Bob Hope show.
Red’s life changed dramatically in the early 1940s, when his daughter Dorothy was diagnosed with polio and required medical treatment in California. Red and his wife moved to the West Coast to be close to her, and Red took a job in the shipyards during the booming World War II years to support his family.
But he couldn’t stay away from music for long. Two years later he joined the Glen Gray Orchestra, then revived the Five Pennies, playing small gigs in the Southern California area. By the time the highly fictionalized Danny Kaye biopic of his life came out in 1959, a full-fledged Red revival was underway.
Red Nichols continued working, touring, freelancing and recording throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. He toured Europe, played California’s most fashionable venues, and recorded a number of albums for Columbia during those years, returning to the Dixieland roots he loved so well. He died of a heart attack in 1965 during a booking in Las Vegas -- a consummate professional to the end.
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