Wednesday, 14 August 2013

12. Francis "Muggsy" Spanier

Muggsy Spanier, born in 1906, was a native of Chicago’s working class South Side. A cornet player, he first heard King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band play in the early 20s in Chicago, at the Lincoln Gardens club, and began to sit in with them whenever he was allowed.

 He remembered: “You can imagine the thrill it was the first time they let me sit in with them and play. I even remember the first tune – it was Bugle Blues, an original Joe Oliver tune”. (Shapiro & Hentoff).

Speak Easies
 With fellow South Sider, drummer George Wettling, Muggsy began to jam with musicians in the Black district of Chicago, at speak-easies patronized by musicians, and in the homes of black musicians such as Johnny Dodds. Even in Chicago, in the supposedly less racist North, the authorities forbade black and white musicians to play together, but they’d get around the rules, often simply by not being paid.

In the period of 1926 to 1928, they would jam at Chigaco clubs such as The Cellar and the 3 Deuces, where Eddie Condon often played. Soon they were forming bands, in various configurations and reconfigurations, with Condon and the others.

Spanier, top right.

Jamming at the Midway and the Sunset
Muggsy and Wettling’s regular gig from early 1926 was Midway Gardens Ballroom, on Cottage Grove, but – again ignoring the Jim Crow rules – when they finished, in the early hours of the morning, they’d dash across to the Sunset Cafe, where Louis Armstrong’s regular spot was at the time (with his Sunset Stompers), in order to take over from Louis during his breaks. Sometimes they’d sit in with Louis’ band to let some of his musicians take a rest. Muggsy would play second cornet to Louis, just as Louis once had with Oliver. (Earl Hines was the pianist with the Sunset Stompers, and in the 50s Muggsy and Hines would combine to jointly lead bands). Armstrong would occasionally guest at the Midway in return. Muggsy would try to steal Louis’ thunder by playing Armstrong’s best numbers before he got on stage. Armstrong was once heard to grin and say, “I do believe Muggsy is trying to cut me!” (Cutting contest), something nobody, least of all Muggsy, would have thought a serious possibility.

 Spanier said of Armstrong “How can you help loving a guy that makes the world smile and a happy place like Louis does? If he couldn’t blow or sing a note, he’d still be worth his weight in laughs”. (Shapiro and Hentoff).

Rhythmic drive
 Muggsy’s style was very like the black players he idolised, especially Joe Oliver, from whom he had learned at first hand. He had a warm tone, and stuck to the mid range of the instrument. Never a flash player, Muggsy created his sound with a forceful, rhythmic drive he derived from Oliver. Humphrey Littleton said “He wasn’t the greatest technician. Some of the solos play around with just four or five notes, but he gets something across every time. It’s almost miraculous how he does that, like Picasso creating a recognisable likeness with just two strokes of his brush”. (Morton & Cook, p74).

 When Muggsy later played in big bands, he told one band leader (Ted Lewis) who asked him to hit high notes, “Aw, get a piccolo!”

 Muggsy first recorded with the Bucktown Five in 1925, and the Stomp Six in 1926, before joining McKenzie and Condon’s Boys in the late 1920s.

 Here’s Muggsy with the Chicago Rhythm Kings in 1928 (including Mezz Mezzrow on tenor sax, Gene Krupa on drums, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet, and Eddie Condon on guitar):

Here’s Muggsy’s strong rhythmic playing kicking off There’ll Be Some Changes Made, by the Chicago Rhythm Kings:

(The vocal on the above is from Eddie Condon).

 The aforementioned Stomp Six in 1926. (The sound on this one is very thin):

Muggsy on CD:
 The Penguin Jazz Guide doesn’t recommend any Spanier tracks from the 20s, only the Classics collection Muggsy Spanier 1939-42.

In all fairness, the 30s and 40s is when his best recordings were made, especially with his Ragtime Band, and the Big Four with Sidney Bechet. But we’re still in the 20s, and to get those sides you might want to consider the 2 CD Essential Collection on the Avid Records label:

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