American Dixieland Legends

Wild Bill Davison

  • First Recordings: 1924 with the Chubb -Steinberg Orchestra
  • 1941: moved to New York
  • 1943: Records famous Commodore Sessions with George Brunies, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, George Wettling etc.
  • 1950: Hit Record – ‘Bonapartes Retreat’ with Gene Krupa’s Chicago Jazz
  • ‘50s: Working with Condon, Records ‘Pretty Wild’ album with Strings.
  • ’60, 70s & 80s: With Condon and freelance, touring the world, including living in Denmark for a while.
  • May 1989: Legends of American Dixieland Tour with Art Hodes & John Petters Dixielanders.

Art Hodes

  • Born: Arthur W Hodes in Nikoliev, Russia 14th November 1904. Moves to Chicago age 6 months.
  • 1928: First Recordings with Wingy Manone Band which included Gene Krupa
  • 1938: Moved to New York
  • 1940s: House pianist with Blue Note Records, records with Wild Bill and Sidney Bechet. Other sessions with Baby Dodds, etc. Writes for the ‘Jazz Record’ Magazine.
  • 1950s - 1980s: Leads own band, tours as a solo artiste, records and hosts own TV Show, ‘Jazz Alley’
  • May 1989: Legends of American Dixieland tour with Wild Bill Davison & John Petters Dixielanders
  • 4th March 1993: Dies in Harvey, Illinois aged 88.

The Legends of American Dixieland Tour May 1989

Imagine the lunacy of fixing a tour of the UK for an 83 year old cornet player, living in Santa Barbara, California, and an 85 year old piano player, resident in Chicago, Illinois. This was the position in which I found myself in October 1988, after playing a triumphant concert at the Cork Opera House as part of that city’s prestigious jazz festival, and recording a CD with two of the most important white, Dixieland musicians in the history of the jazz. The story of how this came about begins a few years earlier, in 1983. I was organising occasional Swing concerts at the Playhouse Theatre in Harlow, Essex, when the opportunity to book Wild Bill Davison presented itself. To me Bill was a hero. He had worked with Bechet and Art Hodes on those sensational Blue Note sessions in the mid ‘40s – some of the most exciting and freewheeling jazz ever waxed.

Bill must have been happy with the backing we gave him and readily agreed to record in 1986 with a band that included piano professor, Martin Litton and the French soprano sax star Jean Francoise Bonnell. The following year, I was leading my Dixie Marching Band at the Soho Jazz Festival, which included a press shoot in Soho Square - at the opening by Earl Alexander of Tunis. Promoter Peter Boizot had arranged for an upright piano to be wheeled into place and seated at its keyboard was the veteran Hot piano man, Art Hodes. Art’s response when introduced to the Earl was, “Gee, I’ve never played for royalty before, except Paul Newman”. Art seemed to enjoy my playing and readily agreed to take part in a trio recording session, with clarinettist, Trevor Whiting. A coffee or two in the Pizza Express sealed the deal and a list of tunes was agreed.

Like me, Trevor had grown up listening to the Hodes – Davison – Bechet ‘Blue Note’ sessions and the recording, a couple of days later, found us in an unreal setting. Here we were making an album with a jazz legend. Art was so impressed with the session, (Sensation – CMJCD007) he told his agent to book him with the pair of us for his next tour. The London jazz scene was quite closed in those days and both Trevor and I felt outsiders. Needless to say we were not booked for the following tour, although I did play a trio session with Art at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne in the company of Kenny Davern in 1988. Early that year, I was engaged to play drums with Wild Bill at Bourne, Buckinghamshire. Anne Davison, Bill's long suffering wife and minder said that the Wild One would like to play the Cork Jazz Festival. I had played there the previous year and mooted the idea of bringing Art Hodes over and offering Cork a reunion show.

Jack McGourhan the Director of the festival bought the idea and I arranged for Art and Bill to come over in October ’88. I had set up CMJ Records with banjoist, Louis Lince and another friend and jazz enthusiast, Terry Maton and we took the opportunity to book a recording session. Both Terry and I, as Radio Amateurs, were into electronics and recording techniques and CMJ had purchased one of the early Digital recording systems, ideal for the then emerging Compact Disc technology.

The recordings were made direct to stereo, using two PZM condenser microphones, sold cheaply by Tandy, but viewed as essential for recording acoustic instruments by a respected audio magazine. We did want some insurance and booked the talented recording engineer, Dave Bennett to capture the session on his 8 track analogue tape machine. As it turned out, we did have a technical problem, so the CD, ‘Together Again’, (CMJCD003) was produced from both sources.

Given Bill’s age and the fact that the cornet is that most punishing of instruments, we would have been happy with a couple of good tracks with ‘adequate’ Wild Bill. As it turned out, he played the complete session, turning out masterful performances on the issued takes. The British contingent on the session, besides Trevor and the drummer, were trombonist, Jack Free, one of our warmest players with a huge tone and my long time bass colleague, Keith Donald.

Bill and Art clearly enjoyed themselves and they readily agreed to return in May 1989 for an extended and serious tour. Terry Maton agreed to be co-promoter and I had the job of trying to sell the package, which we called, ‘The Legends of American Dixieland’. I had been working with Max Collie’s manager, Martin Ross, who taught me much about selling jazz shows to theatres. We had been marketing Max ‘s New Orleans Mardigras show successfully and I had already presented ‘Queens of the Blues’ with Beryl Bryden marking Bessie Smith’s 50th Anniversary, so I thought selling these two American ‘names’ would be easy. With the massive contribution from jazz enthusiast, Gwen Main – a retired lady who had been helping me run the Harlow jazz sessions – we set about phoning theatres all over the country.

Wild Bill who? Was the response from managements all over the land, who had never heard of Bill or Art.

A different approach was called for

“Tell them they played for Al Capone in Chicago during the Roarin’ ‘20s”, I said. Gwen did and the dates started to pour in.

The formal theatre concerts we played included The Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Worthing Pavilion, Bounemouth Pavilion, The Playhouse, Harlow, Bridgend Recreation Centre in South Wales, The Sovereign Centre, Eastbourne and concluded with the Albert Hall – the Bolton one! We also played a variety of jazz venues, including Norwich, Oxford, The Concorde Club, Eastleigh, Belfast and Falmouth.

We only wanted one London date and this was offered to Roger Horton at the 100 Club. After a process of negotiation over the fee, we accepted a 70 percent split of the box office. We had one date we could not fill, and Bill was booked as a guest at a jazz club while I secured the UCS Theatre at Hampstead for a solo gig by Art.

Jack Free was awaiting heart bypass surgery and was only able to play the local gigs, so we were very lucky to secure the services of Campbell Burnap for the English dates and Mike Pointon for the Northern Ireland concerts. Clarinettist, Dave Bailey, with whom I worked in the Ken Sims Dixie Kings was signed up for the clarinet chair. Scroll forward to early May 1989 and the final preparations for the tour. Bill and Anne were to be billeted with trumpeter Rod Hamer in Buckinghamshire, whilst Art and his wife Jan stayed at Terry Maton’s house in Perivale.

We planned to record each concert for posterity, as we were all aware that this could be the last time either musician would be able to come to the UK. We also planned to play the concerts acoustically, where possible. The arrival day came. Terry went to meet Art and Jan and I went to Heathrow to welcome the Wild One. My confidence about getting through the next dozen or so dates was not boosted by the fact that my first sighting of Bill was in a wheelchair, chewing gum – he was being pushed through the airport by a staff member, whilst Anne walked alongside.

Anne and Bill were a splendid double act – rather like Stan and Ollie. “We’re known as the Bickersons”, she said. Her business card simply sated, ‘Anne Davison – Slave’. She laid down the rules. No more than three cigarettes a day and certainly no booze because of Bill’s ulcers. So Bill would cadge fags from other musicians and fans.

“Where do you hide them?” I asked.

“I put ‘em in my cornet case, she doesn’t look in there. And I’ve got a pair of old shoes she doesn’t look in either!” he told me.

Anne had met Bill in the ‘50s, when she was a 20th Century Film starlet. She swopped a promising movie career for a life devoted to keeping Bill alive. She allowed Bill fifty pence a day spending money. He could have as many dollars as he liked – because he couldn’t spend them while he was in England. Dave Bailey recalls:

Bill and Art could not have been more different in character, Bill tended to be brash, forthright and a very good entertainer holding an enthralled audience in his hand with jokes and anecdotes from his past. Art on the other hand was quiet and introspective, a man who knew exactly what he was doing about the keyboard, he was for me, the quintessential support for the 'Knights in Shining Armour' out front, he fed you beautifully supportive laid back chords that inspired one to ever greater inventiveness. At the end of the tour I received one of the greatest compliments of my entire playing career when Art Hodes turned to me and said quite simply "You are a free spirit". That, coming from one of the great American jazz musicians was humbling indeed

Art was a deeply creative musician. He had stayed with me for a couple of days during the 1988 trip. He went straight to my record collection and pulled out different things he wanted to hear. He wanted to keep listening and recording. “I still have things to say”, he told me. What was it like working with Bechet on those Blue Notes? “They were my sessions”, he said.

Art was the house pianist at Blue Note for a while. So the teaming of Bill and Bechet was his idea. He was also a writer in those days and published a magazine called ‘The Jazz Record’.The enmity between the traditionalists and modernists in the mid forties was bitter. Art fought his corner for the old style. Leonard Feather took the opposite view. As a result of Art being branded a “mouldy fig”, he lost out on a recording date with Lester Young, which would have been an interesting collaboration as both were rooted in the Blues.

Jan Hodes had been a piano student of Art’s, and she was a talented pianist in her own right - she contributed greatly to the show performing duets with her husband. They were a quiet and devoted couple whose relationship was clearly different to the public persona expressed by the Davisons. The first date, Monday 9th May was at the Norwich Labour Hall. We arrived in the city and got lost. No Sat. Nav. in those days. We went to a Pizza restaurant, but Bill was anxious to get to the venue to practice. Leaving Anne with the rest of the band, we set off. As soon as he was away from his wife, the mischievous little boy in Bill surfaced. He enjoyed admiring the local ‘talent’ on the streets of Norwich on this early spring evening.

We started talking about music. I asked him about drummers. His favourite was Cliff Leeman. He remembered Baby Dodds as being what he called ‘old time’. I asked him about Pee Wee Russell. He said he always felt that he needed to help him out. "Who did he like?" I asked him. "Ed Hall" came the reply. As Bill quipped to the audience that night, ”We went around and around and around and we kept coming back to that old wall”. “It’s great to be here”, said Art. “At my age it’s great to be anywhere”.

Louis Lince had managed to get hold of a professional Sony Movie camera and filmed the session. A couple of the numbers from the concert are on my YouTube channel. Louie also sat in with the band on banjo for a couple of numbers.

Next day we played Harlow to a sell-out in the 400 plus seat main auditorium at the Playhouse. Jack Free was on this session. Louis again filmed the concert, but sadly twenty years on, the video tape was unplayable, and I only have an old Betamax copy. Dave Bailey recalls an amusing incident from the show.

Between two numbers. Bill mistook my clarinet stand for his and unknown to either of us jammed his trumpet onto it. The consequence being that Bill's first note on the next number failed to materialise, it took quite a few minutes to extract my clarinet mouthpiece cap from his trumpet, using a piece of bent wire from a clothes hanger, to the merriment of the audience, some of whom I swear thought it part of the act”

Wednesday 11th May found us at the 100 Club and another packed house. This was the last session Jack was able to play with the band.By this time, we were getting into a routine. ‘Lady Be Good’ was the usual opener. Then ‘Someday, You’ll Be Sorry’, ‘Squeeze Me’,’ Avalon’, ‘After Youv’e Gone’, ‘ Hindustan’ etc. Dave would be featured on ‘Rose Room’ with the rhythm section. A few piano features, usually a Hoagy tune, Art was fond of ‘Washboard Blues’ and ‘Snowball’. Other times he would play ‘Grandpa’s Spells’ or ‘Summertime’. Jan Hodes would join him at the piano and the two would duet on some boogie-woogie or a medley of ‘20s hits. Then the band came back on for the set closer.Two dates in Northern Ireland followed. We flew from Luton Airport to a welcome from the Apex Jazz Band as we arrived in Belfast.

This was captured by Ulster TV and the two Americans were very appreciative of the attention they were given. BBC Ulster Jazz Club presenter, Walter Love, interviewed Bill and Art and was responsible for the Belfast date. We had a Mercedes Bandwagon, driven by a super driver named Freddy. Mike Pointon was the trombonist for these two dates. Dave Bailey recalls, that Bill had remarked that both he and Mike were not correctly dressed as neither sported a tie.

Before the next concert Anne Davison hijacked two of Bill's ties for Mike and myself, as Bill looked at his tie that I was wearing, he just gave me a steely look, said nothing and tapped in the first number”.Later Bill was heard to say as we walked onto the stage 'I'm playing with a bunch criminals'.

Driving through the Ulster countryside, Bill spied a solitary cow in a field. “Hi Annie”, he cried, waving at the beast. “Wilhelm”! Was the cry from Mrs Davison. Whenever she was annoyed at Bill she would always address him in that manner. Come to think about I never heard her address him as Bill! Here’s another incident. En-route to Eastbourne, Jan Hodes commented to Art that it was Mother’s day soon. Anne picked up with, "You hear that Wilhelm, it’s Mother’s Day and you haven’t gotten me anything”. “You’re not my Godamm mother Anne”, he retorted. “Well I act like your mother”, she answered. “Well you certainly are a MOTHER”, stated Bill. To which his long suffering wife replied, ”Wilhelm”!

The Eastbourne gig at the town’s ‘Sovereign Centre’ promised all the possibilities of a disaster. We arrived at the venue. My contract specified a ‘first class piano, tuned to concert pitch’. They supplied a first class piano – but it was an electric instrument and Art had never played one before! He coped marvellously.

The Bounemouth date at the Pavilion Theatre was however, the financial disaster of the tour. We had taken a percentage deal and the venue advertised the show on the wrong date. We were joined on stage by an old friend, clarinettist John Wurr. George Buck of Jazzology records subsequently issued much of the concert (along with tracks recorded at Bridgend) on the CD ‘Coalition’ (Jazzology JCD221). Those that came enjoyed it and the band gave it’s all.

The Worthing Pavilion gig went exceptionally well and we were privileged to have top saxophonist, Danny Moss sit in with the band on ‘Limehouse Blues’.

Campbell Burnap played ‘Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You’ as a duet with Art. Campbell told the audience “Back in the time when footballers wore long shorts and I was upstairs playing 78s of jazz – some of them were Art Hodes – my mother shouted up the stairs “that’s never going to get you anywhere, all that stuff”, and here I am playing with him and it’s a great thrill”. The gig at the Concorde Club, Eastleigh was a particular joy as Nat Gonella sand a number with the band.

The final three days of the tour were going to be hard - travelling wise. The first at Oxford was the only time that tension between the two octogenarians reared its ugly head.Bill called ‘Hindustan’. Art played the introduction – perfectly. Bill fluffed the first note. He glared at Art. At the conclusion Bill picked up the microphone and said, “God dam piano player brought it in too god dam fast – he’s trying to kill me”.

We had arranged for Terry to drive Bill and Art with their ladies to a hotel on the Devon / Somerset border, as the next day we were due to play at Garras Jazz at Greenlawns Hotel, Falmouth. Art refused to go in the same car as Bill, choosing the slower bandwagon option. I went with Bill and Anne.

“I think Bill has upset Art”, I said to Anne. “You hear that Wilhelm, you’ve upset Art and he’s a sick old man”, she said. “Yeah! Sick in the god dam brain – besides which he’s a god dam communist!" cried Bill.

I was intrigued.Bill recalled with a degree of venom,” He booked me for a parade in 1941 and it was for the god dam Reds and I haven’t forgiven him for it”. Next day it was all forgotten. We had an added treat on the Falmouth date. The wonderful and much missed Maxine Daniels. Roy Stears from BBC Radio Cornwall had arranged for the show to be recorded for broadcast. A happy relationship between Maxine and the two Legends was established and the capacity crowd clearly had a great time.

The Falmouth & Penryn Leader said "It's doubtful whether the two veterans could have found a better group to work with than the John Petters Group". For me, this was a difficult gig. I had an attack of gall stones and felt quite ill during the show. We faced a 350 mile journey to the Albert Hall in Bolton the following day. Friday 19th May 1989: This glorious Victorian concert hall had great acoustics. The band played its heart out. Sadly the recording suffers from a buzz caused by the lighting, but I can say that Bill played superbly that evening.

As well as the ‘wild’ Bill, there was the ‘mild’ Bill - the man who could play tender ballads with passion and sensitivity – in total contrast to the public persona. At the end of the evening Terry and I reflected that it was unlikely that we could do this again. We had partaken in a piece of jazz history. It is possible that we had the very last recordings by Wild Bill. As he and Anne flew back to California, we were unaware that a few months hence on 14th November 1989, Wild Bill would go off to join Gabriel’s Jazz band in the sky.

Art wanted to come back to Britain following the ‘Legends’ tour, but kidney failure required dialysis treatment on a regular basis, which made his return impossible. Art passed away on 4th March 1993 aged 88.

Art gave me his business card on which he had written, “To John Petters, carrying the torch we lit”.

This was a great honour indeed. Looking back and listening to the recordings of the tour twenty years on, I am very lucky to have been a part of this small piece of jazz history. It gave me a direct experience of playing with two of the music’s most important personalities. It taught me a lot. Wild Bill played some great horn on that tour and even sang a few songs. This was not the Bill of the 1940s Commodore Sessions, but at 83 he still had that big, big sound and you knew it could only be him.

Art’s prowess at the keyboard was not diminished by age. Every note drenched in the blues. He sounded like a black blues pianist. He had soaked up Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in the ‘20s – he was there on the Chicago scene at the time. When Art played, you were hearing the truth. Sadly we have since lost Maxine Daniels and most recently, Campbell Burnap, whose playing on the tour was perfect. My thanks go to Mike Pointon, Jack Free, Dave Bailey, Trevor Whiting, Keith Donald, Jan Hodes, Terry Maton, Gwen Main and Louie Lince who all contributed their talents so generously all those years ago.

John Petters Productions
New House Farm
Hospital Drove
Long Sutton
PE12 9EN
United Kingdom

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