Red Nichols

Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols was an American jazz composer and cornetist. He lived from May 8, 1905 to June 28, 1965. Nichols recorded over his long career in many musical styles. Steve Leggett, a critic, describes him as an “expert cornet player”, a solid improviser and apparently a workaholic. He is believed to have been on more than 4,000 recordings in the 1920s alone. Nichols was born in Ogden (Utah) on May 8, 1905. His father was a college music professor and Nichols was a child prodigy. He was already playing difficult set pieces in his father’s brass group at the age of twelve. The early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and later the Bix Beiderbecke recordings were a big influence on young Nichols. His style was polished, sharp and precise. Nichols, who was born in the 1920s, moved to the Midwest with a group called The Syncopating Seven. After the band disbanded, he joined The Johnny Johnson Orchestra and moved to New York City with it in 1923. New York would be his home for many years. He met Miff Mole, a trombonist from New York, and they were together for the next ten years. Jazz was still relatively young at the time and had two distinct racial streams. Both races of musicians interacted, listened to one another, and played together in the after-hours jams. Nichols was a skilled musician, could read music and had easy access to studio and session work. Miff Mole and Nichols began a long and successful recording career with many bands. Most of these were known as Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. These groups were not quintets. The name of the group was a pun on Nickel, since there were only five pennies in a nickel. Nichols explained that it was just a number we linked in with my name. We’d usually have eight to nine musicians depending on the situation and what I was trying do. Nichols recorded more than 100 sides under the band name Brunswick. He recorded many other songs under a variety of names, including The Arkansas Travelers and The California Red Heads. Nichols’ bands would record 10-12 records per week for several weeks. His late 1920s recordings are considered the best in progressive jazz, both in concept and execution. They feature wide-ranging harmony and a balanced ensemble. They were Dixieland small-band groups that emphasized collective improvisation and playing. They were quite different from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives. Mole played trombone in Nichols’ band, with Jimmy Dorsey playing clarinet and alto sax. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller (trombone), Jack Teagarden(trombone), PeeWee Russell (clarinet), Joe Venuti (“violin”), Eddie Lang (banjo) and Gene Krupa (“drums”) were some other musicians who joined his bands over the next ten years. Surprise hit record: The Five Pennies’ version “Ida” by the Five Pennies. Other labels Nichols recorded for were Victor 1927 and Edison 1926. They also recorded for Bluebird 1934 and 1931. Swing dominated the next decade, overtaking the Dixieland Nichols’ love of playing. He tried to follow the changes and formed his own swing band, but his recording career seemed stalled in 1932. Michael Brooks writes about what went wrong. It was partly too much, and too quickly. Many of his extensive recordings were released in Europe where he was considered to be equal to, if not superior, to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. People who make a fool of themselves often find a scapegoat. When they were exposed to the music and lyrics of Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, they turned against Nichols, savagering him and calling him a traitor, just as they revered him. Although Nichols was criticized for his rigid, academic approach to jazz trumpet playing, he made wonderful recordings in small groups. Nichols survived the Great Depression’s first years by performing in show bands and pit orchestras. After leading Bob Hope’s orchestra for some time, he moved to California. Willa Stutsman was a “stunning George White Scandals” dancer and Nichols had already married Willa. They had a daughter. Their daughter was diagnosed with polio in 1942. It was misdiagnosed as spinal meningitis at first. In 1942 Nichols left a gig with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra to take up work in wartime shipyards. After completing an engagement at Lantz’s Merry-Go-Round in Dayton, Ohio, Nichols quit his band to accept an army commission. [3] Nichols was unable to stop listening to music and formed the Five Pennies Band, which began playing small clubs around Los Angeles shortly after the war ended. Soon, the word spread quickly and musicians started to show up at his gigs. The little club dates soon turned into more important bookings at Pasadena’s Sheraton, the Tudor Room at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel and the Zebra Room. As a goodwill ambassador, he toured Europe. Nichols and his band briefly performed as themselves in Quicksand (a 1950 crime movie starring Mickey Rooney). He was also the subject of Ralph Edwards’ This Is Your Life TV show in 1956. It featured his old friends Miff Mole and Phil Harris, as well as Jimmy Dorsey who praised Nichols for being a bandleader who ensured everyone got paid. In 1965, Nichols and his Five Pennies band traveled to Las Vegas to perform at the Mint Hotel. Only a few days had passed when he was waking up from paralyzing chest pains. Although he managed to call the front desk, an ambulance was not summoned. The band continued as planned that night, but a spotlight was pointed at the empty seat in Nichols’ usual spot at the center.

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