A Drummer Speaks: Bob Thompson’s Musical Memories

Jazz Appreciation Month

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Robert L. (“Bob”) Thompson, 81, is an honor member who joined Local 802 in 1950. A Dixieland drummer known for his group the Red Onion Jazz Band, Thompson managed to hold down a chair in the Psychology Department at Hunter College for many years and still sit in occasionally with some of the greatest jazz performers of the 20th century. 802’s Jazz Rep Todd Bryant Weeks interviewed Thompson at the Katerie Residence on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, on Feb. 28, where Thompson is recovering from a hip replacement.

Click for larger image.
Photo by Mika Macinnis.

I got my first real set of drums as compensation for my first broken heart. It was part of a Wurlitzer Music package that included lessons. My parents bought me the drums and we got 13 free lessons. I would go downtown to the 42nd Street store and take the lessons there. One of my drum classmates was Louis Bellson. I was 14 at the time. 

Prior to getting the drum set I had been playing on candy tins and things of that sort. And I had inherited an old beat-up snare drum from somebody. That came in handy. 

Two things that proved very valuable in my experience were the city-sponsored outdoor dances that were given in places like Riverside Park in the summer months. And from the time I was small I’d sit so that I could watch the drummer and see which foot was doing what.

The other place that we used to frequent when we got a little older was Palisades Amusement Park across the river in New Jersey. There were bands, and there was one group that was thought of as a kind of “Dixieland-ish” unit that played in the pavilion by the saltwater pool. (That was a big draw — a “genuine saltwater pool.”)

I liked Buddy Rich and Ray McKinley. McKinley especially. Even though he wasn’t the number-one drummer in the Down Beat polls, his whole style really drove a band with a kind of a boogie-woogie beat. And I somehow connected with that more than I did with the flash of Buddy Rich — who was a great drummer in his own right: simply awesome in his technique.

There were a bunch of cheap — what we used to call “hot pillow” — hotels, in the Times Square area, two or three of which had “second class” orchestras. I remember hearing Teddy Powell’s band in some little crummy hotel ballroom. Those memories are from when I was in the Navy, so I guess I must have been over 18. If you were underage but in uniform, they would waive the law and you could get a drink. 

My earliest memories of the musicians’ union were of a mobster-type guy coming around to the places we were playing and saying, “Are you guys dues-paying?” and “You ought to be dues-paying,” and “If you’re not dues-paying, it’s a bad omen,” (laughing) “he said, flashing his shoulder holster.” Maybe it was our imagination running wild.

One of the places where I used to jam informally that employed one musician as a leader was the Café Riviera—this was in the 1950’s. One guy who was a regular down at the Riviera was named Al Bandini. And he fancied himself a cornet player. And he would get by on simple things like “Honeysuckle Rose.” But he seemed to be a good interface, he knew how to handle the union “intimidators” very well and used to joke them out of the place. You know, run them out the door by calling attention to their presence from the bandstand and getting a laugh from the crowd. 

It was Bob Maltz who had organized a series of jam sessions at the Stuyvesant Casino on the Lower East Side that included many world class musicians that he paid well, and many amateurs like myself that he didn’t pay well, but that he encouraged to sit in. I think I was probably in my late teens when I started going, and then I also started sitting in at competing sessions run by Jack Crystal at the Central Plaza, which was also on Second Avenue.

I saw Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee [Russell], Baby Dodds, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Hot Lips Page, Red Allen, Sidney Bechet, Rex Stewart, Buster Bailey, Fletcher Henderson, Luis Russell, Cliff Jackson, John Kirby and Big Sid Catlett. They all played down there. Not all at once, of course. But every week there was someone great.

And it was $2 to get in! Some places would employ everything from a trio or a quartet to a single piano player.

I can remember going to the Café Bohemia to hear James P. Johnson with Rod Kless on clarinet: he was the clarinetist on many of the Muggsy Spanier Ragtime series of records. And George Brunis, the great trombonist who had played with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in Chicago in the 1920’s, would sometimes be there as well. I loved the classic New Orleans music and the Chicago-style jazz, and that’s what I wanted to hear.

Around that time and earlier, in the 1940’s, I learned about Nick’s in the Village and I used to go there quite frequently. And even as a kid I used to ask my father to take me there for dinner. It was on 10th Street and Seventh Avenue.

I heard Zutty Singleton a good deal at Jimmy Ryan’s. And George Wettling I heard a lot in the various Eddie Condon units. Eddie Condon had a club on Third Street during that period and I also attended a lot of the regular Saturday Town Hall jam sessions that were happening during the war years and after. They were broadcasts and I attended them as often as I could. It was a kind of concert setting, but more relaxed. I mean they didn’t sell popcorn, but it was pretty relaxed because it was during the daytime. It was always far from a full house, to my memory. Maybe one-third capacity. But rather than taking away from it, it made you feel kind of special — like you were in the know. 

It’s always fascinated me why that type of jazz wasn’t more popular, economically. I mean there were a lot of competing styles. But there were so many good players around New York in that style. People sort of took it for granted. 

There were Irish bars all over the city. There were a bunch on Columbus Avenue in the 80’s, and there was another cluster of them way out in the Far Rockaway area, out in Queens. And these Irish bars would have often an accordion player, a bass player, a drummer, maybe a horn. And they would play popular songs as well as “Did your Mother Come from Ireland?” and things like that. We often would make an effort to go to some of these bars and hear some of these players, because they were often jazz-tinged. Neighborhood guys got together and played popular music of the day. 

It was not uncommon to find music in your local neighborhood tavern. It was common, in fact. Another place that I remember from my neighborhood was Childs Restaurant at 103rd and Broadway. I used to go in there for Sunday dinner with my parents. And they had a band a couple of nights a week and that included a lot of the people that we’ve already mentioned. Art Hodes [the great Chicago pianist, originally from the Ukraine] was the leader the band, and he brought in people like Max Kaminsky and others of that ilk.

When Frederick Ramsey and Charles Edward Smith’s book “Jazzmen” came out [in 1939] that was the beginning of the canonization of many jazz performers, and I think a lot more attention was brought to local performers like Kaminsky when Bunk Johnson [the seminal New Orleans trumpeter who was rumored to have taught Louis Armstrong] came up to New York. He was playing around a lot in the mid to late 1940’s, and I have a very visceral memory of seeing him and Baby Dodds play together at the Stuyvesant Casino. 

His performance there was one of the things that put that place on the map. And I remember coming in there, and I still get emotional when I think about it even after all these years.

I can still hear Bunk Johnson, and Jim Robinson, and George Lewis with Baby Dodds on drums. The first time I walked in the place they were playing “Riverside Blues.” It was a revelation of the highest order.