First Home of the Bearcats
The Lark’s Club played a brief but significant role in the Frisco jazz revival as first home to Bob Mielke’s Bearcats Jazz Band, 1954-56. Though a residency of perhaps less than two years it marked the Bearcats’ first success and put them at the center of the jazz revival in the East Bay for decades.
It was at the Lark’s Club where Bob Mielke’s Bearcats jelled into a highly unified ensemble with a unique style of its own. An excellent rhythm section of Dick Oxtot’s banjo, Pete Allen’s string bass, and drummer Don Marchant, kept the high-flying front line aloft.
The Bearcats’ front line became a skilled unit of expressive soloists: horn man P.T. Stanton, clarinetist Bunky Colman and Mielke’s trombone. Clever arranging on the fly by P.T. shaped the unique Bearcats sound, which was a sly fusion of New Orleans ensemble and the riffing of Kansas City swing. Their style was a fresh alternative to the Dixieland of Eddie Condon, East Coast cutting contests or the Traditional Jazz of Watters, Murphy and Scobey.
Saturday Night Function
Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, group vocal led by Oxtot
These vivid sounds and images are from the personal collection of Bob Mielke, they’re presented for the first time here and at the JAZZ RHYTHM website . All recordings and photos are the basic sextet at the Lark’s Club, except as noted.
Bill Nelson’s Lark’s Club
Lark’s Club was located on Sacramento Street in a Black neighborhood at the South end of Berkeley. About half the clientele was African American, the remainder mostly young white Dixieland and New Orleans music fans. Owner Bill Nelson was a former trombone player for Jimmie Lunceford and later ran a successful auto dealership in Oakland.
I’ve heard varying descriptions of the premises. It’s clear there was a bar along one side, with the band riser deep in back, situated such that the music did not disrupt the bar’s usual commerce. In an era otherwise fraught with racial tension in America, a pleasant entente prevailed.
Besides the Bearcats playing Thursday through Saturday, Oxtot booked in one of his “Polecats” ensembles. And other bands performed, such as Sanford Neubauer’s Bay City Jazz Band and Gene Maurice’s Gutbucket Five. The location briefly became a gathering place for traditional and revival jazz fans, and a vanguard for the music in the East Bay.
Thus, Lark’s Club was somewhat analogous to The Honeybucket in San Francisco. Both nightclubs were pioneers, first giving this music a try in around 1955. Their success demonstrated to musicians and club owners that an eager, viable audience would turn up, and not just on the weekends but several nights a week.
Ace in the Hole, Ellis Horne (clarinet), vocal Oxtot
Nobody’s Baby, vocal Barbara Dane, possibly Ellis Horne
Old Grey Bonnet, Horne, Don Fay (drums)
The Lark’s Club Bearcats
When they started the band was NOT “Mielkes Bearcats” but a collaboration between Oxtot, Stanton, Colman and Mielke, initially known as the Superior Stompers. When Bob landed this and other gigs they adopted his name and leadership.
Below is an introduction to the key musicians who made this band exceptional. Incidentally, piano was optional to the Bearcats in this era; at Lark’s Club there was rarely a pianist with the band.
Bob Mielke (b. 1926-) trombone, vocals
Bob Mielke and this band were part of a second wave of Bay Area musicians emulating early jazz sounds. They built their own fresh style steeped in the sounds of Harlem, Kansas City swing and New Orleans, providing an independent voice in the mid-century Revivalist movement.
Bob created his own exciting jazz trombone style fusing elements from Kid Ory’s New Orleans tailgate tradition, the Harlem swing of J.C. Higginbotham, and Ellington’s “Tricky Sam” Nanton. His trombone exemplar for playing New Orleans parts was George Brunis, heard in the 1939 records of Muggsy Spanier Ragtime Band.
Sweet Sue, vocal Bob Mielke
Basin Street Blues, Horne, vocal Oxtot
P.T. Stanton (1923-1987) cornet; humor and
P.T. Stanton’s sound was like no other: neither conventional nor straightforward. He rejected the clarion majesty of the horn in favor of a personal vocabulary of quavering growls, expressive cries and strangled tones; his characteristic sound was a tattered, wheezy ragamuffin. A born raconteur, his puckish demeanor was reflected in his eccentric vocalizing.
Stanton became musical director, while at the microphone Mielke was bandstand leader. P.T. was more concerned with the overall band sound than his personal moment in the limelight, preferring that clarinet and trombone do most of the soloing. He steered the band indirectly by emphasis, counterpoint or cadence, in a manner so subtle it was barely observable, his odd brilliance guiding the band invisibly.
A mute, plunger or hand was almost always stuffed in or near the bell of his instrument modifying the notes. Or he aimed into the tin derby hat he kept mounted on a stand nearby. But occasionally P.T. blew unmuted.
Blue and Sentimental
Darktown Strutter’s Ball , vocal P.T. Stanton
Bunky Colman (1932-1983) clarinet
When he joined in the early Fifties, Bunky Colman was a medical student. His style was a personal mix of New Orleans, Swing and Chicago clarinet influences.
Colman had first been recruited to play in K.O Eckland’s Social Polecats in the early 1950s. That carried over into Oxtot’s Polecats. He continued working in Dick’s bands during his Bearcats tenure, and he also worked with trumpeter Marty Marsala around this time.
His ongoing medical education meant he was often absent, though he remained a band favorite when available. He did succeed at becoming a physician, though he died relatively young at age 50.
Bunky composed the lovely “Blue Guaiac Blues.” Though I’ve not found a rendition of it in this collection, he sounds terrific on a contemporaneous 1955 recording session for the ill-fated Empirical album, at nearby Jenny Lind Hall.
Blue Guaiac Blues, Don Fay, Jenny Lind Hall Empirical session
Creole Song, Don Fay, Jenny Lind Hall Empirical session
Dick Oxtot (1918-2001) banjo and vocals; occasional
“Uncle Dick” Oxtot aka “The Silver Fox” was an appealing performer, a fine singer, and popular entertainer in many styles. He was a full-time music professional who ran his own bands in various formats, genres and venues.
Generally billed as Oxtot’s Polecats or Stompers, he often blew lead horn himself. His band roster was fluid, and frequently overlapped with the Bearcats; his 1959 Burp Hollow ensemble was identical, except that Bill Erickson played trumpet.
Gettysburg March, Oxtot second horn
Bearcats enthusiast Dave Greer notes that Dick occasionally picked up his cornet briefly joining P.T. in the introduction of a march before switching back to banjo. His unison doubling of Stanton’s horn line is clearly audible in the first two minutes of “Gettysburg March.”
Yet another of Oxtot’s many talents was composing originals that became band staples. The Lark’s Club tapes highlight his dynamic stage persona, whether singing ballads, blues or calypso.
My Lovin’ Imogene, composed and vocal by Oxtot
Motherless Child, Ellis Horne, vocal Oxtot
Sweet Papa Willie, vocal Oxtot
Pete Allen (1921-2008) string bass; occasional vocals
Pete Allen was one of the best, if not the best string bass player of the Frisco revival. He projected tremendous drive and volume, filling the room with a throbbing beat. Allen was associated with these musicians his entire adult life dating back to his high school days with P.T. He and Oxtot were an unmatched, hard driving, rock-solid timekeeping duo.
Don Marchant, drums (1921-20–?)
Known as “Wonderful Don,” Marchant had a steady and driving beat, but delicate touch that wasn’t “intrusive” and didn’t rush the way Oxtot and the others often perceived drummers. Said Barbara Dane, “Both Marchant and Fay were preferred because they DIDN’T rush!” And that’s why Oxtot liked him in the Bearcats, and in his Polecats/Stompers
Barbara Dane, singer (b. 1927-)
Though never officially a part of the Bearcats, Barbara Dane was a regular at the club and long associated with these musicians. Barbara explained to me that she’d been a Folk and Blues singer until Oxtot got her in front of a jazz band. “Now THIS is more like it,” she recalled.
Dane had an engaging intensity, and a volume sufficient to easily lead or blend with the ensemble. Joined with P.T.’s flair for backing blues vocals they made an incomparable Classic Blues duo.
Good Morning Blues, Ellis Horne, vocal Barbara Dane
Hold On, vocal Barbara Dane
Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho
For the next three decades Mielke, Oxtot, Stanton, Allen and associates were the central focus of revival jazz in the East Bay. In Part Two you’ll encounter more of Bob’s notable Lark’s Club photography, meet the band’s preferred substitute instrumentalists, and find further musical rarities.
Thanks for interviews, discussions and corroboration to: Barbara Dane, Dave Greer, Gene Maurice, Bob Mielke and Earl Scheelar. All photos are from Bob Mielke’s personal collection. Thanks to Hal Smith for assistance.
Continues in Part Two, next issue…