At the Lark’s Club 1954-56 Bob Mielke’s Bearcats Jazz Band became a popular and significant voice in the mid-century San Francisco jazz revival. Their unique blend of New Orleans style music and Kansas City-inspired riffing shaped an independent jazz style.
Bearcats Alternates and Substitutes
Playing two or more nights a week key musicians sometimes could not attend. A close coterie of friends and musical alternates substituted, especially for clarinet player and medical student, Bunky Colman.
In the band a piano player was only employed when a gig called for it, though rarely (possibly never) at Lark’s Club. When a Bearcats gig called for piano either Burt Bales or Bill Erickson was preferred. Bunky Colman’s substitutes included Bill Napier and often, Ellis Horne.
Bill Napier was a brilliant hot jazz musician and certainly one of the best clarinet players produced by the Frisco revival. Owlish and self contained, he played imaginative parts with a wide range of tone colors. His daring solo improvisations teetered on the precipice of disaster, yet never failed. He and Mielke were close lifelong friends dating back to the 1940s.
By contrast the introverted Ellis Horne developed his own thoughtful yet passionate approach to clarinet in the Johnny Dodds tradition. He played his parts with a full rich tone, provided stable support for the ensemble, and was always ready with a tasteful solo or chorus of the blues. Integral to the classic Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band of the 1940s, Ellis was a notable talent in San Francisco jazz for half a century.
Though Don Fay was a busier drummer than Marchant, he was a welcome substitute, longtime friend, and a good singer. He can often be heard loudly encouraging his fellows from the drum kit.
Trombonist Bill Bardin was the only known sub for Mielke at Lark’s Club. He was a key player for decades in the bands of Dick Oxtot, Frank Goulette, P.T. Stanton and Earl Scheelar. As a youngster he’d subbed for Turk Murphy in the wartime Watters band.
Bardin and drummer Don Fay fit right in on the KZSU transcription disc which contains the only extant Bearcat renditions of “Down by the Riverside” and “Coquette.” On the latter Don’s shouted coaxing is clearly audible.
Down by the Riverside
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You, vocal Oxtot
It’s unclear who subbed for P.T. Stanton. Finding a stand-in could not have been easy. Mielke employed various horn players in the 1950s. Bob thinks he might have hired Byron Berry at times. And Earl Scheelar recalls being urgently called to a gig once when P.T. was overcome by alcoholic indisposition.
Mielke did tap his good friend and excellent trumpet player, Bill Erickson, “once in a while.” And Bill played horn in the Oxtot Stompers version of the Bearcats heard at Burp Hollow a few years later.
East Bay Nightclubs
In the wake of success for joints like the Lark’s Club, or in San Francisco The Honeybucket and Tin Angel, nearly a dozen nightclubs or bars on each side of the Bay began presenting revival jazz several nights a week.
In Oakland there was Reno’s (where the Bearcats moved in September, 1956), Storyville, Charlie Tye’s, and briefly The Blind Pig. Pioneer Village had two East Bay venues where Bob Scobey or the Bearcats played: Lafayette, in the hills east of Oakland and San Leandro to the south. Later, in the early 1970s, Oxtot held forth at The Ordinary in downtown Oakland with a rolling jam session for years.
In Berkeley, Monkey Inn, LaVal’s Garden’s and Nod’s Taproom were popular for years. Bret Runkle’s self-published 1978 monograph further explores Bay Area Jazz Clubs of the Fifties. “Casuals,” that is parties, special events, and college fraternity or high school dances were another welcome source of income, often paying union rate, or even better than the so- called beer and peanuts joints. (See East Bay Jazz Clubs.)
Lark’s Club Transcriptions and Bob Orrfelt’s Tapes
Quite a few audiotapes and transcription discs of the Bearcats were made at Lark’s Club. Many performances were preserved through the efforts of Bearcats fan and audio engineer, Bob Orrfelt who brought a massive Ampex tape recorder to the club. Decades later he copied many reels to cassettes. Over the years enthusiasts dubbed and circulated the music. Not until 50 years later was a sampling of these remarkable performances issued (GHB BCD-66, 2002).
Several Orrfelt cassettes were recently rescued from dusty, forgotten, and almost discarded boxes in Bob’s garage. The musical trove presented here for the first time, is now preserved with other tapes and photos in the Mielke collection. Sadly, most of Orrfelt’s three-dozen tapes have disappeared over time.
Surveying about 100 recovered tracks from Lark’s Club yields multiple renditions of the band’s most popular specialties: “Saturday Night Function,” “Joshua,” “Sing On,” “Mecca Flat Blues,” “Moose March,” “Milenberg Joys,” “Pontchartrain,” “Tiger Rag,” “Corrine, Corrina” and “My Lovin’ Imogene,” written and sung by Oxtot. Dick loved popular music from the 1920s, songs about Lucky Lindberg, and he had a special talent for adding a knowing leer to collegiate varsity cheer.
Stylistically, this is not Traditional Jazz, but loose 4/4 swing. There’s almost nothing of the Watters-Murphy-Scobey sound. The nearest they get to Trad Jazz are the New Orleans marches, played by the full ensemble all the way through with scarcely a break or solo.
Moose March, Ellis Horne
That’s my Weakness Now, Oxtot leads group vocal
Yes, We Have no Bananas, Ellis Horne, vocal Oxtot
The Photography of Bob Mielke
Most folks are unaware that Mielke was an avid shutterbug. Earlier in life Bob had aspirations of becoming a professional or artistic photographer, specializing in stark, black and white scenes of gritty urban life. So he had expert knowledge, a good camera, and for a while his own dark room. In fact, Bob’s own jazz photos and those he collected from other photographers offer surprising visual documentation of the East Bay and greater Frisco revival jazz scene back to the late ‘40s at Hambone Kelly’s.
Mielke’s Lark’s Club images are strong and immediate, with an artistic flair. Some were done in low lighting and clearly intended to be evocative, a modern slice of life, or abstract. Two intriguing sets of photographs labeled “Nancy Tapscott,” dated 6.23.55 and 8.2.55, were shot or composed, and printed by Mielke. They can be paired with a similarly labeled 6.15.55 “Tapscott” transcription disc, allowing us to savor sounds directly associated with these striking images.
Bourbon Street Parade, Bill Napier (clarinet), Tapscott 6.15.55
Careless Love, Bill Napier (bass clarinet and clarinet), Tapscott 6.15.55 (tape damage)
The Bearcats foundered in the early 1960s due partly to economics and personal circumstances, though in response to public demand they reunited frequently. The musicians remained lifelong friends and associates. But as audiences and musicians matured they had families to support, developed other avocations, and gradually dispersed. The Larks Club was razed a few years later when that block was redeveloped for low-income housing.
Today these lively recordings, and Mielke’s evocative photo collection, portray a pivotal music venue. The sounds and images vividly recall halcyon days when young revival jazz enthusiasts of the East Bay flocked to Bill Nelson’s racially mixed Lark’s Club in Berkeley to hear Bob Mielke’s Bearcats Jazz Band blowing up a storm three nights a week.
Panama (tape damage)
All photos are from Bob Mielke’s personal collection. Thanks to Hal Smith for assistance. Bearcats 1955 Empirical master tape courtesy of Joe Spence.
- Bob Mielke: A Life of Jazz, Goggin, Trafford Publishing, 2008
- Jazz Scrapbook, Oxtot & Goggin, Creative Arts, 1999
- Jazz West 2, K.O. Eckland, Donna Ewald, 1995
- Bob Mielke’s Bearcats 1955, CD liner notes, GHB Records, BCD-66, 200
The Mielke and Oxtot sound and image collections are on loan to Dave Radlauer for preservation, research and publication. They’re destined for Stanford’s Braun Music Library archives where the SFTJF collection resides.