North Beach Nightclub and
San Francisco Jazz Bar, 1956-66
“A seamy hole in the wall on Broadway — the booming entertainment strip of North Beach -this joint was near the bottom of the long list of jazz rooms flourishing in San Francisco around 1960.” — Clarinetist Bill Carter, 2014
For a decade in San Francisco’s North Beach the best of Frisco Jazz was served up at a crowded little table with a dubious cocktail, hosted by a shady operator. Between 1956-66, lively music played by the bands of Dick Oxtot, Bob Mielke, Frank Goulette and others drew jazz fans and aficionados, business men and tourists to this low dive. Discovery of audiotapes from the legendary nightclub illustrate the fun and creativity of Frisco Jazz. And they offer a comparison of the contrasting two-beat and four-beat styles within the revival movement.
A Colorful Venue and Low Dive
Hearing the name Burp Hollow today musicians cringe recalling the bad pay, rank booze and unsavory wheel chair-bound former mafioso owner, Millio Militti. The storied club is remembered ruefully for its weak drinks, ridiculous 4’ x 6’ dance floor and confusing “Bob Mielke Bearcats Dixie Jazz” sign on the wall regardless of who was playing. Management required musicians to wear matching vests or blazers, which they hated.
In a self-published monograph “Bay Area Jazz Clubs of the Fifties” (Berkeley, 1978), Bret Runkle rated “The Burp” three stars (only Lu Watters’ Hambone Kelly’s merited five.) He put it in the category of ‘beer-and-peanuts joints.’ Complimentary peanuts encouraged beverage consumption. Band pay was only a few bucks (or ‘peanuts’). And free beer for musicians was a significant component of the compensation.
Nonetheless noted Runkle, this club sold hard liquor; though the strength and quality of its drinks was generally suspect. Typically such joints were “pitched to college kids or singles in their early twenties” and usually had “sawdust on the floors and Greek letters on the walls.”
The lowest of dives, Burp Hollow had a singular appeal: the music. Yet, reports Runkle, it possessed a memorable slice-of-life zest:
“A gorgeous manikin sat at a barstool as a come-on for male tourists. A hard-bitten jazz hound once bought it a drink. (Very embarrassing!) The Burp could stretch one bottle of booze over about 200 drinks so it was smart to order beer. They hired the Bearcats, various Oxtot combinations and also Le Sharpton’s group. Almost everybody worked or sat in there in the next eight or ten years.”
Ex-post facto Battle of the Bands: Two-beat vs. Four beat
Burp Hollow might have passed quietly into San Francisco legend if not for discovery of audiotapes capturing lively performances by major talent of the Frisco jazz revival. By lucky happenstance, the music represents three contrasting band styles distributed along the ‘two beat’ vs. ‘four beat’ spectrum.
Calling this a battle of the bands is hype, of course. As a practical matter most of these musicians knew each other and played in both two- and four-beat modes. Yet there is truth to the notion of a Frisco vs. East Bay schism. In general, bands in San Francisco favored two beat rhythms with tuba and banjo, whereas the East Bay (i.e. Berkeley) preferred a four beat count with either string bass or tuba.
In recovered tapes Original Inferior Jazz Band offered rollicking tuba-and-banjo ‘two beat’ Traditional jazz. The contrasting Dick Oxtot ensembles played New Orleans revival and swinging combo jazz driven by Pete Allen’s incomparable ‘four beat’ string bass. Trombonist Bob Mielke, trumpeters Bill Erickson or Ted Butterman, and clarinet players Bill Napier or Bunky Colman played improvised hot jazz and blues. These contrasting ensembles were heard for years at Burp Hollow in varying configurations.
Original Inferior Jazz Band
After Lu Watters disbanded Yerba Buena Jazz Band in 1950 several two-beat ensembles developed to keep the Traditional Jazz sound alive in San Francisco: Great Pacific Jazz Band, Bay City Jazz Band (co-led by horn player Ev Farey) and Original Inferior Jazz Band. This ensemble grew out of sessions led by cornet player Frank Goulette at the Honeybucket in San Francisco during the mid-1950s that helped put in motion the second wave of Watters-style music in the Bay Area.
Loud, brash and salty, Original Inferior, and sibling Original Superior, played Burp Hollow between 1958-64. The band had excellent soloists, good ensemble spirit, powerful dynamics, and was well steeped in jazz sounds of the 1920s interpreted Watters-style. Their name seems to have been a self-effacing reference to the Original Superior Jazz Band, an early New Orleans ensemble, with possible secondary reference to a Bunk Johnson recording group of the 1940s.
The Superior Music of Inferior Jazz Band
The “Inferior” band roster of talented personnel varied considerably. Horn player Ev Farey supplied this particular tape. It’s from an occasion when he was substituting for leader Frank Goulette. And though this was not ordinarily a two-cornet band, Ernie Carson dropped in to join the session on second cornet.
Recorded on 9.2.62, band regulars present included John Boland (clarinet), Tony Lanphier (piano), and trombone player Bill Bardin. Bardin had that big bawdy Frisco tailgate sound comparable to Turk Murphy or Bob Mielke, both of whom he subbed for at one time or another. Bill, and Johnny Dodds-style clarinet player John Boland shine on a grand rendition of “Black and Blue.”
Black And Blue
You can hear why Bardin’s contemporaries held him in awe. And like Mielke, he was comfortable in both two-beat or four-beat style.
On “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” cornet player Ev Farey demonstrates his good taste and skillful leadership in both ensemble and solos, though the delicate break for piano and banjos is obscured by noise and weak pickup. Inferior Band had a “lighter” sound than most Traditional bands, which may be attributed to Ev Farey’s nimble cornet, no drums, and the swinging tuba of Ed Dickerman driving the rhythm section.
Struttin’ With Some Barbecue
The two banjo players were regulars: Ron Hanscom and the late jazz and ragtime collector Ed Sprankle, who was the original source of this tape. Other musicians with the band during this era included Earl Scheelar (clarinet), Fred Bjork (trombone), Bill Carroll (tuba) and Lee Valencia (banjo).
Trad Jazz Repertoire
The band repertoire contained many staples of the Trad Jazz idiom like “South.”
Farey wisely chose a relaxed approach to the lead, capturing something of the Southwestern trumpet style of Lamar Wright from the Benny Moten band out of K.C. before 1930. Many bands in the Watters style played “Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner,”
Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner
or “Do What Ory Say.”
Do What Ory Say
Ernie Carson joined the session on second-cornet. He’s been criticized for his seconding, but I find no grounds to fault his role on the incomplete “Cakewalkin’ Babies.”
“Come Back Sweet Papa”
Come Back Sweet Papa
is a nicely voiced tribute to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band of 1922, their spiritual and musical grandparent via Yerba Buena Jazz Band.
Though Burp Hollow was a medium sized club (according to Runkle), it had a tiny stage. This seven or eight piece lineup must have been a tight squeeze, and loud. Unfortunately these archaeological artifacts simply cannot transmit the big crescendos or sheer physical force generated by an ensemble of this size and commitment.
Original Inferior Jazz Band and related ensembles made no commercial records and no photos have yet surfaced. This article and forthcoming Frisco Jazz From Burp Hollow are first publication of their music.
Dick Oxtot’s Stompers (aka Polecats)
Dick Oxtot may have been the first bandleader to sign a contract with owner, Millio Milliti in late 1956. The standard union terms called for a band of five musicians, four nights a week, 9:00 pm to 1:00 am, though in practice it was probably less when business was slow.
The names and makeup of Oxtot’s ensembles tended to be flexible. The bands presented here are in two formats: a quartet, “Stompers Four,” and sextet, “Stompers Six.” But they sometimes used Dick’s perennial “Polecats” moniker as well.
Oxtot Stompers Four, c. 1958
This sweet four-piece combo features Ted Butterman (trumpet) and Bunky Colman (clarinet). A bright young talent, Bunky was first-chair clarinet in Bob Mielke’s Bearcats Jazz Band, and a follower of the George Lewis New Orleans clarinet style. Not long after these sessions he left professional music to become a physician but returned often as a guest. Dick Oxtot and Pete Allen were a killer two-man rhythm section that could swing any ensemble without need of drums or piano.
Briefly on the Frisco jazz scene, Ted Butterman was a fluid cornet player, brilliant improviser, and a close friend of the Mielke-Oxtot gang. He soon moved back to Chicago, enjoying a long career in music, including more than three decades as leader of the Chicago Cubs Dixieland Band and other groups.
One of the most difficult tunes in classic jazz, “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down”
Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down
was introduced to the literature by Bix Beiderbeke and his Gang in 1927. There’s a complicated half-speed-every-other-bar-line section, that concludes with a devilishly tricky upward triplet-like figure (at 2:47). Ted and Bunky toss it off with insouciance. Colman, and especially Butterman were unsurpassed at ‘trading fours,’ swapping
musical phrases every four bars. Captured like lightning in a bottle their spectacular variations developed an uncanny clairvoyant flow ‘trading fours:’ ‘twos’ and even ‘ones’ until the cows came home or the tape ran out. Adding trombonist Bob Mielke “Oh! Baby” took the conversation to the next level of wonderful.
Oxtot Stompers Six, c. 1959
This group was very close in makeup to the Bearcats but had a flavor all its own. Simply calling it the Bearcats under Oxtot’s leadership would be incorrect, despite the club owner’s intentional misuse of Mielke’s name. Similar personnel worked together in various combinations under several band names. The lineup was Bill Erickson (trumpet), Bill Napier (clarinet) with trombone player Bob Mielke playing a supporting role. Oxtot and Peter Allen supply the classic Bearcat rhythm. Drummer on this gig, Max Leavitt, wasn’t part of the East Bay crowd, but he soon became associated with Erickson at Pier 23, the premier spot for jam sessions on the Frisco waterfront. Arrangements were simple: basically a series of solos with some riffing and New Orleans ensemble ride-out choruses. Oxtot was a fine singer and popular personality; it’s a pity the vocals were off-mic, like “L-O-U-I-S-I-A-N-I-A.”
This loosely structured band was, in a sense, co-led musically by Erickson and his horn lead. Napier got the most solo time.
Bill Napier and Bill Erickson
If there’s a star in this ensemble it’s clarinet player Bill Napier. He gets a clear shot at generous solos on almost every tune: eloquent statements in a wide range of rich tones. Napier’s daring offerings are surprisingly delicate, his risky improvisations teeter on the precipice of disaster yet never fail “Love Nest,”
In the 1950s, Bill Erickson developed a clear personal voice on trumpet. The rousing “Bugle Boy March”
Bugle Boy March
illustrates his clean technique, declarative execution and surprisingly difficult to categorize style. Neither selfish nor shy, Bill didn’t show off, paired up for riffs behind soloists, liked to ‘trade fours,’ supported the ensemble, and offered clear direction:
“Back in Your Own Back Yard,”
Back In Your Own Backyard
“Buddy Bolden’s Blues,”
Buddy Bolden’s Blues
“Darktown Strutters’ Ball.”
Darktown Strutters’ Ball
Only a tiny sliver of Erickson’s vast talents are revealed here. He was a raconteur and musical genius better known on piano: leading combos and jam sessions on both sides of the Bay, or as needed in the Bearcats. His arranging and directing skills brought a sparkle to any ensemble. For years he ran the popular jam sessions at Pier 23. An accomplished raconteur, his Berkeley Jazz house was a legendary site for epic music parties and jams.
The Burp was only one of Oxtot’s numerous Frisco venues. ‘Uncle Dick’ was heard all over town: hosting, guesting, gigging; anywhere the Bearcats deployed; and running Sunday afternoon sessions over at The Bagatelle. Or ‘The Silver Fox’ could be found sitting-in at Pier 23 within walking distance.
A Flourishing Jazz Ecosystem
Burp Hollow’s owner-operator Millio Militti was a piece of work: most of the jazz crowd regarded him with dislike, perhaps even contempt. Yet in retrospect and the fullness of time they came to feel grateful for his patronage.
The Sicilian-American was a boxer out of Oklahoma who had been a contender for the welterweight title in the 1930s. Believed to be a former member of the mafia, his paralysis was the result of being shot. He ran the joint and tended bar from a wheelchair. Rumor was that tucked under the blanket always on his lap he kept a firearm.
During 1956-66, a second wave of jazz revival musicians in and around San Francisco was intensively engaged in reviving, performing and reinventing America’s most original art form. Bands, players and audiences flourished in a rich ecosystem supplied by joints like The Burp.
North Beach Babylon
These tapes are relics of an era when a broad spectrum of jazz: modern, mainstream, vocal, dixieland, or traditional could be heard every night of the week at any of a dozen or more famed clubs in North Beach. Not far from the intersection of Broadway and Columbus were: Club Hangover, Earthquake McGoon’s, El Matador, Jazz Workshop and just across the street was the Sugar Hill blues and folk club owned by Barbara Dane.
By about 1960 the Broadway strip of North Beach and nearby neighborhoods were a draw for nightlife, jazz, unique personalities, comedy and culture:
- Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were injecting social commentary into their cutting edge comedy.
- Headline names in modern and mainstream jazz performed: John Coltrane, Modern Jazz Quartet, Woody Herman, Vince Guaraldi, George Shearing, Lambert Hendricks and Ross or Miles Davis. They appeared at clubs with national standing: Basin Street West, Mocambo, El Cid, Jazz Workshop , Purple Onion and Hungry I .
- The female impersonators at Finocchio’s were a vanguard of gay culture.
- Poets, writers, bohemians, Beats and nascent Hippies gathered to hear poetry readings or folk music at City Lights Books or Vesuvio Café .
- To this day, North Beach remains a focal point of traditional Italian-American food and culture.
But at the full flowering of North Beach Babylon in the late-1960s and 1970s, Frisco’s homegrown jazz culture and venues were crowded out, pushed aside by brand name clubs: strip joints and Topless, comedy clubs, tourist traps and eventually Rock music. Revival jazz became a marginalized species thriving only in classy but elite tourist attractions like Earthquake McGoon’s Club, the big hotels, or jazz festivals and small gigs.
Frisco jazz might have disappeared altogether except for formation of local jazz societies to sustain a habitat, like the pioneering New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California. The majority of these musicians continued playing the music they loved for decades and forgot about The Burp and its ilk. Most are gone now.
Fortunately, thanks to a handful of surviving audiotapes, we can revisit a pure slice of old North Beach. Hosted by a shady operator, the best of Frisco Jazz was served up with a dubious cocktail at a crowded little gingham-topped table, presided over by a comely manikin at the infamous Burp Hollow.
Thanks to the following for interviews, audio, photos or assistance: Ted Butterman, Bill Carter, Ev Farey, Earl Scheelar, Hal Smith and the collections of Dick Oxtot and Bob Mielke.
Runkle, Bret, “Bay Area Jazz Clubs of the Fifties” self-published, 1978
Radlauer, Dave, “Remembering Bill Erickson, “Willie the Master 1929-67,” Frisco Cricket, Spring 2014