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Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band

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                                                                   *** Note: parts marked * were  Updated April 15, 2006 ***

The members of the Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band were students at the University of Nebraska, who had played for a time in 1921 at the Fontonelle Hotel, Omaha.

(It might be as well, at this early stage in the proceedings, to state once again that this group had NO connection with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, nor did Sidney Bechet ever record with them!)

Somehow they came to the attention of W.F. Mitchell, who ran not only Rector’s Club in Tottenham Court Road, London, but also the Hammersmith and Birmingham Palais de Danse. Thus Mitchell arranged for them to play at Rectors (and probably both the other venues), and they appear to have arrived in England sometime during the summer of 1921.

I have so far been unable to trace the ship on which they came here, and thus have no exact date for their arrival, nor can I yet confirm just who made the trip. Likewise enquiries at the Library Archive of Nebraska University have not (as yet) produced any information. However they are reported as playing opposite Benny Peyton’s Jazz Kings at the Birmingham Palais de Danse in September 1921 when that establishment re-opened, having closed for the summer period.  

Further investigation has still not turned up details of the band's first arrival, but it has been suggested that the band may have first played in France (there was a "Rector's Club" in Paris at the time) and then moved on to England. *

(It should be noted that both the Hammersmith and Birmingham establishments had a “two band” policy; presumably they would play alternate sets during the evening.)

Given that the photo of the Rag-A-Jazz Band bears the caption “Rectors, London” it seems likely this was their first engagement, probably in August 1921.

Those musicians who made the trip appear to have been as follows:- 

GRUBB, Gayle V - Piano          
PETERSON, Harold -
Soprano Sax.

FAIRCHILD, Donville -
REED, Bert -
CRESSELL, Edward -
A Harold Schmidt
* -

(NB. Some names have a different spelling from that in “Jazz Records”, and I have not listed the trumpet player Robert Leroy or the drummer Floyd Schultz. We will return to them later. The drummer Schmidt had been missed on the original article, due to being in the passenger list as "Dr Schmidt" *.) 

The Edison Bell company were also interested in the band’s activities, and the Rag-A-Jazz Band made recordings at three sessions, these being in September, October and November, 1921.(Jazz Records q.v.) The titles cut at the first session in September do not feature a trumpet player, but there is a trumpet player on the last session for Winner.  This is almost certainly Jack Block (also known as Jack Blake), an Englishman, who was playing opposite the Rag-A-Jazz band in Mitchell's Syncopated Orchestra. Block's son had a copy of the recording and confirmed his father's presence on it. *

The band must have finished working in this country about the end of November, as the Passenger List for the S.S. “Adriatic”, sailing from Southampton on 14th. December, 1921, included “Fairchild, Donville. Aged 21. Born Quincy, Illinois; 8th. December, 1900”.   

Billboard for November 26th, 1921 reported:-
The Original Southern Rag-A-Jazz Orchestra, whose members are University of Nebraska boys, are scheduled to tour Scotland, Holland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain after finishing a London engagement and may accept offers for appearances in Egypt and China before coming back to these shores. (Note "these shores" refer to the USA).*
Given that most of the band have been found to have returned to the States by early 1922, it seems unlikely that this ambitious tour took place, apart from the France engagement. Equally, appearances in Egypt and China seem most unlikely this early in the 1920s. *

As if to confirm the above, Billboard for July 8th, 1922 carried the following item:-
The Original Rag-A-Jazz Band, comprised of six university graduates, is back at its original home in Lincoln, Nebraska, after being abroad for more than six months, during which many notable engagements were played at leading hotels and for the nobility of London and Paris. The Personnel: Gayle Grubb, piano; Edward G Cressell, violin; Donville A Fairchild, banjo; A Harold Schmidt, drums; Harold Peterson, sax; Bert E. Reed, trombone. "The Dancing World", and English magazine, acclaims the organisation as the greatest heard in London. The college syncopators will probably go back to the other side in the fall.*

The S.S. “Paris”, sailing from Le Havre in France on January 7th, 1922 listed “Cressell, Edward. Aged 27. Born Buffalo, New York, September 7th. 1895.” and  
“Reed, Bert. Aged 26. Born Dixon, Illinois, June 25th. 1895”. Reed’s address in the USA was given as “c/o E. F. Reed, 28, 26th. Street, Kearney, Nebraska.”

Messrs. Grubb and Peterson do not appear to have returned to America; at least they are not shown on the Database of the Ellis Island Immigration Records. (As will be seen, they must have returned…if only to be able to come back again! There were other ports on the Eastern Seaboard of America they could have used, but Ellis Island has the only Archive material readily available for study.)     

The story should end at this point….. but on November 25th. 1922, the United States Line S. S. “President Polk” docked in the Port of London, having sailed from New York via Queenstown, Plymouth and Cherbourg (PRO Ref. BT26/722).

Amongst the passengers were:- 

Gayle V. Grubb                             Musician                     Age 26 (Piano)
Harold S. Peterson                      Musician                     Age 25 (Saxes)
Robert F. Leroy                            Musician                     Age 19 (Trumpet)
Floyd G. Schultz                          Musician                     Age 30  (Drums)
Leo J. Dougherty                         Musician                    Age 20 (Trombone?)
Edward G. Cressell                     Student (sic)              Age 28 (Violin)

(NB. I have added in brackets the instruments they are known (or believed) to have played.)

It may be the last name is NOT the same man as previously listed, but it seems fairly likely, given the ages quoted. All of them gave their address in the UK as “c/o American Club, 95, Piccadilly, London”.

Assuming they all came over here as members of a band….which band, and where did they play? And did they also make further recordings? It is still not known where the band played on the second visit and, indeed, they may not have played in England at all, but travelled straight to France after arriving in London. This argument is supported by the fact that they returned to America from Europe, not from England.*

So far I have been unable to find out anything about their activities, but on checking in “American Dance Band Discography” I noted a recording session for Edison Bell in March, 1923, which produced four titles, all issued as the Original Paramount Orchestra. The instrumentation given is Tpt/ Tbn/ Soprano Sax -Alto Sax/ ?Tenor Sax/ Bass Sax/ Vln/ Pno/ Drms. I have not heard these sides, and assume they are “straight” renditions of the four tunes involved. However, the instrumentation looks about right, assuming one or two of them “doubled” on other instruments. Given that the Rag-A-Jazz Band had no less than three sessions in as many months, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Edison Bell was prepared to consider members of that group again on their second visit to England.

It has been suggested in the past that these 1923 sides for Edison Bell could have been made by a band calling itself the Paramount Six, who were also American visitors and appeared at the Birmingham Palais de Danse in January, 1922. However at least one of the players known to have been with the Paramount Six had returned to America by February, 1923. One or two of the others may have returned even earlier, but I have yet to confirm this. Obviously this needs some further research.

There is also a mysterious Test Pressing bearing an Imperial matrix no. listed in Jazz Records, which is dated as November 7th. 1923, and supposedly labelled as by the Rag-A-Jazz Band. This recording may or may not involve some or all of them, but unless or until someone comes up with a copy the question will remain unanswered.  It is now thought that the Imperial test is actually by an English band. The "Rag-A-Jazz" name was also used for other bands playing at Rector's Club.*

The departure of the “President Polk”  group is no less shrouded in mystery than that of the Rag-A-Jazz Band. Of the six names listed above, I have so far only been able to trace the return to America of Messrs. Grubb and Peterson. They arrived in New York on 17th. August, 1923, on the S. S. “Lapland”, which sailed from Antwerp on 8th. August, and called in at Cherbourg and Southampton en route. These two may have embarked at any of these ports; I have not yet been able to examine the Passenger Lists at the Public Record Office. It is quite possible some of the rest of the band went on to work briefly in Europe; there is evidence that other  groups which came here did so.

Nothing is known of the subsequent life and careers of any of these musicians, apart from the following: 
Gayle Grubb appears to have worked as a radio announcer at KFAB radio in Lincoln, Nebraska in the mid-1920s and also played (and recorded) with Blue Steele and his Orchestra in 1929, but what he did in the intervening years and in the "post-Steele" period is unknown at present. 
Bert Reed seems to have given up the life of a musician fairly soon after his days with the Rag-A-Jazz Band, and went on to become a successful stockbroker in Lincoln, Nebraska. He died there in 1982, at the age of 87. 
Robert Leroy
did not return to America with the rest of the band, but is believe dot have worked in Europe for some years and is thought to have played on a very rare recording made in Vienna in October 1924 under the name of Paul Gason and his Orchestra.*

Obviously this is all very much “work in progress” and I would welcome any assistance anyone can give. In particular I should like to hear the four sides by the Original Paramount Orchestra, and also confirmation of the instrumentation for the Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band sides from the October and November 1921 sessions. 

To conclude, I must thank John Wright for his assistance. Through his excellent Website, John has been in touch with the family of Bert Reed, who supplied the photo with this article, and details of his subsequent career. Thanks also to Steve Walker for comment and advice. Passenger List information appears by permission of the Public Record Office.

Author:  Joe Moore


Storyville: Issue 105  “Saturday Night At The Palais -’21” (Edward S. Walker)
                 Issue 106  Letters Column.

Melody Maker
Public Record Office, Kew
American Family History Immigration Center.
Jazz Records, 1897-1942; Brian Rust. 4th. Edition (Arlington House, 1978)
American Dance Band Discography; Brian Rust. 1st. Edition (Arlington house, 1975)
Library; University of Nebraska.
Bill Kelly (by email) provided the information about Gayle Grubb's radio activities.
Billboard items supplied by Mark Miller (Canada) and Richard Johnson (England)
Nick Dellow (England) provided the Jack Block/Blake information.

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