More Than You Know: May 01

The Widder Bar in Zurich, Switzerland, featured jazz of the highest quality – no expense spared. It was a small room situated on the ground floor, the upstairs restaurant subsidised the six nights-a-week jazz sessions. Arnold Burri was the generous and modest proprietor. He started the Club in the 1960s, pianist Erroll Garner being the opening attraction. Groups, bands and solo artists from around the world were featured on a regular basis and my trio had the pleasure of working there for a week – accompanying Kenny Davern. We couldn’t figure out why the place was low on customers for the first three nights, but it soon became clear. The Casa Bar – where the Bob Wallis band held forth for many years – was just a few minutes walk away and not only was it free admission, drinks were half the price of the ‘Widder’. Arnold Burri hung in there for about 20 years until two things ran out – the money and, unfortunately, his wife. It was a great shame to see the Widder Bar shut up shop and a few years ago it was razed to the ground. It now stands as an office building.

Bix Beiderbecke composed four piano solos – “In A Mist” (1928), “Candlelights” (1930), “Flashes” and “In The Dark” (1931), harmonically way ahead of their time. Bunny Berigan did arrangements of all four for his big band which were issued on 78s – unfortunately “Flashes” was mistakenly printed as “Flashers” on the record label.

Bandleader Tommy Dorsey had problems with Berigan’s addiction to alcohol. During a band intermission a fan asked Bunny how he played so well when he was drunk. He swayed a little and replied “Because I’m always drunk when I rehearse”.

On a recent Radio 3 broadcast, a lady announced (in a voice that only BBC Radio 3 can throw up) “The next programme is dedicated to one of jazz’s great pioneers, Sidney Becket”.

I like the story about Django Rheinhardt who enjoyed a game of billiards. In fact he had an obsession with the game, so much so, that he missed playing at a Carnegie Hall concert with Duke Ellington while still “at the table”.

Bruce Gast is a friend of mine and past Treasurer of the New Jersey Jazz Society. A few years ago he attended the Sacramento Jazz Festival and took in a session by a band who were recreating the music of Joe “King” Oliver. The band was Professor Plum’s, and during the concert the bands’ cornetist, Phil Kirk, mentioned that Joe Oliver was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City. Bruce wanted to find out which cemetery in NYC and spoke with Phil after the concert. Oliver’s music had given so much enjoyment to Bruce, and it brought a lump to his throat and a tear to his eye to think that no headstone had been erected for such an influential jazzman.

He reported back to the NJJS who, after discovering the cemetery would not allow the installation of a headstone without family agreement, agreed to research the family ties. Joe Oliver’s descendants were aware of the situation but rather embarrassed that some organisation was about to provide a headstone for their ancestor. Joe had been separated from his wife, and it transpired that she had paid the transport and burial costs (Oliver died in Savannah, Georgia, and was brought to New York for burial) but had no money left for a separate grave or headstone. Consequently he was buried in the same grave as a young child who had died many years earlier.

This complicated matters for the NJJS as a headstone had been erected for the child and the cemetery would not allow two stones per grave. The family of the child were approached by the NJJS, and with a great deal of tact and diplomacy it was agreed that the first headstone would be removed to be replaced by a second, which would include both names. The word JAZZMAN was suggested by the family to appear on the small pillow stone. Bruce thought this was a little too vague, so it was agreed by all parties that JAZZ PIONEER was more appropriate to properly capture his role in the history of that music. No ceremony was conducted when the stone was placed on the grave. A photograph of Joe “King” Oliver’s grave – with headstone – can be found on the web site,

Neville Dickie May 2001