ALBERT BRUNIES & THE HALFWAY HOUSE ORCHESTRA

by Ate van Delden

 

Introduction

 In the Spring of 2003 I received a telephone call from the US by a person who introduced himself as Keith Brunies, grandson of Henry Brunies. Henry was a member of the famous Brunies jazz family of the early days of jazz in New Orleans. Keith told me that he had started researching his family history and asked me if I had any other recordings of his grandfather Henry and his brother Merritt. Obviously he had already done a lot of fact-finding, including spending days at the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Luckily I passed his examination and this started a long series of telephone and email conversations. Keith turned out be a very friendly and hospitable person and soon he invited me to come over and meet him and his wife Becky who live in New Orleans. I was happy to accept.

   Keith had been living with his grandmother, Henry’s wife Georgia, since the age of 11 for nearly thirty years and it was she who kept pushing him to collect and record his family story in the form of paper documents, records, musical instruments, et cetera. On July 27, 2002 she passed away from complications of colon cancer. This really devastated Keith and the Brunies family.  With the passing of his grandmother, Keith knew that he not only lost a loved one very close to him but also someone that knew the Brunies family’s musical career and how they lived from day to day. Grandmother Georgia always wanted Keith to do something with the family’s history and now he actually decided to do what she asked. He still remembers the many stories that she told him while sitting in comfortable chairs in her living room. Keith hopes to eventually publish a book about the Brunies family’s musical history and their lifestyle. For this article I have his permission to give an idea of what is coming from Keith Brunies himself.

   From 1967 till 2002 Keith’ grandmother had lived in the house which was the current Brunies home in New Orleans until hurricane Katrina changed a lot. I spent there one week in November 2003, a week dedicated to New Orleans’ jazz history. Before I went I collected as much material as I could find on all of the Brunies brothers; articles, photos and recordings, in order not to arrive with empty hands. But this was nothing compared to what Keith turned out to have in his collection. Like those scrapbooks! Scrapbooks are always a great source of information for research. Are they still available for the Brunies brothers? In a way, yes! Both Abbie and Merritt made scrapbooks but their present whereabouts are unknown. Luckily Bill Russell, probably during the 1960s, copied page after page in his particular handwriting, even making sketches of some of the photographs. He also had a few pages photographed. Keith has a Xerox copy of Bill Russell’s complete handiwork, which is the source of much what follows.

The first Brunies settles in the USA.

   Keith Brunies is fifth generation American. His great-great-grandfather was Richard Brunies. He was born in 1832 in Switzerland and he travelled by boat from Bremerhaven, Germany directly to New Orleans in 1858, 26 years old. He came without a family, his luggage being little more than a little old fiddle. Two years later he married Sophie Weser, who was from Germany and who had come to the USA with her mother and sister in 1854 when she was sixteen.

    Richard and Sophie had several children. One of these was Henry Richard Brunies, father of the well-known Brunies jazz musicians and Keith’ great-grandfather. When Henry Richard Brunies married around the late 1870’s, it was with another immigrant from Germany, Elizabeth Lotz. Henry Richard Brunies and his wife Elizabeth had seven children, six boys and one girl. They all played music:

 Son Rudolph “Rudy” (1886-1957) played bass

Daughter Data (born ca. 1887, deceased) played guitar

Son Richard “Iron Lip” (1889-1960) played trumpet

Son Henry “Henny” (1891-1932) played trombone

Son Merritt J. (1895-1973) played trumpet

Son Albert P. “Abbie” (1900-1978) played trumpet

Son George (1902-1974) alto horn[1], switched to trombone later.

   The family lived in an active area of the town. It was a prosperous neighbourhood, known as the Irish Channel. Today this is still a nice area. St. Charles Avenue, the main road through this district, runs parallel to the Mississippi and ends at Canal Street. On the other side of Canal Street, there’s the French Quarter. One block up Canal is where Bourbon Street begins. Driving through St. Charles, you will see fine mansions on both sides. Some of them are nearly two hundred years old, but most are well kept. Today they sell for two to four million dollars. The Brunies kids grew up in the Irish Channel near the Garden District, where they had their little fights in the neighbourhood. The family lived at several addresses here, depending on the size of the family. One address was on Tchoupitoulas Avenue, another on Jackson Avenue and yet another on Rousseau Street, where George was born.

   Both parents and Brunies children worked hard for their family income and ran two businesses at the same time. From around 1888 till about 1900 they had a confectionery on the ground floor of their two-storey house and, in good German tradition, a beer brewery on the first floor.[2]

   Both parents were musical people and, with all their business going on, there would still be time to make music in the front parlour of their home in the Irish Channel. Mother played mighty fine piano and father had the fiddle which was brought over from Germany by his father, Richard Brunies, Keith’s great-great grandfather. All the kids would play and practice with their parents in the front parlour, which also was the front room of the confectionery. The windows would be opened up and people would come around to hear the Brunies family play. Rudy and Data would never play outside the family band, but the other five would rise to prominence in the very beginnings of jazz in New Orleans. They quickly found employment in the emerging New Orleans music scene.

   The Brunies kids’ father, Henry Richard Brunies, would take the boys on the weekend down to the French Market in downtown New Orleans and he would have the boys strike up quite a few tunes for the butchers, the vendors and the farmers trying to sell their produce at the market.  The father would have them wear celery on the lapels of their little coats to entice the listeners to tip the boys.  At this time the father was starting the let the boys go off with a good friend of the family’s, “Papa” Jack Laine, who would be the boys’ mentor for many years.  In fact that is how the name “Papa” got started with “Papa” Jack Laine.  He took all of the Brunies boys under his wing as if they were his own kids. He took a close liking to Henry, George, Merritt and Abbie and in fact he loved them dearly.

   “Papa” Jack Laine was born in 1873. In 1939, 66 years old, he had an interview with a New Orleans newspaper[3]. Laine recounted how he started playing drums in 1885 at the age of twelve. Ten years later he had, what he called, a little string band, consisting of violin, guitar, bass, clarinet, trombone, saxophone and drums. Out of this grew several bands which he managed. He would have a “kids’ band” with youngsters from 8 to 22, and one or more other bands with more experienced members from 22 up. Melvin Brunies, Richie Brunies’ son, recounted many times how Papa Jack Laine would get little Richie Brunies to get one kid band start marching.  Once that band got started, Richie would get another kids band started.  This seemed to work extremely well for Papa Jack Laine’s marching jazz bands.  He knew that the Brunies boys really had something and eventually five of the Brunies brothers played with him, the four younger ones with the kids’ band. Merritt and Abbie played cornet, Henry played baritone horn and trombone and young George played alto horn. One day in a park in Biloxi, Mississippi, the kids band competed with a Marine band. The marines played Any Rags, Any Bones, Any Bottles Today? Laine remembered: “when that big uniformed brass band finished … my kids broke out like a four-alarm fire with Kentucky Days. They really went to town. They ragged and jazzed it and when they wound up, those marines lifted their hats to those youngsters…” According to Laine, others in that band were Emile Christian, cornet, Jules Cassard, trombone, Alcide “Yellow” Nunez and Frank Christian, clarinet, Tony Cachina, tuba, Joe Stevens (Ragbaby’s son), bass and drums and Alfred Laine (Jack’s son), snare drums. Trumpeter Ray Lopez and trombone player Emile Christian also belonged to this circle; Lopez later said that his musical friends in New Orleans included Emile Christian and Henry Brunies[4]. Christian and Henry Brunies were close childhood friends too. At one time they recorded two songs together on a cylinder.  No one to this day knows where those two cylinders are.  They would be worth a fortune today.

   Another of Papa Jack Laine’s bands would have more experienced members, from 22 up. These bands would be six or seven pieces. One band was his Ragtime Band, another, his Reliance Band with members Achille Baquet and Dave Perkins, who both passed for white. Perkins was one of few who could read music. By 1912 Laine had had offers from Chicago and New York, but he could not go on account of local engagements which tied him down.

   The Brunies boys’ first band of their own was called the Brunies Family Jazz Band.  Henry and Merritt later started a band that wound up being called the New Orleans Jazzin’ Babies. They got this name one day when they were practicing the marching tunes for Papa Jack Laine’s band at home in their front room. They were playing soft and easy until their father went to the backroom to get himself a drink, which would help him to play the violin better. Keith recalls the way his grandmother told it: While their father was gone, the boys, Merritt, Abbie, George and Henry kicked it up a few notches. “they really socked it good”. When their father returned he was shocked, set his violin down and told the boys “Get the hell out of here, you, jazzin’ babies”. The name stuck. When around 1918 and 1919 Henry started his first band together with younger brother Merritt, they agreed to call it, the “New Orleans Jazzin’ Babies”.

 

 Four New Orleans Jazz Babies at Halfway House, ca. 1920. L-R: Emmett “ Buck” Rogers, Abbie Brunies, Mickey Marcour and Stalebread Lacoume.

  When they grew older the boys became aware that New Orleans was making music outside their own district. The French Quarter and the area just north of it, called Storyville, got their attention. Storyville jobs were mainly for black musicians but white musicians came to listen and watch. Around 1914 the older Brunies boys in particular became visitors to John Peg’s Anstedt’s Saloon, on the corner of Franklin Street and Bienville Street. It was back to back with Lulu White’s saloon. Other young white musicians who hung around there were cornetists Johnny Bayersdorffer (1899-1969) and John DeDroit (1892-1986), trombonists Tom Brown (1888-1958), Ellis Stratakos (1904-1961) and clarinet player Nunzio Scaglione (c. 1890-1935).[5]

   The present article concentrates on Abbie Brunies and his Halfway House Orchestra. An article on his older brothers Henry and Merritt will be used as liner notes for a forthcoming Jazz Oracle cd. All of this, plus some short notes on Richie, the eldest, and George, the youngest of the brothers is published in Dutch in Doctor Jazz Magazine.

Abbie Brunies

  Abbie was nine years younger than Henry and five years younger than Merritt, but he had gained experience playing with his brothers. When they got jobs around New Orleans Abbie also found work there. He even had an opportunity to go north. Around 1920 New Orleans drummer Mike “Ragbaby” Stevens had a job in Chicago at the Camel Gardens. He already had a trombone player and a clarinet player from New Orleans[6] and tried to complete his front line by hiring 20 year old Abbie Brunies. But Abbie preferred to stay in New Orleans and passed the invitation on to Paul Mares[7]. There was enough work at the lakefront, and so he worked in the Bucktown Tavern in Bucktown, in West End and probably also at Milneberg. A photograph taken about 1920 in West End shows him playing in a street trio with clarinetist Charlie Cordella7a and guitar player Emile “Stalebread” Lacoume. Another photograph, taken at about the same time shows a four-piece group with drummer Emmett “Buck” Rogers, piano player Mickey Marcour and again Lacoume[8]. The latter group was called the New Orleans Jazz Babies, a name that had been used before by the group that included Abbie’s brothers Merritt and Henry. Abbie capitalized on the name when Merritt and Henry left New Orleans.  It left the name New Orleans Jazz Babies open for their younger brother Abbie.

   The photo of Abbie Brunies’ New Orleans Jazz Babies was taken at the Halfway House and it may have been the first group that Abbie had there. Abbie would stay for many years at the Halfway House and the combination was to become famous among collectors of early jazz.

The Halfway House

  The Halfway House was a kind of roadhouse[9]. It was conveniently located halfway between the City of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, along the New Basin Canal, at Pontchartrain Boulevard and City Park Avenue. It opened around 1915 and was run by the brothers Chris, Gus and Oscar Rabinsteiner. Chris was the club’s manager, Gus stood behind the bar and Oscar handled the car service at night (selling sandwiches, ice, etc. and giving spots to park)[10]. Some people even called the club “Chris’s” in stead of “Halfway House”. When Chris and Oscar would have an argument and Oscar would lose, the latter would throw whatever he had at hand into the New Basin Canal and quit. The canal’s bottom must have been paved with souvenirs. There was hardly a dull moment at the Halfway House and sometimes the band members even had to double as bouncers.

   Sunday always was a busy day at Halfway House. By the end of the afternoon, on their return from the resorts at Lake Pontchartrain, like Bucktown, West End and Milneberg the young people would drop in to have a drink or have a dance because the Halfway House always featured good hot dance music. With the Depression, business at the club decreased and it closed as a dance hall around 1930. But it remained a popular spot as an ice cream parlour.

   The property where Halfway House was built was owned at the time by the Archdiocesan Cemeteries. Maybe this institution also owned the large cemetery across the street where Leon Roppolo is buried. Halfway House can be seen from his grave, a strange coincidence.

Abbie leaning against the Halfway House

   After World War Two the Halfway House no longer had an entertainment function. For a long period, from 1952 till 1995, it was used by the Orkin Exterminating Company, who specialise in anti-pest and anti-termite treatments. In 1995 they abandoned the building after it was damaged by fire. Since then it has not been in use. It is badly in need of repair but, despite the ravages of time and fire, the Halfway House still stands. Its official address is 102 City Park Avenue. The New Basin Canal has been filled in and became the I-10 main road, which is also called Pontchartrain Expressway and which has an overpass over City Park Avenue, right at Halfway House.

   New Orleans has only a few places left of the historic sites that made jazz history. It is pure luck that the Halfway House is one of these, and it is my honest opinion that it should be made into a historic landmark and be restored to its original function. Here is some good news at last. Keith Brunies has recently heard that some New Orleans citizens and jazz lovers have decided to keep the Halfway House and to bring it back to its original state. It would make a great tourist attraction.

 Abbie at the Halfway House

  Abbie Brunies’ scrapbook contains numerous references to his work at the Halfway House. The earliest is an advertisement dated September 9, 1922 and it suggests earlier appearances. It reads:

O Boy – what a joy. Look who is back

Abbie Brunies” and his Original Halfway House Orchestra.

Appearing nightly at Chris’ Halfway House

 

  The band also served as accompaniment to other artists. The same advertisement lists comedian Billy Miller the “Nut”, who was bringing the latest popular songs, Morris & Quinn, a dancing duo that featured “Valencia,11 novelty waltzing and fast tap dancing”, and finally Glynn Lea Long, “the singing pianist”. Long would be associated with Abbie for several years.

On record

   In March 1924 the OKeh company made its first field trip down to New Orleans. It recorded the bands of Johnny Bayersdorffer, Johnny DeDroit and Fate Marable, as well as some singers. The next year, in January 1925 OKeh came back and again recorded a mix of black and white artists. Among the white groups was the Halfway House Orchestra. On Thursday, January 22, 1925, Abbie’s band recorded Pussy Cat Rag and Barataria. Pussy Cat Rag was a composition of Abbie Brunies together with two of his band members, reed player Charlie Cordella[11] and pianist Mickie Marcour. It features Leon Roppolo in a fine solo on alto saxophone. On Barataria, by the band’s banjoist Bill Eastwood and drummer Leo Adde, Roppolo solos on clarinet. Okeh’s publicity blurb said:

There’s no need to talk about the Halfway House Orchestra. Their music speaks for itself, for it’s a shoulder shaking rhythm that only Half-Way House Orchestra can play. Watch your feet misbehave when the carefree strains of “Pussy Cat Rag” and “Barataria” are in the air. You can get both of them on one Okeh record right now. The combination number is 40318.

A 1940s review of this record says: “though the Half-Way House Orchestra lacked the distinguished personnel of the Friars Inn group they played on this occasion with even more swing[12]. Abbie’s name was not mentioned on the record label. The personnel of these recordings is shown in two photographs that were made at this time.[13]  

  During this second trip OKeh recorded none of the bands that had been waxed during the first visit. After the Halfway House Orchestra, during the rest of that week, it recorded the bands of Norman Brownlee, Oscar Celestin, Russ Papalia, Anthony Parenti and John Tobin. Also recorded were the Scranton-Sirens Orchestra, a touring band from Pennsylvania, as well as a group called the Original New Orleans Rhythm Kings, which was essentially Abbie Brunies’ Halfway House Orchestra, but with Chink Martin added on brass bass and NORK-alumni Paul Mares, trumpet, and Santo Pecora, trombone, in stead of Brunies and Joe Loyacano.

   Two months later, the Victor company was in town. Like OKeh it recorded both black and white bands as well singers. Their trip produced the historic first recordings by the Boswell Sisters (their next would be five years later), and the final sides by Armand Piron and the NORK. Also Tony Parenti’s band was picked again, but not Abbie Brunies Halfway House Orchestra. However Abbie was asked to sit in with Parenti’s band for the Victors, sitting next to regular trumpeter Henry Knecht.

   However, Abbie’s own band did have its second recording session that same year, 1925, this time for Columbia. Its recording director Frank Walker described how he discovered the band: “There was one time I was driving out in the country and stopped at a place, a shed-like affair with a place to park your car, called the Half-way House. I dropped in for a cold drink or something to eat. The band that played there had five musicians and I don’t believe that one of them could read a note of music. Well, I sat there and listened and listened and listened. They didn’t seem to know much of anything, but I finally asked them to play a favourite of mine, a waltz called “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”. They knew that one all right. They knew it just well enough to tear it apart. A few weeks later I recorded that band playing Let Me Call You Sweetheart, and, believe me, it wasn’t in three quarter time either! This was the band that became the nucleus of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.[14]

Abbie Brunies’ Halfway House Orchestra with l-r: Charlie Cordella, Mickey Marcour, Leon Roppolo, Abbie, Bill Eastwood, Joe Loyacano and Leo Adde. A different version of this photo was first published in 1939, where Roppolo’s socks hade made black, which better suited his tuxedo.

   Walker was wrong about the NORK and probably about the band’s reading quality too.

   When Columbia came to record the Halfway House Orchestra, it first waxed the bands of Tony Parenti and the New Orleans Owls. In fact the session with the New Orleans Owls ended in technical problems which had been solved by the time when Abbie Brunies and his men showed up the next day, on Friday September 25, 1925. In addition to Let Me Call You Sweetheart the band recorded Squeeze Me, Maple Leaf Rag and New Orleans Shuffle, none of them by members of the band and probably suggested by Walker. Let Me Call You Sweetheart had been a waltz hit in 1911 and made a comeback some ten years later, again as a waltz. The band clearly preferred a hot version.[15]

   The first Columbia issued was 476-D, coupling Sweetheart and Maple Leaf Rag, the older titles of the four recorded. The record came out as by “The Halfway House Orchestra (direction of Albert Brunies)”. Columbia’s marketing had this to say about it: New Orleans is famous for its hot, snappy dance music, and this orchestra shows how it is done with two old time numbers that have everything that modern dancers demand.

From now on Abbie’s name would definitely be on the label.

  The orchestra took an active part in the record’s promotion. On Saturday afternoon 21 November 1925 between 1 and 3 p.m. it played at the Dwyer Piano Company, a piano store at 131-133 Carondelet Street. This was followed by a performance between 3 and 4 p.m. at another piano store, Collins, at 155 Baronne Street. Collins sold not only pianos but records too and Dwyer probably did the same. Their second Columbia was issued several months later on Columbia 541-D.

Other engagements – The New Silver Slipper

   The band did not only play at Halfway House although it probably returned there year after year. One other location where it could be found in 1926 was Metairie Inn, Metairie Road in Bucktown. It was advertised as “New Orleans’ newest and most beautiful suburban restaurant” where “you can Charleston to your heart’s content. The home of Charleston dancing in New Orleans, where special music is provided for those who enjoy it. A romantically lovely spot for the after-theater party. Music by Albert Brunies and orchestra.” Actually it was New Orleans’ second best gambling spot[16]. Clearly Abbie’s orchestra could not be called the Halfway House Orchestra like on its records, but the name did creep in: “2 ½ miles from Halfway House’, so the ad said.

 

   That same year, on Tuesday, April 13, 1926, Abbie’s band had its second recording session for Columbia, which produced I’m In Love, It Belongs To You, Since You’re Gone and Snookum. The first and last titles came out first, on Columbia 681-D. Apparently Columbia was not in a hurry to do so. A month later it recorded Fletcher Henderson in New York and this was issued before Abbie’s record was. In fact the other two of Abbie’s titles were filed for a while and were not issued until the next year, on Columbia 1041-D. Except for Snookum all compositions were by band members, piano player Glyn Lea Long having a hand in each case, assisted by Abbie or, in the case of Since You’re Gone, by one Levy.[17] On It Belongs To You Long is featured as a singer and his name is on the record label. This tune was a New Orleans band favorite, and many recordings of this tune exist by artists with a New Orleans background, under several names.[18] Other bands that recorded for Columbia that week included Oscar Celestin’s, the New Orleans Owls and Tony Parenti’s.

   On Saturday evening February 19, 1927 the band gave a farewell dance at the Halfway House. No immediately following engagements are known but on May 21st it supported the “grand opening of the Midway Café, Restaurant and Bathing Resort at Sea Brook”. This place had recently been built by N. Herzog and H. Herzog and its location was both given as Little Woods Road and Diamond Road. It claimed one could enjoy “a cuisine prepared by one of the best chefs of New Orleans, without the inconvenience of mosquitoes”(!) and “Albert Brunies Orchestra will entertain you with his unequalled jazz music from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.” 

  On Sunday, August 21, 1927 the band was present at an all day picnic given by the Midnight Frolic. “Music by Albert Brunies and his Recording Orchestra.” Exceptionally the band’s full personnel (but not their instruments, which this writer added) was listed in the advertisement: Abbie Brunies, cornet, Charlie Cordella and Leon Roppolo, reeds, Glyn Lea Long, piano, Angelo Palmisano, banjo , Emmett Rogers (whose name is given as E.J. McCluskey, his legal name), drums,  J. Garrow and H. Johnson, instruments unknown.[19]

   That same year, 1927, the band had two more recording sessions with Columbia, on Friday, April 15, and on Monday, October 24. Neither of the two titles from the first session, Won’t You Be My Loving Baby? and I Don’t Want To Remember were released by Columbia, but the former title was issued in the 1940s on the British Rhythm Society label. The company may have judged that the brass bass was over-recorded.[20] The second session yielded two issued titles When I’m Blue and I Want Somebody To Love (Columbia 1263-D), and  two others that remained unissued, Why Did You Make Me Cry? and When You’ve Lost Your Baby. These are the only recordings by the Halfway House Orchestra that have never been subsequently issued. No tests have ever surfaced and the masters appear to be no longer in existence. The October session introduced a new singer with the band. Glyn Lea Long would confine himself to his primary tasks as piano player, arranger and composer. As a vocalist he was replaced by Johnny Saba. Saba introduced a sweet singing style to the band that was popular with the public at the time, but which is not generally appreciated by jazz collectors. But as pioneer Dutch collector Jan Schoondergang told me long ago: “Listen carefully, the hot playing goes on behind the singer all the time!” 

  Another half year later Columbia was back in New Orleans. Once again Abbie’s band was on their list. It recorded six titles, only two of which were released by American Columbia. Love Dreams and Tell Me Who were recorded on Thursday and Friday, April 26-27, 1928. These are among the best recordings by the band. Sidney Arodin, a superb clarinet player, replaced Charlie Cordella, and the rhythm section swings the band in a way that has no precedent. The music of Tell Me Who was composed by Henry and Merritt in Chicago, while their sidemen Norman Van Hook and Bill Paley provided the lyrics. By the time of this recording Abbie’s brothers were back in New Orleans. Luckily metal parts of the other four titles, I Hate Myself For Loving You, Let Your Lips Touch My Lips, I’ll Go Back To That Old Pal O’ Mine and Wylie Avenue Blues[21] survived. Test pressings of these are in several collections. Wylie Avenue Blues is a very special case. It took collectors long to find out that it had actually been issued at the time – but not in the USA[22]. Australian Columbia decided to issue it back-to-back with The Tile Trot, an English recording by Al Starita’s Piccadilly Players in the style of Valencia(!).[23] [24]

   The next month, in May 1928, Albert Brunies and his Halfway Orchestra made a road tour to locations outside New Orleans, but still in Louisiana. On Saturday May 26, 1928 it played in Slidell, Louisiana, at Redman Hall, on the following Wednesday in Luling in Luling Hall and the next day in Mandeville at the Elk Dance Hall. The band was giving away their Columbia records as prizes for the best dancers.

   On October 10, 1928, Abbie Brunies’ band opened the winter season at a New Orleans top location, the New Silver Slipper at 426 Bourbon Street. Merritt Brunies worked here too for a few weeks around this time with Abbie, also piano player Armand Hug[25]. It was a prestigious club, but it could not survive without bypassing the Prohibition laws, and so it offered bootleg booze to its clientele. The band could be heard from the club daily from 11 to 11.30 pm via radio station WDSU and it was advertized as “The only Columbia recording artists in New Orleans”. One such broadcast was on Tuesday 18 September 1928 and they were on other stations as well. Abbie’s scrapbook lists station WWL where they were playing from 10.30 till 11.30 pm.[26]

   At the end of 1928 the Halfway House Orchestra had its final recording session with Columbia. On Monday, December 17, it recorded two more popular tunes and turned them into jewels of small band jazz. Just Pretending and If I Didn’t Have You, issued on Columbia 1959-D, were both composed by Glyn Lea Long. To the present writer, Sidney Arodin’s solos on these sides are among the finest things in his collection.

 

Abbie at the Silver Slipper, Bourbon Street. L-R: Joe “Hook” Loyacano, unknown, unknown, Sidney Arodin, Dave Winstein, Monk Hazel, Abbie Brunies. (Frank Driggs Collection)

 Abbie stayed for some years at the New Silver Slipper. On June 12, 1929 it advertised as “America’s best ventilated club, the coolest club in town.” Its master of ceremonies then was “Smiling” Henry Berman, and on Wednesday it featured a “Brunswick Night,” when every lady was given a record. In line with recent developments in dance bands, Abbie now featured three reed players. The following October an advertisement listed the names of all the band members. In addition to Abbie, there were Irving Fazola (listed under his legal name of Irving Prestopnik), clarinet, Fred Dantagnan, saxophone, George M. Schilling, saxophone and clarinet, Glyn Lea Long (now nicknamed “Red”), piano, Steve Brue, banjo, Luther Lamar, bass, and Emmett Rogers (under his legal name of J. Emmett McCloskey), drums. Rogers would be succeeded by Monk Hazel shortly.

   On February 19, 1930 Abbie’s band performed at a special occasion. This was the Musician’s Ball at the Municipal Auditorium, where several visiting bands took part too, like Ray Miller’s Orchestra, Lou Breese and Saenger’s Stage Band and Dan Russo’s RKOlians.

  In April 1930 Abbie and his band still were at the New Slipper when the law stepped in. A newspaper reported: Ten prohibition agents raided the New Silver Slipper cabaret at 426 Bourbon Street shortly after midnight Saturday and seized all the liquor on the tables where about 200 guests were seated during the stage show.

When the agents entered, Albert Brunies’ orchestra was playing and Benny Benthol, master of ceremonies, was singing “When You’re Smiling, Keep on Smiling”, while eight girl entertainers in abbreviated attire were dancing.

The guests took Benny’s advice. There was no hysteria when one of the agents went up to the stage with the orchestra and announced that a raid was in progress and that all were to remain seated… the agents had search warrants on Anthony Di Franco, alleged proprietor, and had asked him to make the announcement.

“I can’t”, said Di Franco, “it would interrupt the stage show.”

About a wheel barrow of evidence was garnered from the crowded tables. Even liquor in glasses was seized. Names and addresses of the guests were taken. Some said afterward that they had given fictitious names. The agents said they would not arrest any of the guests, but notified Di Franco that he was under arrest.”

Some artistic license was used in this article. A different article mentioned the band playing “Sunny Side Up” when the “drys” came in and then “began mournfully to play “How Dry I Am”.

   Abbie stayed at the New Silver Slipper but after the Wall Street Crash the economic situation meant that he was forced to reduce the size of his band from eight to six. In October 1930 his personnel was Fred Dantagnan, saxophone, Joe Wolf, piano, Alec Coulogne (probably bass player Alex Coulon), Emmett Rogers, drums and Frank Colomes. Colome’s instrument is unknown, probably guitar. Broadcasts were nightly through WAB2 at 10.30.

  A photograph exists from this period. It shows Abbie amidst five other musicians who wear sashes. It is dated May 2, 1930 and signed to "Richie and my family”. Abbie is holding a document which clearly is important for him, probably a piece of sheet music[27].

   Abbie continued to lead orchestras throughout the Depression, but by the late ‘Thirties he took a job in the war industry, working at a New Orleans shipyard. He made no further records until the LP era.

Abbie moves to Biloxi

   In 1945 Abbie went back to live in Biloxi, Miss. [28], the same town where his brother Merritt had lived since the 1930s. When the two brothers were united, they got the idea of forming a new band which would work intermittently. Abbie started a side job too. He opened a little restaurant, called Abbie’s Little Diner, in Back Bay, Biloxi. For six to eight hours a day he was cooking with his wife Mildred, wearing a cook’s hat emblazoned with the word “Genius”. Abbie was locally famous for his top quality hamburgers, called the Burger Burger. Keith said “Boy, was it a burger!”  He had his Uncle Abbie fix him one when he and his mother went to visit Abbie at the diner. Abbie wanted to see Keith and give him a few things, like the new LP album he just recorded. “Boy, that was the joy of my life” Keith remembered. “It was so nice and pleasant to be around my Uncle Abbie.” 

   The Brunies band played for a long time at a place called Barisev, a large restaurant named after its owner. One day Barisev decided to play a joke on him and told him: “We got another band coming in”. A colored band was brought in but the customers stayed away. So Barisev called the Brunies’ back. Now Abbie was a joker too, so he said to Merritt: “When the place gets crowded, we pack our horns and walk off”. Barisev nearly had a heart attack when they did.

In Biloxi the Brunies brothers got on record one final time. The Brunies Brothers Dixieland Jazz Band, as it was called, was recorded on October 4, 1957 by Joe Mares, brother of trumpeter Paul and an active jazz promoter. He owned Southland Records but after the recording was done he feared union problems, so he agreed with Bill Russell that Bill would issue them on his American Music label. On LP AM651 Abbie plays trumpet and Merritt a valve trombone instead of a trumpet or cornet. He also could play peck horn, baritone horn, sousaphone and slide trombone, but he felt more at home with the valve trombone to get “more harmony.” [29] The band recorded nine titles, including Angry, with a vocal by Merritt and Abbie, and of course the old Halfway House favourite Let Me Call You Sweetheart. The boys still had not learned to do it in waltz time. Both Merritt and Abbie took a vocal chorus on Angry, Merritt using the published text, but Abbie sings:

       Oh now it’s angry, now don’t be angry,

       For we’re the boys from M-I-double S,

       It’s your land and my land

       With a six-piece jazz band we’re full of pep,

  Watch your step go slow

Now when you hear that trumpet moan

You’ll think that’s simply grand

But the man upon the ivories is a melody man

Angry, now don’t be angry,

      For we’re the boys from M-I-double S.

This text resembles the one George Brunies remembered as sung in Chicago and which said: “We’re the boys from New Orleans”.

   The surprise of the record is clarinet player Jules Gallé, born in 1903, who heard Leon Roppolo one evening and the next day he bought an Albert system clarinet. He also listened to John “Curly” Lizana, of Merritt Brunies’ Five New Orleans Jazz Babies. As a result he played in a very pure New Orleans clarinet style. At the time of the recording he and Merritt were colleagues at the Biloxi police department. Pianist Eddie James, born c. 1908, was the band’s junior but he had played with Johnny Bayersdorffer and Sharkey Bonano. Joe Wentz and Tony Fountain (cousin of Pete) were on drums and bass respectively. The band featured a large banner with the text Merritt Brunies and his Orchestra, but Abbie was the real leader.[30]

   The personnel of this Brunies band was not constant during this period. Some of the musicians known to have played with Abbie Brunies at this time are clarinet player Jack Miranda (who had an extensive recording career in Britain between the wars), clarinet and banjo player Francis Murray and bass player Bill Waelde.

   Richie Brunies’ son, Melvin, had a little story to tell about Abbie and his younger brother, George. Once or twice every year George would come over to Abbie in Biloxi, and always brag about his many fans in New York and Chicago. So one day Abbie went out and bought a bunch of fans, the type that you fan yourself with. He sent them to George’s home in Chicago with a note saying: “Here are all your fans, I send them to you. (Signed) Abbie.”  Keith still has one of those autographed fans that were found in George Brunies’ personal belongings.

   Albert “Abbie” Brunies died in Biloxi on Monday, October 2, 1978, 78 years old.

Epilogue

   Most of the Brunies family are buried at the historical Lafayette #1 cemetery, which was founded in 1833 and placed on the national register of historic places in 1972. Although severely damaged by a fire years ago and again in 2005 by hurricane Katrina, Halfway House still stands. And the Silver Slipper on Bourbon Street is still in operation though under a different name. You can still buy a drink – legally now - at this spot where Abbie and his brothers worked.  Georgia’s house where Henry’s grandson Keith Brunies and his wife Becky have lived so long was so badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina that they can no longer live there. However Katrina has not stopped Keith from researching a book on his family’s history. It will keep the memory of these pioneers of jazz alive. Fortunately Keith and his wife Becky managed to rescue all of the Brunies artefacts and memorabilia when they had to escape from New Orleans just before Katrina made landfall and destroyed everything.

   Keith, we are looking forward to what will be a fascinating story!

Literature

  1. Al Rose, Edmond Souchon, New Orleans Jazz – A Family Album. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 3rd ed. 1984.
  2. Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans, University, Alabama: University Of Alabama Press, 1974.
  3. Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords, New York, Oxord: Oxord University Press, 1999.
  4. Laurie Wright, Storyville 2000-1, Chigwell, Essex, England: Storyville Publications, 2001. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, by Tom Buhmann, pp. 192-217.
  5. Charles A. Sengstock Jr., That Toddlin’ Town, Champaign, Illinois: University Of Illinois Press, 2004.

 Abbreviations used

bullet NORK = New Orleans Rhythm Kings
bullet NOJAFA = New Orleans – A Family Album (see Literature)

Notes 

All photographs courtesy Keith Brunies unless otherwise stated. 

[1] In literature George’s first instrument is usually called an alto horn. In April 2007 at the Canadian Collectors Congress collector Phil Melick explained that it is one of the Eb brass instruments, variously known as mellophones, tenor horns or peck horns.

[2] NOJAFA p. 276. Picture of Buck Rogers, Abbie and George Brunies in front of streetcar, near car barn, Arabella and Magazine Street, St. Charles Street area, ca 1910.

NOJAFA p. 282. Picture of Abbie & George and more at brewery at Jackson Avenue & Tchoupitoulas Street.

[3] The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, Sunday, November 19, 1939: “The Music’s granddad beats anvil instead of drums.”

[4] Others that he mentioned were cornetist Manuel Mello and clarinet players Gus Mueller and Yellow Nunez, Storyville magazine, issue 64, p. 135.

[5] Storyville, New Orleans (Al Rose, 1974), p. 92. Rose quotes Paul Mares: “You come up around here, you had to be a musician.” Tony Parenti confessed that as a little boy he actually worked in Storyville: “about once a week” with “two others from the band”. They played for tips on the sidewalk from passers-by or the ladies of the cribs.

[6] Tom Brown and John Provenzano.

[7] Storyville 2000-1 p.192.

 7A There is some confusion over the correct spelling of Charlie Cordella’s surname. His World War One Draft Registration card clearly shows ‘Charles Joseph Cordella,’ and the 1930 Census also shows his name as Cordella. The 1920 Census gives the name as ‘Condela’ or ‘Cordela’ (the handwriting is poor and hurried), but his brother Anthony, on the line following, is clearly shown as ‘Cordella.’ His Social Security Death Index shows ‘Cordilla’ but as the original is not available to view on Ancestry.com, this may be suspect. The weight of evidence tips firmly in favour of ‘Cordella’ and that is the spelling we have consequently chosen to use throughout.

[8] NOJAFA, p. 288 and p. 168 respectively. 

[9] Information on Halfway House mainly from articles by George Blanchin in The Second Line, Winter, 1979 and by Blake in the Gambit Weekly, February 2004.

[10] There was another brother who worked as a dentist. Oscar also worked in dentistry during the day.

[11] See note 7A.

[12] From The Jazz Record Book by Charles Edward Smith (1942). This part was probably written by William Russell.

[13] One, the official band photograph, was published in the pioneering book Jazzmen (Frederick Ramsey, Jr and Charles Edward Smith, 1939), pp. 128-129. The second appeared in A Pictorial History Of Jazz (Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer, 1955) and showed that Roppolo wore white socks with his tuxedo which were blacked out by the photographer for the official photograph.

[14] Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya (Nat Hentoff and Art Shapiro, 1955), p. 179.

[15] Its composers Leo Friedman (music) and Beth Slater Whitson (lyrics) followed its continued success up by writing Since You Called Me Sweetheart.  (Information from the sheet music). Incidentally, a rumored alternate version (take 1) of this title on the Columbia label has never been found.

[16] Bill Russel quoting Joe Mares in his copy of AB’s scrapbook.

[17] A Rudolph Levy is listed in New Orleans A Family Album as a member of one of Johnny DeDroit’s bands.

[18] Among them, the New Orleans Owls Throwin’ The Horns, Louis Armstrong That’s When I’ll Come Back To You, New Orleans Bootblacks/Wanderers I Can’t Say/Mad Dog, King Oliver and Clarence Williams Speakeasy Blues.

[19] Roppolo must have have had one of his spells out of the sanatorium. The first names of J. Garrow and H. Johnson are unknown. Their instruments probably were trombone and bass.

[20] An excellent reissue of all of the sides by the Halfway House Orchestra is available on Jazz Oracle BDW 8001. These two sides appear in fine sound.

[21] Recently Columbia recording sheets became available for five of these six titles. They give interesting new data about the composers of the tunes:

 I Hate Myself For Loving You                    composer and publisher Billy Price, New Orleans

Let Your Lips Touch My Lips                     composer and publisher L.E. Waggaman, New Orleans

I’ll Go Back To That Dear Old Pal O’Mine  composer Brunies, Mistier & Diaz, publisher Albert Brunies, New Orleans, 1928

Tell Me Who                  composer Maud Brunies, Van Hook and Paley, publisher Milton Weil Music Co, New York, 1928

Wylie Avenue Blues                                 composer Henry Brunies, publisher Triangle Music Co, 1928

“Maud Brunies” looks like a misprint for Henry and Merritt Brunies (see sheet music picture of Tell Me Who).

The Australian Columbia gives “Brunies, Diaz & Mistier” as composers for Wylie Avenue Blues. It looks like Columbia confused this with the composers for I’ll Go Back To That Dear Old Pal O’Mine, and Henry Brunies was the real composer of this tune.

[22] The first discography that mentioned Australian Columbia 01437 with Wylie Avenue Blues was Delaunay’s 1948 edition, but it said that it was Tell Me Who mistitled(!). Jazz Directory in 1949 got it right for the first time. It must have caused a run on this Aussie!

[23] Wylie Avenue Blues was also recorded by black blues and vaudeville singer Martha Copeland. In fact she recorded it twice, first for Columbia on December 6, 1927, accompanied by a trio, and then for Edison, probably on May 15, 1928. On the Edison recording, an experimental radio broadcast, she is backed by what sounds to be a large white studio band which uses parts of the same arrangement as the Halfway House Orchestra. The Wylie Avenue referred to in the tunes’s lyrics is not in New Orleans but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Avenues by this name exist in several American and Australian (!) cities.

[24] The day before Abbie’s band recorded these six titles, Columbia had recorded several titles by blues singers Alberta Brown, Will Day and Lillian Glinn. On some of these titles Brown and Glinn have a fine backing that suggests members of the Halfway House Orchestra.  A discussion in Storyville magazine, issues 25, 27 and 63 ended with the conclusion that the trumpet/cornet is Abbie Brunies or Sharkey Bonano, the clarinet without any doubt Sidney Arodin, the piano player Glyn Lea Long or Johnny Miller and the tuba certainly player Chink Martin. Bonano, Arodin, Miller and Martin recorded the same day with a pick-up band under Johnny Miller’s leadership. Still there exists doubt, some people claiming that the tuba is played by Octave “Oak” Gaspard, as usual for Glinn.

[25] Together with Armand Hug in Abbie’s orchestra were Eddie Miller (later to become Bob Crosby’s famous alto sax player), Sidney Arodin and Angelo Palmisano. See Jazz Journal Vol. 3, nr. 7, 1950.

[26] Abbie’s scrapbook also lists broadcasts around this time by Merritt Brunies’ Orchestra  (via WJBO at 10.15) and by the New Orleans Owls (via WJBW at 7 p.m.).

[27] AB scrapbook p. 34.

[28] NOJAFA, p. 20.

[29] As told to Bill Russell and Dick Allen who wrote the sleeve note for the LP.

[30] All nine titles of the LP plus five alternate takes were reissued on CD by George Buck (American Music AMCD-77).

 

 

The Halfway House in 2003 (Courtesy Ate van Delden)

 

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