Eddie Condon

By Hank O’Neal

Eddie Condon’s autobiography, We Called It Music, was published in 1947 and was easily the best autobiographical book by a jazz musician up to that time. This is why the book has remained in print for nearly seventy years.

In 1947, Eddie Condon was more that just a prominent jazz musician, he was a New York City institution and the story he told in We Called It Music was exciting enough that the entertainment bible, Variety, reported that a feature film of Condon’s life, starring Jimmy Stewart and written by John O’Hara, was in the works.

When We Called It Music was published, Eddie Condon had been on the music scene, mostly playing in jazz bands or leading them, for a quarter of a century. He left Chicago and the Midwest, immigrated to New York in 1928 and never left. In 1929, his first full year in New York, his band, Eddie’s Hot Shots, recorded and released two tunes, I’m Gonna Stomp Mr. Henry Lee and That’s A Serious Thing. A lot of bands recorded a lot of songs that year but these were unlike any other. It was the first of many Condon firsts; the first time black and white musicians worked together in a recording studio, an integrated recording session. This doesn’t sound like anything special today; it was groundbreaking in 1929.

A week later, Condon, showed it was no fluke when he joined Fats Waller’s Buddies and became the first white musician to record with a black band. A few days after that recording he secured a recording date for Louis Armstrong in New York City, on which he played banjo. This cemented an enduring relationship with both Armstrong and Waller that lasted for decades.

Towards the end of the year he brought Coleman Hawkins, along with a very young Glenn Miller, into the Mound City Blue Blowers and the group recorded One Hour and Hello Lola. These two recordings, just like Eddie’s Hot Shots and Fats Waller’s Buddies, was released on the Victor Records “race”, i.e. black series. These were the first integrated recording sessions and Condon was the person responsible for organizing them, bringing black and white musicians together on records.

About the same time in June 1929, Condon was in the studio with Red Nichols, along with Red’s Five Pennies. One song they recorded was a fairly maudlin tune entitled Who Cares with a crybaby vocal by the usually reliable Red McKenzie. A few weeks later a cut down version of the band was filmed and recorded by Warner Bros. for a Vitaphone short. This time Who Cares became a hot jazz number with an equally hot vocal by a very energetic and photogenic Eddie Condon. This was one of the first, if not the first “soundie” by a jazz band. Soundies were a very early, almost primitive precursor of what would become the modern music video.  Condon also warbles his way through Nobody’s Sweetheart on the same Vitaphone short. Condon was a fine guitar/banjo player, was enthusiastic, looked good in a tux and could sing in tune.

If Condon hadn’t done anything else in his career, his accomplishments in 1929 in terms of integrating the recording studios would have been enough to secure his place in jazz history, but he was just getting started. He continued mixing up the musicians into the 1930s with dozens of recordings, bringing the likes of Red Allen, Zutty Singleton, Alex Hill, and Pops Foster, into the studio and by the mid 1930’s he teamed up with Red Allen to lead the first racially mixed band on New York’s legendary 52nd Street.

In 1936 Condon was part of the first swing music concert in a legitimate theater, New York’s Imperial, and in 1938 was part of the first transatlantic radio broadcast for the BBC. The legendary Edward R. Murrow was at the other end of the broadcast in London. In the same year he was part of a band that was both recorded and filmed for the Saturday Night Swing Club. Working with his long time friend, producer Milt Gabler, Condon appeared on the first of a series of recordings released on Gabler’s Commodore label, the first independent label devoted to jazz and nothing but jazz “as it should be played.”

Condon then began a series of late Friday afternoon concerts for businessmen at the Park Lane and later the Belmont Plaza Hotel. The same concept, mixed bands made up of the best musicians in New York playing real jazz with no frills except an occasional vocal by Lee Wiley. This was also a first and made it clear that there people who would pay to hear integrated jazz bands in a setting somewhere other than in a saloon or on a record so Condon began to think of other venues.

Then Condon jumped from fancy hotels to the fanciest venue in town and in January 1942 he presented the first concert of real jazz in Carnegie Hall. Real jazz to Condon meant no music stands, no sheet music, only what was in your head. They didn’t need a music stand in a saloon, why would they need one in Carnegie Hall? It made life easier for the stagehands.

The concert featured Fats Waller and was another first; Condon enabled a famed black musician to gain access to the most important concert hall in New York City, a fully integrated concert from beginning to end with a black musician as the headliner. If there was a problem with the concert it could mainly be attributed to Waller’s jovial nature and habit of never refusing a drink. The other problem was Condon felt the stage was too large for an eight-piece band. The next month he and his pals presented a similar concert at Town Hall, beginning a series that ran in Town Hall and other theaters, including Carnegie Hall with larger bands, for many years.

The first Town Hall concerts led to another first. An executive from CBS saw a crowd outside Town Hall, went in to see what was happening, liked what he heard and more importantly, what he saw, and a month or so later, Eddie Condon organized a bunch of his musical pals and produced and performed in the first television broadcast of a jazz band.

It is about here We Called It Music comes to an end. He’d told his story up to early 1943, but in truth, Condon was just getting warmed up. There was much more to come.

Condon’s place in jazz was secure by 1945, and it was solidified in April of that year when he became the first jazz musician featured in a profile in The New Yorker Magazine. Rogers Whitaker penned an article entitled Spokesman With A Temperature that told the truth about being a jazz musician even though most people around town or at least the readers of that magazine knew the story anyway.

In that same year, jazz was undergoing substantial changes and had been throughout the war years. New rhythms, new harmonies and scores of exciting new musicians were increasingly commonplace, but Condon had little interest in be-bop or any of the other new music. To prove the point and to add to his legacy, he did something no other jazz musician had ever done: In December 1945 he put his name above the door at 47 West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village and Eddie Condon’s remained the place to go to hear “jazz as it should be played” until 1958. It was the first jazz club with a musician’s name above the door and when his lease ran out downtown he found another door uptown at 330 East 56th Street. That door remained open for another decade and it was this twenty-two year run that solidified Condon’s reputation as both a New York City and jazz institution. Eddie Condon’s was a gathering place for the best jazz musicians in town, as well as the most interesting people in the worlds of politics, entertainment, literature and the arts. It enabled Condon to hire his musical friends and entertain thousands of social acquaintances.

Then there was television. Condon led the first bands to be televised in 1942 so he wasn’t surprised when WPIX, a local New York City TV station, came calling in 1948 and Condon answered the call. It was only a local show but after a few broadcasts, the Eddie Condon Floor Show transferred to NBC and became a network show that was broadcast nationally. It ran through September 1949.

The Eddie Condon Floor Show was not only the first show featuring jazz on network television but was also the first show that featured black musicians in both musical and acting capacities. The show didn’t just feature jazz performances; there were occasional sketches in which Billie Holiday appeared as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong played himself telling stories to children. Scores of great black musicians made their network television debuts on Condon’s show including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page, Sid Catlett, Pearl Bailey, Thelma Carpenter, Willie the Lion Smith, Jonah Jones, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Shavers and Benny Morton. One evening was dedicated to W.C. Handy, the composer of St. Louis Blues and many other blues standards.

No longer on television, Condon let New York City radio station WMGM broadcast live from his club in 1951. There had been broadcasts from the club in the past but these were on a regular basis and continued until the summer of 1952. About the same time he switched from recording for Decca to Columbia and produced a series of outstanding LPs for that company through 1958.

In 2017 it is commonplace for jazz artists or groups to perform in concert halls with symphony orchestras. Condon did it first in 1954 with the Buffalo Philharmonic and liked it so much he performed with Washington D.C.’s National Symphony in 1955 and 1956 at Constitution Hall. The performances with the National Symphony were sweet revenge. He tried to perform at Constitution Hall in the 1940s but was forbidden to do so because the band included “colored” musicians. When this despicable treatment happened to the noted vocalist Marian Anderson, she retreated to the Lincoln Memorial for an historic concert. Condon retreated to the Willard Hotel and sold out the ballroom and mocked the Daughters of the American Revolution who had barred the doors. The story was featured in various newspapers and Time Magazine.

In 1954 a newspaper column entitled Pro and Condon appeared in the New York Journal American under Condon’s byline. This was the first time a jazz musician had a regular outlet in a mass media publication. In 1956, his second book appeared, Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz; it went along with a Columbia LP of the same name.

Such was his stature in the mid-1950s that he rated second billing at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Count Basie was on top but Condon was next, followed by Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson. The lesser-known Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and a young Oscar Peterson were also on the bill. He returned to Newport a year or so later and achieved another first; he recorded outside in a rainstorm. He shared this record with his long time pal Louis Armstrong.

By the 1960s illness had begun to slow Condon down. He was still game but there were fewer and fewer of his musical friends to play jazz as he thought it should be played. I met him in 1965 in Washington, D.C. but really got to know him better in 1967, when I relocated to New York City and as fate would have it rented an apartment I couldn’t afford about five short blocks away from him.

Eddie Condon’s closed in the summer of 1967, a couple of months after I arrived in town. I went with him to the club a single time and after it closed he seemed to be largely retired. He was only sixty-two. But since he wasn’t busy and the telephone didn’t ring that often, it meant there was ample time for other projects.

We worked on many projects together; concerts, recordings, festivals and finally a book entitled Eddie Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz.  Sadly, Eddie died on August 4th, 1973, three months before its publication. Such was his stature that the following day, his obituary appeared on the front page of the Sunday The New York Times under the headline Eddie Condon, Jazz Leader for 50 Years, Dies at 67.

Years ago, when there were a lot of Eddie’s peers on the scene, I asked them about Eddie and why he was important. They always stressed four things: The band always sounded better when he was on stage, he could read an audience and always called the right tunes, and he never hit a wrong chord. The fourth was he got them work and nobody ever had any complaints about that.

Eddie wasn’t an innovator in the traditional sense. He didn’t bring new harmonies to jazz, he wasn’t a virtuoso performer, and his musical tastes were simple and direct. The music he liked best was fully formed by the time he started playing and certainly by the late 1920s when he began making a name for himself. In 2017, like many other noted figures of the past, he is not well remembered for any number of reasons, but primarily because he never created any “new” music and wasn’t a soloist or improviser.  But what he did accomplish was in many ways far greater in terms of lasting impact. Particularly in terms of social justice and taking what he called real jazz into the real world.

No, Eddie Condon was not an innovator, he was the catalyst, a guy who recognized the worth and significance of the music he played and was able to create circumstances where musicians he respected and enjoyed performing with could do what they did best in recording studios, concert halls, on radio, television and movies, upscale ballrooms and even in a club with his name on the door. The most important thing for 99 percent of the jazz musicians in those days or these days is the next gig. When he was around there were a lot of gigs in good places for good wages and that makes a difference.

Among the great musicians of his time, Eddie was the one who could best enable his musical associates to accomplish things that would have otherwise been impossible. He was the man who opened many doors to others the first time and in 2017 thousands of jazz musicians all over the world perform in concert halls, on television, in recording studios and other venues, write books, contribute to magazines and even occasionally appear in feature films. Eddie Condon took many of the first steps that led to this, while making it possible for many of his contemporaries to have a better and more creative musical life along the way. His life was an improvisation with no sheet music. Perhaps it was best summed up by the New York Daily News headline on August 5th 1973, Eddie Condon Dies at 67; The Man Who Lived Jazz.