The First Set Drummers

A complete list of early jazz drummers seems nearly impossible, so this section focuses on those who may have been old enough to remember the introduction of the bass drum pedal and drum set in New Orleans.

James William “Red Happy” Bolton – (b. N.O., ca. 1885; d. 1928) A flashy and eccentric drummer who was remembered for his fast, flamboyant playing as well as his acts of literally jumping all around the drums, putting a cymbal behind his back, using and juggling five or six sticks at a time, and still keeping time. “Red Happy” was a mainstay of the King Oliver Band, but was also very active as a theatre drummer. He remainined in New Orleans when Oliver went to Chicago, he worked with John Robichaux at the Lyric Theatre and Peter Lacaze’s cabaret-dance hall band. His sensational playing gained him many admirers, but his fiery personality may have led to his death by homicide. His body was found in an alley in Cleveland.[1]

Walter Brundy – (b. N.O., ca. 1883; d. Natchez, MS, 1941) Among the earliest of set drummers in New Orleans and a teacher of “Baby” Dodds and others. Played with the Original Superior Orchestra, 1905—14; the John Robichaux Orchestra, 1912; and led his own band in Baton Rouge, LA during World War 1. Besides the fact of his death in an auto crash, very little personal information about Brundy is known. He was, however, remembered and respected by many of his peers and those who followed him.[2]

Walter Brundy with the Superior Orchestra, 1920. No bass drum pedal is visible, but he most likely used one, or the “double drumming” technique.

Walter Brundy with the Superior Orchestra, 1920. No bass drum pedal is visible, but he most likely used one, or the “double drumming” technique.

Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler – (b. N.O., ca. 1866; d. N.O., 1925) The legendary and almost mythological forefather of the drumset. Unfortunately, Chandler died before a detailed history and investigation of New Orleans jazz was begun. What is known about Chandler comes only from oral histories and a single photo. According to younger drummer Christopher “Black Happy” Goldston, Chandler was regarded as one of the best of his time: a drummer who tuned his drums up sharp and “made the drum roll sound like he was tearing a piece of cloth.”[3] Al Rose glorifies Chandler by saying he was an “excellent showman and comic” who “played with the grace of a professional juggler.” [4] He was a parade as well as dance band drummer who played for some of the most respected and well-known early jazz groups, including the John Robichaux Orchestra, the Onward Brass Band, and possibly Buddy Bolden. Robichaux, who was considered one of the elite bandleaders pre-1900, is often credited with being the first to add “trap” drums to the dance orchestra. Supposedly encouraged by Robichaux, a drummer himself, Chandler built a crude, overhanging bass drum pedal using a Magnolia Milk Company carton, block of wood, chain, hinges and springs.[5]

Chandler with the John Robichaux Orchestra, 1896. Robichaux is seated third from left with violin. This is the only known photo of Chandler and possibly the earliest photo of a bass drum pedal as well.

Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler with the John Robichaux Orchestra, 1896. Robichaux is seated third from left with violin. This is the only known photo of Chandler and possibly the earliest photo of a bass drum pedal as well.

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Close-up of Chandler and pedal.

Louis “Old Man” Cotrelle, Sr. – (b. N.O., ca. 1875; d. N.O., 1927) “Old Man”, one of the most highly regarded of the early New Orleans drummers, got his nickname because he went away to Chicago in 1917 and when he returned, his hair had gone gray. He is best known for his playing with the A.J. Piron Orchestra and Manuel Perez, but worked consistently in and out of New Orleans until he died from a heart attack around the age of 52. Cotrelle used lots of traps, or noisemakers, and was even said to use his mouth and shout through the snare drum for effect. He had many students that he taught drumming as well as solfége sight singing. He charged 25 cents per lesson at first and 50 cents by the time he passed away. In today’s rates, that’s only six or seven dollars for a lesson with a legend! When Cotrelle began playing around the age of 10 he could not afford lessons, so his close friend John Kornfeld would share what he had learned during his own.[6] “Old Man’s” son, Louis Cotrelle, Jr., remembered accompanying his father to rehearsals at Jean Vigne’s space and that “Old Man”, Vigne, Mac Murray, Chandler, and Clay Jiles were all friends. The excellence and sophistication of Cotrelle, Sr.’s playing can be heard on the records he made with A.J. Piron in the early 1920s.

Cotrelle traveled to places like Chicago and New York with Piron and Perez and brought back a rare, collapsible drum set from one of his trips. He usually played with the same snare drum for parades as he did for dances, light sticks, and, by the end of his life, a Leedy drum set and a metal, Duplex snare. His son said that “Old Man” may have used an over-hanging bass drum pedal at some point, but he never saw his father with one because he would buy everything new as it was put on the market. [7] Born in 1911, Cotrelle, Jr. was already too young to have witnessed the earliest incarnations of bass drum pedals and the drum set in New Orleans.

Louis "Old Man" Cotrelle, Sr.

Louis “Old Man” Cotrelle, Sr.

Alfred L. Jaeger – (b. N.O., 1869; d. N.O., 1953) An early vaudeville and circus band drummer who played in original Paul Whiteman groups. After the 1880s, Jaeger did much of his playing outside of New Orleans, but was with Frank Clancy’s Jefferson marching bands before he left. He was last seen in the early 1950s playing in a jam session with Tony Almerico’s Parisian Room Band.[8]

“Papa” Jack Laine – (b. N.O., 1873; d. N.O. 1966) Appropriately named for his seniority and influence as head of the popular Reliance Brass Bands, “Papa” remembered buying his first drum, an 18-inch rope-tuned field snare drum, at the 1884—85 World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition in New Orleans’s Audubon Park.[9] Even before the dixieland and jazz eras, he was an active musician leading minstrel and brass bands throughout the Gulf Coast. At one point, he led seven different dance groups, all named Reliance Brass Band, that dominated the scene in New Orleans and served as training grounds for many musicians that were to become important jazz figures, including all the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Laine was also a professional blacksmith who claimed to have built and improved preliminary versions of the overhanging bass drum pedal. Laine’s impact on the music of New Orleans was substantial and extended beyond his drumming. The Reliance Brass Bands set a musical standard for the times and were some of the first white bands in the area to include mixed-race members. Although he never officially recorded and significantly withdrew from music around the First World War, Laine lived long enough to be interviewed extensively and have his experiences well documented.

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“Papa” Jack Laine seated center with his The Reliance Brass Band, 1910. Notice the bass drum pedal, yet the presence of two drummers. The same bass drum could have been used for parade and stationary gigs.

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Laine far right with his Reliance Brass Band, 1906. This photograph shows two drummers and no bass drum pedal.

John MacMurray – (b. N.O., ca. 1878; d. N.O., ca. 1920) A lesser-known drummer of the first generation, MacMurray used homemade instruments like a banjo head with cat guts for snares and dripped a wagon chain on his snare drum during solo breaks. He was among the elite of drummers who played in both parade and dance bands at the beginning of the jazz age. Drummer Abbey Foster remembered him using a “crowfoot” pedal (a heavier, floor-mounted, and toe-operated bass drum pedal named for its appearance) instead of the early over-hanging pedals. Foster also remembered MacMurray telling him to always keep time with the bass drum, regardless of what was happening with his hands.[10] He played often with Buddy Bolden during the early 1900s as well as with the Imperial Orchestra, John Robichaux, and others.

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John MacMurray with the Imperial Orchestra, circa 1905.

Eugene Morin – (b. N.O., 1880; d. 1950) One of the earliest dixieland drummers. Little is known about Morin besides that he was a member of the Abita Springs Serenaders Jazz Band from 1912 to possibly 1916. One photo of him exists from that time.[11]

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Eugene Morin at Abita Springs, 1912-1916.

Joe “Ragbaby” Stephens – (b. N.O., 1887; d. Richmond, IN, 1927) The youngest of the drummers on this list, “Ragbaby” was a mainstay of “Papa” Laine’s Reliance Brass Bands. Because of the extreme popularity of the Reliance bands, “Ragbaby” was in constant demand during the early dixieland dance and parade band days of New Orleans. Despite his popularity and success, however, he left for Chicago around 1918 and eventually died in Indiana. He played with Bert Kelly and was in the house band at the popular speakeasy Kelly’s Stables in Chicago during the 1920s.[12]

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“Ragbaby” standing far left with the Reliance Brass Band, 1912.

Cornelius Tillman – (b. N.O., 1872; d. 1928) Drummer for the famed Buddy Bolden Band. Little information regarding Tillman’s career before or after Bolden is available, but his age and participation in that band secures him a place in the history of New Orleans jazz.[13]

Ernest “Ninesse” Trepagnier– (b. N.O., ca. 1885; d. N.O., 1968) Was considered the king of New Orleans parade bass drummers, but most likely played trap set as well. “Ninesse” was a trained musician who could read music and still keep the improvisatory and loose feel that jazz required. The list of groups he played with is a who’s who of New Orleans music at the beginning of the 20th century. He got his first professional gig with the Magnolia Band (1908), replaced Jean Vigne in Fred Keppard’s Olympia Orchestra (1909), joined the Tuxedo Brass Band (1910), gigged with “Papa” Celestin and Piron’s Vaudeville Band (1916), played with Vic and Oke Gaspard at West End during WWI, did a stint with John Robichaux prior to 1920, was with Manuel Perez at the Oasis (1922), and spent the Depression era years with the ERA Orchestra and the WPA Brass Band. After his music career slowed, he managed the popular clarinetist George Baquet’s bar at the corner of Rampart and Girod until his death.

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“Ninesse” standing second from right with the Tuxedo Brass Band, 1920s.

John (or Jean) Vigne – (b. N.O. ca. 1865; d. ca. 1916) The oldest of the drummers included in this section, Vigne was most famous as a parade bass drummer, but also played trap set with the Olympia Orchestra, 1901; the Peerless Orchestra, 1903—08; the Imperial Orchestra, 1906; the Golden Rule Orchestra, and with A.J. Piron until about 1912. Vigne was also a shoe maker and owner of a coal and wood yard in Storyville that supplied heat for the Red Light District and doubled as a rehearsal space.[14]

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Jean Vigne with Frank and McCurdy’s Peerless Orchestra, 1906.

Henry Zeno – (b. N.O., ca. 1880; d. N.O. ca., 1918) According to Louis Armstrong, Zeno was a very well-liked parade and dance drummer during the Red Light District days of New Orleans. Armstrong remembers Zeno’s funeral as being attended by mourners of all races and as one of the largest of its time.[15] “Baby” Dodds credits him as being among his first teachers. Zeno was an early member of the legendary Buddy Bolden band, 1900; Manuel Manetta, 1906—07; Duson’s Eagle Band, 1908; the Olympia Orchestra with A.J. Piron, 1913—14; King Oliver, 1916; and the Original Tuxedo Orchestra, 1917—18. He died relatively young while he was still working with the Tuxedo Orchestra.[16]

 

Footnotes
[1] Koenig 1990: 12
[2] Rose and Souchon 1978: 22
[3] Goldston 1959: 3
[4] Rose and Souchon 1978: 26
[5] Charters 1963: 5
[6] Cotrelle 1961
[7] Ibid.
[8] Koenig 1990: 20
[9] Laine 1951
[10] Foster, Abbey “Chinee” 1961
[11] Koenig 1990: 22
[12] Rose and Souchon 1978: 117
[13] Koenig 1990: 17
[14] Foster, Pops 2005: 89
[15] Armstrong 1999: 121
[16] Rose and Souchon 1978: 128

Photo Credits
All photos from Rose and Souchon (1978) except the photo of Eugene Morin which is from the Louisiana Digital Library at the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection.