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DC Area Trumpeter and Bandleaderby Don Rouse
Copyright © 2004 Don Rouse
Bill Whelan passed away on August 21, 2003. In the 50s, Whelan led the band at one of the most popular jazz venues in DC, the Bayou. "Wild Bill" Whelan and his Dixie Six were locally famous and packed the place nightly. Bill created a legion of stories, many dealing with his practical jokes and escapades, whether at the Bayou, at Uncle Billy's in North Beach, or traveling cross-country on his motorcycle.
Friend Gary Wilkinson noted that his nickname, "Wild Bill', like that of his idol Bill Davison, applied to his personality and his antics, which were similar on and off the bandstand. (It applied as well to his aggressive but very controlled musical personality).
Clarinetist Wally Garner, who played with Whelan regularly throughout their careers, said, "He played what the people liked, and a lot of people flocked to the Bayou. At one point, 400 people were the legal limit [and] they had 600 people in the place - 10% of them standing up to listen..."
In the 1940s Whelan was one of a group of kids at Western High (now Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in DC who turned to playing jazz. Fellow students who went on to play locally were Wally Garner, Charlie Howze, Larry Eanet, Jimmy Hamilton, Walt Coombs, Walt Gifford, and more. They were already jamming in the band practice rooms at Western.
Wally Garner remembers: "They had a big auditorium at Western... we played for one of the school meetings and it was during the war. So we played 'Der Führer's Face' (recorded by Spike Jones). But Whelan's idea, somebody's idea, was to get some paper plates and bang on them and that kind of stuff and get some action. Nobody could find paper plates, so [Whelan] went down to the cafeteria and got real plates, cafeteria plates. And we had Nazi helmets on playing 'Ah, Der Fuhrer' and then 'boom, chick, boom, chick, right in the Fuhrer's face' and he [Whelan] laid two of these plates on top of somebody's head, with the German helmets on, and the glass went out into the first two rows and shut down the show. Got all the kids out 10 minutes early. So we were Peck's Bad Boys in those days..." Clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, who brought the helmets, remembers that some plate pieces caused some minor cuts, and that Whelan also had the curtains fixed so they couldn't be closed. "The result was," he says, "all of us were suspended for a week".
Bill was successful from the start in building audiences. When Royal Stokes was a student at the U. of Maryland he remembers arranging a gig for Bill at the Varsity Grill in addition to dance gigs at Maryland. The band was a hit and helped launch Bill's musical career. To use a jazz group for a dance, Royal had to overcome prejudices at the U. of Maryland that would exist today to a much lesser extent - how soon we forget.
Whelan's first long term successful venue was at the Charles Hotel (Willis Conover emceed). The Charles proved to be a venue so popular that the band outgrew it, leading Whelan to gravitate to the cavernous ancient warehouse on the Georgetown waterfront that eventually bore the name "The Bayou" (its name and ownership got changed after a murder there).
It was at the Charles that he began the practice he continued at the Bayou of bringing in legendary jazz musicians from New York for Sunday afternoon sessions. The combined list included Louis Armstrong, Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Billie Holiday, Barney Bigard, Bill Davison, Jimmy McPartland, Billy Butterfield, Tony Parenti, Bud Freeman, Phil Napoleon, Max Kaminsky, Don Ewell, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Buddy De Franco, Illinois Jacquet, Joe Venuti, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers and more.
One night at the Charles, Bill recalled, a pianist sat down and played during intermission. Ever gregarious, Bill went over to him and said, "You know, you sound good. Keep it up, and I think you'll make it." Shortly after, Duke Ellington, the pianist, was introduced to the audience. Later Duke went over to Bill, smiled, and said, "So, do you really think I'll make it?".
Wally Garner said standing next to Coleman Hawkins was for him like "standing next to God". He said, "It was a very nice introduction [to jazz] because by that time I had heard all these people on records..., and all of a sudden they started showing up for Sunday jazz session, and to me it was a superb experience. I've always relished the fact that [Whelan] had the chutzpah to say we're going to do it. He loved Davison and Davison came down and was blown away by the guy, so they became fast, fast friends for all those marvelous times [together engaging in some storied late night carousing as well as some recorded trumpet duets]. [Whelan] had good players in and it was terrific... He was a stalwart, and he had good ideas - he was a good player. And he was a good organizer...He was always on the lookout to improve the group one way or another -let's do it this way instead of doing it that way. The Bayou was great, fun times." Davison once said about Whelan and his gang, "Seriously, these guys know how to play music. You should be damn lucky [DC listeners] with what you've got".
Bill would make trips to New York, sit in, and eventually sub some nights at Eddie Condon's. However, he stuck with a decision to stay with his day job in DC rather than take a long-term engagement at Condon's replacing Davison.
He eventually gave up the cornet on medical advice, because of an artery problem (but kept on playing long after receiving the advice), and he switched to bass. He made a couple of abortive attempts to pick up the horn again, the last during his final illnesses.
Little has been released in the way of recordings of Whelan bands over the years, particularly since Fat Cat Records faded under an estate dispute. However, there is so much privately recorded material sitting around that more is likely to be released in the future.
Bill never left the Army Map Service until retirement, never left DC, and impressed his friends as really a good cook and a good family man. Even with Bill's extroverted nature and powerful playing, Nat Kinnear remembered him as "A wonderful life, a glorious friend, and magnificent husband and father".
Whelan is survived by his wife of 54 years, Peggy; daughters Sharon Rowe and Deborah Gentry of Manteo, N.C., and Cathleen Pigg of Dale City, Virginia; son Patrick Whelan of Fountain Inn, S.C.; and seven grandchildren.
The above was culled from articles by Gary Wilkinson, Bob Byler, W. Royal Stokes, Nat Kinnear, and an interview with Wally Garner.
Don Rouse is the co-editor of Tailgate Ramblings, the Potomac River Jazz Club Newsletter.