By Jack Sohmer
The Wildest One:by Hal Willard
The Life of Wild Bill Davison
(Avondale Press, Box 351, Monkton, MD 21111, 437 pages, $26.75 + $3 S & H)
from Jazz Notes 9/1 1997Copyright © 1994, Jack Sohmer
Close to 84 when he died in 1989, cornetist Wild Bill Davison had been a professional musician for almost 70 years, the last 32 of which saw him touring the nation and world many times over. However, Bill had not always been so popular. Indeed, the first 20 or so years of his career were spent playing in obscure Midwestern dance bands, and his few opportunities to record were not auspicious enough to warrant attention.
Lacking the ambition and self-confidence to tackle New York, Bill spent the 1930s in the hinterlands of Milwaukee, with widespread recognition an elusive brass ring until late 1943. It was then that, after two years of working with Eddie Condon's gang at Nick's in Greenwich Village, Bill's blistering horn was unleashed on some brilliant recordings for the Commodore label. In December 1945, he opened at Condon's own club and remained there for 12 more years of exciting music and growing fame.
From childhood on, Bill had been gifted with a natural ear for pitch and an infallible memory for every song he heard. His knack for making up harmony parts on the spot quickly led to a reliance upon improvising skills rather than reading, and, in this respect, he had something in common with several other early jazzmen, such as Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Biederbecke.
Like Bix, three years his elder, he had begun drinking excessively in his teens, sharing happily in the widely savored joys of our country's most carefree, hedonistic decade. The cherubic-faced cornetist's future lifestyle was shaped in those halcyon days, and it was not to change for the next 60 some-odd years. Although always noted for his consistency when playing, away from the bandstand he remained as irresponsible as he had been in his youth, downing 30 to 40 shots of scotch or vodka a night, and grabbing at strange women's crotches and breasts whenever and wherever he fancied.
Davison specialist Hal Willard has been involved in the documentation of his subject's life and career for more than 20 years, and the end result of his efforts is a virtually flawless recounting of a saga embracing not only the Jazz Age at its peak, but also the dreary Midwestern Americana of Davison's youth and the relative glamour of his later years.
In a career as long as Bill's, there are bound to be many highs and lows, but, as Willard periodically reminds us, these were not occasioned by any rises or falls in the cornetist's musical barometer. His chops, like his stern refusal to become anyone's man but his own, remained impervious to change. However, lacking the resourcefulness of others, he was a feather in the wind of circumstance, blown hither and yon by the vagaries of the business.
Although without question a dominant force on the bandstand, when it came time to advancing his own career, he was even less successful than Jack Teagarden and Bunny Berigan, two other famed drinkers who, like Bill, much preferred blowing and balling to facing the responsibilities of leading a band.
After working with a few local groups in and around his native Defiance, Ohio, in mid-1923 Bill moved to Cincinnati, where he joined the Chubb-Steinberg Orchestra, later playing in Chicago and Detroit with the Seattle Rhythm Kings, and in Chicago again with Benny Meroff's top-ranking theater orchestra. In all of these big bands, Bill, the "hot man," picked his notes out by ear, filling in the appropriate harmonic lines while the other musicians dutifully read their parts.
Willard provides a fully documented account of the infamous auto accident in March 1932 that resulted in the early morning death of Chicago clarinet great Frank Teschemacher, the sole passenger in the car that Bill was driving, and for which tragedy Davison was held morally culpable by Tesch's friends and admirers. The news of his death and Bill's offhand, seemingly self-centered reaction to it spread rapidly in Chicago's jazz community, and for many decades it was believed that his move to Milwaukee in 1933 was a direct result of the ostracism he endured in Chicago. Willard, however, goes to great lengths in order to disprove this long-held myth.
After a comprehensive account of Bill's eight-year hiatus from mainstream activity, the author then takes us through the circumstances of his 1941 reunion with former Chicagoan Eddie Condon, since 1938 the head of a small coterie of dedicated jazzmen working at Nick's and recording for Commodore. From that point on, Davison increasingly broadened his horizons, ultimately touring nationally and internationally with a variety of all-star and local bands. As if to compensate for the dearth of recordings from his early years, his latter-day ouevre literally bursts with compelling examples of his remarkable abilities, which ranged from sparsely noted but rhythmically supercharged leads on ensemble swingers to impassioned, highly personalized solo statements on both basic blues and standard ballads. Though he lacked the timbral purity and harmonic adventurousness of Bix and the breathtaking swing and melodic creativity of Louis, Bill nevertheless fashioned his own unique style out of the two, and that's what jazz is all about.
Willard is careful to point out that his book is not about jazz so much as it is about Davison the man. He avoids making critical comments himself, preferring to let information of this sort come through the many direct quotations culled from his years of research. It is thus in this area that the author scores the highest, for he began his research in 1975, when not only Bill but also many of his early professional associates, acquaintances, ex-wives, and friends were still alive. Accordingly, his accumulated letters and taped interviews ultimately became filled with cogent quotations, anecdotes, and personal revelations previously unshared with the interested public. In this way, we learn, often through Bill's own testimony, of his legendary proclivities in the areas of boozing, societally unacceptable behavior, and womanizing, both before, during, and in between his five marriages, all, by the way, to slightly built, beautiful blondes. Even in this respect he was consistent.
Though a comparatively short, rather barrel-shaped, pudgy man with straight, slicked-down hair, Bill held an uncontested attraction to and for the ladies. Lusty from his precocious youth on through his late 50s, he continued to exude a boyish but unmistakably salacious charm that carried him through countless one-night stands in parked autos, back rooms, hotel pads, and virtually anywhere else conducive to hasty, booze-fueled, loveless rutting. With nary a passing thought given to conventional propriety, he particularly enjoyed making unexpected lunges at tempting female bodily parts and cupping the bell of his cornet or his hands around the prominently displayed breasts of buxom customers. On this subject, Willard says that "one thing that research and interviews can't explain is how Bill could regularly entice women he had just met to have sex virtually on the spot. It seemed as if females everywhere existed in a state of sexual readiness in case Wild Bill Davison happened along and suddenly got the urge."
Bill didn't even begin to settle down to a relatively monogamous life until his 50s, well after having married his "fifth and final" wife, Ann Stewart, a glamorous and cultured former Hollywood starlet who was also perhaps the most understanding, forgiving, and selfless woman in world history. She even tolerated to a degree his continued bed-hopping, his inordinate capacity for booze, his remorseless kleptomania, and his fascination with collecting Nazi military regalia and swastika-emblazoned flags. Politically naive and apparently insensitive to the feelings of others, he simply couldn't understand why his Jewish wife became so upset with his innocent enjoyment of colorful and shiny things.
The story of Davison the man provides an illuminating supplement to his many recordings and the memories of those thousands of people worldwide who still thrill to the sound of his playing, but the book does contain a small number of errors that should have been spotted by its editors.
First, we read (p. 64) that "When in Detroit, Bill had heard Louis for the first time, on a record. He continued to listen to that record, Cornet Chop Suey and Alligator Crawl, on the portable Victrola that he carried with him from city to city." What's wrong about that statement is that those two titles never appeared on the same record, as Cornet Chop Suey was coupled with My Heart and Alligator Crawl with Willie the Weeper.
Secondly, there is a reference (p. 71) to Benny Meroff's trumpet section that includes the names of both Forrest McCullough and Forrest Nicola as two separate individuals. However, the phonetic similarity of these two names in such improbable proximity suggests a confusion arising from an improperly interpreted taped interview.
Thirdly, when discussing Bill's participation in Brad Gowans' 1943 recreation of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band for a Katherine Dunham show, Willard lists such fellow players as ODJB veterans Eddie Edwards, Tony Spargo, and "perhaps pianist Henry Ragas." Fanciful speculation aside, it should have been brought to the author's attention that Ragas had died in 1919, and that a more likely candidate for the gig would have been New York-based Frank Signorelli, who was still very much alive and active in 1943.
One more goof: in referring to the racial balance of Bill's 1962 touring band with Buster Bailey and Vic Dickenson (p. 313), Willard implies that substitute drummer Walt Gifford was also black, an assumption controverted by my own observation while playing with him in the mid-'50s.
Apart from these relatively minor errors, The Wildest One is still the most meticulously detailed jazz biography to come along in years. It can be purchased by writing directly to the author at the address provided in the heading.