Clarinet and soprano saxophone player Bob Helm (1914-2003) was a stalwart of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Revival. He was a significant player from the earliest jam sessions in the late 1930s to the slowing parade of farewells in the late 1990s. In later decades he was a much loved and respected elder statesman who was frequently consulted on matters of jazz history.
For more than 70 years Helm played his horn, studied the culture and history of early jazz and embodied its traditions. Born and raised in California, he played exceptional clarinet, soprano and tenor sax developing a distinctive sound all his own. He literally performed in dozens of jazz bands: * before and during the big band era of the 1930s; * with Lu Watters and the Traditional jazz revivalists in the 40s, and; * with Turk Murphy in the 1950s and then on and off with Turk through the 1980s.
Bob was a wonderful clarinet and soprano sax player best known for his role in sparking a renewed interest in early jazz.. He was a key player in the San Francisco traditional jazz revival -- a return to the roots of jazz as it was played in the 1920s by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
Bob was long associated with the Traditional jazz scene, yet his understanding of music was much broader. He once told me that in his early years of the 1930s he traveled the Midwest in a dance band and once sat-in playing clarinet with the Western Swing band of Bob Wills.
Helm was often invited as a special guest to perform at parties, recording sessions, and special jazz events of all kinds. Bob was always up for playing, appearing in dozens of varied settings over the years, honored at jazz festivals, and frequently interviewed . . . even by the BBC. Photo L to R: Helm, Diane Holmes, Ray Skjelbred, Jim Goodwin, Jim Cumming with Dick Oxtot's Golden Age Jazz Band. Probably Mandrakes, Berkeley, CA early 1970s.
JAZZ RHYTHM program:
Farewell to West Coast Traditional Jazz reed player, Bob Helm (Interview with exclusive live music tracks. Produced in 2003 this content overlaps with 1993 program.)
BOB HELM 1A.mp3 WILLIE THE WEEPER -- Hotter than That Jazz Band FLOATIN’ DOWN TO COTTON TOWN -- Sweets’ Ballroom Orchestra, c. 1937 COPENHAGEN -- Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937 STARDUST -- Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937 SHAKE THAT THING -- Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937 CANAL STREET BLUES -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, c. 1946 PANAMA -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, MARK TWAIN REHEARSALS c. 1938 ROLL JORDAN, ROLL -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Live at Hambone Kelly’s, 1950
BOB HELM 1B.mp3 LITTLE JOHN’S RAG -- Turk Murphy Jazz Band, 1951 SAGE HEN STRUT -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1946 CHATTANOOGA STOMP -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1946 OH BY JINGO -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Live at Hambone Kelly’s 1950 KANSAS CITY STOMPS -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Hambone Kelly’s 1950 PERDIDO STREET BLUES -- South Frisco Jazz Band, 1984 SADIE GREEN -- South Frisco Jazz Band, 1992 SHAKE THAT THING -- Chris Tyle’s New Orleans Rover Boys, 1992
BOB HELM 2A.mp3 PEORIA -- Turk Murphy Jazz Band, vocal Bob Helm, 1953 ATLANTA BLUES -- Turk Murphy Jazz Band, vocal Bob Helm, 1953 EVOLUTION MAMA -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1953 WEARY BLUES -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1953 CLARINET (FOO YOUNG) CHOP SUEY -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1954 RIVERSIDE SHAKE -- Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954 DOIN’ THE PLYMOUTH ROCK -- Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954
BOB HELM 2B.mp3 BACK SIDE O’ TOWN -- Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954 EASY STREET -- TurK Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958 GEORGIA BO BO -- TurK Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958 SAN -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958 BROTHER LOWDOWN -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1947 MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1953 ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1953
BOB HELM 3A.mp3 WANG WANG BLUES -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964 HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band WOLVERINE BLUES -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964 DR. JAZZ -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1979 WASHBOARD WIGGLES -- Jug & Washboard Band w/ Leon Oakley early 1980s LIVIN’ HIGH -- Bob Helm’s Jazz Band WEST TEXAS BLUES -- Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Live at Hambones c. 1950
BOB HELM 3B.mp3 WANG WANG BLUES -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964 HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band WOLVERINE BLUES -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964 DR. JAZZ -- Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1979 WASHBOARD WIGGLES -- Jug & Washboard Band w/ Leon Oakley early 1980s LIVIN’ HIGH -- Bob Helm’s Jazz Band WEST TEXAS BLUES -- Lu Watters Yerba Buena JB, Live at Hambones c. 1950
Helm spent a total of nearly three and a half decades (on and off)
in Turk Murphy’s band where he did some of his finest work. He had an
unusual sound -- his odd choice of notes and intonation gave his playing
an almost modernist or progressive jazz sound at times. This was due
in part from his early experience trying to be heard above the din of
the Watters Yerba Buena two trumpet front line.
In 1993 Bob spoke with me in
several wide-ranging interviews about the early days. His sharp memory
and incisive intelligence were a living index of personalities and
players who built the West Coast jazz revival.
One of his models in early jazz clarinet style was
Johnny Dodds, who also chose odd notes as part of his signature sound.
Bob was an individualist who created a distinct style and body of work.
This in-depth interview and music program with Bob from 1993 is a thorough and detailed examination of the origins of West Coast Traditional Jazz. A full discussion and audition of Helm's early years in music. (Originally broadcast 6.93)
Bob Helm KALW, 1993_A.mp3 28:20 Origins of the Lu Watters band; Helm’s early years in music; the 1938-39 Lu Watters Sweets Ballroom big band rehearsals on rare acetates; and early friendship with Turk Murphy.
Bob Helm KALW, 1993_B.mp3 28:05 Hostility among musicians to the classic jazz revival; Racial issues; escaping arranged music and finding another road map; early years of the Watters Yerba Buena band and recordings; Dawn Club and Hambone Kelly’s; and challenges of running the club.
Bob Helm KALW, 1993_C.mp335:27 End of the Yerba Buena band; playing in Turk’s band during the Fifties and beyond; Murphy’s national popularity; Helm’s rare Riverside Roustabouts recordings c. 1954; Helm’s individualistic tone and style; and collaboration with poet Weldon Keyes. Bob Helm KALW, 1993_D.mp3 19:36 Years with Turk Murphy; the saga of Murphy’s club, Earthquake McGoon’s; Turk’s national popularity; national broadcasts and appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show; Live from Easy Street; and inside the Murphy band in the 1950s.
Bob Helm was frequently invited as a special guest to perform at jazz festivals, parties and recording sessions. Though long associated with the West Coast revival, his understanding of
jazz was deep and wide.
The roots of his musical experience date back
to hard-traveling mid-1930s tours with Midwestern territory bands, he once sat with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and played
the California ballroom circuit with dance bands of the Thirties.
In his last couple decades Helm shared a deep friendship with the superb cornet player Leon Oakley. A first rate performer, Oakley worked with Bob for years in Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, and quietly organized jam sessions, special events and recording sessions featuring Helm.
Helm's musical association with Scheelar dates back to the mid-1960s. Bob played reeds in every one of Earl’s formally organized bands: New Orleans House, Funky New Orleans
and Zenith Jazz Band.
They became close friends: “In the 1990s we took
Bob Helm to New Orleans about five years in a row. He became a close
friend of Jacque Gauthe, sat in and recorded with him," and makes this forthright declaration, “Bob Helm was the musical genius of the Bay Area.”
Scheelar-Helm band, NOJC, Marshall, CA 1969 This is a barely disguised version of Earl's New Orleans House Band on the way to becoming Funky New Orleans Jazz Band.
Earl Scheelar was never better on cornet, his heartbreaking tone on full
display. Helm was at the height of his powers and trombonist Farkas
BBC West Coast Jazz B: Bob Scobey.mp3 Bob
Scobey, details of running Hambone Kelly’s. Turk’s clubs: Italian
Village, Easy Street, the Magic Cellar and Earthquake McGoon’s. Commentary by Bob Helm, Pat Yankee, Pete Clute, Leon Oakley, Charlie Campbell.
Riverside_Roustabouts_LP_B.mp3 Doin' the Plymouth Rock How'm I Gonna Do It (When I Don't Know What You Crave) I Don't Want Any More Seagull Strut Daybreak Blues
Bob Helm with Freddie Crews Jazz Band mid-1950s Honeybucket Tavern, San Francisco, CA Earl Scheelar (cornet) Bob Helm (clarinet & soprano sax) Jim Leigh (trombone) Freddie Crews (piano) Ron Hanscom (banjo) Carol Leigh (washboard) Photo: Scheelar, 1950s. Possibly Ron Hanscom (banjo, right). Courtesy Earl Scheelar.
(Thanks to Leon Oakley and the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.)
Free Range Bob Helm
Helm’s ballpark performances clearly demonstrate his distinctive style and assertive line. The soprano saxophone delivered needed volume without a microphone in the open-air stadium.
This previously unpublished ballpark music adds to our picture of a beloved entertainer connecting with a broad popular audience. His rich timbre, pungent tonality, originality and wit are on display.
Oakland A's Swingers baseball band
The first season of Bob Mielke's Oakland A's Swingers baseball team band (1968) consisted of a quartet Mileke (trombone) Bob Neighbor (trumpet), Bob Helm (soprano) and Dick Oxtot (banjo).
After the band complained strenuously about lacking a bass, tuba player John Moore was hired. In subsequent years Helm was replaced by Bill Napier, later by Richard Hadlock and others.
Dick Oxtot wrote in his memoir, Jazz Scrapbook: "We played the first season, each and every A's home game, with four musicians. We played in the hallways before the game, on top of the dugouts during each half-inning, and strolled through the bleachers."
". . . the band was dissatisfied with the 4-piece arrangement -- especially me. It was tough on me to provide an entire rhythm for the three horns . . . I needed a tuba to complete the rhythm for the section. Also the band would sound much better . . . the following season [team owner Art] Finley went along and agreed to add a fifth musician."
Sports columnist Ron Fimrite, hardly an incisive music critic, wrote about the band's between-inning concerts in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1970:
"The band, you say? Yes, the As's authentically have the best band in baseball. . . one of the finest traditional jazz bands in the United States . . . essentially Bob Mielke and his Bearcats, a traditional band that has provided Bay Area music lovers with some of the best sounds in their genre for more than 20 years."
Back of photo notation:
"Big deal in 1972 after the A's had won their first pennant! Monte Moore, the A's radio announcer (standing next to Helm) performs the MC duties."
Musicians, L to R: Bob Mielke, Bob Neighbor, Dick Oxtot, Bob Helm. Oxtot collection
Dick Oxtot Golden Age Jazz Band with singer Terry Garthwaite [date and location unknown probably early 1970s] Jim Goodwin and P.T. Stanton (cornets) Bob Helm (clarinet, soprano) Bob Mielke (trombone) Ray Skjelbred (piano) Dick Oxtot (banjo) John Moore (tuba) Terry Garthwaite (vocals)
Dave Walker’s All Stars, Bob Helm and Burt Bales NOJCNC 1974
Walker’s All Stars
was an exquisite jam band assembled from the usual suspects for a
session of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California. Former
club president Dave Walker selected these “All Stars,” musicians who’d
been friends for decades: Earl Scheelar (cornet) Bob Helm (clarinet and
soprano) Bob Mielke (trombone) Burt Bales (piano) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Walter Yost (tuba) drummer, unknown