"Some Kind of Genius" wrote Jim Leigh in his memoir, Heaven on the Side
(Photo by William Carter Courtesy of Earl Scheelar)
“Erickson, usually erroneously labelled a Dixieland jazzman, was in every way a comprehensive modern musician, performer and composer whose interests ranged from the blues to Bartok.” -- Phil Elwood, San Francisco Examiner, 12.1.67
Bill Erickson (b. 3.25.29 - d. 1967) was a gifted musician: jazz piano and trumpet player, bandleader, composer and arranger. In the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1950s and ‘60s. He organized and played in several notable venues and combos. As a sideman he worked for Kid Ory, Jack Sheedy, Bob Mielke and others from the late 1940s until 1967.
The tapes of Erickson's Quartet at Monkey Inn, 1961-62 are especially notable. It was a swinging combo featuring Frank Goudie (clarinet), Bob Mielke (trombone) and sometimes a (now unknown) trumpet player. Goudie's long striding solos are heard in full fidelity stereo.
For about a decade, Bill Erickson was catalyst in the Bay Area area for good times and great jazz; his Berkeley Jazz house parties, jam sessions and gigs provided a congenial setting for musicians to freely express themselves. But the scarcity of recordings and reverberation of his pointless suicide have long obscured understanding of his dynamic role and authoritative musicianship.
Erickson was part of a second wave of revival- jazz musicians, active during the Fifties, Sixties and beyond, who are underrepresented in biography and reissue. Distinct from the San Francisco Traditional style that preceded and inspired them, this generation of talented players created a unique regional music of great charm and swing.
I hope this web page and related resources may help renew interest in the legacy of these musicians among whom Bill Erickson, Willie the Master, stood first among equals.
Remembering Bill Erickson, “Willie The Master” (1929-1967)
This interactive article presents the music and story of this gifted jazz pianist, trumpet player and session leader. For about a decade he was at the center of Bay Area revival-jazz and a catalyst for good times and great music. His Jazz House parties, jam sessions and gigs provided a congenial setting for musicians to freely express themselves.
After his tragic suicide in 1967, recall of Erickson and his music almost completely disappeared. The scarcity of recordings and reverberation of his pointless suicide have long obscured understanding of his dynamic role and authoritative musicianship.
But Bill Erickson’s catalytic role in Bay Area music can now be reconstructed with tapes from the personal libraries of Dave Greer and Bob Mielke, bringing his dynamic musical life into clear focus.
Interactive article recently published by San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation:
"Hosted by a
shady operator the best of Frisco Jazz was served up with a dubious
cocktail at a crowded little gingham-topped table at the infamous Burp Hollow."
Erickson’s style is elusive to define, either on trumpet or piano. As a piano player Bill had two distinct piano modes, as Bob Mielke explains: "He had two manners of playing. One was when a bass player is present in the group. That was kind of a light, Teddy Wilson sort of style. But if there were no bass player, then he came on like gangbusters with a strong left hand. He was trying to be a real rhythm section unto himself."
Jim Leigh in his memoir Heaven on the Side (2000) commented on Erickson and his style in the chapter, Definitely Some Kind of Genius: "Erickson himself never showed off at the keyboard; he played no dazzling specialty numbers. He always played very, very well, and always served the band in all respects. As a soloist he was neither greedy nor shy, and he rarely if ever repeated himself.
Erickson was one of the best leaders I have ever played for, and I have played for some good ones. He led by example, he led by temperament (but without being in the least temperamental). He wanted to play honest music in a relaxed and congenial environment. He enjoyed pleasing listeners regardless of their level of jazz expertise."
Correction: Jerry Blumberg is not the horn player on the Bill Erickson Quintet Monkey Inn tapes of 1961-62, contrary to Bob Mielke’s recollection and notations on the tape reel boxes. Blumberg recently broke a long silence about his San Francisco years to send me correspondence stating that he was not the horn player on those recordings. According to his own records, Blumberg was not in the Bay Area when this series of recordings began, yet he does recall playing with Mielke at the Monkey Inn.
The notations in pencil on the Monkey Inn tape boxes regarding personnel might not be contemporaneous, but added later when the tapes were in the possession of collector Bill Raynolds. Suggestions regarding who this horn player might be include: RCH Smith, Eddie Smith, Ted Butterman or Jack Minger.
Trumpet player Byron Berry has been suggested by several including Blumberg. But my careful audition of contemporaneous Berry tapes leads me to reject this candidate.
Note on recordings: The archival recordings heard on these
pages are offered as historic artifacts. They contain many musical and
technical flaws, or are incomplete or poorly balanced in places.
Personnel are listed as available, or as deduced from educated guesses
Pier 23 Live KOFY broadcast, c. 1959 "WATERFRONT JAZZ SOCIETY"
This is an amazing live performance and extraordinary audio
document. It has everything: Bill Erickson leading the band in fine
form on trumpet, Burt Bales and Bob Mielke at the top of their games, a
swashbucking performance by Frank Goudie, a Dick Oxtot vocal, and the
electric atmosphere of a jazz broadcast from the San Francisco
waterfront with an appearance by owner Havelock Jerome (a world-class
Despite heroic restoration efforts, this tape contains unavoidable gaps, distortion and musical flaws. Bill Erickson (trumpet) Frank Goudie (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocals) Burt Bales (piano, vocals) Squire Girsback (string bass) Bob Osibin (drums) Suzane Summers (vocals) Lee Crosby (on-air host)
Photo: Erickson and Mielke, date and location unknown
Bob Mielke collection
Bill Erickson’s One Man Band Early 1950's
Bill Erickson’s one-man-band recordings are gems, and among the more successful of their kind. Musically and technically the tunes are tight and polished. Besides offering several obscure-as-hell tunes, Erickson provides some delightful Bixian trumpet solos and overdubbed horn section passages.
This is not jazz per se, but excellent arranging aimed at satirizing some of the rickey-tickey ‘mouse music’ played by the dance-bands and hotel-orchestras of the late-1920s, a tongue-in-cheek send-up and affectionate tribute to the popular music of an earlier generation. Erickson’s gentle parodies are showcases for his formidable arranging, detailed section work, and some clangorous musical jokes that utilize advanced harmony and modern composition.
And what a delight to have a fully orchestrated rendition of the bawdy “Green Light.” This clever Fifties ode to a popular condom brand of the day almost got Erickson arrested in San Francisco, according to Dick Oxtot in his Jazz Scrapbook memoir:
“Someone complained to the authorities about what they considered a vulgar song. Bill and I were informed that we would be cited and even arrested if we continued to sing “Green Light” in public. Each evening a cop was [at Jack’s Waterfront Hangout], apparently keeping his ears open to see if we, once again, sang about “Green Light” which was a trade name for condoms."
As a sound engineer, I’m baffled how such clean undistorted sound was achieved with the recording equipment then available, requiring at least half a dozen overdubs. Even Oscar Anderson, who made his audio equipment available to Erickson, is unsure quite how Erickson achieved such excellence.
* * * Great thanks to Richard Hadlock for sharing these unique treasures. * * *
Bill Erickson One Man Band Early 1950's, Woodmont Ave. Oakland, CA
Forthcoming: The best and rarest of the archival jazz recordings
heard on these pages will soon be available for purchase on CD or
downloads (Amazon, i-tunes, etc) from Frisco Jazz Archival Rarities, a
partnership between Dave Radlauer and Grammercy Records.
Frank “Big Boy” Goudie, Bob Mielke, Bill Erickson combo in Stereo Hi-fi Live at Monkey Inn, 1961-62. (3 CDs) Five hours of music from the legendary Monkey Inn combo of Bill Erickson.
Frisco Jazz Archival Rarities
offers unissued historic recordings from live performances, jam
sessions and private tapes. Recorded mostly in the Bay Area 1940-75,
this is lost sound from a boisterous musical culture that created an
independent jazz style of its own.
Bill Erickson at an East Bay jazz party with Mielke (trombone) and Napier (center front)
Bill Erickson sings These songs were associated with Erickson
and never commercially issued. They are recovered here thanks to Dave
Greeer, Oscar Anderson, and Richard Hadlock.
My Sunday Girl.mp3 Dick Oxtot Birthday 1965: P.T. Stanton (cornet) Bunky Coleman (clarinet) Bill Bardin (trombone) Peter Allen (bass) Bill Dart (drums) Green Light.mp3 Erickson One-Man-band early 1950s. Bill plays all instruments.
A Rough and Tumble Past
first encountered Erickson in the late-1950s and considered him at that
time equally skilled on piano and trumpet. Bill was part of the
Berkeley-East Bay jazz contingent with Dick Oxtot, Bob Mielke, Bill Bardin, Earl Scheelar, Jerry and P.T. Stanton and others like Bret Runkle.
a graduate of Pasadena College, Erickson told Jim that he'd learned
piano playing for “exotic dancers” in the San Francisco tenderloin. He
then joined a trio on a cruise ship sailing between S.F. and Hong Kong,
working with a drummer who was addicted to heroin. To avoid being
drafted into the Korean War he got himself a habit too. And it worked .
. . except that Erickson was then arrested, tried and served a year in
prison for felony drug possession. After release he never took heroin
again, though he told clarinet player Bill Carter that it never fully gone away as temptation.
Bob Mielke, a trombonist, recalls Bill was, “Inspiring to play with,” a pianist, “who gave horn players ideas.” Originally impressed by the iconic cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke, Bill developed his joyous spirit and the same flawless musicianship which characterized his piano work.
Jazz critic and musician Dick Hadlock, who played reed instruments with Bill, said that he, “Knew where he was going and how to get there. He knew how to arrange and run a band and was totally reliable.”
Bill had studied composition and had some of his works performed by the music department of San Francisco State. He was also an avid chess player and built his own electronic equipment. His old friend Oscar Anderson recalls that Bill constructed a radio which functioned on one tube instead of the usual five. Although Anderson has a degree in electrical engineering and a PhD. in physics, he was unable to understand how Bill did it.
Bill was a kind of Renaissance man who also possessed the talented writer’s ability to find humor and underlying human truths in everyday life. His narrations of such events could have been printed as short stories with little or no editing.
[His playing was] clean, precise, and swinging. While being scrupulously faithful to the tune, Bill’s flow of improvisations upon it seem as much a part of it as do sails unfurling on the spars of a ship. By the time he finishes a tune, we have the feeling that everything that ever needed to be said about it has been said.
Bill Erickson will long be remembered as one of the finest of the many musicians who helped to make the 1950s and ‘60s a golden age of traditional jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those of us privileged to know Bill will never forget his remarkable mind, his insightful humor, his kindness, and his enjoyment of life which he shared so generously both on and off the bandstand. Vaya con Dios, old friend.
New 12.1.2013 ARCHIVE MUSIC
Bill Erickson piano solos.
Multiple takes recorded in the rumpus room above Earl Scheelar’s VW garage by Dave Greer in 1963.
Richard Hadlock recalls Erickson’s admiration of Arthur Schutt:
“One of Bill's pianist heroes was Arthur Schutt, a name only a few collectors knew in the '60s. One night at the Pier a well-lubricated customer in her 60s or so hollered, 'you're pretty good, but you ain't no Arthur Schutt!'
Bill nearly fell off the piano bench. Turned out the real Schutt had recently
moved into a fleabag hotel at the foot of Broadway with his lady and
this was she, alone and drinking at the Pier.
I got acquainted with Schutt after that.”
I didn't know Bill Erickson anything like Mielke and the others did; but I did work with him one night a week at Burp Hollow on Broadway in San Francisco for a few months in about 1960 or 1961. I drove him much of that time from Berkeley where I was living, since he did not have a car. It was Oxtot's band. As everyone will attest, he was a sweet soft-spoken guy.
My only burning memory was of him chatting about his [heroine] habit one night as we headed toward and over the Bay Bridge. I remember him saying that he had deliberately made himself a heroin addict in order to avoid being drafted (for I assume the Korean war?); that he had recovered from the habit; but that it never really could go away in the sense it remained out there, always tempting him to revert back.
Octet Leigh came to know Erickson well after 1961 and was fascinated with his intense intelligence, humor, imagination and vast musical gifts. He describes an octet that was, “a rehearsal band . . . just for the fun, the exercise, and to give him a chance to work off some of his musicianship.”
During 1963 this ensemble included Robin Hodes (trumpet), Dave Clarkson (tenor sax), Frank Goudie (clarinet), James Carter (drums) and others. Every week Erickson would compose a new tune, and score it for the octet . . . the music was not easy.
Some Kind of Genius Years later Jim encountered an instructor in music composition with whom Erickson had studied when he attended San Francisco State University in the 1950s.
The professor related how Bill had come to him with the score of a Mozart symphony, saying he could write one. "And I said 'Well who knows, someday you might.' Because I knew he was very bright. But you see he meant a Mozart symphony. So what could I say? I laughed . . . 'Oh, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t write a Mozart symphony.' But then, my God, he did. He got the whole thing. It was just . . . an early Mozart symphony. I mean, Mozart could have written it.
I really do believe . . . that he was definitely some kind of genius."
Dave Greer (right) is a jazz enthusiast, amateur trumpet player and tape recordist who was close friend and roommate of Bill Erickson in Berkeley. Their residence became a Jazz house that was the site of ongoing parties. Greer is a lifelong journalist, and these recollections are culled from his letters, interviews and articles.
Berkeley Jazz Parties
When I arrived in Berkeley in 1955, there were revival jazz bands performing somewhere every night of the week and more than one could take in on a Friday or Saturday. [There were] large jazz parties that musicians, their families, friends, and hard-core fans frequently held in their homes.
These gatherings, attended by 80 to 100 or more people, took fire in the afternoons, roared through the evening, and smoldered into the morning hours. They were remarkable events musically and socially. We were mostly poor; but our doors were open to all, and hosts provided plenty of “day old” French bread, spaghetti or red beans and rice, and cheap wine.
Dollar-a-gallon Sergeant burgundy was the house wine in the big old Victorian space where I roomed with the late piano and trumpet player Bill “Willie the Master” Erickson. At our parties there were sometimes bands playing in the front room, the kitchen, and the backyard. Bliss it was to be young and a member of the Berkeley jazz crowd.
Clarinetist Frank “Big Boy” Goudie . . . was a regular at these assemblies. The great Darnell Howard set high standards for the young reed men, as did Clem Raymond. Wellman Braud, Duke Ellington’s long-time string bass player, and Pops Foster, bassist in many famous bands including Luis Russell’s, both helped swing these parties. Aside from being first-rate performers, they were all real gentlemen of jazz.
While I was living with Bill
Erickson [we] would have dinner -- he took a real interest in food and
was quite a good cook -- and then we usually decided to go down to
Nods. Bill took his horn, and I should have taken my recording gear and
I knew it, but I felt it would be an awful hassle in such a crowded
space, and I never did. Some exceptionally fine music was lost.
(Dick Oxtot, left, Ted Butterman, right. Photo courtesy Dave Greer.)
place called Nods in Berkeley had begun having jazz bands play once a
week in a back room. It wasn’t very big, but there was a bandstand if
no dance floor. Tables came up pretty close to the bandstand and the
I always remember Ted Butterman being on stage . . . Bill sat in with him. [Butterman was from Chicago and later played with the Golden State Jazz Band. DR]
They swapped choruses on the tunes, and these were monumental
exchanges! Bill had begun playing as a Bixian but moved into his own
style. The competition with Ted brought out the best in both of them.
less effortlessly agile, Bill created logical, elegant musical
structures any one of which could have gone on record with never a note
changed. I had heard many fine musicians exchange choruses . . . but I
never heard any as consistently excellent as these before or since.
Bill Erickson's Stradivarius Bach (now owned by Dave Greer).
Bill Erickson plays trumpet at Pier 23
Bill Erickson (trumpet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Bill Napier (clarinet) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Pete Allen (bass) Jimmy Carter (drums)
In 1951 Bob tried a golf-themed promotion for his first band, The Fairway Rhythm Kings.
to R: Bob Mielke (looking rather like a young James Cagney), unknown
musician, Bill Napier (Looking rather natty) and Bill Erickson
Courtesy of SFTJF.
Sam Charters Washboard Band
Because of Bill Erickson’s masterful musical skills he was participant in numerous music projects where his talent for organizing sessions was welcome. One example is the Sam Charters Washboard Jazz Band on which Bill played piano. He was deeply involved in directing and recording the project in 1957-58. Unpublished until 2009, the session has recently been issued on Merry Makers Records, MMRC CD33.
Sam Charters Washboard Jazz Band Plays the Classic 1920s Jazz of Clarence Williams excerpted from Earl Scheelar's liner notes.
“Sam Charters, musicologist and writer of several books on New Orleans Jazz spent a lot of time in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s. He put this band together in 1957 to record songs written and/or recorded by Clarence Williams in the 1920s and 1930s. He chose musicians who were fans and collectors of the records of the Clarence Williams Washboard Bands. Like many of the Williams recordings the instrumentation on most of the songs consists of cornet, clarinet, piano, tuba and washboard. On three songs the tuba player switches to second cornet and another tuba player is added.
The recordings were done at several sessions at my house and were recorded by Stan Page with a professional Ampex tape recorder. Unfortunately the original tapes were lost when Stan’s house burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, however I had made copies of the tapes . . .
In the 1950s the musician’s interested in playing traditional jazz were a small select group and all were record collectors and knowledgeable about the crators of jazz in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1970s with the proliferation of the Jazz Festivals that we saw a lot of bands playing the music.
Sam Charters, the organizer, washboard and banjo player on these recordings, went on to write extensively about music and produce recordings for Folkways Records, played washboard or jug on several recordings and has written several books on jazz.
The tuba player, Walter Yost, was regarded by many of us as one of the finest brass bass players around. He was also a very highly regarded cornet player.
The piano player, Bill Erickson, also a very accomplished cornet player, was a wonderfully talented and highly respected musician until his untimely death in 1967.
I was the clarinet player on these recordings. I came to the Bay Area in 1950 to be a part of the Jazz Scene and consider myself very fortunate to have been associated with a group of such fine musicians.”
Sam Charters Washboard Band Berkeley, CA 1957-58
Session personnel varied, but for these tracks the lineup was:
Dick Oxtot (cornet) Walter Yost (second cornet) Earl Scheelar (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Bill Erickson (piano) Sam Charters (washboard/banjo) Jerry Fredgren (tuba)
Bill Erickson, trumpet Frank Goudie (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Burt Bales (piano) Squire Girsback (bass) Bob Osibin (drums)
Note: Estuary was an outgrowth of the Pier 23 jam sessions. Musically, it was directed by Erickson's strong trumpet lead, and featured soloists Frank Big Boy Goudie (clarinet) and Bob Mielke (trombone). All the players were bandleaders, except for drummer Bob Osibin. The two 1959 broadcasts from Pier 23 were a pioneering experiment in stereo: the left and right signals transmitted simultaneously via AM and FM radio.
[These historic tracks are made available despite being rough or incomplete in places.] Great thanks to recordist, Dave Greer.
“Chicks Party” and "Last Jazz House Party" at the Berkeley Jazz house. These tapes convey the effervescence of the music, personnel and spirits. Ray Ronnei (cornet) Frank Goudie (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Bill Erickson (piano) Pete Allen (bass)
Toward the end of his life Bill was teaching himself guitar.
A musical genius, Erickson lived an unconventional
recently with Bay Area musicians who’d known him, it was clear his
suicide in 1967 still hurts today.
(Photo courtesy Dave Greer.)
“Jazz Memorial on Sunday For Pianist Bill Erickson,” San Francisco Examiner, December 1, 1967
by Philip Elwood
A mammoth Memorial in Jazz, dedicated to pianist Bill Erickson, who died a few weeks ago, has been planned for Sunday evening, beginning at 4 o’clock at both Earthquake McGoon’s and the Pier 23.
Erickson, usually erroneously labeled a Dixieland jazzman, was in every way a comprehensive modern musician, performer and composer whose interests ranged from the blues to Bartok.
After his death, dozens of friends pitched in to organize the informal Sunday affair. there will be jazz of all kinds played by Erickson's colleagues, helping to establish a memorial fund in his name for the S. F. State music students.
Trombonist Bob Mielke, perhaps Erickson’s closest musical friend, has planned Sunday’s bash and will lead the Mielke’s Bearcats in performance.
The champ of the Chicago pianists from the Austin High days of the 20s, Joe Sullivan, will again lead the band, with trumpeter Byron Berry, which played in San Francisco almost 10 years ago.
Wally Rose’s ragtime band with singer Pat Yankee, the Chris Ibanez Trio (featuring bassist Vernon Alley and drummer Dave Black) and Ted Schafer’s Jelly Roll band are also donating their services.
Pianist Burt Bales and the brilliant clarinetist Vince Cattolica are joining forces for the evening with Cuz Cousineau on drums.
Red Gillham’s Valley Jazz Band, the Bay City Band and Earl Scheelar’s gang, singers Claire Austin and Carol Leigh, clarinetists Bob Helm and Bill Napier, pianist Norma Teagarden . . . Dick Oxtot and New Orleans old timer Amos White; the list goes on and on, as will the performances.
Tickets (at $1.50) bought at either club, will be honored by both: all door receipts go to the Erickson Student Loan Fund, including a percentage of the bar take from both saloons.
After Erickson's death by suicide, a large memorial concert was organized. A scholarship fund for San Francisco State University students established in his name.
Note on recordings: The archival recordings heard on these pages are offered as historic artifacts. They contain many musical and technical flaws, or are incomplete or poorly balanced in places. Personnel are listed as available, or as deduced from educated guesses.