Dart was deeply involved in shaping the sound of Yerba Buena and set a model for those who followed.
Drummer, bandleader and jazz historian-writer, Hal Smith has studied and admired his work and provides this insight on his sound and career:
The distinctive drumming of Bill Dart is one of the hallmarks of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sound. He played predominantly on the woodblocks (a variety of them, in different pitches) and, to a lesser extent, on choked cymbals and non-tunable tack-head tom-toms. The sound of the blocks, cymbals and toms blends perfectly with the various pianists, banjoists and bassists who comprised the YBJB rhythm section. Dart had a good instinct for which instrument to use behind the soloists -- for instance on the 1946 West Coast recordings, he tended to play blocks behind Wally Rose and Turk Murphy, choked cymbal behind the trumpets, tom-tom behind Bob Helm. Wayne Jones (another great Traditional Jazz drummer) once said to me, "I wish I could tell Bill Dart that he was exactly the right man for the job."
Little is known about Bill Dart's musical background, except for the fact that he was active during the Swing Era, that he met Bob Scobey when both worked at the Lake Merritt Hotel in Oakland in the late '30s, and that he participated in the Big Bear Tavern jam sessions that led to the formation of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Bob Helm told me that Dart's wife encouraged him to "play out, like Gene Krupa" but surely he was dissuaded from that approach by various YBJB band members.
Dart was encouraged to listen to Baby Dodds' drumming with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. On those acoustic recordings, Dodds played exclusively on woodblocks, with occasional taps on the cymbal and tom-tom. On some early acetates by the Yerba Buena band, Dart can be heard playing press rolls on the snare drum. However, by the time the band began to record professionally, the snare drum playing was severely limited and Dart concentrated on the percussion that was audible on Oliver's Gennett records. [It's also possible that Dodds' playing on the Oliver records was due in part to the technical limitations of the early acoustic recording medium which was challenged by drumming. DR]
Looking Over his Shoulder
Throughout his stay with the YBJB, Dart's drumming was closely monitored by various band members. At the Dawn Club and later at Hambone Kelly's, the rhythm section was set up in front of the horns (with the front line on a riser). Thus, Dart's every move was visible to Watters, Scobey, Murphy and Helm. Helm mentioned that one time Dart experimented with accents on the bass drum, instead of the steady first and third beats. Lu Watters quickly put an end to those variations. After the band moved to Hambone Kelly's, Dart bought a cymbal that was larger than the ones he had used at the Dawn Club. He picked up the cymbal in the afternoon and put it on a stand that was mounted on the bass drum. That night, when he sat down behind the drums for the evening's performance, he saw that the cymbal had been reduced in size by the use of tin snips!
Watters and Murphy have both been credited with the tin snip attack, but I tend to think that Turk was the actual culprit. He never had much that was positive to say about Dart's playing -- a fact that came out on my very first encounter with Turk. We had just met, and Turk found out that I was a drummer. When he asked who I listened to, I replied "Bill Dart." Immediately he stammered, "Th-that-that's n-not a g-good source!" Later, he told me that for awhile Dart held a second job delivering milk and would often get sleepy when the band played at the Dawn Club. Turk gleefully recalled that when he saw Dart's shoulders slump, he would lean forward from the riser and blast a triple-forte glissando just behind Dart's right ear to jar him awake.
Although Watters could not seem to get enough of the woodblock, that particular percussion sound did not appeal to everyone… Record producer George Buck recalled going into the Commodore Music Shop in New York and asking for the latest release by the Yerba Buena band. A clerk responded, "Oh. You mean Lu Watters and his musical tick-tocks?" At a recording session in 1993, I accompanied Wally Rose on a piano rag. After the first take, hoping that he approved of the way I mixed woodblock, cymbal and tom-tom I asked, "Was that o.k., Wally?" He replied, "Yes, that was good. Dart would have played woodblock through everything!" On the other side of the coin, pianist Burt Bales once told me that "Dart was a good tap-dancer" and he was obviously recalling Dart's expertise with the woodblock!
The restrictions on the drumming came to a head in 1948. One night Dart mounted the bandstand at Hambone Kelly's only to see that the cymbals, tom-toms and bass drum pedal had been removed from his set. The woodblocks had been left on the bass drum and there was a round plywood insert inside the snare drum rim -- with four additional woodblocks!
With Scobey 1947-48
A news item written around this time by Dick Oxtot for the Record Changer noted that Dart had left the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, and was "finally able to play the kind of drumming that he is capable of beating out" with the band led by former YBJB trumpeter Bob Scobey. From 1947 - 1949 Scobey was in and out of the YBJB. He was tired of the relentless 2/4 rhythmic approach and was trying to organize his own group.
Scobey put together a couple of excellent bands in 1947 and 1948, to record just before the Musicians' Union recording band went into effect. Dart was on both of the sessions by "Alexander's Jazz Band" and though he reverts back to the woodblocks a few time, he also made more use of the snare drum, bass drum, tom-toms and cymbals. Trombonist Bob Mielke said that during this time, "Dart played like a man who has just been let out of jail" and compared his playing to the great New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin.
Last Hurrah at Hambone’s
In 1949, Dart returned to the YBJB at Hambone Kelly's. Scobey and Murphy had left to form their own bands, and banjoist Harry Mordecai had retired from playing. The sound of the band had changed quite a bit, as Watters was the only trumpet, and trombonist Don Noakes was much less aggressive than Turk. In the rhythm section, Mordecai's propulsive strumming was replaced by the easygoing twin banjos of Pat Patton and Clancy Hayes. The reorganized YBJB recorded extensively for Watters' own Down Home records as well as Norman Granz's Mercury label. Amazingly, the drumming on all these records indicates that Watters wanted to hear something besides woodblock as the dominant percussive sound. That "something" turned out to be the choke cymbal.
With precious few exceptions, Dart played choke cymbal not only on the commercial recordings, but on the broadcasts from Hambone Kelly's and the live recordings which were made by Bob Helm. Though choke cymbal is great for marking the time and driving a band, it takes a lot out of a drummer. The angle and height of the left arm can become tiresome and so can the repetitive motion of damping and striking the cymbal. Dart is not known to have suffered from bursitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, but some photos of his drum set at Hambone Kelly's show that the cymbals were lowered to a height where he would not have to raise his left arm so high.
At Hambone Kelly's, Watters brought in several guest artists for special occasions. The list included Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, James P. Johnson, the Castle Jazz Band and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. There were also weekend jam sessions, which produced music that was often the polar opposite of the YBJB approach; much closer to the freewheeling Condon sound. Several photos taken by banjoist Pat Patton at the sessions show Bill Dart as a participant. Years later, Firehouse Five cornetist Danny Alguire recalled sitting in on one of the jam sessions, where he was particularly impressed by Dart's drumming. On a break Danny was standing next to Dart as the musicians relieved themselves in the Hambone Kelly's men's room. Danny said, "Gee, Bill. You really sound beautiful. You're swingin' tonight!" Dart quickly replied, "Don't tell Lu!"
After Yerba Buena
After Watters disbanded the YBJB, Dart worked for awhile as a freelance musician. When John Gill was the curator of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Archives, he found a fascinating recording in the Clancy Hayes collection: A rehearsal of the early-'50s Bob Scobey band, with Dart on drums. The most interesting aspect of the drumming is that Dart seems to be emulating Fred Higuera's style. Though Dart did not have Higuera's technical ability, he did manage to approximate Higuera's loose, strutting rhythmic concept.
Later, he played more of a New Orleans style with Bob Mielke's Superior Stompers. In the late '50s he played with a band led by trumpeter Bob Hodes, which included Jim Leigh, trombone; Bob Helm, clarinet; Don Ewell, piano; and Charles Oden, bass. Sadly, there are no recordings of this group and none of the participants ever described how it sounded or what kind of specific musical approach -- if any -- they took. Without any recordings for evidence, it is probably safe to assume that Dart's drumming was similar to the way he played with the Superior Stompers a few years earlier.
When Lu Watters organized the band for the "Blues Over Bodega" recording session in 1964, he originally intended to include Dart on drums. Years later he told me that at the time, Dart was in the process of getting a divorce, and was not available to record. If he had made the record, what would he have sounded like? Would he have returned to the default choke cymbal? Or gone back even farther, to the woodblock? Or would he have just played?
A private recording from 1967 gives a glimpse of what might have been, if Dart had been on the "Blues Over Bodega" session. The setting was a benefit concert for Vivian Boarman, who owned the Yerba Buena Music Shop in Oakland. She was a great supporter of traditional jazz and the Bay Area musicians who played it, and a tremendous number of them participated in the benefit -- including Dart. At the benefit, he played with Bob Mielke's Bearcats and also in a small ragtime group with Wally Rose on piano and Squire Girsback on bass. On this occasion, Dart lived up to Mielke's earlier description. He played with a ferocious drive and a great New Orleans style beat. Obviously, on this occasion, no one was micromanaging his drumming!
In the end, it must be said that Bill Dart almost always played the right thing at the right time, in the right place. Any of the recordings he made with Lu Watters will confirm that statement.
Great thanks to Hal Smith: drummer, bandleader and jazz historian/writer.