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From "Mound City Blue Blowers: Hot Comb & Tin-Can" (1924-1931)
Vintage Music Productions 0151 (CD)

The original Mound City Blue Blowers was formed by Red McKenzie, Dick Slevin and Jack Bland, in 1923. At the time, Red McKenzie was a bellhop, at the Claridge Hotel, in St. Louis. He had previously been a jockey, but he stopped racing horses, after a fall that left him with two broken arms. Across the street from the Claridge, Dick Slevin worked as a soda jerk, at Butler Brothers. McKenzie and Slevin first played together, at this soda shop, accompanied by the rhythm of a young, shoe shine boy.

Red McKenzie played what he called "hot comb," which was really just an ordinary comb with a strip of paper held against it. Most writers state that McKenzie used tissue paper, but Eddie Condon insisted that he only used strips of newspaper from the New York World. Dick Slevin also tried playing the hot comb, but it is said that he found the vibration too ticklish, so he stuck with his toy kazoo. After meeting Jack Bland, McKenzie and Slevin routinely visited Bland's apartment, for informal jam sessions. By the fall of 1923, the trio was sufficiently rehearsed to play (at least between sets), at St. Louis' Turner Hall, where they were heard by Frankie Trumbauer.

Trumbauer was pivotal to the early success of the Mound City Blue Blowers. After hearing them, he was impressed enough to help them get engagements, including a party for Alice Busch (of the beer family). More importantly, he got the band an audience with Gene Rodemich, who offered them a featured chorus in one of his upcoming recording sessions. The session was scheduled for February 21, 1924, in Chicago. While there, however, the Mound City Blue Blowers sat in, at the Friar's Inn, where they were heard by Isham Jones. Jones offered them a session of their own, which took place at Brunswick's Chicago studio, on February 23, 1924. They recorded two sides: "Arkansas Blues" and "Blue Blues." The record sold more than one million copies.

A few weeks later, on March 14, the band was joined by Trumbauer for two more recordings, at Brunswick. Later that spring, they traveled to New York, where Ray Miller helped them get new engagements, including the Beaux Arts, in Atlantic City, and the State Theater, in Jersey City. It was at the Beaux Arts where they met Eddie Lang. Lang joined the band, when they returned to New York, in August, to play the Palace.

In the spring of 1925, the Mound City Blue Blowers traveled to England, where they played the Hackney Empire Theater, the Picadilly Hotel and the Stork Club, in London. In August 1925, after returning to New York, the band made its first recordings as McKenzie's Candy Kids. This was the name the band used, when recording for Vocalion.

On February 14, 1927, the Mound City Blue Blowers appeared in a Vitaphone short with Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orchestra. By then, Eddie Lang had left the band and was replaced by guitarist, Joe Humby. A couple weeks later, on March 1, the band made its last recording with Dick Slevin. (Whatever happened to Slevin remains unknown.)

During this period, Red McKenzie became more active as a jazz promoter and booking agent. It was in this capacity that he booked but did not record with McKenzie and Condon's Chicagoans, which included so many future legends of jazz. At the same time, he continued to record with his own band, "Red McKenzie and His Music Box," as well as the Chicago Rhythm Kings, the Jungle Kings, Bud Freeman and Earl Hines.

On February 23, 1929, the Mound City Blue Blowers recorded as the "Mystery Orchestra." The recordings were unissued, but Jack Bland is listed as playing banjo, and George Means is listed as playing "suitcase." Red McKenzie is said to have played "tin-can," which some have suggested as being a baritone kazoo. However, it was probably a regular kazoo played into a coffee can to produce a kind of wah-wah effect, as described by Bing Crosby.

In June 1929, the Mound City Blue Blowers appeared in their second Vitaphone short, entitled "The Opry House." In addition to McKenzie and Bland, Carl Kress played guitar, and Josh Billings (1904-1957) played the suitcase. The suitcase was a real suitcase, which was played with two whisk brooms, while being kicked to produce a bass drum effect. This is presumably the same way George Means played it, four months earlier. (Frank "Josh" Billings grew up, in Chicago, with the Austin High School Gang. In addition to being an accomplished suitcase player, he played drums and piano.)

During the summer and early fall of 1929, Red McKenzie made several recordings, as a vocalist, with Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, as well as the Midnight Airdales, another Nichols band. It was also during this time that Eddie Condon first recorded with the Mound City Blue Blowers, on August 19 and September 25, before joining the band for their landmark session of November 14, 1929, which included Coleman Hawkins.

In April 1930, the Mound City Blue Blowers appeared in their last Vitaphone short, entitled "Nine O'Clock Folks." Red McKenzie played his hot comb, amplified by a large megaphone. Both Jack Bland and Eddie Condon played 4-string, cello-bodied guitars, while Josh Billings played the suitcase.

During the first half of the 1930s, Red McKenzie became known, more and more, for his vocals, recording not only under his own name, but also with Paul Whiteman (1932), Adrian Rollini (1933), Victor Young (1933), the Spirits of Rhythm (1934) and the reorganized New Orleans Rhythm Kings (1935). At the same time, he continued on his hot comb, recording with the Mariners vocal trio, as well as his own bands. By 1935 and 1936, the Mound City Blue Blowers -- which also recorded as "Red McKenzie and His Rhythm Kings" -- had become a kind of all-star, studio band, featuring such standouts as Bunny Berigan, Bob Haggart, Ray Bauduc, Dave Barbour and Dave Tough.

Meanwhile, Jack Bland went on to work with several groups, which included the bands of Billy Banks and his own "Jack Bland and the Rhythmakers," all of which recorded in 1932. In 1940, he recorded with George Wettling's Chicago Rhythm Kings and was already active in the revivalist movement that was nurtured at Jimmy Ryan's and Commodore Records. From 1942 to 1944, he became a member of Art Hodes' band, but he still recorded with other bands, such as Muggsy Spanier's, in 1943. In 1944, he started his own band and directed the first of at least 47 of Eddie Condon's Town Hall and Ritz Theater concerts, which were broadcast on NBC. By 1950, Jack Bland had retired from professional music and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for a taxi service. He died, in October 1968.

Like Jack Bland, Red McKenzie was also an important figure in the revivalist movement. Beginning in the fall of 1937, he sang with the band at Nick's, in Greenwich Village. He also recorded with Commodore Records and participated in many of Eddie Condon's Town Hall and Ritz Theater concerts, many of which were directed by Jack Bland. In February 1947, Red McKenzie made one of his very last recorded performances, during a live broadcast of the WNYC Jazz Festival, in New York. Just under a year later, on February 7, 1948, Red McKenzie died of cirrhosis.

~ Jeff Hopkins
February 2005

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