My family connection to American Jazz
Never before has KinnearKreations worked on a restoration project with more historic and personal significance. I began this project as a way to release some of the great old recordings that have been locked away in family archives as well as a way to get Mel’s fascinating story out to the world, creating new interest in his music. The restoration of these old recordings has been a joint collaboration between Rocky Mountain Recorders, Sounds Great Studio, and KinnearKreations.
Mel Stitzel is my mother’s father, my grandfather. My mother Sally was raised by Mel from the age of six when her mother, Clodauh, died of rheumatic fever in 1934. Mel died just prior to my birth so I never knew him, but he left behind volumes of homemade 78rpm wax-coated-cardboard vinyl, as well as a legacy nearly buried by time.
Stitzel immigrated from his native Deutschland to Chicago in the early 20th century, and eventually become known as the composer of many standard, often-recorded ditties including “Tin Roof Blues,” “Hot Mittens,” and an interchangeable portrait of American politicians, “Jackass Blues”.
Historically speaking, the mark he left on music is impressive - one of his early bands is noted as being the first multi-racial band ever to record. In the early 20’s, American Jazz music was primarily Dixieland Jazz, a black art form. Stitzel is credited for being one of the first (white) men to play Jazz music. As a pianist, Stitzel started with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (NORK’s) in 1923. The leading members of this group included cornetist Paul Mares, trombonist George Brunis, and clarinet player Leon Roppolo - school friends who recruited others such as Stitzel and drummer Gene Krupa to join their band. At first, the band was known as the Friar’s Society Orchestra after obtaining a gig at Friar’s Inn, a pre-prohibition, Chicago basement, cabaret speakeasy frequented by gangsters. The rhythm section would play for the dinner crowd, then the rest of the band would show up around 10 PM for dancing. A young Joan Crawford was a regular dancer at the club. Band members recall that they would play until the last customer left, the “big money boys” would throw hundred-dollar bills at the band to keep them playing.
The NORK’s were one of the hottest jazz bands of the early 20s and had a strong influence on many later musicians, including Bix Beiderbecke, Muggsy Spanier, Mezz Mezzrow, and Benny Goodman. Best known for their integrated recording session with Jelly Roll Morton, the NORK’s smooth, swinging style signaled a departure from the raucous novelty sound of the original Dixieland Jazz band and its imitators. Another hallmark of the band was its emphasis on solo performances, whereas traditional New Orleans Jazz was still heavily dependent on ensemble playing. The solos that Roppolo and Brunis played are still considered classics - the origins of modern-day jazz solo stylings - and have often been copied by other bands. These activities attracted enough attention to garner Stitzel a fat share of available arranging chores for various Chicago bandleaders including Floyd Town and Bob Pacelli.
Stitzel continued activities as arranger and pianist through the
30s and began leading his own combo during the 40s. This group
played an extended stint on the bandstand at Chicago’s Green
Mill Ballroom. Danny Alvin, a bandleading drummer, put the
pianist back into the sideman’s role in the early 50s. But the
number of recordings of Stitzel songs vastly outnumber those
wherein he is featured as a pianist on the side, revisionists
such as the fine Mandy Patinkin continuing to increase the
former tally. Stitzel has a respectable discography, some of his
best piano recordings dating from the mid-20s with groups such
as the Bucktown Five and an early Benny Goodman Trio. A few of
Mel’s biggest hits were “Doodle Doo Doo” with art Kassel in
1924, and he also wrote “The Chant” in 1926 after the NORK’s
broke up in 1925. In a bittersweet twist of fate, Mel’s biggest
hit was parlayed into a million seller, no small feat in those
days, when Jo Stafford, with Paul Weston and his Orchestra,
re-issued “Tin Roof Blues” - with lyrics - as “Make Love To Me”
- just a few short years after his death from throat cancer on
New Years Eve in 1952.
The Stomp Six
Mel Stitzel plays on 27 records and his songs appear on 106 records & Cd's!