Red Nichols – And His Five Pennies
Happy Music For The Jazz Era
Red Nichols is a name which comes to us from the jazz of the 1920s, a time when Nichols was a fecund recording artist. But that name got a second lease on life when Hollywood made a movie, The Five Pennies, very loosely based on Nichols’ life, in 1959. Most people think of his contemporary, Bix Beiderbecke, when discussing the white trumpet players of the Jazz Era, but Nichols was another Young Man With A Horn.
Ernest Loring (“Red”) Nichols was born on May 8, 1905 in Ogden, Utah. His father was a college music professor, and Nichols was apparently a child prodigy, because by twelve he was already playing difficult set pieces for his father’s brass band. Unfortunately, from his father’s point of view, the young Nichols heard the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (which was not in fact “original,” but was the first “jazz” band to record), and later those of Beiderbecke, and these had a strong influence on the young cornet player. His style became polished, clean and incisive, although his emotional range, like that of Dixieland itself, was narrow and critics felt his playing was less “deep” than Beiderbecke’s.
In the early 1920s Nichols moved to the midwest and joined a band called The Syncopating Seven. When that band broke up he joined the Johnny Johnson Orchestra and came with it to New York City in 1923. New York would remain his base for years thereafter.
In New York he met and teamed up with trombonist Miff Mole, and the two of them were inseparable for the next decade.
Jazz was still comparatively young then and consisted of two, racially separated, streams. The musicians of both races mingled, listened to each other, and played together at least in after-hours jams, but their records were aimed at audiences of their own race, and audiences at performances were often racially segregated. So there emerged two kinds of jazz: black jazz and white jazz. Black jazz was often relegated to “race” labels, while white jazz was broadly distributed by major record labels – which is why the white Original Dixieland Jass Band (as it was originally known) made it onto records first, and the legendary black trumpet player, Buddy Bolden, was never recorded (although myths of cylinder recordings persist).
And although musicologists and critics now universally credit jazz with black origins, in the 1920s many white people genuinely believed Paul Whiteman (a white man) was “The King of Jazz” and that his large orchestra of white musicians, featuring arrangements by the composer of The Grand Canyon Suite, played real jazz. (Whiteman employed jazz musicians like Beiderbecke, and jazz fanatics collected his records solely for the four or eight bar solo Beiderbecke might play, but the Whiteman Orchestra did not play jazz.)
White jazz musicians who played real jazz were a minority within a minority, and usually encountered considerable prejudice against their careers from their own families. Beiderbecke was one of a group of Chicago-area high school students who heard the black jazz musicians who’d resettled there and fell in love with their music. Red Nichols did not have this experience and apparently was primarily influenced by the recordings of other white musicians. But once in New York City he came into direct contact with the full jazz scene, which had moved there from Chicago by the mid-1920s.
Nichols had good technique, could read music, and easily got session and studio work. In 1926 he and Miff Mole began a prodigious stint of recording with a variety of bands, most of them known as “Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.” Very few of these groups were actually quintets; the name was simply a pun on “Nickel,” since there were “five pennies” in a nickel. “That was only a number we tied in with my name,” Nichols once explained. “We’d generally have eight or nine [musicians], depending on who was around for the session and what I was trying to do.”
Under that band name Nichols recorded over 100 sides for the Brunswick label. But he also recorded under a number of other names, among them, The Arkansas Travelers, The California Red Heads, The Louisiana Rhythm Kings, The Charleston Chasers, Red and Miff’s Stompers, and Miff Mole and His Little Molers. Nicholas and his bands were making ten to a dozen records a week in some weeks.
His recordings of the late 1920s are regarded as the most progressive white jazz of the period, in both concept and execution, with widely-ranging harmonies and a balanced ensemble. But they were small-band Dixieland groups, emphasizing collective improvisation and playing. They were very different from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives of that period – it was Armstrong who pioneered soloing.
Nichols’ band started out with Mole on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax and clarinet. Other musicians who played for a time in his bands were Benny Goodman (clarinet), Glenn Miller (trombone), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Joe Venuti (violin), Eddie Lang (banjo and guitar), and Gene Krupa (drums) – a veritable Who’s Who of important white jazz musicians in the following decade. The Five Pennies’ version of “Ida” was a surprise hit record.
That next decade was the Swing era, and Swing eclipsed the Dixieland Nichols loved to play. He tried to go along with the changes, and formed a swing band of his own, but his recording career seemed to end in 1932. Nichols kept himself alive during the first years of the Great Depression by playing in show bands and pit orchestras. He led Bob Hope’s orchestra for a while, moving out to California. He’d married Willa Stutsman, a “stunning” George White “Scandals” dancer, and they had a daughter. She came down with polio (misdiagnosed at first as spinal meningitis) in 1942, and Nichols quit a gig playing with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra and left the music business to work in the wartime shipyards.
Unable to stay away from music, Nichols formed a new Five Pennies band and began playing small clubs in the Los Angeles area soon after the war ended. Before long the word was out and musicians began showing up, turning his gigs into jam sessions.
Soon the little club dates were turning into more prestigious bookings at the chic Zebra Room, the Tudor Room of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, and Pasadena’s posh Sheraton. He toured Europe as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department. And in 1956 he was the subject of one of Ralph Edwards’ This Is Your Life TV shows, which featured his old buddies Miff Mole, Phil Harris and Jimmy Dorsey, who praised Nichols as a bandleader who made sure everybody got paid.
Then came the movie, The Five Pennies, in 1959. Danny Kaye played Nichols onscreen, and it was falsely rumored that Louis Armstrong played the cornet parts – which in fact were played by Nichols himself.
In 1965 Nichols took his Five Pennies band to Las Vegas, to play at the then-new Mint Hotel. He was only a few days into the date when, on June 28, 1965, he was sleeping in his suite and was awakened by paralyzing chest pains. He managed to call the front desk and an ambulance was summoned, but it arrived too late. That night the band went on as scheduled, but at the center of the band a spotlight pointed down at an empty chair in Nichols’ customary spot. Red’s bright and shiny cornet sat alone on the chair. Around it swirled the “happy music” Nichols had loved all his life.