Art Hickman and His Orchestra

By Bruce Vermazen

Thanks to Bruce Vermazen for revising this article on January, 2011.

Arthur George Hickman was born June 13, 1886, in Oakland, California, to Robert and Lucinda Hickman. Robert ran a restaurant at the time, but later he would be a saloonkeeper, a cigar maker and dealer, and a bricklayer. Lucinda had been in vaudeville. Besides Art, they had an older child, Pearl. Before the 1900 U.S. census, the family moved to San Francisco, where Art lived most of the rest of his life. Soon after the move, young Art was employed as a Western Union messenger. In a 1928 interview, he said, "I used to greet with joy the chance to deliver a message to some hop joint, or honky-tonky in the Barbary Coast. There was music. Negroes playing it. Eye shades, sleeves up, cigars in mouth. Gin and liquor and smoke and filth. But music! There is where all jazz originated" (San Francisco Examiner, 4/11/28).

Although he had no formal musical education, he became a well known bandleader, drummer, pianist, and player of the slide whistle (also known as the Frisco whistle or Hickman whistle). The first documentation of him as a musician is as a drummer in early 1914. He was also, briefly, a show business journalist who wrote columns for The Referee (San Francisco) in 1910 and Variety in 1911-12. At the same time, he was managing two San Francisco theaters, first the Chutes (vaudeville) and later the Garrick (movies). In 1912 he moved to Sacramento to manage the Diepenbrock and Grand Theatres (vaudeville), but he returned to San Francisco in early 1914.

Because of a widely known 1938 article by E. T. ("Scoop") Gleeson, Hickman's name has become associated with the emergence of the word "jazz" and its application to music. The article, "I Remember the Birth of Jazz" (San Francisco Call-Bulletin, 9/3/38), says that Hickman was at Boyes Hot Springs (near Sonoma, California) for the spring training of the San Francisco Seals baseball team in February and March of 1913 in order "to do a little fraternizing with his friends the newspaper correspondents" and that he recruited a band for dances in the evenings. According to Gleeson, "this happy set of circumstances . . . marked the birth of a new syncopation in dance tunes, which soon won its way under the name of 'jazz'." Gleeson says that "the very word 'jazz' came into general usage at the same time." In an article he wrote in March 1913 reporting on the training camp, he glossed the word as meaning "a little of that 'old life,' the 'gin-i-ker,' the 'pep,' otherwise known as the enthusiasalum" (San Francisco Call, 3/6/13), but he didn't mention Hickman's band or Hickman himself, though he did obliquely mention ragtime and the Texas Tommy, a very popular dance done to ragtime. The 1913 piece used to be cited as the earliest printed use of the word "jazz," but it's now known that there was at least one earlier printing, also in a report on baseball ("Ben's Jazz Curve," Los Angeles Times, 4/2/12, sec. III, p. 2). In the 1938 article, Gleeson goes on to say that James Woods, manager of the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco, heard Hickman's band and asked Hickman "to assemble an orchestra for the St. Francis," thus launching Hickman on his career as a bandleader.

There is good evidence that Gleeson's 1938 piece mixes details from two different years of the Seals' spring training at Boyes Hot Springs, 1913 and 1914. (Gleeson makes demonstrable factual mistakes elsewhere in the article.) The actual sequence of events, pieced together from contemporary articles in three San Francisco periodicals, The Referee, The Wasp, and the San Francisco Chronicle and from unpublished memoirs and correspondence of fellow musician Bert Kelly, is probably as follows.

Hickman spent a lot of leisure time at Boyes Hot Springs as early as 1910, and by 1912 he was the Boyes representative in San Francisco. One of the things he did for the resort was to hire musicians to entertain there. A Referee item from March 1913 suggests that the musicians for the 1913 Seals spring training may have been E. Max Bradfield, piano (later a prominent bandleader), and Charles Dowski, drums, and that Hickman was also present. In early 1913, there was no public dancing at the Hotel St. Francis, but management introduced tea dancing (on Monday and Friday afternoons) in September 1913, with music provided by a trio of Bert Kelly, banjo-mandolin, George Gould, piano, and Charlie Kreider, drums. Meanwhile, Hickman was in Sacramento, working as a theater manager. In late February and early March of 1914, the Seals again trained at Boyes, and Hickman took leave from the Grand to provide all the entertainment for the team. As in 1913, it is not known whether he himself played, but when tea dancing, suspended for Lent (February 25 to April 12), resumed at the St. Francis, Hickman replaced Kreider as the trio's drummer, according to Kelly. The tea dances ended after a few weeks, and Kelly took a trio of himself, Hickman, and Leon Carroll, piano, first to the Cliff House in San Francisco, then to the Techau Hotel at Lake Tahoe. When the St. Francis tea dances started up again in October 1914, Hickman had been placed in charge of all the music at the hotel. All this suggests strongly that James Woods's encounter with Hickman's Boyes Hot Springs band happened in 1914 rather than 1913.

The tea dances were so popular that two other leading San Francisco hotels, the Palace and the Fairmont, started offering them. In January 1915, the St. Francis took the next step and put on supper dances Monday through Friday at 9 in the Rose Room. These dances were probably played by the first version of Art Hickman's Orchestra, the nucleus of the group that recorded for Columbia in 1919-21. An unpublished manuscript by Bert Gould (not related to George) gives three independent sources for the following lineup of Hickman's first band: Walt Roesner, trumpet, Fred Kaufmann, trombone, Frank Ellis, piano, Frank De Stefano and Marc Mojica, banjos, and Hickman on drums.

At some point in the late 1910s, Hickman took the important step of adding one or more saxophones to his group, although he was not the first bandleader to do so. More important for his later fame was the addition of two particular saxophonists, Bert Ralton, who joined in 1917 or 1918, and Clyde Doerr, who joined in 1919. Saxophones had been gaining in popularity all over the United States just before 1914, and had even begun to appear in printed orchestrations by 1916. The Six Brown Brothers, former multi- instrumentalists who by that time were playing saxophones exclusively, were well known through their numerous phonograph records and their appearances in Broadway shows and subsequent road tours of Fred Stone's hit vehicles, starting with Chin Chin in 1914. W. C. Handy had included a saxophone in his dance orchestra in Memphis as early as 1909, according to Henry O. Osgood's book So This Is Jazz (1926), and Reid Badger's biography of James Reese Europe, A Life in Ragtime (1995), gives lineups including a saxophone for several African American bands in the period 1913-16. There is no way of knowing whether Hickman was even the first dance band leader to include two saxophones. Given that, by 1919, large numbers of printed arrangements included parts for both alto and tenor saxophones, it seems somewhat unlikely. But Hickman did more than just add saxes to a dance orchestra. He added two players with strong musical personalities to a band that developed a strong musical personality for itself, attracted the attention of San Francisco, which was a much more important city in those days than it is now, and finally attracted the attention of New York.

Clyde Doerr came from Coldwater, Michigan, where he had played alto sax since high school. In 1914, he completed a Bachelor of Music course at the King Conservatory in San Jose, California, concentrating on violin, but in 1916, in order to get a job with George Gould's band at the Techau Tavern, just down Powell Street from the St. Francis, he dusted off his alto. Hickman heard him there and hired him for the St. Francis. Bert Ralton had been a great success in Los Angeles cabarets before Hickman lured him into the Rose Room.

In The Billings Rollography: Player Piano Music from 1917 to 1934, Ginny and Bob Billings conjecture that Hickman was busy also as a pianist, making duet piano rolls as "A. H." for the QRS company with such well known roll artists as J. Russel Robinson, Pete Wendling, Max Kortlander, and Lee S. Roberts. The first results were issued in February 1918, and before the Art Hickman Orchestra ever recorded, 22 more had been issued. If "A. H." really was Art Hickman, there is a puzzle about how the rolls were made, since Hickman was based in San Francisco and QRS was in Chicago.

In the winter of 1916-17, jazz became a craze in New York. But it wasn't the jazz that Art Hickman and the lads were playing for the fox-trotters in the Rose Room. The craze began around a white group from New Orleans that inaccurately billed itself as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The ODJB, as they are now generally called, created a sensation playing for dancing at Reisenweber's Cafe in Manhattan, and their success was compounded when their first recordings were released in early 1917. One part of the public's response was a host of imitators, some from New Orleans, but most from elsewhere, who picked up the Band's frenetic style as well as they could and added further dimensions of frenzy. The instrumentation of these groups generally followed that of the ODJB: cornet, trombone, clarinet, piano, and drums.

The craze continued through 1918 and into 1919. During the Great War (April 1917- November 1918 for the U. S.), the Victor Talking Machine Company, who had released the first records by the ODJB, negotiated with Hickman to record his orchestra but had to back out when the federal government took over half of the Victor plant for the war effort (San Francisco Call and Post, 8/23/19). Then in 1919, the Columbia Graphophone Company, Victor's chief rival, struck a handsome deal with the band. They were brought to New York in a private Pullman car, equipped with a piano, in order to record an unusually large number of titles (21) in eight hard-working days spread over two weeks in September. (The recording data come from Brian Rust, The American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942 (1975), cited below as ADBD.) Evenings they were to play at the Biltmore Hotel Roof, an engagement arranged by James Woods. Hickman's own pay was reported to be "between $30,000 and $40,000."

New York in 1919 was primed to welcome the Hickman Orchestra for many reasons. One was that the jazz craze had gone on for a long time, and the dancing public was looking for something new. Another was racial politics. In his biography of James Reese Europe, Reid Badger has documented the dominance, in the mid-1910s, of African American groups in New York's dance-band field, and the perception, on the part of white musicians, of a threat in the popularity of these groups. The proliferation of mostly white jazz bands, along with the temporary absence of many African American musicians who were fighting in the European war, substantially changed the relative market shares of the two ethnic groups, but the jazz bands were still too wild, noisy, and sexy for many older and richer customers who tended to think of wildness, noise, and sexiness as more "colored" than "white." New York's affluent whites, as well as its white dance musicians, whether they knew it or not, had a psychological niche ready for the new music from California.

The Hickman group enjoyed a huge success at the Biltmore. Florenz Ziegfeld, Broadway's biggest impresario, took advantage of their presence and got their services for a week, playing for dancing on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre between the finale of the 9 O'Clock Revue and 1 a. m. and boosting profits, according to Variety. They were also engaged to play at the gala home-coming luncheon for General Pershing and the opening of a posh club at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (San Francisco Examiner, 10/7/19).

For the 1919 New York trip, the band consisted of Steve Douglas, violin, Walt Roesner, trumpet, Fred Kaufmann, trombone, Clyde Doerr, alto and baritone saxes, oboe, and clarinet, Bert Ralton, soprano and tenor saxes and clarinet, Frank Ellis, piano, Vic King, tenor banjo, Ben Black, plectrum banjo, Bela Spiller, string bass, and Art Hickman, drums, piano, and slide whistle. Spiller is mostly inaudible on the records, and the two banjos are placed far from the horn.

Art Hickman's new style of jazz became the talk of the big town. The wind instruments in early jazz bands had largely followed a military-band model, with a cornet lead, trombone counter-melody, and clarinet obbligato, rhythmically supported by an unmilitary drum kit and piano. Hickman's sound retained the polyphony of the horns, but with more voices and a much greater fluidity of ensemble role. On the recordings, Doerr's alto saxophone played lead much more often than the trumpet, and the texture shifted frequently, using no discernible formula. Although books about early dance bands often credit the Hickman group with having the first saxophone section, Doerr and Ralton only infrequently played a harmonized line (on records, at any rate), in the way that Paul Whiteman's Orchestra made standard. The arrangements, in general, seem to have provided minimal frameworks for constant playful improvising rather than setting down exactly what notes were to be played. Only rarely on the records is there anything like a hot solo, but three piano duets by Hickman and Ellis from the 1919 sessions are worth noting, on "You and I," "Rose Room," and "Midnight Maid" (in a medley with "Hold Me"). "June," from the 1920 sessions, has another outstanding duet. (Hickman and Ellis also recorded "You and I," "Hold Me," and "June" for QRS rolls.) The orchestra was such a hit in the fall of 1919 that Ziegfeld offered Hickman $2500 a week to stay in New York. He refused. Said Ziegfeld, "When a jazz band of ten men refuse to play three hours a night for $2,500 a week it makes one wonder whether money is worth anything after all. . . . They're crazy about San Francisco, so the only thing I could do was wish them a pleasant journey" (San Francisco Examiner, 10/7/19).

The band received a hero's welcome back at the St. Francis, with Hickman now officially the Hotel's assistant manager in charge of music. The first fruits of their Columbia efforts were released in early 1920, and in San Francisco, Columbia dealers successfully employed the gimmick of selling the first four "by the set only" (Talking Machine World, 2/15/20).

Ziegfeld's money turned out to be worth something after all, and on May 29, 1920, the Hickman organization closed at the Union Square venue and left two days later for twenty weeks in Ziegfeld's Follies of 1920, reportedly making Hickman "the highest paid orchestra leader in America" (San Francisco Examiner, 10/30/20). For two weeks before he left, according to the same report, "his departure took on the dignity of a Bernhardt farewell. Civic bodies gave him banquets, society leaders chipped in for gorgeously engraved cups, and there was a burst of forensic fireworks nightly in the Rose Room . . ., and to cap the climax when he and the ten members of the band went to the station to take the private car Mr. Ziegfeld had placed at their disposal three bands and a cheering crowd were there to see them off."

The Follies tried out in Atlantic City, where, coincidentally, Paul Whiteman's Orchestra was performing at the Ambassador Hotel. Clyde Doerr, who had lived at the same San Francisco address as Whiteman (but a year earlier), briefly visited with the up and coming bandleader. It would be interesting to know whether the two groups had any further contact at this time. Hickman had been the most celebrated bandleader in San Francisco while Whiteman was still a sideman there, and Whiteman's band at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles in 1919 had almost the same instrumentation as Hickman's, except for having only one banjo, and (in photos) two tenor saxophones. However, by 1920, when Whiteman first recorded for Victor, his approach to music was rather different from Hickman's, probably owing to the services of arranger Ferde Grofe. According to Doerr in a 1970 interview, Jimmy Thompson and his partners, owners of the Palais Royal and several other New York night spots, had been trying unsuccessfully to get Hickman to stay in New York when the Follies ended. As in 1919, Hickman insisted on returning to San Francisco. The Thompson organization instead hired Whiteman, a break that ultimately issued in his "coronation" as the King of Jazz, a title already conferred upon Hickman by the San Francisco Bulletin as of August 12, 1919.

Once again, Hickman wowed Gotham. During the Follies tryout, they recorded again for Columbia, as they did on nine more occasions during the show's run. The revue, headlined by Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor (for the first week only), and W. C. Fields (Fields also collaborated on the "book"), and with six Irving Berlin songs sprinkled throughout, was a thundering success. The orchestra appeared only in the show's finale (Variety 6/25/20), and after the show played for dancing on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre, as in 1919. When Ziegfeld's rooftop revue Midnight Frolic resumed in August, the Hickman group was in the cast. The Jerome Remick Company bought a full-page ad in the July 2 Variety to announce their purchase of the rights to Hickman and Ben Black's "supreme ballad fox-trot," "Hold Me." During June of 1920, according to Variety (7/9/20, p. 5), the orchestra's disc of "Along the Way to Damascus" and "Rose of Mandalay" was Columbia's best seller. Just before the Orchestra left New York they appeared in a Pathe newsreel, which played San Francisco's California Theatre during the first week of November.

Two 1920 sources quote Hickman on the difference between his music and the kind of jazz current earlier. An item in Talking Machine World for 7/15/20 says, "Art Hickman . . . insists that his orchestra, now playing on the Ziegfeld roof, is not a jazz band. 'Jazz,' says Mr. Hickman, 'is merely noise, a product of the honky-tonks, and has no place in a refined atmosphere. I have tried to develop an orchestra that charges every pulse with energy without stooping to the skillet beating, sleigh bell ringing contraptions and physical gyrations of a padded cell." In an Examiner interview upon his return to San Francisco, the racial component is more explicit, although the model for the image is probably Ted Lewis: "People [in New York] thought who had not heard my band . . . that I was a jazz band leader. They expected me to stand before them with a shrieking clarionet and perhaps a plug hat askew on my head shaking like a negro with the ague. New York has been surfeited with jazz. Jazz died on the Pacific Coast six months ago. People began to realize that they were not dancing, that the true grace of Terpsichore was buried in the muck of sensuality. If I can make New Yorkers appreciate the true spirit of the dance I will be happy and I will be glad that I came to the Ziegfeld Roof" (10/30/20).

Although Hickman resisted the blandishments of the metropolis, two of his key sidemen defected at the close of the 1920 Follies. Bert Ralton and Vic King became popular freelancers, ultimately teaming up to form what became first the New York-Havana Band, playing a long engagement (originally offered to Hickman) at the Gran Casino de la Playa in Havana, then the Savoy-Havana Band at London's Savoy Hotel. Hickman replaced Ralton with Walter Beban, an ex-Marine from San Francisco who had played in vaudeville before the War, sometimes touring with Sophie Tucker.

The band returned to the St. Francis on November 4, 1920, and its heightened lustre made it even more of an institution in its home town. In February 1921, the band recorded again for Columbia, this time at the St. Francis, in the Borgia Rooms. Since mid-1920, Hickman had been "Western director of musical productions for the Columbia Co.," according to Talking Machine World. By this time the orchestra had only one banjo (Ben Black, but a second trumpet, Jess Stafford, was added on five sides. Hickman also made an unissued test pressing (described in Bert Gould's manuscript) as a solo pianist. In September of 1921, the group inaugurated the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and stayed there until April. Hickman, again through the good offices of James Woods, had quit the St. Francis to take the post of director of music for both the Ambassador and Alexandria Hotels in Los Angeles. But the band that had startled New York continued to break up. After the 1921 Columbia sessions, Clyde Doerr accepted an offer from Harry Yerkes to return to New York for recording work, becoming a bandleader first at the Club Royale, then at Chicago's Congress Hotel. Walt Roesner returned to San Francisco in 1921 or 1922 to play and arrange for Paul Ash's symphonic jazz orchestra. In 1922, Frank Ellis and Ben Black also returned, Ellis leading a dance orchestra first at the Cliff House, then at the St. Francis's Garden and Fable Room (formerly the Rose Room), and Black fronting a twenty-piece symphonic jazz group at the California Theatre.

In June of 1923, James Woods hired Hickman as assistant manager and amusement director of the new Los Angeles Biltmore, which opened on October 1 with great hoopla. A new version of Hickman's Orchestra, built around the (Earl) Burtnett- (Hank) Miller Orchestra that had been playing at the St. Francis, provided dance music in the Supper Room and broadcast regularly on KHJ via one of the first remote radio hookups until at least the end of 1925. It's not clear what musical role Hickman played in the Biltmore band, or in Art Hickman's Concert Orchestra, which also broadcast from the hotel. KHJ schedules often announced the former's director as Earl Burtnett and the latter's as Edward Fitzpatrick. In June 1924 and March 1925, according to ADBD, Art Hickman's Orchestra recorded (in California) for Victor, directed by Earl Burtnett and featuring Roy Fox on trumpet. The 1924-25 band cut some very hot sides, especially "Patsy," "G'wan With It," and "If I Stay Away Too Long From Carolina." It isn't known whether Hickman played on the sides, but the second and third of those mentioned feature soos by a drummer playing with brushes. The arrangements, though very impressive (especially on "Patsy"), are much more conventional than those of the 1919-21 band. In September 1925, Hickman resigned from his managerial post at the Biltmore, although he continued to manage the orchestra and to broadcast. He hoped to return to his career as a songwriter. ("Rose Room" (1917) is his best-known composition.)

In early 1926, while Hickman was leading a successor of the Biltmore orchestra in Palm Beach Nights, a Ziegfeld production in Palm Beach, Florida, he became seriously ill and returned to San Francisco. In March 1927, Art Hickman and His Orchestra recorded several sides for Victor at San Francisco's Clift Hotel, but I suspect that the group was actually Walt Roesner's Super-Soloists, which Roesner had formed after two years with Paul Ash's group. Roesner gets conductor credit on the Victors, which are much more in the Whiteman symphonic-jazz mold than were the 1924-25 sides. "I'll Just Go Along" even opens with a quote from Dvorak's "Symphony from the New World."

Hickman's name was still big enough in the east that he was offered spots in both Show Boat and Good News (both produced in 1927), but he turned them down, probably because of his failing health. By the summer of 1929 he was in St. Francis Hospital, suffering from "overwork and nervous exhaustion" (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/31/29), but also from Banti's disease (Los Angeles Times, 1/17/30), which involves anemia, enlargement of the spleen, cirrhosis of the liver, and fluid in the abdominal cavity. That same year, Hickman was enshrined in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Abbe Niles's article "Jazz" (vol. XII, pp. 982-4), in the fourteenth edition, after giving a quaint account of the music's history, says that, "before the official appearance of jazz, New Orleans, if not other places, had genuine negro jazz bands, obscure and illiterate, but playing a violent form of this music, chiefly marked by a polyphony of strange tone-colours and instrumental effects." He reviews the ODJB and some of its followers and then says, "The inevitable movement to modify the hideous noisiness of early jazz was led by Art Hickman, a California orchestra leader, and later taken over by Paul Whiteman . . . The present-day 'sweet' jazz, sprung from the Hickman-Whiteman reaction against cacophony, is opposed to 'hot' jazz" (p. 983). The accolade must have been gratifying, but it came very late in the game.

In an interview two weeks before Hickman died, he told a reporter, "In the early spring I plan to get back into the work harness and do a talkie on the history of jazz for Florenz Ziegfeld" (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/31/29). Surgical intervention failed. The end came on January 16, 1930. The story of Hickman's death ran on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner under the headline, "Art Hickman, Founder of Jazz, Dies." The accompanying story told its readers, "The man who took the tom-tom throbs of San Francisco's old Barbary Coast negro rhythms, adapted them to the wail of the saxophone and twang of the banjo and gave the world its first jazz music, died yesterday afternoon at the St. Francis Hospital." It backed up the headline with the false claim that "The Encyclopedia Britannica credited him with being the originator of the jazz tempo, the man responsible for the music that has swept America and the other continents in the past fifteen years."

Although the kind of jazz that Hickman "founded" turned out to be a dead end, he made a genuine contribution to the world's popular music that resulted in an enormous amount of pleasure for the listeners and dancers of three decades. The many strong currents of the unending stream of popular music, and the gentler ones too, inflect and mingle with one another in unpredictable and untraceable ways. Foundation and origination are concepts of doubtful applicability to segments of the flux. Jack Hyatt, Hickman's interviewer in 1928, reported that a teenaged Art had been challenged by the saying that "A thing can only be done first once." Hyatt ended the article with a newsman's cynicism: "Hickman has done something no one else has done. Turned his back on New York" (San Francisco Examiner, 4/11/28). But that's harsh. Hard as it is to pin down what it was, he did something important first.

I want to thank the following people for their ideas and their help in research:

Steve Abrams, Margaret Downie Banks, Eric Bernhoft, Ginny Billings, Nan Bostick, Doug Caldwell, John Gill, Vince Giordano, Tim Gracyk, Larry Gushee, Alan Hall, Patricia Hall, Peter Mintun, George Morrow, Paul Price, Olly Wilson, and librarians and staff at the Doe and Bancroft Libraries of the University of California, Berkeley, the Charles M. Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Los Angeles and Oakland Public Libraries, and the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.