If there is anything approaching a master list of leading musicians who ushered in China's jazz age, it's this article by Hal P. Mills published in the China Press in 1937. No other article I've seen sums up the history of Shanghai's jazz/dance band scene as tidily and comprehensively as this one. It contains a veritable who's who of top bandleaders, including American Whitey Smith (who naturally gets special mention), Russian Serge Ermoll (yay, Tatiana!), and many others. Interesting that the author sees Whitey's band as running neck in neck with Jack Carter's band that played the Plaza Hotel in the 1920s (which will be the subject of future posts for sure). That band included the legendary Teddy Weatherford as well as Valada Snow and Albert Nicholas--all Americans of African heritage who were outstanding in their time and still well regarded by jazz historians today. The article notes the trends in jazz and dance music and also the fact that the Filipino bands were outshining their American counterparts by the late 1930s. Fabulous!
Band Leaders Find Dancing Feet Fickle: Various Baton-Wielders Are Up Today Down Tomorrow By HAL P. MILLS (The China Press May 1, 1937)
Dance band popularity in Shanghai moves in cycles. Today’s top band may be next week's dud, for this city of 100 and more cabarets takes its dance music seriously. So say the leading dance band leaders of Shanghai.
Ten years ago two dance bands stood head and shoulders above the others, with Whitey Smith and his Majestic Hotel band running neck and neck with Jack Carter and his great negro band for supremacy. Those were halcyon days for American musicians. They were much in demand, played superior music and received highest pay. Russian musicians had not yet come to the fore, while Filipino musicians were pretty much in the background.
Old Father Time has changed all that. The cycle has moved again and again in the passing years. The American boys were toppled from their throne by Filipinos, the latter giving way to Russians and bands of mixed nationalities. The Americans staged a “comeback” and for a time ruled the roost, but again the Filipinos came to the fore and the present day finds a Filipino band rated as “tops” and a Filipino leader classed as the greatest dance band director and musician in this part of the world.
Reference is made to Pepito Alindada, also known as Don Jose, master musician, talented leader and director of music at a leading cabaret.
Gypsy Band Rates High
Never let it be said, however, that Pepito and his band lack competition. Following and admirers of the bands headed by Earl Whaley, Henry Nathan, Whitey Smith, Jefferson Andico, Ray Alinso, Ernie Kaai, Nick Burrell and other outstanding leaders will have plenty to say about their favorite bands. They gypsy band at Farren’s, for instance, despite their newness, is rated as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bands of its type ever to play in Shanghai.
To say that this band or that band is the best would be unfair, because it all depends on one’s taste. Some dancers prefer “sweet” music. Others like their music hot. Still others demand tango, Hawaiian, novelty or swing music.
But it is not difficult to determine the city’s most popular band—the band which night after night, week in and week out, draws capacity and near-capacity crowds.
Such a band is that of Pepito, or Don Jose. Just recently Chinese newspapers conducted a contest to determine the most popular dance band leader and band. First honor went to Pepito. The reliable Whitey Smith was second.
Chinese and foreign dance lovers of this city are probably the most exacting of any city in the world. They demand good dance music and if it is not forthcoming there is a howl to the management and ere long a new band is installed.
The management of cabarets and night clubs have grown wary. No longer do they offer contracts of a year or more. Usually three months at the most, with the right to cancel the contract by giving one month's notice. In some establishments notice of two weeks may be given, and in at least one French-town cabaret the band may be dismissed with 24 hours notice. In these days cabarets seldom import dance bands, which may or may not be too bad inasmuch as the public is obliged to be content with the same musicians. The reasons
are several. Firstly, the cost of importing a band is considerable. Secondly, while the band might be a howling success in Grapejuice, Missouri or in Little Puddle, England, it might be a distinct flop here. Take the case of an American band imported a few years ago by the Canidrome. Ten young talented men with a famous reputation and a well-known leader, yet the band was a decided failure. The Ambassador imported a 12-man American colored band to its sorrow. As a matter of fact, quoting band leaders of Shanghai, few imported bands have been markedly successful. Employers now are extremely reluctant to take a chance.
Teddy Weatherford’s famous band, which played at the Canidrome for five successive years, was partly imported. Teddy being brought from Java and some of his men from Japan, but about 50 per cent of the band was composed of local musicians. Weatherford, regarded as the greatest dance band pianist every to play here, was not, however, considered particularly outstanding as a leader. Teddy is said to have been too easy-going.
An American leader who was brought to Shanghai a number of years ago and who has steadily remained successful is Henry Nathan, now leader of the band at swanky Ciro’s. For years Nathan directed the band at the Cathay Hotel.
Shanghai has at least three pianists of the Old School—men who can seat themselves at a piano and play almost any tune one may ask for. They are: Harry Cary, American; Faustino Martinez, Filipino, and Frank Shemil, German.
The oldest American musician in Shanghai, in point of service here, is Mr. Whitey Smith.
Historic Leaders Stalk
Across the Stage of Time as one turns back the years in the world of dance music here stalks such figures as Jack Carter, Jimmy Angel, Terry Dantzler, Harry Langums, Luis Albido, Bob Hill, Whitey Smith, Jimmy Carson, Manuel Rosario, Lombardo Pang, Jefferson Andico, Abe Bershadsky, Ray Nelson, Jess Sommers, Bob Fockler, Serge Ermoll, Nick Korin, Henry Nathan, Ray Alinsod, Al Uhles, Jimmy Staley and others, some of whom have passed on to other fields; others remaining here and winning laurels.
The Little Club of yesteryear had a dance band which was the talk of the town, headed by Al Uhles and having a novelty trio composed of Al, Chuck and Danny. Nine men only but what a band. And what a trio.
Today in Shanghai, musicians aver, the trend is toward the new American swing music and the so-called “sweet” music.