Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Banjo Player | My Grandfather and Art Hickman during the Birth of Jazz

My grandfather, George Eveleth, was eight years old when he and his family survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Their house was also spared, and on that day, George sat on the front steps watching the parade of refugee’s stream by on their way to the tent city in Golden Gate Park. His father left that morning and when he returned, he brought with him two items - an antique clock and a banjo. George took up the banjo and by the time he was in high school, he was playing professionally. Along the way he met and was mentored by a local percussionist and bandleader named Art Hickman.

My mother has spoken of my grandfather many times over the years, but the significance of George’s connection to Art Hickman never occurred to me until recently. Hickman was a historic figure in the early days of jazz. San Francisco based, he helped not only pioneer jazz orchestras, but incorporated the use of multiple saxophones, having them play in harmony, and above the trumpets - a signature jazz arrangement. Hickman’s music is difficult to label, though perhaps described as a mix of Ragtime and Dixieland. Hickman didn’t consider his compositions to be so much jazz as it was primarily dance music. In 1913 The Art Hickman Orchestra was an established regional act, and became the first jazz band to play the prestigious Mural Room at The St. Francis Hotel. The run lasted for a decade. In 1919 Art Hickman’s band was invited to New York, where Hickman signed a contract with Columbia Records. National success quickly followed and lasted until Hickman’s death in 1930.

For a time during this period, my grandfather was in Hickman's circle of musicians. Whether George was ever an official band member, we don't know, but he did perform with Hickman at The St. Francis on a number of occasions. During the First World War George served in the Merchant Marines, and upon his release, he returned to playing music for a living. But as much as George loved being a performer, and the nightlife that came with it, music would soon become his lifestyle rather than his profession. “The only musicians earning a good living are session musicians” he told once my mother. George wanted to have a family and to play music locally. He entered college in 1923 and graduated from UCSF Medical School.

I was too young to really know my grandfather. He died in 1964. Our family lived in the Midwest and rarely visited. I do have a few memories, including watching George play banjo and sing at a Christmas party. After he died, George’s second wife changed his will to exclude my mother and aunt. Also against my grandfather’s wishes, she sold his instruments and otherwise liquidated his estate. Recently my mother showed me one of my grandfather’s few remaining possessions – an album of family photographs from roughly 1900 through the 1950s. Among them are several photos of my grandfather playing banjo or guitar, nearly all taken later in life with family and friends. However three photographs placed on the opening page, stand out as special. The first is a studio portrait of a smiling, youthful and smartly dressed George Eveleth. The second photo is also a portrait, that of another man, slightly older than George. The identical lighting and background of these two photos suggests they were taken at the same location. My mother pointed to the second photo and said, “My father always insisted that was Art Hickman”. Hickman was ten years older than my grandfather, and I’ve tried to verify this image, but photos of Art Hickman are rare. Assuming the man in the portrait photo is Hickman, as my grandfather had said, he appears very young as compared to the man in official publicity photos and record sleeves.

The third photo shows a vintage jazz orchestra posing for the camera against a backdrop. There are eight musicians; two banjos, one violin, bass, saxophone, trombone and accordion players. A ninth man stands in the back row with his hands at his side. The photo is only a few inches wide, is creased and unevenly cut, perhaps trimmed from a larger print. Fortunately as an original photo, it's sharp enough that a digital scan revealed more detail. Seated in the middle, posing with his banjo and with an uncharacteristically serious expression is my grandfather. He appears to be in his late teens. The other musicians are a mystery. At some point I hope to ID some of their faces, and perhaps verify if any or all were part of Hickman’s Orchestra. If so it would confirm my grandfather’s place and time during the early days of jazz.

I’ve restored this photo as a Christmas gift to my mother. Here is the before and after.

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