It was an early spring evening in Manhattan in 1975. I had been on the island for just a few days and as this was my first visit stateside (the lo-cals questions always started with that word), I was eager to visit as many jazz clubs as I could. Money was not a big problem as my South Africa currency bought me about $1.50 for every rand (compare that to R1 being worth $0.08 as I write this in October 2014).
I was looking for Eddie Condon’s jazz club, not realizing I had walked past it twice on East 56th Street. It was an easy mistake, there were hardly any signs outside and the frontage looked more like the entrance to an old book store.
The jazz club had been torn down twice since the jazz guitarist opened his original room on West Third Street in 1945. But the building, al-though having seen better times, was built like the proverbial outhouse.
There has been no Eddie Condon’s in Manhattan since the third club on West 54th Street was demolished in 1985. I know because in 1989, dur-ing an attempt to find the club, I had two of New York’s finest scrab-bling through the phone directory and eventually call their precinct of-fice. They hadn’t ever heard of Eddie Condon!
Albert Edwin Condon (November 16, 1905 – August 4, 1973), better known as Eddie Condon, was a jazz banjoist, guitarist, and bandleader. A leading figure in the so-called “Chicago school” of early Dixieland, he also played piano and sang on occasion. He was a major influence in Chicago jazz and often an underrated rhythm guitarist. Condon was born in Goodland, Indiana, the son of John and Margaret (née McGraw) Condon. He grew up in Momence, Illinois and Chicago Heights, Illinois, where he attended St. Agnes and Bloom High School. After some time playing ukulele, he switched to banjo and was a profes-sional musician by 1921. He was based in Chicago for most of the 1920s, and played with such jazz notables as Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden and Frank Teschemacher.
In 1928 Condon moved to New York City. He frequently arranged jazz sessions for various record labels, sometimes playing with the artists he brought to the recording studios, including Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. He organised racially-integrated recording sessions – when these were still rare – with Waller, Armstrong and Henry ‘Red’ Allen. He played with the band of Red Nichols for a time.
Later, from 1938 he had a long association with Milt Gabler’s Commo-dore Records.
A handful of records were issued under his own name: a July 28, 1928 2-song session was recorded for OKeh, but only issued in England. On October, 30, 1928, an OKeh was issued as “Eddie Condon and his Foot-warmers”, featuring Jack Teagarden. A further session on February 8, 1929 yielded a record issued under the name “Eddie’s Hot Shots” and issued on Victor’s hot dance series (V-38046). In 1933, a further two sessions were recorded for Brunswick consisting of 6 recordings, only 2 of which were released in the US (Br 6743). From 1938 on, Condon re-corded for Commodore and 1 session for Decca.
Condon started out playing banjo with Hollis Peavey’s Jazz Bandits when he was 17, he worked with members of the famed Austin High School Gang in the 1920s, and in 1927 he co-led (with Red McKenzie) the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans on a record date that helped define Chicago jazz (and featured Jimmy McPartland (I wonder if anybody remembers Jimmy playing in Durban during a visit in the early 1970s?) , Jimmy Teschemacher, Joe Sullivan, and Gene Krupa).
After organizing some other record sessions, Condon switched to gui-tar, moved to New York in 1929, worked with Red Nichols’ Five Pen-nies and Red McKenzie’s Blue Blowers, and recorded in several set-tings, including with Louis Armstrong (1929) and the Rhythm Makers (1932). During 1936-1937, he co-led a band with Joe Marsala.
Although Condon had to an extent laid low since the beginning of the Depression in 1938, with the opportunity to lead some sessions for the new Commodore label, he became a major name. Playing nightly at Nick’s (1937-1944), he utilized top musicians in racially mixed groups. He started a long series of exciting recordings (which really continued on several labels up until his death), and his Town Hall concerts of 1944-1945 (which were broadcast weekly on the radio) were consistently brilliant and gave him an opportunity to show his verbal acid wit; the Jazzology label reissued them complete and in chronological order. Condon opened his own club in 1945, recorded for Columbia in the 1950s (all of those records have been made available by Mosaic on a limited-edition box set), and wrote three colourful books, including his 1948 memoirs We Called It Music.
A partial list of the classic musicians who performed and recorded often with Condon include trumpeters/cornetists Wild Bill Davison, Max Kaminsky, Billy Butterfield, Bobby Hackett, Rex Stewart, and Hot Lips Page; trombonists Jack Teagarden, Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, George Brunies, and Vic Dickenson; clarinettists Pee Wee Russell, Ed-mond Hall, Joe Marsala, Peanuts Hucko, and Bob Wilbur; Bud Freeman on tenor; baritonist Ernie Caceres; pianists Gene Schroeder, Joe Sulli-van, Jess Stacy, and Ralph Sutton; drummers George Wettling, Dave Tough, and Gene Krupa; a string of bassists; and singer Lee Wiley. Many Eddie Condon records are currently available, and no jazz collec-tion is complete without at least a healthy sampling.
From the late 1930s on he was a regular at the Manhattan jazz club Nick’s. The sophisticated variation on Dixieland music which Condon and his colleagues created there came to be nicknamed “Nicksieland.” By this time, his regular circle of musical associates included Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, George Brunies, Edmond Hall and Pee Wee Russell. In 1939, he appeared with “Bobby Hacket and Band” in the Warner Brothers & Vitaphone film musical short-subject, “On the Air”.
Condon also did a series of jazz radio broadcasts from New York’s Town Hall during 1944-45 which were nationally popular. These re-cordings survive, and have been issued on the Jazzology label.
From 1945 through 1967 he ran his own New York jazz club, Eddie Condon’s, first located on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, then 52nd Street near Sixth Avenue, on the present site of the CBS headquar-ters building; then later, on the south side of East 56th Street, east of Second Avenue. In the 1950s Condon recorded a sequence of classic albums for Columbia Records. The musicians involved in these albums – and at Condon’s club – included Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett (cornet), Billy Butterfield (trumpet), Edmond Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Wilber (clarinet), Cutty Cutshall, Lou McGarity, George Brunies (trombone), Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Gene Schroeder, Dick Cary, Ralph Sutton (piano), Bob Casey, Walter Page, Jack Les-berg, Al Hall (bass), George Wettling, Buzzy Drootin, Cliff Leeman (drums).
Condon toured Britain in 1957 with a band including Wild Bill Davi-son, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder and George Wettling.
His last tour was in 1964, when he took a band to Australia and Japan. Condon’s men, on that tour, were a roll-call of top mainstream jazz mu-sicians: Buck Clayton (trumpet), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Vic Dick-enson (trombone), Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Dick Cary (piano and alto horn), Jack Lesberg (bass), Cliff Leeman (drums), Jimmy Rushing (vocals). A nice touch was that Billy Banks, a vocalist who had re-corded with Condon and Pee Wee Russell in 1932, and had lived in ob-scurity in Japan for many years, turned up at one of the 1964 concerts: Pee Wee asked him “have you got any more gigs?”.
In 1948 his autobiography We Called It Music was published. The book has many interesting and entertaining anecdotes about musicians Condon worked with. Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz (1956) was a collection of articles by various writers co-edited by Condon and Rich-ard Gehman.
A latter-day collaborator, clarinettist Kenny Davern, described a Con-don gig: “It was always a thrill to get a call from Eddie and with a gig involved even more so. I remember eating beforehand with Bernie (Previn; trumpet) and Lou (McGarity; trombone) and everyone being in good spirits. There was a buzz on, we’d all had a taste and there was a great feel to the music.”
Eddie Condon toured and appeared at jazz festivals through 1971. He died in New York City. He is survived by his daughter Maggie Condon and his only grandchild Michael Repplier, who both live in Greenwich Village in New York City. It has been falsely reported that he has an-other grandson, Zach Condon, lead singer and instrumentalist of the band Beirut, but this is incorrect.