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Billy Krechmer: A Philadelphia Story

Richard  J Salvucci By

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I could play classics. I preferred jazz. —William Frederick (Billy) Krechmer
There is a story told of the last night of an iconic jazz club in Philadelphia in 1966. The bandleader-owner, it was said, had been called away prior to closing. He was unable to return before the end of the last set. Walking back, he watched the crowd filing out. Some, I am told, had tears in their eyes. Ok. Too good to be true. Or too sentimental to be true. Unconfirmed by independent sources. All true. But if the story isn't true, as the saying goes, it should be. In retrospect, the closing of Billy Krechmer marked the end of an era in Philadelphia jazz. No, the music didn't stop. No, Krechmer himself didn't disappear. No, the scene was not thereafter bereft of venues, nor did Philly players cease to emerge.

Yet, one doubts that for a certain kind of playing, a certain sort of scene, one rooted in the Swing Era and the Big Bands of the 1930s and 1940s, the world changed. Billy Krechmer's was not the last of the clubs. Growing up in Philadelphia, I knew of Pep's, the Showboat, the Aqua Lounge, and neighborhood places in my part of town—West Philly— where players like Mike Pedicin, Sr. had held steady gigs at Skippy's at 64th and Haverford Avenue. Or where Cozy Cole or Gene Krupa made appearances at the Baltimore Tavern. There were still supper clubs, like Palumbo's and the CR Club in South Philly, or, over, across the Delaware River, in Jersey, the Latin Casino, with name acts and headliners, if not exactly jazzers.

But the places where the name bands had stopped, The Earle Theatrer or the Click, were long gone, with the Earle actually demolished in 1953. And so too were the sidemen who made their way to Krechmer's—some of them local boys (and they were probably mostly boys) like trumpeter Nick Travis, (born Travascio) a regular and for a time on Krechmer's payroll, from the Olney section of town. Travis had died terribly prematurely in 1964, the British invasion was on, and the Big Band Era was already a fond memory for people of my father's generation.

Billy Krechmer may not be a household name in the history of American jazz, but he was a local legend in Philadelphia, well known and widely respected in the community of musicians, if not a legendary figure from the "legitimate" world like Leopold Stokowski or Eugene Ormandy of Philadelphia Orchestra fame. Certainly, he was a remarkable player. Buddy DeFranco who knew Billy, called him "an exceptional jazz clarinetist" and put him in a league with Benny Goodman. Coming from Buddy, who had both an ego and a sharp tongue, that was remarkably high praise. Krechmer had a thirty-year run as a club owner in Center City, and he was a mentor, or a boss, or at least a living to people like Ray Bryant, Tal Farlow, Lou Stein, Slam Stewart, Charlie Bornemann and Bobby Shankin, to name only a few of the 600 or so musicians he thought he had employed over the club's run. Countless others jammed with him like Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Billy Butterfield, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Ray McKinley, Will Bradley, Johnny Guarnieri, Bobby Hackett, Charlie Ventura and Hot Lips Page. And there was a very highly regarded trumpet player, a veteran of Benny Carter and Jimmie Lunceford's band, Tommy Simms. who joined Krechmer's house band in 1952, spending a decade there. Simms was a sort of quasi-mythical figure, living in Powelton Village in West Philly. about whom a certain lore exists, and of whom more presently. When he died in 1986 at the age of 63, Krechmer commented "Few Philadelphia trumpeters were in his class."

Billy Krechmer was a local boy, too, from the small South Jersey town of Millville. He was one of five children, the son of a shoemaker, born on August 25, 1909. He first studied piano and the family moved to Philadelphia, where he graduated from West Philadelphia High. Having taken up clarinet, he was assigned to Daniel Bonade's studio after admission to Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Bonade was the Principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and both a celebrated teacher and player. The chronology is a bit hazy, but Krechmer was apparently already a working musician in Philadelphia by the time he attended Curtis, but he never lost his love of the classics or the importance of classical technique on the clarinet. Bobby Shankin, who was his drummer in the club's house band at the age of 19 recalled walking into the club in the afternoon to the sound of Krechmer practicing a Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Shankin called him "totally dedicated to playing the clarinet" and recalled that musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra would drop by the club to hear him.

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