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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.

At all odds, Billy was coming up in what would turn out to be the waning years of the 1920s and the early years of the Great Depression. He had a gig at the Cathay Tea Garden Orchestra, a Philadelphia landmark at 12th and Chestnut founded right after World War I, that hosted a musical broadcast from the mid 1920s to the mid 1950s. The conductor at Curtis was then Fritz Reiner, who apparently found Krechmer talented but not easy to reach. Krechmer said he had to play to make ends meet. His career at Curtis may have best been characterized by a letter from a school official that remarked "we hope you one day find the time for musical study." Billy's gravitating to jazz was simple: "I could play classics. I preferred jazz."

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Billy was on the road, playing with Gene Goldkette, Ben Pollack, Red Nichols and Ted Lewis, making the acquaintance of players like Goodman in the process. But the road held few attractions for him, and he found himself back in Philadelphia playing at the Mastbaum Theater. It was more or less at this point that Billy made a decision that was to have a major influence on the history of jazz in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia in the 1930s and 1940s was a major big band destination. Literally every major outfit passed through. When their engagements ended for the day, sidemen frequently passed the time with other musicians, both locals and personnel from other bands in town. Krechmer found himself in the role of impresario, squiring around road musicians looking for after hours places to jam. As he told it, "I knew all of the joints and I took them to places where they would play for nothing, just to play jazz. I got tired of paying cab fares and I began to think, 'Why don't I do this myself?'" And so on November 3, 1938, Krechmer opened up a tiny club at 1627 Ranstead Street in downtown Philadelphia known as The Jam Session. And there it would remain until May 1966, for a run of over 27 years, eventually becoming known as Billy Krechmer's Music Room. With the exception of the purchase of an adjoining property at 1629 in mid-1959, that's how things mostly stood.

It was not an elegant place, and one person described it as "an elongated telephone booth measuring 11 and 1/2 by 52 feet" with a bandstand said to be perched "precariously" in the corner. An habitue called the style of the place Stone Age Bohemian and claimed Krechmer ruined the atmosphere when he enlarged the space with the adjoining property. Trombonist Charlie Gronemann, who was in the band in the early 1960s was a lot more charitable, describing the place as "a nice room" decorated with alabaster sconces. Of course, the business of the place, aside from playing music, was selling booze, and by all accounts, Krechmer was not only a taskmaster on the bandstand, but an extremely shrewd and successful businessman. He spent his days there, all day, six days a week, with sets (except for a Saturday matinee) running from 9PM to 2AM (legally, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, but reputedly all night sometimes), with 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off. Gronemann listened to a recording the band made in the early 1960s and simply observes that of necessity you got to be a strong player under the regimen, "the Marine Corps of the music business," he joked. Bobby Shankin, a 19 year-old drummer at the time and not yet off to Julliard to study made a similar observation. It was, he said, "the best schooling I ever had" five hours a night 52 weeks a year. Shankin too observed that Billy was a great taskmaster, but also "a great leader." "I grew up there," Shankin commented, "my reputation just blossomed." Gronemann concurred. "I respected [Billy] so much" being on the band was "a learning experience." While the young guys in the band agreed about this half a century later, Krechmer was no-nosense. "I told the [non-established] guys if you're going to practice here, don't come in.

The music, as you can hear by listening to the album playlist, was mostly Dixieland. Gronemann nevertheless observed they played "every ballad known to man." Bop was not Billy's forte so much as the swing he had grown up with. Gronemann, who styled himself a Dixieland guy and started with Billy at 17, simply said "Billy could play anything, " but stuck to Dixieland because "he knew people would drink to Dixieland."

Any time you deal with Philly institutions from back in the day, you are very likely to run into some characters. One of Krechmer's biggest boosters and a close personal friend was the local disc jockey, Jack Pyle. Pyle had come to Philadelphia in the early 1950s and spent a good part of his career on the radio as a morning man. He was a tireless champion of the Big Bands, which he felt were going to make a comeback someday, and like Krechmer, had a very distinctive voice and delivery. Jack was well traveled on the dial in Philadelphia, and he was not above pulling an occasional stunt—like singing along to Tommy Dorsey's "Sunny Side of the Street" while on the air. Gronemann added the detail that Pyle, who was known to enjoy a drink or two, would sometimes entertain patrons of the club with his version of "Old Folks at Home." The weekends especially were crowded, and Krechmer's daughter observed that squeezing in and out of the place could get tricky. Pyle apparently recruited Krechmer's as an informal watering hole for a part of his audience, salesmen of the road who Jack referred to as "Pyle Drivers." It must have worked pretty well, because Krechmer returned the favor, recording a Dixieland original in Jack's honor—"and it sold beautifully too" Krechmer, ever the businessman, once recalled, "Pyle of Jack."

While "Pyle of Jack" and a small number of other tunes were recorded by Krechmer and the early 1960s band, finding much of Krechmer's other recorded output is difficult, and, in the hands of collectors, an expensive proposition. That's especially a shame, because while some people who played with Krechmer—like Tal Farlow or Ray Bryant—left an ample recorded legacy, some did not. One in particular was the trumpet player Tommy Simms, about virtually nothing has been written, but about whom a certain amount of apocrypha survives. As an adolescent, I had heard serious jazz fans in the area rave about Simms, but, alas, I never did get the chance to hear him; after a time, I began to wonder if he even existed. Well, exist he did, and there's ample evidence of his playing on Krechmer's recorded album. Ironically, even though it's only eight bars, his solo on "Pyle of Jack" absolutely takes off, and makes you understand why this gentleman had the reputation he had. Simms is also very well represented on "Black and Blue," "Basin Street Blues" and "St. James Infirmary." He was an integral part of Krechmer's band in the 1950s and early 1960s, and one wishes to have heard more of him.

Again, as a kid, I once talked to someone who had been at a party at Jack Pyle's when Krechmer's band was there, or at least Simms was. And so, it seems, was trumpeter Sonny Dunham. This all seems perfectly credible to me, because Pyle knew an awful lot of people in the music business, and if Dunham was in town, Pyle and Krechmer's were logical places for Dunham to have hit. Dunham's competitive instincts are pretty well known, even to the point of his trying to cut Bunny Berigan at a Metronome All Stars Band session. Well, the story goes, Simms and Dunham traded choruses for a bit, and then Dunham had had enough. He put his trumpet down, I was told, and played trombone instead for the rest of the night. True? If it isn't, maybe it should be.

Nothing lasts for ever, we're told, and neither did Billy Krechmer's. By 1966, Billy, great businessman or not, could not invent an audience. When asked about his intentions of shuttering the historic club, Billy complained that Philly's convention business was down. "Philadelphians don't go out at night. There are conventions here, sure, but the Young Homemakers of America we don't need. The people who come in for medical seminars are too busy studying to go on the town." He pronounced 1965-66 the worst year he had ever had. On May 13, 1966, Billy Krechmer's closed its doors. It reopened, wait for it, as a "Your Father's Mustache." The advertisement carefully noted the place used to be Billy Krechmer's. There was some talk that Billie would reopen in retirement down in the Virgin Islands, but that didn't happen. Billy retired to Longport, NJ, instead.

But that wasn't all of it. Billy was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand, and found himself increasingly unable to execute. He tried surgery several times, but in the mid-1960s, that was very much a gamble. And so, it seemed, that Krechmer would spend the rest of his time in retirement, adjudicating student competitions and such, and not playing. He did a variety of benefit work in South Jersey, especially for South Jersey Regional Theater, of which he was a board member. Remarkably, in the early 1980s, after further surgery by an orthopedic surgeon who was one of the club's former patrons, Billy was able to slowly resume playing. In 1983, after seventeen quiet years, he returned to public performance with some of his old bandmates, including Tommy Simms and Chet Fry on bass, in a concert named "Encore of a Legend." "I just feel like I've been reborn," Krechmer said. He was 74 at the time. On his 80th birthday, he was reunited in concert with Tal Farlow, who was with him in 1946-47. Asked about his remarkable recovery, he said "I'm 80 years old and I'm still talking and walking." Around 1990, muttering in his raspy voice about not buying any green bananas, Billy put down his clarinet for good. He passed on peacefully at the age of 92 in 2002, surrounded by a loving family, and having, even in retirement, done plenty of good for the world. He outlived Benny Goodman, and lived almost as long as Artie Shaw (d. 2004).

If you ask about the legacy of someone like Billy Krechmer, especially when the competition on the instrument was what it was during the Swing Era, you're almost inevitably left to fall back on people he taught, he influenced, or he entertained. As a kid, I listened to his broadcasts on various radio stations in the Philadelphia area, because it made up for the inability to have lived through the same time Krechmer did, even if the music resonated with me as well. His clarinet playing I leave to someone more expert on the instrument than I, although his technique seemed beyond secure, and his lower and middle register exceptionally warm. Listen to the tune he closed out sets with at his club, "Saints Go Marching In." You be the judge. For a generation, Billy helped shape and promote jazz in Philadelphia, and kept a lot of wonderful musicians working. Can you think of a better legacy? I sometimes wonder why they never put up a little plaque to him on Ranstead Street. He deserves one.

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