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Bob Mielke’s Oakland A’s Strolling Dixieland Band, 1969-92

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Jazzed-Up

“We’ve had a really warm response. It’s fun to be able to play to the people directly. Face to face, not through a microphone or anything. It’s just a really rewarding experience.” – Bob Mielke, Interview on Radio KNBR, Nov 1969

Here’s a slice of rollicking Americana from a time and place not so far away.  Or was it?

For nearly a quarter century Oakland A’s Swingers Baseball Band brought vintage jazz to ballpark audiences, Traditional Jazz events and private parties. It was a solid musical ensemble with a limited role at games:

* Performing six or seven minute sets of short “chorus and a half” tunes  (:30 to :90 seconds) during each half-inning break, standing atop the team dugout.

* Presenting peppy truncated jazz classics, novelties, polkas and fanfares.

* Mobile concertizing in the bleachers, hallways or tailgate lots.

First season quartet, 1969.

 

Bob Mielke KNBR Radio Interview, Fall 1969

Fluent in the language of public relations, Bob Mielke was the personable spokesman for Oakland’s Baseball Band. Below are quotes from his Nov. 12, 1969 interview on radio KNBR which broadcast the Oakland Athletics ballgames, accompanied by newly recovered ballpark images.

“Between innings it’s just real snappy, just one chorus or so. We stand out there and entertain. People join in. They crowd around, clap hands and so on. It’s a gas.”

 

After the game we usually play in the hallway as people are streaming out. Especially if the A’s win, everybody’s in a real gay mood. And we like that because we get to play the tunes longer.”

“Dick Oxtot is our banjo player. He and I have worked together from almost the very beginning of our careers. He’s got a very solid rhythm.”

In the interview Mielke went on to praise their youngest member, trumpet player Bob Neighbor. He noted that Bob’s main professional jazz experience had been with Turk Murphy, including film and recording: “He plays a very, very solid right-straight-down-the-middle lead which is a real asset to us.”

Bob stated that his musicians were all experienced and didn’t need to rehearse the jazz numbers. But less familiar material required some rehearsal, such as the novelty “Slippery Hank“ from before the First World War. Featuring trombone, it was suggested by Helm. Said Mielke, “It’s fun but it’s tricky.  We had to rehearse it.”

Today, Mielke recalls that his “somewhat Irish” mother attended this Mothers Day 1970 game. Sadly, the occasion was spoiled by her intense embarrassment at the attention from his dedication of the touching “Wild Irish Rose.”

 

BALLPARK SET ONE: Mother’s Day, Oakland Coliseum, May 1970 – 8:51

That Certain Party, Four Leaf Clover, Shake That Thing, Turkey In The Straw, Slippery Hank, Wild Irish Rose, Bugle Boy March (Hallway).mp3

Bob Mielke (left) and tuba player Dick Bowman grab a beer.

Bob Mielke (b. 1926) had a distinctive personal trombone style blending elements of New Orleans (Kid Ory), Harlem (Tricky Sam Nanton, J.C. Higginbotham) and Chicago (George Brunis with Muggsy Spanier, 1939).  In a previous era, c. 1955-65, Bob Mielke and The Bearcats had forged a fresh alternative to the prevalent Dixieland format of Eddie Condon’s Dixieland jam sessions or the Traditional Jazz of Lu Watters, Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey.

“We have Bob Helm playing the clarinet. Out here he actually plays the soprano sax because it has a little more power to it.”

“Helm has got wide experience. He’s recorded a lot. He played with the Lu Watters band. He played with Turk Murphy’s band for many years, and Monte Ballou. It’s a thrill to be able to work with him regularly, believe me.”

 

Band Roster

The band was known by various names over the years: The All Stars, McNamara’s Band, Muleskinners Strolling Dixieland Band, or the Oakland A’s Swingers. During their first season the group was only four instruments: Bob Mielke (trombone) Bob Neighbor (trumpet), Bob Helm (soprano) and Dick Oxtot (banjo). Starting the second year, after they complained to club owner Charley Finley about lacking a bass, tuba player John Moore was hired.

By 1973 Bob Helm had resumed working for Turk Murphy and was replaced by outstanding reed players Bill Napier or Dick Hadlock.  When trumpeter Bob Neighbor was otherwise occupied, horn players Jim Goodwin, Ev Farey, Jack Minger or others were employed, especially after Neighbor moved out of the area in 1987. If Mielke was occasionally unavailable Oxtot ran the ballpark proceedings; or Dick got his own jobs across the Bay with the San Francisco Giants.

Owner of the Oakland A’s, Charley Finley (banjo) at the 1973 World Series in New York, with Bill Napier (L) and Jim Goodwin (R).

The gig hinged on Mielke’s skill at schmoozing the team owner and Charley Finley’s genuine love of the music.  Oxtot recalled the flamboyant owner in his memoir:

“Life on the road with Finley was a full-time party.  Finley was a genial host.  [In Detroit] he hosted a 7-course lobster dinner for a flock of dignitaries and the band.  After the feast, which must have cost him a bundle, Finley called a cab and invited Mielke to ride back to the hotel with him.   As the cab approached the hotel, Finley asked Mielke, ‘Have you got five dollars for the cab?’”

Bob Helm helped shape Traditional Jazz on the West Coast and in later years was a foremost honored elder.

 

Free Range Bob Helm

Reed player Bob Helm (1914-2003) is widely acknowledged as THE singular musical genius of the West Coast Traditional Jazz Revival and was a key player in the Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band c. 1940-50. He was at the vanguard of a San Francisco-based musical movement that rejected commercial Swing and Big Band music in favor of stomping jazz from the 1920s, returning to the style of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

A professional musician for 70 years, Bob Helm studied early jazz and embodied its traditions developing an individualistic sound of his own, playing all the reeds but tenor sax. It’s a treat hearing him running wild and free unshackled from the constraints of the tightly arranged Turk Murphy Jazz Band with whom he worked intermittently for decades.

This music adds to our portrait of a beloved entertainer connecting with a broad popular audience.  The lively Oakland Coliseum tapes display well Bob’s pungent tonality, assertive style, originality and wit.  Soprano saxophone offered added volume in the open arena compared to the clarinet.  Helm turns up the heat in “Wolverine Blues,” “Shake That Thing,” “Down Home Rag” and a comical “Turkey in the Straw.”

 

BALLPARK SET TWO:  Oakland Coliseum, July 1970 – 8:03

Wolverine Blues (Hallway), Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town, ‘Chaser,’ Red Wing, I Want to Be Happy, Step to the Rear, Turkey in the Straw, Down Home Rag.mp3

 

Game Day

The ballpark music heard in sets ONE-THREE was gathered in mid-1970 at the Oakland Coliseum amidst the action and in the hallways. Amateur portable open reel tapes vividly captured the excitement and high spirits despite intrusions and distractions. 

Playing brief sets atop the dugout between innings the tunes were radically abbreviated.  In a remarkable trick of condensation they reduced the essence of King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues” — which was about 2 & ½ minutes on the original 78 rpm disc — to :20 seconds! Yet they took every opportunity to present full-length songs when performing in the hallways or for folks streaming out of the stadium.

You can hear the band playing for a hallway audience at length in “Wolverine Blues,” or serenading the departing crowd in “Bugle Boy March” and “Shout ‘em Aunt Tillie.”

Mielke might have gathered tips for truncating songs from Bob Helm. A veteran professional musician, his experience dated back to dance bands and “taxi dance halls” of the 1930s and ‘40s. At what the musicians called “dime jigs” they churned out thirty, forty, up to sixty tunes an hour according to Helm.

4 Responses to Bob Mielke’s Oakland A’s Strolling Dixieland Band, 1969-92


  1. Dick Karner says:

    WOW! Some really great material, Dave. Great combo and a lot of fun these guys provided for the ballpark.

  2. Jack Bybee says:

    As usual a great article.

  3. You’re invited to join me for more classic jazz in its many forms at the JAZZ RHYTHM website:
    http://www.JAZZHOTBigstep.com

    Or visit:

    Oakland Swingin’ A’s
    http://jazzhotbigstep.com/745034.html

    Bob Mielke
    http://jazzhotbigstep.com/247312.html

    Bob Helm
    http://jazzhotbigstep.com/116001.html

    Dick Oxtot
    http://jazzhotbigstep.com/486423.html

  4. Bert Thompson says:

    Thanks for making these clips available, Dave–great stuff! And thanks for including me in your mail out notice.

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