Northside SF  

Appetites and Afterthoughts
The nifty cat scratches my itch

By Ernest Beyl

My esteemed editor thought it would be a good idea if I “branded” my Northside San Francisco scribblings with a title like my buddy Bruce and his column “Bellingham by the Bay.” I thought so too, so this first branded offering is under the title, “Appetites and Afterthoughts.” I think it has a nice ring to it.

“Appetites” conveys the many things I like to write about: jazz, food, wine, cooks and cookbooks, art, architecture, and fly-fishing. “Afterthoughts” acknowledges my bent for San Francisco history, the North Beach neighborhood and its characters, stories and anecdotes about the good old days and the good old places. 

In this first column, I’d like to tell you about the “nifty cat” Roy Eldridge, my favorite jazz trumpet artist and one of the key instrumentalists in the jazz history of the trumpet. In 1966, in an almost accidental fashion, I produced a record album in San Francisco with the great Roy Eldridge. It was called – yes, The Nifty Cat Strikes West.   

Ah, 1966. Those were the days. I was so immersed in jazz that it no longer satisfied me just to sit in smoky nightclubs like the Jazz Workshop in North Beach, open my ears and snap my fingers on the second and fourth beats. I was itchy to be involved, itchy to be part of the jazz scene. The Nifty Cat Strikes West – I still have a copy of the 33 r.p.m. LP – is an example of scratching that itch. Here’s how it happened.

Big bands and the movie palaces
When I was a youngster, junior high school age, jazz was already a dominant force in my life. Tall for my age, I was sneaking into local ballrooms to hear my idols: Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw. At the same time I discovered two-a-day vaudeville in local movie palaces. It was the tail end of the big band era and they played on stage between films. There were three movie theaters in the Bay Area that featured vaudeville along with first-run movies: the Golden Gate and the Orpheum in San Francisco and the T&D across the bay in Oakland. My favorite was the Golden Gate, an imposing 1930s, multistory structure at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. (It now features road shows of New York musicals.)

Krupa at the Golden Gate
One day in January 1943, I learned that Gene Krupa and his band were to appear there. Krupa had an enormous reputation as a jazz drummer, and I heard that his band featured a hot trumpet player named Roy Eldridge. I cut school to attend and got there early. When the doors opened for the morning matinee, I rushed in and found a seat down in front near the stage. Then I suffered through the movie – whatever it was – and waited for Krupa.

When the movie was over, I sat expectantly in the dark for a few minutes. Suddenly a spotlight shot a large illuminated circle on the closed, red velvet curtain. Then, softly at first, I heard the boom of the bass drum, then tom toms, then loud cymbals, snare drum rolls, and the snap of rim shots – all of this before the curtain parted. Finally, it swung back to reveal the band. Harsh, bright reflections glanced off the brass instruments.

Hooked by gritty Eldridge
Handsome and boyish, Krupa smiled and dominated the scene. But the short, compact trumpet player, Roy Eldridge, mesmerized me. No musical experience since that time has grabbed me like Roy Eldridge’s sharp and biting trumpet attack. But even more compelling to me was the tone that came from that brass bell. It was not clarion clear, as I was prepared to believe trumpets should sound. The Eldridge trumpet grated. The sound slid out with a gritty insinuation. It sounded like rasping threads of spittle were vibrating in Eldridge’s horn. I was hooked.  

When the show was over, I walked around to the stage door where the musicians actually came out into the daylight, right into the real air. My archangel Gabriel walked out, signed an autograph for me, and made a few off-hand, reasonably pleasant comments. He wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly – jazz musicians just aren’t. Then he walked up the street and into Original Joe’s. Even a gritty archangel like Roy Eldridge must eat.

Krupa busted in San Francisco
On the way home I stopped at a record shop and bought a Gene Krupa record. It featured Roy Eldridge on trumpet with Anita O’Day on vocals. The hit number was “Let Me Off Uptown.” Eldridge and O’Day kicked the lyrics back and forth between them. When I got home I put the record on my family’s monster Zenith and cranked up the sound. Roy Eldridge, nicknamed “Little Jazz,” from Pittsburgh, Penn., was my man.

The next day San Francisco newspapers reported that Krupa had been arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and possession. The story said Krupa had asked his underage valet and gofer to retrieve an envelope of some mysterious substance from his St. Francis Hotel room.

Roy Eldridge and Count Basie
Fast forward to 1966: By now I have become publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival. I still have that jazz itch, and I am itching to scratch it, to become even more involved. One day Dr. Herb Wong, then a disk jockey for KJAZ-FM (88.1) in Alameda, called me. “Is Roy Eldridge still your main man?” Indeed he was.

At the time, Eldridge was playing with Count Basie and his Orchestra, touring the West Coast. After a week at Basin Street West in North Beach, Basie himself had taken off for the East, and a few of his key sidemen were hanging around San Francisco.

Roy Eldridge Sextet
Herb and I rounded them up for a studio date, and one day we all met at Leo De Gar Kulka’s Golden State Recorders South of Market. It was the Basie Orchestra in miniature – a sextet – Grover Mitchell on trombone, Eric Dixon on tenor saxophone, Norman Kennan on bass, Louis Bellson on drums, and Roy Eldridge on trumpet. We commandeered local pianist Bill Bell for the Basie role. The session began about 11 a.m. and stretched late into the afternoon.

Not knowing anything about producing a record album, I thought that was a long time. I discovered later that cutting a record sometimes takes as long as a year or more. But these jazz pros knew what they were doing. Motion was not wasted, nor was there time for a lot of small talk. They knew what they were there to accomplish, and they accomplished it in swinging order.

Warming up with Ellington
They warmed up with a couple of Duke Ellington tunes. Three eventually made it onto the album: “I’m Beginning To See The Light,” “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” and “Satin Doll.”

Jazz critics always cited Roy Eldridge’s “competitive nature.” Jazz artists can be competitive like professional athletes. They rejoice in what they term “cutting sessions” – trying to blow the other guys off the stage. It seems to go with the territory. 

That afternoon Eldridge, while full of camaraderie with his fellow Basie buddies, showed his competitive nature. After playing a slow, achingly beautiful and somewhat sardonic solo on “Willow Weep For Me,” he loosened up still more with a few belts from a bottle of bourbon on the floor next to his chair. Then, the incomparable timekeeper Bellson kicked it off with some chink a-chink a-chinks on his ride cymbal.

Blue ’n’ Boogie sizzles
Eldridge let all of us know what was on his mind and played sizzling lines on Blue n’ Boogie by John Burks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Dizzy, an astounding trumpet artist, readily acknowledged Eldridge had influenced him. Jazz writer Leonard Feather, a friend whom I admired, put it this way, “He [Roy Eldridge] was as vital a figure in the development of trumpet jazz during the thirties as Louis Armstrong had been in the twenties, as Gillespie was to be in the forties or Miles Davis in the fifties.” Feather wrote that in 1960. Wynton Marsalis, later to become an important continuation in the jazz trumpet pantheon, was born in 1961.

The impresario strikes west
The New York record company Master Jazz Recordings bought the master tape, named the album The Nifty Cat Strikes West and issued it. Well, OK! There are copies still around for collectors. I see them listed on the Internet. After Herb and I paid off the Roy Eldridge Sextet, the recording studio and other expenses, I netted about $200. I was an impresario. I had produced an album with Roy Eldridge, one of the greatest trumpet artists of all time.

Roy Eldridge died in 1989. He was 78. I still play The Nifty Cat Strikes West once in a awhile to rev up my engine. As I said, I had an itch and I scratched it.

Ernest Beyl is going to enjoy his new column. And no he doesn’t want to sell The Nifty Cat Strikes West. E-mail:

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