owner/management of Smalls' Paradise & Bix sitting in with Charlie Johnson

by Phil Schaap

Comrades Bix:
It's entirely plausible that John Hammond heard Bix sit-in with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra at Smalls' Paradise. I was troubled, however, by Hammond's "gangster management" statement.
I didn't know Ed Smalls, the African-American owner of Smalls' Paradise, and if he actually was a "gangster" and Hammond (or anyone) had the data to prove it - so be it.
HOWEVER:
I was friends with Perry "Stoney" Smith who was in the house band at the original SMALLS' PARADISE, including its grand opening, and was told by Ed Smalls as they were about to move (circa 1925) to the still extant location (West 135th Street and Seventh Ave, now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd: it is now an educational facility associated with the Abyssinian Baptist Church) that he could keep his job if he learned to play saxophone. Perry Smith was initially a violinist and the house unit was of strings at the first address, but Smalls advised him that a real Jazz Orchestra would be the norm at the new place. Stoney quickly learned sax, largely tenor sax. Perry Smith is my key Ed Smalls' primary source but I also knew quite well from Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra: Benny Carter, Jabbo Smith, and Benny Waters.
These four and several others that were acquaintances of mine all admired Ed Smalls and that Smalls' Paradise was black owned and opened to all. Ed (Edwin) Smalls was the grandnephew (I've read that he was the grandson) of Robert Smalls, the African American naval hero in the Civil War and later a United States Congressman (yes: in the 19th Century). I actually worked Mondays at Smalls' Paradise in the early 1980s when the Cobbs-Johnson 18 Piece Orchestra helped launch the swing dance revival. Johnson was Howard "The Swan" Johnson, brother of plectorist Bobby Johnson in Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra (Howard and Bobby were not related to Charlie).
Until the posting of the Hammond 1967 letter, I had never heard that Ed Smalls was a gangster; so, I would tend to doubt it.
As to Bix's sitting in:
Not that it really disputes John Hammond - I actually accept his recollection that Bix sat in at Smalls' Paradise and with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra - but Benny Waters, Jabbo Smith, and Benny Carter never told me of such an encounter. Benny Waters had great stories of hanging with Bix in the summer of 1927 when both Johnson's band and Goldkette's Victor Recording Orchestra held forth in Atlantic City. Benny Carter and Benny Waters recalled Jimmy Dorsey often sitting in with Johnson's band at Smalls. They never mentioned Bix sitting in. It, nevertheless, quite likely happened and Hammond might well have been there.
I hope this data and perspective is helpful.

Posted on Jul 18, 2017, 2:01 PM

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