Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Estelle Toots!

A mysterious collection of home recordings, no information on the labels, all in very poor condition. But the music contained on them proved to be a trove of interesting and historic performances.

Long-time readers of this blog know that the radio station where I do a jazz program holds an annual music sale to raise funds to keep itself on the air. I look forward to the sale each November because I invariably find more than a few gems amid all the Al Hirt and Boots Randolph castoffs. This year was no exception. 

In fact, the sale this year may have turned up a find of historic importance.

Every year, we get many boxes of 78-rpm records donated along with all the CDs, long-playing albums, sheet music, instruments and stereo equipment. Very few buyers pay any attention to these, and the shellac discs languish over in a corner at the sale, piled in boxes on the floor. Occasionally someone picks through them, but no one is really interested. I myself will peruse them, usually toward the end of the sale when I'm bored and there's nothing else to do.

A Recordio disc cutter with a built-in radio, circa
1935. The operator could record music directly
off the air. The creator of the discs from the
record sale probably used a unit like this
That was the case this year. I work at the sale, so I am there most of the day, and toward the end I decided to take a look at the 78s to see if there was anything there of interest. A Lester Young on Keynote caught my eye right away, and I began to look in earnest through the pile. Nothing much turned up until I found, in the pocket of a generic 78 album, three or four home-recorded discs. I checked the other sleeves and came up with another half-dozen records, all recorded with a disc cutter, and all lacquer-coated aluminum discs. If you've never seen these sorts of records, they were popular in the 1930s and '40s as a way to make home recordings, long before there was anything like tape. Using a disk-cutting machine and a microphone, one could make three- or four-minute records of whatever one chose to record. More often than not, music was what people recorded.

These records were in terrible, neglected shape, but I tried one out on one of the record players we had for sale, and it played very well. What it played really caught my ear. I could hear a solo trumpet playing what sounded like "Honeysuckle Rose." I purchased them, took them home and was amazed by what I heard.

One of the Melodears' trumpet players in the late
1930s, perhaps Estelle Slavin?
These records seem to have been made by a young woman named Estelle. That much I knew, because one of the records was faintly labeled, "Estelle Toots." That was the record with "Honeysuckle Rose." That Estelle was the trumpet player was confirmed at the end of the tune when the female horn player says, "I think that was pretty good, don't you, Mary Ann?" and a young voice answers, "Yes, Aunt Estelle, I think that was very good."

There were other solo trumpet performances on the discs, most notably a version of "Georgia On My Mind" offering a free interpretation of the melody and displaying a real range on the horn as well as a highly-developed sense of rhythm. The more I listened, the more I realized that the player was not some talented amateur but an accomplished professional, playing jazz horn in the style of Harry James or Frankie Newton. But who was she?

An Internet search produced only one "Estelle" who played trumpet in the 1930s. Her name was Estelle Slavin, and she was in Ina Ray Hutton's all-woman (all-girl) band called the Melodears. She was with the band from the mid-'30s until 1939, when Hutton broke it up, and she would have been 25 or 26 at the time of the recordings. That seemed to fit.

I speculate that Estelle Slavin might have been at home in New Jersey, between gigs, when she made these recordings. Later she put together her own all-female band, calling it Estelle and Her Brunettes, and played in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and on the Jersey shore through much of the 1940s. Down Beat lists the band, and Billboard did a write-up on them which seems to confirm that Estelle was a real jazz player and not just a novelty act. 

I managed to find the daughter of Estelle's piano player, Muriel Ritchie, and she remembered going to Ms. Slavin's house as a child for parties and dinners. She couldn't remember much more than that, but her mother was an excellent pianist who returned to playing jazz toward the end of her life, performing under her married named, Muriel Havenstein. 

So, was the Estelle on the discs actually the jazz trumpet player named Estelle Slavin? I can't say for sure, but all the circumstantial evidence seems to fit. A fascinating mystery, regardless – at least, I think so.

But wait, there's more.

Among the discs were a number of airchecks, recorded off the radio that was probably part of the disc-cutting machine. Several of them were of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Andrews Sisters, and others were excerpts from longer classical pieces. But there was one record – one of the 10-inch ones – that was a true gem. It contained eight minutes of a previously unknown performance by Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy. The very same band that featured the composing, arranging and piano playing of one Mary Lou Williams. 

Mary Lou Williams and Andy Kirk,
around the time of these recordings.
It was a broadcast from December 15 or 16, 1939. How do I know? Because at the end of one of the sides, an announcer cuts in with a bulletin about the German battleship, the Graf Spee. It was the very beginning of World War II, and war updates were hot news. So from that report I was able to date the Kirk radio show with real precision. The band was in New York recording for Decca around that time, and The New York Times lists them as doing broadcasts over WJZ.

What we hear is a complete version of "Cherokee," most likely arranged by Mary Lou, a portion of "South of the Border," "Dunkin' a Doughnut," a Williams arrangement and composition, and a bit of "It's Funny to Everyone But Me." We also get great solos from trumpeter Clarence Trice, trombonist Ted Donnelly, tenor star Dick Wilson and Mary Lou herself. Also featured is Floyd Smith's marvelous lap steel guitar on "Cherokee."

So here is the only extant example of the Andy Kirk band in live performance from that period. There are two others that I know of, one earlier and the other much later. But this one catches the band at the height of its considerable powers. 

Our trumpet-playing Estelle, whoever she was, clearly had excellent taste in music. But I wonder why she documented the Kirk band? Perhaps she knew one of its players? That opens up many more possibilities for speculation ...

These sides were dubbed from the original discs, with some cleaning of the sound. Considering their condition, however, they sound quite good. There's only about 15 minutes of music in this download, so you may want to add some other tunes if you burn it on a disc. Thanks, Estelle!

Estelle Toots & Andy Kirk Swings
Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy | Estelle Slavin
Andy Kirk, leader; probably Harry Lawson, Clarence Trice, Earl Thompson, tp; Ted Donnelly, Henry Wells, tbn; Earl Miller, as; Don Byas, Dick Wilson, ts; Marry Lou Williams, p, arr; Floyd Smith elec g; Booker Collins, b; Ed Thigpen, d; June Richmond, v.
Aircheck (WJZ?), New York, NY, December 15 or 16, 1939

1. Cherokee (MLW arr), into South of the Border (inc.) 
2. Dunkin’ a Doughnut (MLW comp, arr), into It’s Funny to Everyone But Me (JR) (inc.)

Estelle (Estelle Slavin?), tp.
Probably New York or New Jersey, private recording, 1939 or ‘40

3. Honeysuckle Rose
4. What’s New
5. Georgia on My Mind

Find it here:


  1. Wow! - Thanks so much for sharing these incredible recordings.

  2. Thank you! Very interesing, but it's missing track 4.

    1. Oops! My error, Luis. Here's the complete file, also corrected in the blog above:

  3. gems of jazz! what a wonderful, historic gem you found!!
    thanks a lot! who knows what treasures are still somewhere...
    Keep boppin´

    1. Hope you enjoy it, KBM! I too wonder about all the recordings still stashed away in attics and garages. I wish I was able to spend all my time searching for them, but we'll have to make do with the 12 Clouds and Ms. Estelle for now.

  4. Great find David! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fascinating context ! Thank you so much !