Ed Crommelin: A Man and His Music
Jazz in The Netherlands (1925-1940)
(Text Source: "The Mississippi Rag", October 1977 - article
"Jazz in The Netherlands" by George W. Kay)
Ed Crommelin surrounded by his musical toys, Vancouver 1978.
Edward C. Crommelin has a fascinating story to tell about the vastly overlooked jazz scene in The Netherlands during the '20's and '30's. A native of Holland, Crommelin was a ten-year old boy when he first heard "jass" in 1923 at an afternoon dance in Knocke on the Belgium coast. The band was Murray Pilcer's sextet. This brief introduction to this strange and exciting music marked the beginning of countless enjoyable and rewarding experiences in the world of jazz.
Crommelin formed his first school band in 1925 and started collecting records. By 1930 his fascination with records and recording equipment was readily apparent in this sample recording made on September 12, 1930 when Eddie (age 16) 'interviewed' his father, Marinus Crommelin, at a booth at the Utrecht Trade Fair. This message, cut on an aluminum disk, must have been made on a 'modern' portable apparatus on display at a trade show exhibition booth.
Utrecht Trade Fair, Sept. 12, 1930
In 1932 he assisted in organizing the first jazz society in Holland: "The Netherlands Jazz Society - Haarlem Division". (Haarlem is the town that gave Harlem in New York City its name.) In April 1933 he wrote a long article on Eddie Lang who had passed away in March of that year. Later he became president of the Netherlands Jazz League, an umbrella organization for similar hot clubs around Holland.
From 1934 to 1936, Ed was the recording engineer for Dutch Decca's jazz catalogue. He was responsible for a series of outstanding recordings featuring Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Freddy Johnson, Eddie South, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and a host of others. He also sponsored tours for Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and other American jazz greats who visited Europe during the years preceding World War II.
During the war when the Nazis occupied Holland, Ed worked for the Dutch government in the Ministry of Economic Affairs while at night he would record short-wave radio broadcasts on a hidden record-cutting machine. These recordings were etched on glass discs which were coated with a thin film of acetate. Over the years the acetate film has largely disintegrated due to moisture and mildew, but not before taped transcriptions had been made of the recordings.
From 1945 to 1952 he served with the United Nations (UNRRA) alongside the American troops in Austria. Then in 1952 the Crommelins emigrated to Vancouver, Canada complete with his huge pre-war record collection. We hope you enjoy his delightful anecdotal reminiscences of a great era that has become an important part of jazz history.
My Introduction to Jazz
In 1923 I went to a dance hall in Knocke, Belgium. As we entered the ballroom, I heard a little band, "Murray Pilcer and his Quintet" playing a jazz tune. No doubt the drummer had fleeced his wife of all her pots and pans because he had them hanging on hooks, and he used every one of them! Apart from the noise the drummer was making, some very good music was coming through. It was such a brand new sound that I was astonished and completely spell-bound.
When I returned to Holland I tried to find more of this kind of music. At that time the orchestras that played jazz were not being recorded and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's records of 1916-18 hadn't reached Europe. Therefore I had to track down jazz records and buy them with the meager allowance my Dad paid me.
All of my pocket money went to buy records, many of which are now rare collectors' items, for instance the first jazz disc ever made: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Victor label #78 of Livery Stable Blues and, on the flip side, Dixie Jazz Band One-Step recorded on February, 1917. It was the Originals led by cornetist Nick LaRocca whose engagement at a cafe off Columbus Circle in New York launched the jazz craze in American nightclubs and ushered in the colorful Jazz Era of speakeasies, bathtub gin and wall-to-wall flappers. At that time jazz was scorned by the older generation because it was associated with the 'red light' district of New Orleans where the music originated. People naturally connected jazz with the sleazy surroundings in which it was born.
My father too didn't like jazz and thought my money should be better spent than on the purchase of records. Anyhow, I managed to buy a few records and my collection started to grow in 1925. Since my father was so much against it, I had an ally in my youngest sister who would warn me when my parents were around. One time I was listening to a recording of Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" and "The Chant". In stormed my Dad and without saying a word, removed the record from the phonograph, broke it over his knee and threw the pieces on the floor. That taught me a valuable lesson. From that time onward my sister mounted guard during listening sessions in order to help me protect my precious record collection!
In 1925, while still in short pants, I decided to make my own hot music, recruiting elementary school chums including two violins, piano, banjo, swanee whistle and drums to form the Novelty Dance Band with me, its 11-year-old leader emulating the Knocke Hotel's Murray Pilcer on a drumset also largely improvised from kitchen utensils. We even went "on the road" with a mobile jazz band aboard a horse-drawn wagon as part of our involvement with the boy scouts. I played the drums. Nothing was too ambitious for us youngsters in those days!
By March of 1927 the Novelty Dance Band was still in existence and Hans Osieck became its pianist. Five years later this band had evolved into amateur jazz bands such as the "Haarlem Happy Guys" (1931) and the "Rhythm Rascals" (1932). The latter was an eight-piece group whose professionalism belied its years. We were good enough to go as far afield as Switzerland for a few dance engagements.
After graduating from high school, I apprenticed as an accountant. I set up the accounting system for the only large music store in The Hague that specialized in jazz records. The place was also a hangout for musicians who were down on their luck and looking for a job. I knew the owner and agreed to set up his books for a salary plus a supplement of records. After about nine months doing his bookkeeping, the salesman for Decca Records got to know me. He was leaving Decca and suggested that I apply for the vacancy. I got the job and that's how I started with Decca. Eventually my interest in jazz merged with my office work. I lobbied for better recordings in order to get myself into the recording studios. Finally I was able to draw up some contracts and organize a few bands for recording sessions.
When Duke Ellington came to Holland in July 1933, we booked him at the "Hotel Des Indes" - the finest hotel in the Hague. He sensed the significance of the occasion because all his life he had been accustomed to the color bar in the U.S.A. He appeared touched and expressed his feelings in different ways.
When he unpacked his bags in his room, one of the first things he did was place his family Bible on the night table next to his bed. "I like that," I said. Surprised at my comment, he said, "You do?" "Yes," I said, "I have also been brought up that way [Christian]." He turned around and gave me a knowing look as if to say, "I think we're going to get along just fine!"
I took the 'Duke' for supper at an Indonesian restaurant. The menu consisted of numerous tasty little delicacies from over twenty dishes. Dinners like this should never be rushed and the 'Duke', obviously enjoying himself, did take his time over this feast. We suddenly realized that we had overstayed our dinner hour as the concert was to begin at 8:15 p.m., and it was already past that time. So we hailed a cab and streaked through to the concert hall.
Friends told me later what had happened in the meantime. After fifteen minutes beyond curtain time the audience started to stomp their feet and clap their hands for Duke to appear. The band was neatly seated on the stage. Harry Carney gave the downbeat and the orchestra had struck out with "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and started into the next number. When Ellington finally arrived and stepped onto the podium, the whole orchestra abruptly stopped. After hearty applause, Duke sat down at the Steinway and off they went again with Duke's theme song, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo". I learned later that the difference between the two renditions - with, and without the "boss" - was amazing. The first time they played all the right notes, but without inspiration. The second time, with D.E. at the keyboard, the band caught fire and really swung.
Many years later, in April 1970, Duke arrived in Vancouver, Canada for a week's engagement. On opening night I visited him backstage and during an intermission I mentioned The Hague and 1933. Without batting an eye he responded with, "Indonesian Restaurant, 22 courses, all waiters dressed in red silk!" He hadn't forgotten a thing. He called all his boys together, gave me a nice picture of himself and had all of his men sign it.
My first recording artist for Decca was Freddy Johnson. In 1933 the Decca people in London who supervised the Holland subsidiary saw in me the potential of improving sales in Europe and they asked me to set up a "Race" catalogue. I tried to get masters from the United States because the copyrights weren't too clear. I had a lucky break when I was able to get some Louis Armstrong discs for my catalogue, but actually this was a goof between the United States, England and Holland. But when they discovered the error it was already too late because the Armstrong sides were already on the market. And once they were released nobody paid any more attention. They stayed in the catalogue. My own recordings for Decca included sessions by Freddy Johnson and Rosie Poindexter, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and other American jazz artists who visited Europe.
Freddy Johnson made many good records for Brunswick and Decca. The French (Paris) Brunswicks by Freddy Johnson and his Harlemites are very good indeed. His recording of "I Got Rhythm" was played to Louis Armstrong while aboard the ocean liner that brought him to England. Louis was so impressed he wanted to meet these chaps. Louis and Freddy did meet in Paris and spent some good times together.
On the Deccas I made with Freddy in 1934, I picked up a number of musicians around Amsterdam representing about seven different nationalities. There was a Russian guitarist, an English drummer, a German tenor sax and trumpeter, an American black trombonist and pianist (Freddy Johnson), a Dutch bass player, and Rosie Poindexter, a lovely vocalist from the West Indies. They couldn't converse too well, but they certainly understood each other's music. Once these boys started jamming, everything fell into place.
Freddy Johnson and Lex van Spall and their Orchestra
Vocalist, Rosie Poindexter, and Pianist, Freddy Johnson
Tracks produced by Ed Crommelin in Amsterdam, November 29, 1934 [released in 1935]
With Freddy Johnson, September 1936
Benny Carter meets Freddy Johnson
(Note the billboard at the right for the Casino, Scheveningen
announcing Freddy Johnson's orchestra concert, 1937)
Satchmo was a quieter, more introspective person than his public personna would suggest. He was careful to avoid the traditional excesses of jazz showmen, dodging after-show adulation and jam sessions and, to keep in shape, he travelled with an assortment of vitamins, exotic home remedies, and a lip salve made exclusively for him.
In 1934 Louis Armstrong paid a visit to Holland. Louis was an exceptional fellow with a great sense of humour. He invited me to hear him at the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam where he was playing for a dancing engagement. However, few people bothered to dance because the music was so good.
After the dance was over, he invited me to his room along with his manager and a few musicians. While fans were in the elevator making their way up to his room to get more autographs, Louis was preparing to take a shower. He was always ready and willing to sign autographs in the ballroom, but now he simply wanted a little privacy and relaxation. When his fans arrived, I instinctively went to the door to shoo them away but Louis had other ideas. He opened the door himself and greeted his fans standing there stark naked! The fans got the message and quickly withdrew. "No problem. 'Works every time," he quipped, and then hopped into the shower.
In April 1934, Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra arrived for a concert tour. I still have an autographed program of that engagement. In those days Cab had a beautiful orchestra with a string of star performers, but unfortunately Cab hardly gave them a chance to solo. The jazz buffs wanted to hear Ed Swayze, Doc Chatham, Ed Barefield, Benny Payne, "Foots" Thomas, DePriest Wheeler, Al Morgan and others, but we were allowed only brief solos from any of these fine musicians.
At intermission we went backstage to chat with the musicians. We mentioned the cabaret "Tabaris" as a likely after-hours place where musicians could hang out and join along in jam sessions. It was about midnight and the place was packed when the first group of Calloway stars drifted in. Soon they were sitting in with "Jack and Louis deVries Internationals" which was probably the best local jazz group in Holland at that time. It was a superb jam session.
We sat there enthralled with the music until about 2 a.m. when Cab Calloway suddenly appeared with his road manager. He gave the place one look and ordered his manager to "write down the names of all my AWOL troops." I believe each of these stars lost a week's pay. This really upset me, but the boys didn't seem to care. Since they were now on the boss' black list anyway, they continued their jamming until the wee hours of the morning.
Coleman Hawkins with the Ramblers
Coleman Hawkins arrived in England in 1934 having established a reputation through his Victor recordings with the Mound City Blue Blowers. In 1935 he was at the high point of his career when he became stranded in Holland because of Hitler's Nazi regime. England's fine orchestra under Jack Hylton was touring Europe with Hawkins as a featured jazz soloist. He was eagerly awaited by jazz buffs everywhere, and that included Germany. Unfortunately Hylton couldn't get permission to bring Hawkins into Germany since the Aryan 'master race' had no use for a black musician. So, Germany's loss was Holland's gain, and we made the most of the situation.
My first encounter with Coleman Hawkins was somewhat revealing. Freddy Johnson had arranged for me to meet him at the "Pschorr's" Dance Hall in Rotterdam. Hawkins didn't say much at first. Then when he decided to go to the washroom, he suddenly emptied all the change out of his pockets and left it in a pile on the table. Freddy explained to me later that this was a kind of test. When he saw that you hadn't touched anything he put his money away and, deciding that you were trustworthy, he became your friend.
[Ed Crommelin's supervised sessions for Decca are available on: The Hawk in Holland. This album contains all sessions by Coleman Hawkins in Holland.]
The Boswell Sisters
In July 1935 the American Boswell Sisters came to Holland. They had given concerts in London and recorded there for English Decca. We, at Dutch Decca, were thrilled to see them. To show our appreciation for this lovely singing trio, we had picked out three identical genuine Dutch costumes with white lace caps and wooden shoes. When these were presented to them at the Decca offices, Connee became misty eyed. In fact, it took some diplomacy to talk the trio out of dressing in their Dutch costumes that very evening for their first concert!
They were impressed by the thousands of bicycles on Amsterdam's streets and insisted on giving it a try. While Connee remained at the hotel, ably assisted by their manager, Harry Leedy, whom she later married, Vet and Martha went riding on bikes and promptly rode into a fasionable mall meant for pedestrians only!
Shortly after they returned home to the U.S., the trio broke up and Connee launched a very successful career as a solo performer.
I met Benny Carter in Holland in the summer of 1936 shortly after his contract with the BBC in London had expired. He had coached the BBC Radio dance band led by Henry Hall, a sweet sounding, but uninspired band. In short order Carter was able to whip the band into quite a good jazz playing group. It had no soloists of any real merit, but the brass had bite, the sax section played as a team, and Benny's orchestrations were exciting. Benny was scheduled to return to New York but he wanted to see a little more of Europe. Our association, The Netherlands Jazz League, lined up some concerts for him and managed to interest Decca in making a few recordings.
As a soloist, Carter could play almost every instrument in the band - alto and tenor sax, clarinet, trumpet and piano. He was in a class by himself and, as an alto player, the true master. He had a beautiful melodic line, terrific swing, but at the same time so light that his solos seemed to float in mid-air. A fine example of his virtuosity is "When Day is Done", recorded in the U.S. on Brunswick (7786).
One afternoon, Freddy Johnson, Benny Carter, the Secretary of N.J.L. and I sat outside in the sun on the Scheveningen Hotel terrace. Benny was always immaculately dressed and this day was no exception. Along came a roaming Gypsy fortune teller who offered to tell us our fortunes. She carried an added attraction, namely a tame guinea pig.
Now we, in Holland, always have our reservations about the cleanliness of "tame" guinea pigs, but not Benny Carter! He became so fond of that animal, putting it on his spotless grey suit, in his lap, and feeding it cookies, that I had to convince him this one wasn't for sale, and besides, one couldn't take guinea pigs on a concert tour!
(Publicity Picture) (In Dutch Decca Studio
for a recording session with Coleman Hawkins, 1937)
Django and Stephane Grappelly and their Quintet of the Hot Club of France were organized in 1934 by Charles Delaunay, a personal friend of mine. Delaunay always stayed with me when he visited Holland. On one such visit Charles brought me the first recordings ever made by Django and Grappelly, and he also had some recordings by Django before he was matched with Grappelly. I believed these samplers were terrific and urged Charles to do some PR work to make these musicians popular. We managed to get Ultraphone to record them in Paris; Charles sent me these first releases, and thereafter I followed their rise to stardom.
Later, in 1937 when I needed some big names for concerts at The Hague, I phoned Delaunay about the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. They were available for a reasonable fee so I booked them for the concerts and two radio broadcasts. I'm pleased to have a recording from one of the broadcasts in which I introduced Django and Stephane, followed by a swinging version of "I Saw Stars". I took them on tour through Holland and we had a wonderful time.
Quintette du Hot Club De France
Here is an amusing incident that happened along the way. Django and his wife went with me to a large store in Amsterdam. Django wanted to buy a beautiful bed for his wife - one with a canopy. I told him this could be arranged, so we went to the luxury furniture department. There we found the exact bed he was looking for. When I expressed my reservations about how he could have it shipped to Paris, he said that wouldn't be a problem.
However, before buying the bed he wanted to make sure that it was comfortable enough. In a flash he took off his shoes, socks and jacket and crawled into bed! Suddenly staff members converged from all directions and Django asked me what all the commotion was about. Django said, "Oh well, if they don't want to sell me the bed, then I won't take it." After putting on his shoes and clothes again, we all walked out.
Then we went to another floor of the same department store. "How about a teacozy - the cover for a teapot?" he asked me. After looking at a few, he said that before buying a teacozy he always checked to see if it would fit him first. So then he put it on his head and there was more commotion in that store. In order to avoid trouble I urged him to buy it. So when we finally left the store, Django was proudly wearing his new headgear!
I remember one time at a hotel when the musicians were all resting in their beds. Django was humming some melody and, turning to me, suddenly asked me to pass him his guitar. While flat on his back he started to play. Years later I recognized the tune he strummed that evening. It was his only unaccompanied guitar solo, recorded on HMV as "Parfum". And here he was playing it lying down!
I'm Confessin' That I Love You
(Django's very first recording)
by Django Reinhardt
Stephane Grappelly was a marvelous musician with a solid classical background. When I heard him in Vancouver, he had aged a lot, but he played the same beautiful jazz violin. In fact, he sounded even better than he did in the Netherlands, way back in 1937.
L-to-R: Stephane Grappelly (violin), Roger Chaput (guitar), Django Reinhardt (guitar),
Louis Vola (bass), Joseph Reinhardt (guitar)
(Earliest known picture of the "Hot Club de France Quintet", Paris, 1934)
(E.C. Crommelin photo)
The Mills Brothers
On Boxing Day, December 26, 1937, the Netherlands Jazz League sponsored a concert by the Bobby Martin orchestra and the Mills Brothers at the "Dierentuin" in The Hague.
Ed Crommelin introduces the
Mills Brothers at a
Concert at the Dierentuin
in The Hague.
When all four sessions were safely waxed, Eddie and I sat down over a drink to settle the recording fee. I duly unloaded my briefcase of hard-won French francs on the table and was met by this astonished reaction from Eddie: "What in the world am I supposed to do with French money here in Holland?" When I pointed out the contractual stipulation he replied, "Well, what I meant was the equivalent of French francs because I'm not familiar with your Dutch guilders!"
The next day I was back at the banks to sell off all my French francs in order to settle with him. Yes, I had to absorb the exchange rate bank charges on both these transfers, but it was good for a chuckle later on.
On January 6, 1938, Ed Crommelin wrote to the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York with a proposal to dedicate their "Saturday Night Swing Club" broadcast on February 12, 1938 to Holland's many jazz enthusiasts. This would be the highlight of the annual Dutch Swing Night (organized by the Nederlansche Jazz Liga) in which some 4000 Dutch jazz fans normally gather for a nation-wide "live" jam session via Dutch radio.
The scheme was heartily approved by broadcasters in both the United States and Holland and some of the jazz 'greats' featured in this international jazz fest included music from Duke Ellington, Eddie South, Red Norvo, the Hot Club de France (Django Reinhardt), Stephane Grappelly, The Mills Brothers, Mildred Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, and others. Below are some links to articles and correspondence related to this unique experiment which made the most of 1938-vintage broadcasting technology.
Brief interview of Ed Crommelin on
AVRO Radio Journal, February 13, 1938
Philips' Gloeilampenfabrieken Letter
Philips' Omroep Holland-Indie Letter
Coleman Hawkins Letter
Willie Lewis had been playing in Paris for quite some time after arriving in Europe as a sideman for Sam Wooding's band. Later, Lewis' orchestra attracted the best black musicians that passed through Paris. I was interested in recording this fine group because it featured two of my favorite stars: Bill Coleman (trumpeter for Fats Waller), and Herman Chittison (superb pianist). My contract with Lewis called for six orchestra tracks and two piano solos by Chittison.
The "Pulchri" studio in The Hague, site of the session, was much in demand, mainly for art exhibitions. The acoustics there weren't good because there was too much reverberation for sound recordings. Therefore, because of the adverse acoustics of the hall, Lewis decided to change some of the arrangements which necessitated some extra practice sessions. However, we had rented the hall for only five hours which gave us barely enough time to get six of the eight tracks recorded. The stage hands had already started to move the props around, so I had to scrap the recording of the two piano solos by Chittison.
Decca later docked me one-fourth of the artist's fee because of this condensed recording session and I had to pay the difference out of my own pocket. I lost money on this session.
These records were amongst a large number stolen from me during the war, therefore I wasn't able to hear them again until 1963 when a collector in Belgium sent me a little tape with the whole 1938 Willie Lewis session on it. The audio isn't the best, but the jazz is great and, as usual, Chittison (piano) is superb. The numbers were recorded in the following sequence:
The musicians were, as I recall: Willy Lewis (alto sax), Joe Haymes (clarinet), Frank "Big Boy" Goodie (tenor sax), Bill Coleman (1st trumpet & vocals in "Shanty Town"), Jack Butler (2nd trumpet), Billy Burns (trombone), Herman Chittison (piano), John Mitchell (banjo), Ted Fields (drums), Bill Myers (bass, arranger)
[Ed Crommelin's supervised session for Decca are available on Swingtime In Europe (1934-1938). This album contains seventeen recordings with Eddie South, Willie Lewis (Chittison) and Freddy Johnson.]
In the pre-war years of 1925-1938 we were far removed from the cradle of jazz which was in the southern United States. We had to rely simply on records and the infrequent visits of real jazzmen to our shores. We made up for this lack by tackling the subject with a zeal to learn more about jazz and approach it on a typically European intellectual level. I have Dutch books on jazz of those days, and I remember showing them to Duke Ellington who exclaimed, "You know, you Dutch people really KNOW jazz, while we only FEEL it!"
English and European stars we enjoyed in those days included, Jack Hylton, Roy Fox, Jack Payne, Spike Hughes, Ray Noble, Al Bowlly, Nat Gonnela, Freddy Gardner, Fred Elizalde, etc., while the bright lights of London and Paris attracted jazzmen from the U.S. as well.
But the Dutch can always look back with satisfaction on the compliments of men like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Sidney Bechet, Joe Venuti, Bud Freeman, Teddy Wilson and many others who praised the Dutch for being most knowledgeable, and also having a real feeling for jazz music.
As the war drew nearer, Ed was still thinking about music. Around 1938 a dear friend, Boris Lensky, Jr., a promising young pianist and composer, recorded an original composition, "Misty Mood" which Ed tried to 'sell' through this sampler. Sadly, nothing more was done with this composition and Boris, a Jew, died in a concentration camp a few years later.
Boris Lensky Jr.
Then in 2007 contact was made with American actor and composer, Paul Cook, whose pianist, Kent Wehman, agreed to 'finish' and professionally re-record the scratchy sampler created some 70 years earlier. With thanks to Paul Cook and Kent Wehman this recording is thus dedicated to Boris Lensky Jr. - a young forgotten pianist and composer who still manages to reach out and touch others...Somewhere in Time.
Boris Lensky Jr.-
Interview with Paul Cook regarding the film "Somewhere In Time"
Ed's Big Band Image Gallery (...under construction)
The Great Thirties: Americans in Holland