4 November 2015


As I have said in previous articles, two bands whose work we should study were those of Sam Morgan and Armand Piron. They both played in New Orleans during the 1920s; and the recordings they made are invaluable sources of inspiration and information to all of us who wish to perpetuate the music.

But there was a third very good recording band in New Orleans at that time. This was The Halfway House Orchestra, which flourished from 1923 until 1928. 

Its leader was Albert 'Abbie' Brunies (cornet - centre of the picture above). The rest of the players included (over the years) Leon Roppolo, Charles Cordilla, Joe Loyacano and Sidney Arodin (reeds), Bill Eastwood and Angelo Palmisano (banjo), Mickey Marcour, Bill Whitmore and Glyn Lea 'Red' Long (piano), Deacon Loyacano, Johnny Saba (vocals), Chink Martin (bass and tuba) and Bud Loyacano (string bass), Leo Adde, Emmett Rogers and Monk Hazel (drums - Hazel also played cornet and mellophone), and Merritt Brunies (valve trombone).

How did this jazz band get its name? It was derived from the fact that it played at The Halfway House Dance Hall, in City Park Avenue, two miles north of the New Orleans City Centre - half-way to the Lake (Pontchartrain). The dance hall was very popular in its day, because it was renowned for good food and employed fine bands. (Another of these bands was that of Armand Piron.) Albert 'Abbie' Brunies was director of the resident band for seven years.
The Halfway House

This historic building ceased being a venue for jazz in about 1930 and was eventually demolished in 2010, when it was found to be in too poor a condition to renovate, even though there had been support for the idea of turning it into a jazz museum.

Led by 'Abbie' Brunies, The Halfway House Orchestra recorded 22 tunes between 1925 and 1928 - 18 of them for Columbia. A few of these were standards (Squeeze Me, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Maple Leaf Rag - the last one played perhaps too fast, though you can't normally say that of this band); but more than half the tunes were original compositions by members of the band - especially Brunies, Long and Eastwood.

A good place to start, if you wish to sample this band, is Baratari, composed by the band's Bill Eastwood and Leo Adde: Click here to listen. It is a very melodic and dance-able 32-bar [16 + 16] structure in Bb, with a simple chord sequence and what sounds like a Gb chord (for a bit of surprise colouring) on bars 25 and 26. It allows for breaks (on the chord of F7) in Bars 15 and 16; and there is a Verse which has echoes of the first theme of Wolverine Blues. The performance is altogether pleasant and there are no prima donnas among the musicians.

And their Pussy Cat Rag (composed by Brunies, Cordilla and Marcour) is a simple enough piece that really romps along, with some subtle syncopation.

It Belongs to You in Ab (by Brunies and Lea) is one of those 16-bar tunes allowing for plenty of two-bar breaks (almost identical to If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It and How Come You Do Me Like You Do, Do, Do?). Such tunes were very fashionable at the time and are still easy - and fun - to play.

This band played for dancers and it shows. They were really good at giving the dancers what they wanted. You can sense it in all these recordings.

For me, the most appealing is New Orleans Shuffle, composed by their pianist Bill Whitmore. It opens apparently in Bb minor with a very unusual 10-bar 'oriental' introduction. Then comes a bouncing 32-bar [16 + 16] Verse, ending on Ab7, which leads perfectly into the 32-bar Main Theme (very swingy and melodic) in Db. Next comes a key change! The clarinet plays the theme in Bb. After this we transition back to Db for the cornet to play the theme. Finally, we have the full ensemble playing an out-chorus vigorously reminiscent of the King Oliver Band in which Louis Armstrong played second cornet (there's even a Snake Rag-style break on the chord of Ab7 in Bars 15-16!). Listen to the performance by clicking on here.

The Halfway House Orchestra seems to have had a preference for very sing-able melodic tunes interpreted in uncomplicated and neat, unpretentious arrangements, with pleasant interplay between cornet and reeds and a steady pulse provided with restraint by the rhythm section.

So it's a band worth noting - playing its music in a relaxed and melodic way that many of us still consider just right for traditional jazz.