The bop that got left behind

It’s easy to forget how obscure, how underground bebop remained after its first flower in New York City in the ‘40s, and how rarely, even a decade later, it was recorded (and to a lesser degree, played) beyond New York City and hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Bebop was never a wildly profitable enterprise.  Its momentum in mid-century America was predicated on small, tight-knit clusters of like-minded musicians and the support of open-minded clubs and audiences.  Professional recording studios and nationally-distributed record labels that released the music were critical, too, and further helped to provide jazz modernists with exposure as well as a supply of session and ensemble gigs.

As with any innovative, abstracted strain of art, literature or music, bebop found the most traction in the largest cities.  Listeners sympathetic to bebop were more likely to exist in major metropolitan areas; a willing audience attracted more musicians, who, in turn, facilitated the infrastructure – the clubs, studios, labels, record and music shops – necessary for further sustaining and promoting the form.

Such factors tended to work against the fledgling networks of jazz musicians in other cities.  Even a large industrial city like a Pittsburgh, Seattle or St. Louis continually had their jazz talent siphoned off.  Prospects – money, audiences, opportunities – were brighter elsewhere. Still, despite local audiences’ indifference and limited avenues to broader recognition, always there were the fanatics smitten with bebop, who, even if unable, unwilling, or uninterested in relocating to pursue their craft, somehow kept the torch alive for the music in the post-War years, and sometimes in the most impractical places.

Mouse Bonati, Back (Patio MJ-1)1.  Mouse Bonati, Back (Patio MJ-1)
Ed. note: Updated November 14, 2011.

Post-War jazz in New Orleans

The most popular jazz in post-War New Orleans was ostensibly a revivalist affair – Pete Fountain and the Dukes of Dixieland sold millions of records with their Dixieland and traditional jazz retreads.  While concurrently proving itself one of the nation’s great, vital R&B powerhouses, New Orleans’s glory years at the leading edge of jazz were decades gone by the time of bebop’s ascendance in the ‘40s.

Despite the city’s general apathy about this new, modern permutation of jazz (a generalization fairly leveled at any city not among Great Migration destination points), New Orleans did have its bop devotees, many of whom were convening in the late ‘40s and ‘50s to jam at French Quarter nightclubs and strip joints.  Places like Louis Prima’s 500 Club, the Gunga Den and the Sho’Bar employed these young enthusiasts as pit musicians, and served as primary loci for the after-hours sessions where the form took root in the city.  Some of these young musicians would shortly light out for points north (Bill Evans, Vern Fournier, Mundell Lowe) and west (Joe Pass, Brew Moore, Frank Strazerri, Ed Blackwell, Earl Palmer).  Others, like Ellis Marsalis, Al Belletto, Bill Huntington and Mike Serpas stuck around New Orleans for longer, or for good.

Amongst the latter, saxophonist Joseph “Mouse” Bonati would be one of the earliest and most visible champions of bop.  Little, unfortunately, in the way of New Orleans bebop was recorded in its time, but Mouse Bonati figures prominently in discussions about modern jazz in New Orleans.

Joseph “Mouse” Bonati

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1930, Joseph “Mouse” Bonati was the youngest of five musically- and artistically-inclined brothers and sisters: Ralph, Roy, Anne and Al.  His father died when Joe was six months old; Joe’s eldest brother Ralph, fourteen years old at the time, would in particular help out with his upbringing.  (Incidentally, there are two different family stories about the “Mouse” sobriquet.   One has it that it was coined by an artist friend of the family who, while drawing a family portrait, made special note of the youngest Bonati’s appearance.   The second version was that it was born, as a vision, during one of Mouse’s own drug-induced reveries.)

The young Joe, evincing the family’s musical and artistic talents, played the violin, receiving the standard classical-oriented musical education of the era.  In the late ’40s, barely out of his teens, playing saxophone and enamored of both jazz and – like so many other young musicians – of Charlie Parker, Mouse Bonati moved to New Orleans.

In New Orleans, Mouse would meet Ronda Adler through mutual friend Larry Borenstein (founder of Preservation Hall).  Adler – a young jazz enthusiast who’d worked previously as a cigarette girl at the storied Birdland jazz club – was then en route to Mexico from New York City, but stayed on in New Orleans, eventually marrying Mouse, with daughter Gina born in 1957 and son Chris in 1959.   With Ronda working at the Court of Two Sisters, Mouse, continuing to hone his Bird-influenced style, would pursue the musical life in the colorful clubs of New Orleans.   A multi-instrumentalist – he also played piano, flute and clarinet – Bonati would become a well-known presence in the New Orleans jazz community.

Mouse Bonati’s New Orleans sides – all released by the tiny Patio Records – represent some of the earliest bebop recorded in the city.  Recorded in a single sitting in 1957, the Patio sessions yielded four tracks under Mouse’s aegis.  Supported by compadres Benny Clement (trumpet), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Chick Power (tenor saxophone), Edward Frank (piano) and Earl Palmer (drums), these recordings would be released sequentially on two 45s – “Back” backed with “One Blind Mouse” (Patio MJ-1) followed by “Mouse’s House” backed with “What a Difference a Day Made” (Patio MJ-2).  They show the altoist in full Charlie Parker mode.

That same year would also see the release of the lone LP on Patio Records, an album of New Orleans bebop entitled New Sounds From New Orleans.  Put together by friend and fellow musician Jack Martin, the album was divided between the Jack Martin Octet’s “Jazz Suite de Camera” on one side (which features Bonati playing in a supporting role) and Mouse Bonati’s music – his four 45 recordings, along with a strange multi-tracked tape experiment entitled “Improvisations” – on the other.

As the ‘50s wore on, recorded music began to displace the musicians working in the Bourbon Street clubs.   Local gigs became harder to find, and, like many musicians and artists, Mouse’s own life and personal relationships were getting more complicated. Around 1960, not long after these recordings were made, Mouse relocated to Las Vegas, and the ensuing years would form something of the next chapter in his life as a working musician.  Though no further commercial recordings would be released in this time, the relative security of resort gigs – the lifeblood of many jazz musicians in those years – kept Mouse active as a professional musician.

Mouse’s residencies as a jazz soloist and section musician would take him from Lake Tahoe in mid-‘60s (at Harrod’s Resort) to the Bahamas in the late ‘60s (at Paradise Island), then back to Lake Tahoe around 1970.  His longest-term residency would follow upon settling in Las Vegas, where he lived from 1972 onwards, with a steady residency at the Lido show at Caesar’s, along with jazz gigs at venues like the Tropicana Ballroom and Dusty’s Playland.

Mouse Bonati was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in the early ‘80s, sadly making playing impossible in his final years.  His a life spent in the jazz world, devoted to music. Joseph “Mouse” Bonati passed away in 1983.

Jerry Berry Quintet, A Tribute to Miles (Soma 1117x45)2.  Jerry Berry Quintet, A Tribute to Miles (Soma 1117×45)
The Soma Records story and discography are well-known to fans and collectors. From early rockabilly to mid-‘60s garage band sounds, Amos Heilicher’s Minneapolis-based Soma Records chronicled young rock ‘n’ roll of the Upper Midwest better than any other label operation.

Based, presumably, in the Upper Midwest, Jerry Berry is clearly no rock ‘n’ roller, but it’s still surprising that there are so few details to be unearthed about him.  “A Tribute to Miles” was released in July of 1959, to my ears a sort of impression, and a well-done one, of cool, definitive mid-tempo Davis recordings like “All Blues” or “Bag’s Groove.”

“A Tribute to Miles” and its flipside (a fine uptempo version of “Love for Sale”) would be the first of two Jerry Berry 45s released in quick succession.  The second – the Quintet’s jazz readings of Joe Liggins’s “Pink Champagne” and Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge’s “Drum Boogie” – reveal no further clues, either, unfortunately.

Clyde Dickerson And The Tear Drops, Cool Week-End (Kinzua Kl 102 B)3.  Clyde Dickerson And The Tear Drops, Cool Week-End (Kinzua Kl 102 B)
Born in Bristol, Tennesse, saxophonist Clyde Dickerson’s home base eventually became Washington D.C., where he was known for many years as “Watergate.” (Dickerson’s day job was as doorman at the infamous Watergate Hotel.)

In early ‘60s, though, Dickerson was playing in and around western New York.  There his “Cool Week-End” was recorded in 1964 and released on the custom-pressed label Kinzua.  This is rough, raw stuff, with sour notes resounding during the piano solo.  It is again clearly fired by the brisk tempos and melodies of early bebop – the unison passages could have been lifted from an early Dexter Gordon or Kenny Dorham 78.   (Its flipside, an atmospheric version of Jesse Belvin’s R&B ballad “Guess Who,” is posted at the great That’s All Rite Mama.)   “Cool Week-End” is also quite the contrast to the prior, and only other, Kinzua Records release, Red Arrow and the Braves’ “The Last Days of the Kinzua” and its flipside “Redskin Rumble,” two sides of wild, oddball rock ‘n’ roll.

Dickerson seems to have been something of the journeyman musician and arranger around the resort towns and metropolitan areas of western New York.  In addition to his own records, his somewhat unexpected co-writer credits include both sides of the aforementioned Red Arrow and the Braves 45.  He appears, too, to have worked occasionally with the Buffalo-based group the Jesters, and possibly contributed some saxophone work on their hip 1962 instrumental “Alexander Graham Bull.”  (Jesters’ drummer Tony DiMaria is given co-credit for “Cool Week-End,” implying another connection.)

At some point in the ‘60s, however, Dickerson would settle in Washington D.C., leading groups on at least three different D.C.-area soul 45s in the early ‘70s – “Love Bandit” and “Black and Beautiful” (both on Jonetta Records) along with “There’s No Justice for the Young” (on Soultown Records).

Dickerson seems to have remained more active as a performer, however, with regular appearances with D.C.-area jazz and R&B A-listers, including Byron Morris, the Mangione brothers, David Ruffin and Rick James.  Clyde Dickerson passed away from stroke-related complications in 2003.

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10 Responses to The bop that got left behind

  1. Dominic says:

    Great post. My mind is blown by that Jerry Berry Quintet 45.

  2. oliver says:

    tasty baby!!

    flamingo gonzales

  3. Khal Spencer says:

    Is “Mouse’s House” available on mp3? Mouse Bonati is my uncle.

  4. gina bonati says:

    thank you so. mouse is my father. his music is so dear to me and i long for it to be heard.

  5. Ralph Bonati says:

    My uncle Joe was pretty good. But so was and is the rest of the Bonati musical family. Joe’s sister and brothers were all involved with music, and they influenced their offspring. It seems that the genetics have been passed on to even the grandchildren, as many of these “Bonati’s” are quite talented, even if they have a different last name due to marriage.

  6. Amy Bonati Geiling says:

    Joe (mouse) Bonati and my father Ralph J. Bonati were brothers. Up until now, I could only imagine how great of a sax musician Joe was because my father Ralph was also very talented with the trumpet! I love this record! He’s soooo smooth. I’ll make sure to play this for my eldest son Matt who is an amazing singer/songwriter/musician. We’re proud of you Joe!

  7. Lisa Bonati Lambert says:

    Another Bonati just listened to Mouse! Dig it, cat!

  8. Little Danny says:

    Wow, all sorts of Bonatis today! Welcome. And please keep leaving comments or emailing me:

    Hoping to get a new post (with more complete, accurate information) up on Mouse Bonati soon.


  9. Jim (jabber) calabrese says:

    i grew up with joe and al they were extremely talented. especially joe. he was an amazing talent at an early age. We had a lot of fun on and off the bandstand.. he was in my harmony class in high school
    his exceptional ability was a problem for the teacher..His musicianship achieved greatness in my humble opinion.Ask some of the so called greats who wouldn’t get dare get on the same bandstands with "THE MOUSE" RIP JOE

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