September 23: Sam Parkins and the Excalibur Jazz Band
Leroy Parkins, who usually went by “Sam,” was a musical wonder, and if a character with a more varied resume shows up on this blog, I’ll be surprised. Born in Boston on September 23, 1926, Parkins played with bop with Dick Twardzik, R&B with Sam Rivers, mainstream swing with Dave Frishberg, trad with Danny Barker…he played in every musical setting imaginable over a career that stretched across six decades.
Parkins was still playing at the time of his death in 2009, but in music circles he’s probably better known for his work from the 1960s into the 1990s as a producer and recording engineer. He recorded both jazz and classical music, for which he was nominated for four Grammy awards. Along the way Parkins was also a composer of film music, piano sonatas, choral works, electronic music, and chamber jazz.
Leroy Parkins—I’m still not sure where the “Sam” came from—entered the New England Conservatory in fall 1950, and while he worked steadily on his masters in composition, he played Dixieland at the Log Cabin in Dedham, R&B in the sailors’ joints, and polite dance music for debutantes in society bands, a practice he continued long after his Boston days. In 1953, he continued his musical mixing-and-matching by playing bop at the Melody Lounge with Dick Wetmore and Al Walcott, but he stopped playing modern in order to indulge his growing interest in traditional jazz.
Parkins organized a group to work at the Southward Inn in Orleans, on Cape Cod, during the summer of 1954. It was a quartet that played jazz-based dance music, with Parkins playing clarinet and tenor, soprano, and bass saxophones, Jim Wheaton trumpet, Bob Pilsbury piano, and Al Ezer drums. They were a big hit playing everything from Ellington to Cole Porter to Dixieland chestnuts. Katherine Donahue, owner of Boston’s Savoy Cafe, heard the band and booked it for the fall.
It was for the Savoy engagement that Parkins organized the Excalibur Jazz Band as a Dixieland sextet, with Wheaton, Cas Brosky on trombone, Buddy Blacklock on piano, John Ronscheim on bass, and drummer Tommy Benford. Benford’s career in jazz went way back—he played with Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller in the 1920s, and he was in Boston in 1954, working at the Savoy with Jimmy Archey. Excalibur was popular, and brought back for another ten weeks starting in January. Doc Cheatham played trumpet for a time, and Pops Foster the bass.
Before the summer of 1955, Pilsbury returned, Wetmore joined to play cornet and violin, and Frank Gallagher, a veteran of the Nat Pierce and Woody Herman bands, joined as bassist. Following that Southward summer, the Excalibur Jazz Band had one more ten-week stay at the Savoy, commencing on October 24, 1955 and lasting until December 31, New Year’s Eve. It was to be the Savoy’s final ten weeks, and Excalibur played that last night. The last song played before the club went dark forever was “The Original Dixieland One Step.”
The Excalibur Jazz Band recorded its only album in 1956, the obscure Southward Session (Southward A6856). Dick Wetmore said his solo on “Fidgety Feet” on that album was his favorite cornet solo on record.
After the 1956 summer season, Parkins moved to New York, although he returned to the Cape each summer until 1960, playing with the Excalibur musicians, then under Pilsbury’s leadership and called the Fog Cutters. (Pilsbury, the longtime pianist in the New Black Eagles Jazz Band, wrote about all this in the NBEJB newsletter.) Parkins didn’t restart the band in New York, as he got busy, quickly, with other projects.
The Excalibur Jazz Band music is not online, and examples of Parkins’s recent playing was lost when his MySpace page came down sometime after his death. But here is something I’m sure Sam would like: Sidney Bechet playing “The Original Dixieland One Step” in 1951. Parkins probably heard Bechet play it at Storyville that year. Maybe he even sat in.