Jack Purvis – a Walk on the Wild Side

September 15, 2014

I’ll admit it up-front, choosing to write about Jack Purvis is an indulgence. Why? Well, for one thing, he was a remarkably gifted musician. For another, he led an astonishing life. But trying to trace his life is like stumbling blindfold through a minefield. Even his own claims were often misleading, appearing to be wildly imaginative; sometimes they were but to make matters worse, sometimes even the wildest were true. Well, maybe. So the real indulgence is that it is possible to write pretty nearly anything and no one can offer much in the way of contradiction. Purvis’s life was so extraordinary that if it were to be boiled down to a pitch for a biopic, any self-respecting film studio would turn it down because audiences wouldn’t accept it as a true story. What follows contains facts, fiction, speculation – as to which is which, well that’s anybody’s guess.

John Purvis was born in Kokomo, Indiana, on 11 December 1906, to comfortably middle-class parents but the death of his mother when he was only six years old was a damaging blow. He began stealing and was sent to reform school where he discovered music and learned to play trombone and trumpet. gold and silver trumpetsHe mostly played the latter instrument but during his career he would occasionally be heard on trombone as well as piano and even, reportedly, harp. After reform school, and now in regular school, he played trumpet professionally and an early job was with Hal Denman’s dance band. Other dance band work after finishing school included playing with the Original Kentucky Night Hawks and Whitey Kaufman’s Original Pennsylvanians. In 1927, he married and was soon a father; his daughter, Betty Lou, became a radio DJ and also wrote for Down Beat magazine. So far so good, and all verifiable. Along the way, he had learned to fly, something that would open up highly questionable fields of activity for him in the future. In 1928 he joined George Carhart’s band and went to France. There, he appears to have been involved in illegal activities (petty theft) and had to leave the country in haste. The following year, Purvis’s musical skill brought him to wider attention when he joined the very popular band led by Hal Kemp. He also began recording and over the next couple of years appeared not only with Kemp but also with Smith Ballew, Rube Bloom, the California Ramblers, and he also recorded under his own name, backed by the Hal Kemp rhythm section. Resulting from this session were two sides: Mental Strain At Dawn and Copyin’ Louis.

That last title is significant because Purvis was hugely influenced by Louis Armstrong. Of course, he was far from alone in this; any trumpet player of the time with any interest in playing jazz was guided by the dramatic effect Armstrong was having on the world of music. Records made by Purvis clearly demonstrate the Armstrong-effect, but in his case it is striking how very good he was and that despite the title of that particular recording, Purvis brought his own distinctive ideas to his work. Among other recording sessions of this period is one on which he led an integrated band with J.C. Higginbotham. Around this time he left Kemp for the California Ramblers and he also played with the Dorsey Brothers, with Fred Waring and Charlie Barnet; he also appears to have played as featured trumpet soloist with The New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Accounts from the time suggest that Purvis was a highly skilled musician, could sight-read the most difficult arrangements and, as is apparent from his records, he was also a gifted and inventive jazz soloist.

All this said, it is also extensively reported that he was unreliable and subject to acute depression. He also appears to have used his ability to pilot aircraft to work at this in Texas, with rumors that he flew in and out of Mexico as a smuggler. A move to California added to his already broad range of abilities; he worked on radio and in film studios as an arranger, composed a work in classical form, Legends Of Haiti, and, as if this were not already enough, he also worked as a chef in San Francisco. Not long after this, he went to New York where he joined another name band, that led by Frankie Froeba, making more records in 1935. He was then briefly with Joe Haymes but then dropped out of sight. There has been speculation of what he was doing at this time, but the next verifiable activity was again illegal; this came in mid-1937 when he was arrested in Texas on robbery charges and ended up doing time in the state pen at Huntsville. While there, music was a saving grace; he led and played piano with a prison band, the Rhythmic Swingsters, which broadcast on WBAP radio. Released on parole in 1940, Purvis promptly broke the conditions and was sent back to prison where he remained until late in 1946. His life from this point on is mostly rumored; he played in some bands, he played on street corners as a busker, he again worked as a chef, a carpenter, a radio repair-man, and he flew in Florida. There are also (obviously unverifiable) reports that somewhere along the way he was a mercenary in South America; and he might also have been a bigamist.

Even in death, in San Francisco on 30 March 1962, Jack Purvis confounded those who like everything neatly cut-and-dried and verified. His death certificate states the cause as ‛fatty degeneration of the liver’ but extensive research by Paul Larsen suggests that he committed suicide by gassing himself. As if this were not enough, insistent, if barely credible, rumors suggested that he was still alive six years later, when he reportedly met and talked with cornet player Jim Goodwin.

All of the foregoing should raise expectations for the recent release of a 3-CD Boxed Set, Jack Purvis 1928-1935 (on Jazz Oracle BDW 8035). jsck purvisIt is a delight to report that expectations are fully realized. There are more than seventy sides assembled here, showing Purvis on the recording sessions mentioned above, as well as others with the Boswell Sisters, Adrian Rollini, Lloyd Newton, Nick Lucas, Lee Morse, Dick Robertson, and Seger Ellis. However profligate and undisciplined he might have been in life, on record Jack Purvis was a man of musical substance and this album, with its many hot solos by a noteworthy if largely forgotten trumpeter, is an excellent way in which to live, however vicariously, a little on the wild side of jazz.

For more details on the boxed set, see Jazz Oracle‘s website and this album can be found at Amazon.

 

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