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Jazz Remembered

George Brunies

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Trombonist George Brunies was born in New Orleans in 1902. The Brunies family lived in the prosperous Central City/Garden District area of the town called the 'Irish Channel' where the Mississipppi flows to the south. George's father, Henry, led a family band, and his brothers Henry 'Henny' (trombone), Merritt (trombone and cornet), Richard 'Iron Lip' (trumpet), and Albert 'Abbie' (cornet) all became noted professional musicians.


By the time he was eight, George was already playing alto horn professionally in Papa Jack Laine's band. 'Papa' Jack was a drummer but it is said that he was more noted for his skills at arranging and booking bands and that his role in the early days of jazz is often underestimated. His musicians, and in fact George's family itself, reflects the multi-ethnicity of New Orleans. George's great, great grandfather, Richard, had come from Germany in 1858.He was just 26 years old and came on his own with little more than his fiddle. He married Sophie Weser, who was also an immigrant from Germany and later generations also married German immigrants. As for Papa Laine, ''His musicians included individuals from most of New Orleans' many ethnic groups such as African American, English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Latin American, Scottish, etc. He started leading bands in 1885 before the Jim Crow (segregation) laws went into effect in New Orleans. Due to the diverse background of many of his bands' members such as their cultural background, socioeconomic status, age variations from young to old as well as musical experience (some having none at all) a broad range of ideas were developed and fused together leading to the early beginnings of jazz music'.

Wikipedia goes on to tell us that: 'Even after segregation laws started demanding "whites" and "colored" be kept separate, Laine continued to hire light and medium light-skinned African-American musicians, claiming that they were "Cuban" or "Mexican" if any segregationist tried to start trouble. As such his band attracted a large and diverse group of people such as Mexican clarinetist Lorenzo Tio, Sr., a pioneer of the jazz solo. Laine believed music brought people together.

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Papa Jack Laine's band

There is a short video about Papa Jack Laine and his Reliance Band here.

Papa Jack Laine retired from the music booking business by 1920, but he was interviewed a number of times, providing first hand accounts of the early days of the development of New Orleans jazz. He had hired well over 100 musicians to play in his bands. The names include a roll call of early jazz musicians including Nick La Rocca, Alcide Nunez, Alphone Picou, Henry Ragas, Larry Shields and Tony Sbarbaro.


A few years later, George Brunies took up the trombone and was playing with many jazz, dance, and parade bands in New Orleans. He never learned to read music, but could quickly pick up tunes and develop a part for his instrument. In 1919 he went to Chicago with a band led by another of Papa Laine's musicians, drummer Mike 'Ragbaby' Stevens. Mike had left New Orleans to get away from 'personal problems', and became one of the first New Orleans jazz musicians established in Chicago. What followed led to the creation of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. We are told that '"Ragbaby" Stevens first sent a telegram to George's brother Albert Brunies about going to Chicago to form a band and find better gigs than New Orleans had to offer'. But Abbie decided to stay in New Orleans where he would establish the Abbie Brunies’ New Orleans Jazz Babies at the Halfway House, a dance hall that was halfway between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. They became the Halfway House Orchestra.

Here is the Halfway House Orchestra playing Pussy Cat Rag.

As the brothers were unsure about Ragbaby's suggestion, they put the idea to a friend, the trumpet player Paul Mares, 'who immediately took the opportunity. "So I says Paul, I says, Abbie don't want to go to Chicago and I'm kind of leery, I'm afraid", George recalled. "Paul says, 'man, give me that wire. I'll go.' So Paul went up [to Chicago] and introduced himself to Ragbaby Stevens and Ragbaby liked him… and Paul got the railroad fare from his father and sent me $60". George Brunies packed his trombone and set off to join Mares in Chicago, playing gigs and going to after-hours clubs with Mares. At one such club the pair met some of their future bandmates, the drummer Frank Snyder, the pianist Elmer Schoebel, and the saxophonist Jack Pettis'.

Listen to the New Orleans Rhythm Kings here playing Eccentric in 1922 with Paul Mares (cornet), George Brunies (trombone), Leon Roppolo (sometimes spelled "Rappolo", clarinet ) and Jack Pettis (c-melody saxophone).

'The name "New Orleans Rhythm Kings" did not initially refer to this group but rather was the name of a group under the direction of Bee Palmer, a vaudeville performer. Palmer's group did not last but within several months of the breakup of the band, a member of the group, the clarinetist Leon Roppolo was playing on riverboats in Chicago with Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, George Brunies, the banjoist Louis Black and (possibly) Paul Mares. Mares, ready to move on from riverboat life, found the group an engagement at the Friar's Inn, a club owned by Mike Fritzel. The bassist Arnold Loyocano joined forces with the growing band, and thus began the group's engagement at the Friar's Inn, which lasted 17 months beginning in 1921. During this time the group performed as the Friar's Society Orchestra'.

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This photograph of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922 appears on a website remembering Jack Pettis.

It features L-R: George Brunies, Frank Snyder, Paul Mares, Arnold Loyacano, Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo.
(NORK photos courtesy of famed Jazz Photographer Duncan Schiedt)

Apparently, George Brunies' trombone style 'was influential to the young Chicago players, and his records were much copied. In this era Brunies was never bested; he could play anything any other trombonist could play as well or better. He would often end battles of the bands or "cutting contests" by outplaying other trombonists while operating the slide with his foot!'


In 1924, the Rhythm Kings disbanded. At this time George would play on some recordings with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines. Listen to Lazy Daddy here with Bix Beiderbecke (cornet and piano?); George Brunies (trombone and trombone mouthpiece); Jimmy Hartwell (clarinet); George Johnson (tenor sax); Dick Voynow (piano); Bob Gillette (banjo); Min Leibrook (tuba) and Vic Moore (drums).

Later in 1924 George joined the Ted Lewis band, staying with them until 1934. Here they are playing Royal Garden Blues in 1931 and on this recording featuring the unmistakeable Fats Waller.

George then moved on to play with Louis Prima before playing at Nick's Jazz Club in New York. In 1939, he joined Muggsy Spanier for a year before returning to Nick's where he stayed until 1946 when he joined Eddie Condon.

In this recording we hear the Muggsy Spanier band with George on trombone playing Lonesome Road in 1939 with a fine solo from Nick Caiazza. Muggsy Spanier (cornet), George Brunies (trombone), Rod Cless (clarinet), Nick Caiazza (tenor sax), Joe Bushkin (piano), Bob Casey (bass) and Al Sidell (drums).

Three years later, George returned to Chicago to lead his own band. Listen to George Brunies and his Jazz Band playing Ugly Child in 1943 here with Wild Bill Davison (trumpet), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Eddie Condon (guitar), Gene Schroeder (piano), Bob Casey (bass) and George Wettling (drums).

Wikipedia says: 'Brunies often showed off his unusual technical abilities and bizarre sense of humor at the same time; for example he would lie on the floor and invite the largest person in the audience to sit on his chest while he played trombone. On the advice of a numerologist, he changed his name to Georg Brunis in the late 1940s when he was playing at the 1111 (eleven-eleven) Club in Chicago. He believed that this name change would increase his good luck. The "1111" was a very popular jazz club which was always SRO (standing room only) on Friday and Saturday nights with jazz lovers from the northern suburbs of Chicago. Every now and then other well-known jazz musicians such as Muggsy Spanier would drop in and sit and play until the wee hours'.


Here is a strange silent video from 1964. It is a black and white 16mm film by Dave Bartholomew of a recording session for the Jazzology label and recorded in Dayton, Ohio featuring George 'Brunis'.

Georg Bruni(e)s died in Chicago on November 19, 1974.

The website Vintage Jazz Mart has an interesting and informative page about Abbie Brunies and the Brunies family that is well worth checking out (here). It tells how: 'Richie Brunies’ son, Melvin, had a little story to tell about Abbie and his younger brother, George. Once or twice every year George would come over to Abbie in Biloxi, and always brag about his many fans in New York and Chicago. So one day Abbie went out and bought a bunch of fans, the type that you fan yourself with. He sent them to George’s home in Chicago with a note saying: “Here are all your fans, I send them to you. (Signed) Abbie.”  Keith still has one of those autographed fans that were found in George Brunies’ personal belongings ...'

'... Most of the Brunies family are buried at the historical Lafayette #1 cemetery, which was founded in 1833 and placed on the national register of historic places in 1972. Although severely damaged by a fire years ago and again in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, Halfway House still stands. And the Silver Slipper on Bourbon Street is still in operation though under a different name. You can still buy a drink – legally now - at this spot where Abbie and his brothers worked.  Georgia’s house where Henry’s grandson Keith Brunies and his wife Becky have lived so long was so badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina that they can no longer live there. However Katrina has not stopped Keith from researching a book on his family’s history. It will keep the memory of these pioneers of jazz alive'.

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Photograph: Wikipedia / William P. Gottlieb

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