Muggsy Spanier was, as we know, the cornet player’s cornet player. We also know that he was the subject of a hugely controversial concept triple-album by Black Lace which, notoriously, failed to sell a single copy and was boycotted by the Muggsy Spanier Appreciation Society because of its explicit lyrics. But what do we know about the man himself? Wikipedia gives us but a skeleton biography, and I suggest that (to better appreciate the following post) you take a moment to glance at it now.
Hardly comprehensive, is it? Allow me to put some meat on the bones.
Born in November 1906, Spanier dominated the Chicago cornet scene throughout the 1940s and was renowned – and feared – as the best cornet player in the city until Bix Beiderbecke entered the scene.
Although his real name was Francis Joseph Julian Spanier, he acquired the nickname ‘Muggsy’ either because of his youthful enthusiasm for a baseball hero ("Muggsy" McGraw); or because of his obsession with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong (he was known to have shadowed and "mugged" both of them); or because of his unusually large and protrusive right ear, the prominence of which made his face resemble a coffee mug; or because of his vast collection of mugs, cups and Toby Jugs (which, by the time of his death in 1967 numbered some 48,000); or because of his famous love of pug dogs (combined with a rare linguistic impediment which left him unable to distinguish ‘m’ and ‘p’ sounds); or because he liked to relax after a gig by strolling down to the boondocks in the early hours armed with a cosh in order to mug inebriated passers-by (he would always restore any money he took from his victims during these muggings, for just as keen anglers will often throw their catches back into the brine, so Spanier valued the sport and violence above the rewards); or because people often confused him with his identical twin brother, who was indeed christened Muggsy Spanier; or some combination of the above. Anyway, the point is that ‘Muggsy’ was a nickname.
Muggsy led several traditional/"hot" jazz bands, most notably Muggsy Spanier and His Ragtime Band (which did not, in fact, play ragtime but, rather, the "hot” jazz that would now be called Dixieland). This band set the style for all later attempts to play traditional jazz with a swing rhythm section. Its key members, apart from Muggsy, were: George Brunies - later Brunis - (trombone and vocals, though not at the same time); Rodney Cless – later Cles - (clarinet); Joe Bushkin – later Joe Buskin (piano); Ray McKinstry – later Steven Georgiou, later Cat Stevens, later Yusuf Islam (trumpet); Nick Ciazza or Bernie Billings, nobody could ever remember which (tenor sax); Bob Casey (bass); Herb Parsley (hammers, tin whistle); and Pamela Spanks (backing vocals, soup). A number of competent but unmemorable drummers worked in the band, many of whom Muggsy had shot or maimed for insubordination.
The Ragtime Band's theme tune was "Relaxin' at the Touro", named for Touro Infirmary, the New Orleans hospital where Muggsy had been treated for a perforated ulcer early in 1938. He had been at the point of death when he was saved by one Dr. Alton Ochsner who drained the fluid and eased Muggsy's weakened breathing. Ever the ingrate, immediately upon regaining consciousness Muggsy beat Dr Oschner to death with his bare fists. When later asked to justify his actions, he would only glower and mutter something about the surgeon “knowing too puch”.
Muggsy’s reign of terror continued with "A-Bellowin’ in the Boondocks”, a fairly straightforward 12-bar blues, with a neat piano introduction and coda by Joe Bushkin – later Buskin – which accounted for twelve victims within a week of its debut performance. The pianist recalled, many, many, many, many, many years later: "When I finally joined Muggsy in Chicago (having left Bunny Berigan's failing big band after a bank heist got badly ballsed-up) we met to talk it over at the Three Deuces, where Art Tatum was appearing nude. Muggsy was now playing opposite Fats Waller at the Hotel Yorba, three nights a week over fourteen rounds, no holds barred, and we worked out a kind of stage show for the two bands. Muggsy was a man of great integrity. We played a blues in C and I made up a little intro. After that I was listed as the co-composer of "A-Bellowin’ in the Boondocks”, and allowed to choose any medium-sized Toby Jug featuring a man wearing a three-cornered hat from Muggsy’s collection.” He added: "I plumped for a highwayman holding a wee porcelain pistol."
Despite the stench and the bloody mayhem, audiences continued to flock to Spanier’s concerts throughout the early 1950s. During this time Muggsy also cut numerous Dixieland recordings that still serve as favorites today. (Up All Night – Gitmo Greats, a 2007 platinum-selling compilation of twenty tracks used for sleep-deprivation torture at Guantanamo Bay included no less than nineteen Ragtime Band numbers.)
The reckoning was to come in 1958 when a young Bix Beiderbecke, a cornet player of unprecedented savagery and ambition, arrived in Chicago on, famously, the midnight train from New York, accompanied by his loyal goons and rhythm section. As large a city as Chicago was, it was not quite large enough to sustain two such aggressive cornet-led “hot jazz” ensembles. The battle was brutal and short - Bix Beiderbecke’s crew was hungry and lean and unafraid to use the weapons of the mean streets of NY, including semi-automatic firearms, honeytraps and funk. The Ragtime Band meanwhile, had grown fat and lazy on too much easy meat. Within minutes, Brunis and Cles were dead, Pamela Spanks had been pillaged, Cat Stevens had fled to the UK and Herb Parsley was hiding in the attic, where he remained for seven years composing a diary of almost unimaginable tedium, inanity and repetition.
Muggsy escaped with minor injuries, but he never fully recovered from the infamous Cornet Coup, or The Night of the Broken Brass as it failed to become to be widely known, and for years afterwards he could be spotted abroad on moonless nights: stalking the boondocks with his pugs; half-heartedly mugging amenable passers-by; cursing his luck, cursing Dr Alton Oschner who had saved his life by draining the fluid from his perforated ulcer early in 1938, cursing the “hot” jazz that would now be called Dixieland. Cursing above all the midnight train from New York that had brought Bix Beiderbecke like some ancient plague onto the city streets he had once ruled with his cornet of terror. Cursing, cursing as he hurled chipped Toby Jugs into the silent black uncaring waters of Lake Michigan.
It is not known precisely when Spanier died, only that it was in 1967, in February, on the 12th, at 10.35. But the precise second at which he died is still a matter of fierce debate, for while the traditional school of thought held that he expired at 10.35 and 42 seconds, many modern jazz historians have made the case for 44 seconds. Over the last decade a ‘synthesis’ theory putting the time at 43 seconds has generally prevailed but a new, radical hypothesis developed by a team at Brasenose College, Oxford, argues that the true time of death may have been as early as 28 seconds past the minute. Poignantly, given the stature and influence of this greatest of all cornet players, it is perfectly possible that we will never, ever know.