In Old Time Blues’ continuing series honoring the musical heritage of Texas, we pay due tribute to the bandleader whose orchestra bears the distinction of producing the earliest commercial recordings made within the borders of the Lone Star State: the Dallas-based pianist and songwriter Jack Gardner.
Jack was born Francis Henry Gardner on August 14, 1903, in Joliet, Illinois. He took up playing piano while a young boy, and began playing professionally after the family relocated to Denver, Colorado, reportedly appearing with Boyd Senter’s band. He was also a competent and relatively prolific songwriter best remembered for the 1927 hit “Bye-Bye, Pretty Baby”. Many sources state that Gardner moved to Chicago in 1923 and remained there until 1937, but, unless there were two different pianists named Jack Gardner, that cannot be accurate as at least in the middle years of that decade, he was director of the house band at the stately Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas. (Editor’s note: as it turns out, there were two Jack Gardners, so this article is outdated. Please take it with a grain of salt, it will be rewritten in due time!) When Ralph S. Peer of the Okeh record company brought mobile recording equipment to a dealer’s warehouse in Dallas in 1924, Gardner and his orchestra had the special privilege of being the first to make commercial recordings in the state of Texas. Upon Okeh’s return to Dallas the following year, his orchestra had another session, this time introducing the talent of local singer Irene Taylor, who would later go on to be featured by the most popular orchestra in the United States: Paul Whiteman’s. Gardner may have been in Chicago as early as the end of 1925, at which time he is suggested as a possible instrumentalist with Fred Hamm’s orchestra, one of a number of groups managed by Chicago impresario Edgar A. Benson. He had definitely made it to the toddling town by 1928, at which time he began sitting in with jazz bands such as those of Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland. In 1939, Gardner went to New York City to assume the role of pianist first with Sandy Williams, then in Texas-raised trumpeter Harry James’s orchestra, a position which he held for around a year before returning to Chicago. After an active period there, Jack Gardner returned to Dallas, where he remained until his death on November 26, 1957.
Okeh 40339 was recorded around the middle of October of 1924 (though Brian Rust’s Jazz and Ragtime Records suggests September), in Dallas, Texas, the Gardner band’s first session. Though the orchestra’s personnel is only tentatively identified, it probably includes at least some of the following members: Johnnie Mills and Charlie Willison cornets, Stanton Crocker on trombone, Robert B. Dean, Robert K. Harris, and Bernie Dillon on reeds, Jack Gardner on piano, Earl D. McMahan on banjo, Ralph W. “Cricket” Brown on tuba, and Bob Blassingame on drums. Dillon White sings the vocal on side “A”, and may also be an instrumentalist.
First, Dillon White sings the vocal on “Who? You?”, one of Jack Gardner’s own compositions. I must admit that White’s vocal gives me a little chuckle every time I listen to it (“Who? Yoouu!“), but that band sure could play!
They follow with a wild, eccentric jazz tune, another Gardner original: “Who’d a Thunk It”. One thing you can say for certain: the folks in Texas did like their jazz played hot!