Jazz Trombonist Spiegle Willcox Dies
Trombonist Spiegle Willcox, one of the last jazz musicians
whose career stretches back to the 1920s, died Wednesday
(Aug. 25) of undisclosed causes. Willcox, 96, had recently
received a heart pacemaker.
Over the course of his century-spanning
career, Willcox took the bandstand in the
company of some of the greatest names in
jazz, including Bix Biederbecke, Tommy and
Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, as
well as leading his own Spiegle Willcox
Orchestra in the 1930s.
Willcox never ceased to be an active musician,
and had plans to play a series of Dixieland
concerts in this country and Europe just this
year. In recent years, Willcox had augmented
his brass playing with singing. In a 1998
magazine interview, veteran bandleader Dick
Ames said of Willcox's role in '20s jazz, "They
had the hot men and the sweet men, the guys
with good tone and reading skills. Spiegle was
one of those guys. He was a sweet man."
Newell "Spiegle" Willcox was born in the
upstate New York town of Sherburne on May
2, 1903, and had learned to play valve
trombone by the time he was 10. He soon
joined his father, Lynn Willcox, in a band in his
hometown of Cortland, New York. While still a
teenager, Willcox was playing with a
Syracuse, New York group called The Big Four
when they were spotted by bandleader Paul
Whiteman. Whiteman joined the band, later
renamed the Paul Whiteman Collegians, and
brought the ensemble to New York and wider
In 1925, after nearly three years with
Whiteman -- where he played beside
Biederbecke -- Willcox returned to Cortland,
but was soon wooed away by an offer to join
the Detroit-based Jean Goldette Orchestra.
Willcox took the job (replacing trombonist
Tommy Dorsey), and was soon followed by
Biederbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.
Willcox's recording career started with several
1923 tracks with the Paul Whiteman
Collegians. The first recorded Willcox solo can
be heard on "Lonesome And Sorry," a 1926
recording by the Jean Goldette Orchestra.
Most recently, Willcox was the leader on the
1994 Challenge Records album Jazz
Young, backed by the Menno Daams Sextet.
Willcox spoke of his experiences with
Biederbecke during the trumpet legend's final
days in the 1981 documentary film Bix, and
was interviewed just last year by noted
documentarian Ken Burns for a new project
Willcox is survived by a daughter, Cynthia.
Newell "Spiegle" Willcox was born in Sherburne,
NY on May 2nd, 1903. His father taught him the valve trombone.
After enrolling in the Manlius Military Academy in 1918, he changed to
the slide trombone. He quit the Manlius Academy in 1920 to begin
his professional playing career, joining the Al Deisseroth Orchestra in
Syracuse, NY. After a stint with Tige Jewett in 1922, he joined
Bob Causer's Big Four later that year and stayed with this group when they
became Paul Whiteman's Collegians in 1924.
Spiegle worked with the Lakeside Park Band
in Auburn, NY in 1925, and he then played briefly with in the California
Ramblers before Joining Jean Goldkette in October of that year. After
a brief time with the Henry Thies Band, he rejoined Goldkette and stayed
until June of 1927. It was this band that also featured the great
Bix Beiderbecke. Spiegle also played in bands with Joe Venuti, Russ Morgan,
and Jimmy Dorsey in the ensuing years.
After 1927, Spiegle went into the family
business in upstate NY, but he also led his own successful band in the
Syracuse area for many years.
Twice in 1975, Spiegle appeared on stage
at Carnegie Hall along with five other members of the original Goldkette
Orchestra, once in a tribute to Bix, and the second time as an introduction
to the Newport Jazz Society’s calendar of events. Since then, he
has taken part in many festivals and concerts throughout the US and Europe,
including many appearances at the annual Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.
In 1995, Spiegle won the Benny Carter Award
of the American Federation of Jazz Societies.
Spiegle lived for a long time in Cincinnatus,
NY, where he was so well-known that he could be reached by writing simply
to "Spiegle," plus the zip code.
Spiegle died in Cortland, New York, August
25, 1999. ~Riverwalk
The Independent (London)
It seems unlikely that there's anyone still
alive who heard the legendary
Bix Beiderbecke in the flesh during the
Twenties. Not only did trombonist
Spiegle Willcox do that, but also he actually
played in the same band with
the cornettist. Beiderbecke and Willcox
were together in the little remembered
but formidable Jean Goldkette orchestra
of 1926 (Willcox had taken Tommy Dorsey's
'The records never sounded the way we did
in person,' said Willcox. 'They're
just a shadow, just a hint. Bix? Well,
you can't begin to imagine listening
to those records what his tone really
sounded like. You had to be there. You
could never imagine it without hearing
it for yourself.'
In those days black and white did not mix
in jazz bands. The leading jazz
orchestra was the black one led by Fletcher
Henderson (Ellington's band was
immature at the time) but the white band
led by Goldkette, a Frenchman who
had trained as a concert pianist in Greece
and Russia before emigrating to
the USA in 1911, was reputedly better.
Certainly Goldkette's band outplayed
Henderson's when the two met at the famous
Roseland Ballroom in New York for
a night billed as 'The Battle of The Bands'
in 1926. Beiderbecke would have
scored many of the points.
When the Henderson band came to record
'My Pretty Girl' in 1931, Henderson's
trombonist Claude Jones made a note-for-note
reproduction of the solo that
Willcox had played on Goldkette's record
four years before.
Because of his friendship with Beiderbecke,
for the rest of his long life
Willcox was booked into Beiderbecke festivals
at the drop of a whiskey
'When Bix hit a note, it was like a girl
saying "yes",' said guitarist Eddie
Condon, who has presumably been roistering
with Bix in the alcoholics'
heaven for the past quarter century. Bix
went there aged 28 in 1931.
Jazz fans become misty eyed at the thought
of dear old Bix being taken from
us so young, and the imagination conjures
up a wan face with tubercular
pallor. The truth was different. Bix chose
to drink himself to death and to
have a loud and raving time doing it.
In this he was like the other trumpet
virtuoso Bunny Berigan, but unlike Berigan
he didn't have a parent to look
after him. A worried management,
fearing Berigan's drinking excessively
while on tour, hired his father to go
with him to make sure that he didn't.
The two drank each other under the table
Despite the boozing, Beiderbecke was one
of the most forward-looking
musical thinkers of his time. 'He was
always at the piano, fooling around
with modern stuff,' remembered Willcox.
As a young man growing up in New
York State Willcox too was surrounded by
the excesses of the Jazz Age. But, having
enrolled at Manlius Military
Academy in 1918 and stayed there for two
years, he was made of sterner
stuff. He had originally been taught to
play the valve trombone by his
father when the two played in the town
band at Cortland, but changed to the
slide version while at the Academy. He
left to join a band in Syracuse led
by Al Deisseroth and played in several
long-forgotten groups before joining
Bob Causer's Big Four in 1922. He was
with this group when, in 1924, they
were taken over by Paul Whiteman. Whiteman
expanded the four into an
orchestra, renamed it the Paul Whiteman
Collegians and under his baton it
became world famous. Willcox left before
this happened and joined the
California Ramblers, a band that made
more records than almost any other did
and remained firmly based in new York.
Once again, Willcox took over from
trombonist Tommy Dorsey.
By the time Willcox joined Goldkette in
October 1925 the Frenchman's band
had become almost as popular as Whiteman's
and the two bands fought for the
top spot throughout the rest of the twenties
- Whiteman always stayed ahead.
But Goldkette's band included top jazz
stars that, apart from Beiderbecke,
included while Willcox was there, Tommy
and Jimmy Dorsey, guitarist Eddie
Lang and violinist Joe Venuti. 'We got
our hand from the musicians,' said
Willcox, 'but Whiteman got his from the
Willcox eventually left Goldkette to go
into the family business in June
1927. While working there he put together
his own band to work for evenings
and weekends in Syracuse. This was very
successful, but it and the business
kept him away from the limelight for many
years until the Bix Beiderbecke
cottage industry grew up and he was called
upon to play at reunions,
recitals and festivals.
His return to the limelight began when,
already an old man, he played at
the Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke at Carnegie
Hall in 1975, and after that he
continued throughout the rest of his life
to play festivals in the USA and
Europe. His trombone solos were eloquent
and unadorned, sticking largely to
the style used by Tommy Dorsey in his
Earlier this summer Willcox played at a
New Orleans Jazz festival in
Ascona, Switzerland. A friend of mine
went to hear him and I asked how
Willcox had sounded. 'Like a very old
man playing a trombone,' he answered.
Newell 'Spiegle' Willcox, trombonist.
Born Sherburne, New York, May 2,
1903: died Cortlandt, New York, August