Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols (May 8, 1905 – June 28, 1965) was an American jazz cornettist, composer, and jazz bandleader.
Over his long career, Nichols recorded in a wide variety of musical styles, and critic Steve Leggett describes him as "an expert cornet player, a solid improviser, and apparently a workaholic, since he is rumored to have appeared on over 4,000 recordings during the 1920s alone."
Early life and career
Red Nichols is a name which comes to us from the jazz of the 1920s, a time when Nichols was a fecund recording artist. But that name got a second lease on life when Hollywood made a movie, The Five Pennies, (starring Danny Kaye) very loosely based on Nichols’ life, in 1959.
Ernest Loring (“Red”) Nichols was born on May 8, 1905 in Ogden, Utah. His father was a college music professor, and Nichols was a child prodigy, because by twelve he was already playing difficult set pieces for his father’s brass band. The young Nichols heard the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (which was not in fact “original,” but was the first “jazz” band to record), and later those of Bix Beiderbecke, and these had a strong influence on the young cornet player. His style became polished, clean and incisive.
In the early 1920s, Nichols moved to the Midwest and joined a band called The Syncopating Seven. When that band broke up he joined the Johnny Johnson Orchestra and came with it to New York City in 1923. New York would remain his base for years thereafter.
In New York he met and teamed up with trombonist Miff Mole, and the two of them were inseparable for the next decade.
Jazz was still comparatively young then and consisted of two racially separated streams. The musicians of both races mingled, listened to each other, and played together at least in after-hours jams.
Brunswick Records Era
Red Nichols had good technique, could read music, and easily got session and studio work. In 1926 he and Miff Mole began a prodigious stint of recording with a variety of bands, most of them known as “Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.” Very few of these groups were actually quintets; the name was simply a pun on “Nickel,” since there were “five pennies” in a nickel. “That was only a number we tied in with my name,” Nichols once explained. “We’d generally have eight or nine [musicians], depending on who was around for the session and what I was trying to do.”
Under that band name Nichols recorded over 100 sides for the Brunswick label. But he also recorded under a number of other names, among them, The Arkansas Travelers, The California Red Heads, The Louisiana Rhythm Kings, The Charleston Chasers, Red and Miff’s Stompers, and Miff Mole and His Little Molers. Nichols and his bands were making ten to a dozen records a week in some weeks.
His recordings of the late 1920s are regarded as the most progressive jazz of the period, in both concept and execution, with widely-ranging harmonies and a balanced ensemble. But they were small-band Dixieland groups, emphasizing collective improvisation and playing. They were very different from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives of that period.
Nichols’ band started out with Mole on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax and clarinet. Other musicians who played for a time in his bands were Benny Goodman (clarinet),Glenn Miller (trombone), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Joe Venuti (violin), Eddie Lang (banjo and guitar), and Gene Krupa (drums) – a veritable Who’s Who of important white jazz musicians in the following decade. The Five Pennies’ version of “Ida” was a surprise hit record.
During his Brunswick career (1926–1932) a virtual who's who of great jazz musicians were members of Nichols' studio recording sessions; see below for more information.
Other labels Nichols recorded for included Edison 1926, Victor 1927, 1928, 1930, 1931 (individual sessions), Bluebird 1934, 1939, back to Brunswick for a session in 1934, Variety1937, and finally OKeh in 1940.
The next decade was the Swing Era, and swing eclipsed the Dixieland Nichols loved to play. He tried to go along with the changes, and formed a swing band of his own, but his recording career seemed to stall in 1932. Michael Brooks writes:
What went wrong? Part of it was too much, too soon. Much of his vast recorded output was released in Europe, where he was regarded by early jazz critics as the equal, if not the superior of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. People who make fools of themselves usually find a scapegoat, and when the critics were exposed to the music of Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and others they turned on Nichols and savaged him, trashing him as unfairly as they had revered him. Nichols' chief fault was an overly stiff, academic approach to jazz trumpet, but he did recognize merit as far as other jazz musicians were concerned and made some wonderful small group recordings.
Nichols kept himself alive during the first years of the Great Depression by playing in show bands and pit orchestras. He led Bob Hope’s orchestra for a while, moving out to California. He’d married Willa Stutsman, a “stunning” George White “Scandals” dancer, and they had a daughter. She came down with polio (misdiagnosed at first as spinal meningitis) in 1942, and Nichols quit a gig playing with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra and left the music business to work in the wartime shipyards. Macy 2, 1942 Nichols left his band to take an army commission following completion of an engagement at Lantz's Merry-Go-Round, Dayton, OH.
Unable to stay away from music, Nichols formed a new Five Pennies band and began playing small clubs in the Los Angeles area soon after the war ended. Before long the word was out and musicians began showing up, turning his gigs into jam sessions.
Soon the little club dates were turning into more prestigious bookings at the chic Zebra Room, the Tudor Room of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, and Pasadena’s posh Sheraton. He toured Europe as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Nichols and his band performed briefly, billed as themselves, in Quicksand, a 1950 crime film starringMickey Rooney. And in 1956 he was the subject of one of Ralph Edwards’ This Is Your Life TV shows, which featured his old buddies Miff Mole, Phil Harris and Jimmy Dorsey, who praised Nichols as a bandleader who made sure everybody got paid.
In 1965 Nichols took his Five Pennies band to Las Vegas, to play at the then-new Mint Hotel. He was only a few days into the date when, on June 28, 1965, he was sleeping in his suite and was awakened by paralyzing chest pains. He managed to call the front desk and an ambulance was summoned, but it arrived too late. That night the band went on as scheduled, but at the center of the band a spotlight pointed down at an empty chair in Nichols’ customary spot. Red’s bright and shiny cornet sat alone on the chair. Around it swirled the “happy music” Nichols had loved all his life.