Muggsy Spanier

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Muggsy Spanier
Muggsy Spanier Nick's New York 1946-.jpg
Nick's (Tavern), New York, c. June 1946
Background information
Birth name Francis Joseph Julian Spanier
Also known as Joseph Spanier
Born November 9, 1901
Chicago, Illinois
Died February 12, 1967(1967-02-12) (aged 65)
Sausalito, California
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Trumpeter/cornettist
Instruments Trumpet, cornet
Labels RCA

Francis Joseph Julian "Muggsy" Spanier (November 9, 1901 – February 12, 1967) was a prominent cornet player based in Chicago. He was renowned as the best trumpet/cornet in Chicago until Bix Beiderbecke entered the scene.

Life and career[edit]

Spanier was born in Chicago. He led several traditional/"hot" jazz bands, most notably Muggsy Spanier and His Ragtime Band (which did not, in fact, play ragtime but, rather, "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), Rod Cless (clarinet), George Zack or Joe Bushkin (piano), Ray McKinstry, Nick Ciazza or Bernie Billings (tenor sax), and Bob Casey (bass). A number of competent but unmemorable drummers worked in the band. In the early 1920s, Spanier played with The Bucktown Five in Chicago.

The Ragtime Band's theme tune was "Relaxin' at the Touro", named for Touro Infirmary, the New Orleans hospital where Spanier had been treated for a perforated ulcer early in 1938. At the point of death, he was saved by Dr. Alton Ochsner who drained the fluid and eased his weakened breathing. One of Spanier's Dixieland numbers is entitled, "Oh Doctor Ochsner."

'Relaxin' At The Touro' is a fairly straightforward 12-bar blues, with a neat piano introduction and coda by Joe Bushkin. The pianist recalled, many years later: "When I finally joined Muggsy in Chicago (having left Bunny Berigan's failing big band) we met to talk it over at the Three Deuces, where Art Tatum was appearing. Muggsy was now playing opposite Fats Waller at the Sherman hotel 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 'Relaxin' at the Touro'".[1]

In his time, Spanier made numerous Dixieland recordings that still serve as favorites today. Apart from the famous Ragtime Band, his other most important ventures were the quartet he co-led with Sidney Bechet (the 'Big Four') in 1940 and the traditional band he co-led with pianist Earl Hines at the Club Hangover in San Francisco in the 1950s. From May 1940 to January 1941 he played with the Bob Crosby band.

The origin of Spanier's nickname, "Muggsy" is the subject of speculation. One theory is that it came about due to his youthful enthusiasm for baseball hero ("Muggsy" McGraw) or because of his obsession with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. He was also known to have shadowed, or "mugged", King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, copying their styles and incorporating them into his own music. He was allowed, on at least one occasion, to sit in with King Oliver's band (with Louis Armstrong on second cornet) at the Lincoln Gardens, Chicago, in the early 1920s.

Spanier ended his career in the 1960s, leading a traditional jazz band that included old friends like Joe Sullivan (piano), Pops Foster (bass) and Darnell Howard (clarinet). He was not a great technician or virtuoso, but he could lead a traditional ensemble with fire and guts. The (then) young pianist Joe Bushkin was in the Ragtime Band in 1939 and later said of Muggsy: "When he nailed something right, he stayed with it; he wouldn't fix it if it wasn't broke".

Personal life[edit]

Spanier was married to Ruth Gries, and was the stepfather of her son, director Tom Gries.


  1. ^ Richard Hadlock (1995). Muggsy Spanier 1939 - The "Ragtime Band" Sessions (CD liner notes). USA: Bluebird RCA. 078636655024. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bert Whyatt, Muggsy Spanier: The Lonesome Road (Jazzology Press, 1996).