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A West Coast original

Clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax

Clarinet and soprano saxophone player Bob Helm (1914-2003) was a stalwart of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Revival.  He was a significant player from the earliest jam sessions in the late 1930s to the slowing parade of farewells in the late 1990s.  In later decades he was a much loved and respected elder statesman who was frequently consulted on matters of jazz history.

For more than 70 years Helm played his horn, studied the culture and history of early jazz and embodied its traditions.  Born and raised in California, he played exceptional clarinet, soprano and tenor sax developing a distinctive sound all his own.  He literally performed in dozens of jazz bands:
     * before and during the big band era of the 1930s;
     * with Lu Watters and the Traditional jazz revivalists in the 40s, and;
     * with Turk Murphy in the 1950s and then on and off with Turk through the 1980s.

Bob was a wonderful clarinet and soprano sax player best known for his role in sparking a renewed interest in early jazz..  He was a key player in the San Francisco traditional jazz revival -- a return to the roots of jazz as it was played in the 1920s by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

Bob was long associated with the Traditional jazz scene, yet his understanding of music was much broader.  He once told me that in his early years of the 1930s he traveled the Midwest in a dance band and once sat-in playing clarinet with the Western Swing band of Bob Wills.

Helm was often invited as a special guest to perform at parties, recording sessions, and special jazz events of all kinds.  Bob was always up for playing, appearing in dozens of varied settings over the years, honored at jazz festivals, and frequently interviewed . . . even by the BBC.

Photo L to R:
Helm, Diane Holmes, Ray Skjelbred, Jim Goodwin, Jim Cumming with Dick Oxtot's Golden Age Jazz Band.  Probably Mandrakes, Berkeley, CA early 1970s.

JAZZ RHYTHM program:

Farewell to West Coast Traditional Jazz reed player, Bob Helm
(Interview with exclusive live music tracks.
Produced in 2003 this content overlaps with 1993 program.)

WILLIE THE WEEPER  --  Hotter than That Jazz Band
FLOATIN’ DOWN TO COTTON TOWN  --  Sweets’ Ballroom Orchestra, c. 1937
COPENHAGEN  --  Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937
STARDUST  --    Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937
SHAKE THAT THING  --  Sweets’ Ballroom Orch, c. 1937
CANAL STREET BLUES  --   Yerba Buena Jazz Band, c. 1946
PANAMA  -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, MARK TWAIN REHEARSALS c. 1938
ROLL JORDAN, ROLL  -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band,  Live at Hambone Kelly’s, 1950

LITTLE JOHN’S RAG  --  Turk Murphy Jazz Band, 1951
SAGE HEN STRUT  --   Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1946
CHATTANOOGA STOMP  --   Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1946
OH BY JINGO  --  Yerba Buena Jazz Band,  Live at Hambone Kelly’s 1950
KANSAS CITY STOMPS  -- Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Hambone Kelly’s 1950
PERDIDO STREET BLUES  --  South Frisco Jazz Band, 1984
SADIE GREEN  --  South Frisco Jazz Band, 1992
 SHAKE THAT THING  --   Chris Tyle’s New Orleans Rover Boys, 1992

PEORIA  --  Turk Murphy Jazz Band,  vocal Bob Helm, 1953
ATLANTA BLUES  --   Turk Murphy Jazz Band,  vocal Bob Helm, 1953
EVOLUTION MAMA  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1953
WEARY BLUES  --   Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band,  1953
CLARINET (FOO YOUNG) CHOP SUEY  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1954
RIVERSIDE SHAKE  --  Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954
DOIN’ THE PLYMOUTH ROCK  --  Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954

BACK SIDE O’ TOWN  --  Bob Helm’s Riverboat Roustabouts, 1954
EASY STREET --  TurK Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958
GEORGIA BO BO  --  TurK Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958
SAN  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band (Easy Street) 1958
BROTHER LOWDOWN --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1947
MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1953
ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band 1953

WANG WANG BLUES  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964
HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band
WOLVERINE BLUES  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964
DR. JAZZ  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1979
WASHBOARD WIGGLES  --  Jug & Washboard Band w/ Leon Oakley early 1980s
LIVIN’ HIGH  --  Bob Helm’s Jazz Band
WEST TEXAS BLUES  --  Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Live at Hambones c. 1950

WANG WANG BLUES  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964
HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band
WOLVERINE BLUES  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1964
DR. JAZZ  --  Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, 1979
WASHBOARD WIGGLES  --  Jug & Washboard Band w/ Leon Oakley early 1980s
LIVIN’ HIGH  --  Bob Helm’s Jazz Band
WEST TEXAS BLUES  --  Lu Watters Yerba Buena JB, Live at Hambones c. 1950

Helm spent a total of nearly three and a half decades (on and off) in Turk Murphy’s band where he did some of his finest work.  He had an unusual sound -- his odd choice of notes and intonation gave his playing an almost modernist or progressive jazz sound at times.  This was due in part from his early experience trying to be heard above the din of the Watters Yerba Buena two trumpet front line.

In 1993 Bob spoke with me in several wide-ranging interviews about the early days.  His sharp memory and incisive intelligence were a living index of personalities and players who built the West Coast jazz revival.
One of his models in early jazz clarinet style was Johnny Dodds, who also chose odd notes as part of his signature sound.  Bob was an individualist who created a distinct style and body of work.


Bob Helm remembers Benny Strickler.mp3

This in-depth interview and music program with Bob from 1993 is a thorough and detailed examination of the origins of West Coast Traditional Jazz.  A full discussion and audition of Helm's early years in music.
(Originally broadcast 6.93)

Bob Helm KALW, 1993_A.mp3 28:20
Origins of the Lu Watters band; Helm’s early years in music; the 1938-39 Lu Watters Sweets Ballroom big band rehearsals on rare acetates; and early friendship with Turk Murphy.

Bob Helm KALW, 1993_B.mp3 28:05
Hostility among musicians to the classic jazz revival;  Racial issues; escaping arranged music and finding another road map;  early years of the Watters Yerba Buena band and recordings; Dawn Club and Hambone Kelly’s; and challenges of running the club.

Bob Helm KALW, 1993_C.mp3 35:27
End of the Yerba Buena band; playing in Turk’s band during the Fifties and beyond; Murphy’s national popularity; Helm’s rare Riverside Roustabouts recordings c. 1954; Helm’s individualistic tone and style; and collaboration with poet Weldon Keyes.

Bob Helm KALW, 1993_D.mp3 19:36
Years with Turk Murphy; the saga of Murphy’s club, Earthquake McGoon’s; Turk’s national popularity; national broadcasts and appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show; Live from Easy Street; and inside the Murphy band in the 1950s.

Bob Helm was frequently invited as a special guest to perform at jazz festivals, parties and recording sessions.  Though long associated with the West Coast revival, his understanding of jazz was deep and wide. 

The roots of his musical experience date back to hard-traveling mid-1930s tours with Midwestern territory bands, he once sat with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and played the California ballroom circuit with dance bands of the Thirties.

In his last couple decades Helm shared a deep friendship with the superb cornet player Leon Oakley.  A first rate performer, Oakley  worked with Bob for years in Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band, and quietly organized jam sessions, special events and recording sessions featuring Helm.

Photo from:

Richard Hadlock profile of Helm:

San Francisco Examiner, 10/9/62.pdf

Richard Hadlock profile of Helm:

San Francisco Examiner, 10/9/62.jpg


Earl Scheelar on Bob Helm A.mp3
Earl Scheelar on Bob Helm B.mp3

Helm and
Earl Scheelar

Helm's musical association with Scheelar dates back to the mid-1960s.  Bob played reeds in every one of Earl’s formally organized bands: New Orleans House, Funky New Orleans and Zenith Jazz Band. 

They became close friends: “In the 1990s we took Bob Helm to New Orleans about five years in a row.  He became a close friend of Jacque Gauthe, sat in and recorded with him," and makes this forthright declaration, “Bob Helm was the musical genius of the Bay Area.”

Scheelar-Helm band,
NOJC, Marshall, CA 1969

This is a barely disguised version of Earl's New Orleans House Band on the way to becoming Funky New Orleans Jazz BandEarl Scheelar was never better on cornet, his heartbreaking tone on full display.  Helm was at the height of his powers and trombonist Farkas sounding great.

Earl Scheelar (cornet)
Bob Helm (clarinet, soprano and tenor sax)
John Farkas (trombone)
Ray Skjelbred (piano)
Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocal)
Jim Cummings (bass)

Side A
Tishomingo Blues
Milenberg Joys
Alcoholic Blues
Bogalusa Strut

Scheelar-Helm Marshall Set A complete

Set B
I Want a Little Girl

Willie the Weeper
Someday Sweetheart
Just Because
You Always Hurt the One You Love
Atlanta Blues (Helm tenor sax, tape damage)
Doctor Jazz

Scheelar-Helm Marshall Set B complete

Helm in New Orleans, late 1980s

L to R: Jacques Gauthe, Tom Saunders, Helm, unknown piano player.


"West Coast Jazz 1940-50s"
BBC Radio “Jazz Notes”
(half-hour segments)
Hosted and produced by Alyn Shipton, 2000

BBC West Coast Jazz A: Lu Watters YBJB.mp3
Origins of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and related controversies.  Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, making the YBJB records.
Commentary by Bob Helm, Charlie Campbell.

BBC West Coast Jazz B: Bob Scobey.mp3
Bob Scobey, details of running Hambone Kelly’s.  Turk’s clubs: Italian Village, Easy Street, the Magic Cellar and Earthquake McGoon’s.
Commentary by Bob Helm, Pat Yankee, Pete Clute, Leon Oakley, Charlie Campbell.

BBC West Coast Jazz C: Turk Murphy.mp3
Turk Murphy’s music in the 1950s.
Commentary by Pat Yankee, Bill Carter, Pete Clute, Leon Oakley.

BBC West Coast Jazz D: Pat Yankee, the Firehouse Five, Turk Murphy, Carter, San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.mp3
Commentary by Pat Yankee, John Gill.

(Thanks to Leon Oakley.)


Bob Helm with Castle Jazz Quartet
New Years Eve airshot 12.21.51
Courtesy San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation

Castle Jazz Quartet Live Airshot 12.31.51.mp3

Bob Helm, clarinet
Monty Ballou, banjo and vocals
Freddie Crews, piano
Bob Short, tuba

Auld Lang Syne
Diamond Horseshoe Stomp
Tiger Rag, South
12th Street Rag
Give Me the Harem
Mecca Flat Blues
Irish Black Bottom
Wolverine Blues

Bob Helm, Riverside Roustabouts 10" vinyl LP, c. 1953
Original songs co-written by Bob Helm and Weldon Kees

Ev Farey, cornet
Bob Helm, clarinet
Hank Ross, piano
Bill Stanley, bass, tuba
Bob Thompson, washboard

Riverside Shake
Dawn Club Joys
Back Side O' Town

Doin' the Plymouth Rock
How'm I Gonna Do It (When I Don't Know What You Crave)
I Don't Want Any More
Seagull Strut
Daybreak Blues


Bob Helm with Freddie Crews Jazz Band mid-1950s
Honeybucket Tavern, San Francisco, CA

Earl Scheelar (cornet)
Bob Helm (clarinet & soprano sax)
Jim Leigh (trombone)
Freddie Crews (piano)
Ron Hanscom (banjo)
Carol Leigh (washboard)

Photo: Scheelar, 1950s.  Possibly Ron Hanscom (banjo, right).
Courtesy Earl Scheelar.

Weary Blues.mp3
Cakewalkin' Babies.mp3
Willie the Weeper.mp3
Froggie Moore.mp3
Someday Sweetheart.mp3
Wolverine Blues.mp3
Wild Man Blues.mp3
Just a Little While to Stay.mp3
Nobody Knows You When You're When You're Down and Out.mp3
Of All the Wrongs You've Done to Me.mp3
I Ain't Gonna Nobody None of my Jellyroll.mp3

(Thanks to Leon Oakley and the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.)

Free Range Bob Helm

Helm’s ballpark performances clearly demonstrate his distinctive style and assertive line.  The soprano saxophone delivered needed volume without a microphone in the open-air stadium.  

This previously unpublished ballpark music adds to our picture of a beloved entertainer connecting with a broad popular audience.  His rich timbre, pungent tonality, originality and wit are on display.

Oakland A's Swingers baseball band

The first season of Bob Mielke's Oakland A's Swingers baseball team band (1968) consisted of a quartet Mileke (trombone) Bob Neighbor (trumpet), Bob Helm (soprano) and Dick Oxtot (banjo). 

After the band complained strenuously about lacking a bass, tuba player John Moore was hired.  In subsequent years Helm was replaced by Bill Napier, later by Richard Hadlock and others.  

Dick Oxtot wrote in his memoir, Jazz Scrapbook:
"We played the first season, each and every A's home game, with four musicians.  We played in the hallways before the game, on top of the dugouts during each half-inning, and strolled through the bleachers."

". . . the band was dissatisfied with the 4-piece arrangement -- especially me.  It was tough on me to provide an entire rhythm for the three horns . . . I needed a tuba to complete the rhythm for the section.  Also the band would sound much better . . . the following season [team owner Art] Finley went along and agreed to add a fifth musician."  

Oakland Swingin' A's Baseball Band
A's Ballgame Coliseum, Oakland, CA
Mother's Day, 1970

Mielke, Neighbor, Helm, Oxtot, Moore

Set of Shorts B - 5:47
Too Much Mustard (noise) (1:08)
McNamara's Band (:53)
Over the Waves (1:20)
Wild Irish Rose (1:22)
Barney Google (1:00)
Notes indicate these were performed in the “hallway after game.”  Incidentally, “Canal Street Blues” is the most frequently performed title on extant tapes.

Canal Street Blues

Sports columnist Ron Fimrite, hardly an incisive music critic, wrote about the band's between-inning concerts in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1970:

"The band, you say?  Yes, the As's authentically have the best band in baseball. . .  one of the finest traditional jazz bands in the United States . . . essentially Bob Mielke and his Bearcats, a traditional band that has provided Bay Area music lovers with some of the best sounds in their genre for more than 20 years."

Back of photo notation:

"Big deal in 1972 after the A's had won their first pennant!  Monte Moore, the A's radio announcer (standing next to Helm) performs the MC duties."

Musicians, L to R: Bob Mielke, Bob Neighbor, Dick Oxtot, Bob Helm. 
Oxtot collection


Dick Oxtot Golden Age Jazz Band with singer Terry Garthwaite
[date and location unknown probably early 1970s]

Jim Goodwin and
P.T. Stanton (cornets)
Bob Helm (clarinet, soprano)
Bob Mielke (trombone)
Ray Skjelbred (piano)
Dick Oxtot (banjo)
John Moore (tuba)
Terry Garthwaite (vocals)

Dream Blues Golden Age mp3
Ain’t Nobody Got The Blues.mp3

[Stanton out:]
Stand on the Rock.mp3
Walkin’ Blues.mp3
Lookin’ for a Pilot.mp3

Oxtot collection


Dick Oxtot's All Stars
Berkeley, CA 10/7/70

Jim Goodwin &
P.T. Stanton (lead horns)
Bob Helm (soprano sax)
John Smith (soprano sax)
Bob Mielke (trombone)
Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocals, leader)
Ray Skjelbred (piano)
Jim Cumming  (string bass)
Drums: unknown

Photo L to R:
Bill Bardin, Bob Mielke, Dick Oxtot, Jim Goodwin, Jim Cumming, Bill Napier
Probably at Mandrakes, Berkeley.  Oxtot collection.

This is a rare opportunity to hear soprano saxophonist John Smith, and incidentally, in duet with Bob Helm in places.  Helm was in fine fettle: pungent, potent and daring throughout.

I've made an attempt to identify the personnel with the assistance of a knowledgeable listening panel. 

Interestingly two renditions of "Mecca Flat Blues" show the contrasting approaches of "Kid" Goodwin and PT Stanton.  The latter's rendition morphs from "Pastel Blue" into "Mecca." 

Set A
Nobody Knows You. mp3  (Goodwin, Helm, Smith)
Shake that Thing.mp3  (Goodwin & PT Stanton, John Smith and Helm reed; vocal duet Helm & Oxtot, tuba)
Pastel Blue or Mecca Flat Blues.mp3  (PT Stanton with reeds, Goodwin out)

Set B  (PT Stanton out)
High Society.mp3  (Goodwin & Helm, 2 reeds?)
Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams  (Goodwin featured, Helm soprano, & clarinet?)
It Should Be You.mp3 (Oxtot banjo featured)
Mecca Flat Blues.mp3 (Goodwin & soprano)
[title unknown].mp3 (John Smith soprano, college fight song?)
I Want a Little Girl.mp3  (two sopranos, vocal Oxtot)

Mandrakes_PT_J Smith_Oxtot All Stars_Set B_complete.mp3  32:38

Mielke collection

Dave Walker’s All Stars,
Bob Helm and Burt Bales

Walker’s All Stars was an exquisite jam band assembled from the usual suspects for a session of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California.  Former club president Dave Walker selected these “All Stars,” musicians who’d been friends for decades:

Earl Scheelar (cornet)
Bob Helm (clarinet and soprano)
Bob Mielke (trombone)
Burt Bales (piano)
Dick Oxtot (banjo)
Walter Yost (tuba)
drummer, unknown

Oh, Didn’t He Ramble
Willie the Weeper
The Waltz You Saved for Me
Dippermouth Blues

Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me
Oriental Man
Friendless BluesBob Helm with Jacques Gauthe Creole Rice, Santa Rosa 1990 complete.mp3


South Frisco Jazz Band,
Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee, 1989
Guest Bob Helm, clarinet and tenor sax
Recorded by Dave Radlauer

Concert format:
South Frisco Sacramento Pt. 1.mp3  16:05
South Frisco, Sacramento, Pt. 2.mp3  24:37

Tunes format:
Set 1
Mandy Lee Blues (Bob Helm, sax)
Doin‘ the Hambone (Bob Helm, sax)
Trouble in Mind (Vince Saunders, vocal)
Trombone Rag (feat. Jim Snyder, trombone)

Set 2
Shreveport Stomp (featuring Bob Helm with Robbie Rhodes)
Marie (Saunders, vocal)
Broken Promises (Saunders, vocal)
Perdido Street Blues (feat. Bob Helm and Mike Baird)
Topliner Rag (Robbie Rhodes, piano rag)
King Chanticleer                        

Bob Helm, 1990s

Bob Schulz - "West Coast Jazz"

Tribute to West Coast Jazz on Riverwalk

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