One of the best jazz revival clarinet players on the West Coast.
The Bearcats, 1955 Lark's Club, Berkeley
L to R: Mielke, Dick Oxtot, Bill Napier, Pete Allen, P.T. Stanton PHOTO: Courtesy SFTJF Archive
BILL NAPIER b. Asheville, NC 1926 - 2003 Hayward, CA
Jazz clarinet player Bill Napier was equal to any of his reed playing contemporaries, c. 1950-2000. He swung like a Benny Goodman but could deliver the woody warmth of New Orleans Creoles.
Careful audition of Napier’s body of work (which will eventually be documented here in full detail) justifies ranking him among the top tier of jazz-revival reed players on the West Coast. For skill, originality and style he’s certainly up there with Bob Helm, Frank Goudie, Vince Cattolica, Darnell Howard, George Probert or Earl Scheelar.
Napier spent much of his early career with the East Bay revival-jazz contingent at gigs, jams and parties with Bob Mielke, Bill Erickson or Dick Oxtot. He also worked and recorded in a very early Turk Murphy band, that included residencies in Hollywood, San Diego and Las Vegas.
Over the years Napier was heard playing in San Francisco at Burp Hollow, or at Pier 23, where he alternated with Frank Goudie in Bill Erickson’s trio anchoring the famous jam sessions there. He even fronted the sessions at the Pier for a while in the late Sixties.
He was part of the East Bay jazz crowd and Bob Mielke's Bearcats and heard at some of their venues like the Lark's Club.
Napier performed, recorded with, or worked in the bands of Bob Scobey, Kid Ory, Burt Bales, Jack Sheedy, Ev Farey, Bob Schulz, Joe Sullivan, Wingie Manone, Don Ewell, Jack Buck, Robin Hodes and many others.
The noted San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called Napier “San Francisco’s saltiest clarinet.” Jazz enthusiast Dave Greer who observed him close up for decades commented, “he never had a bad night.” To which I would add, nor a bad recording date.
This page is under construction. Please check back for audio and images yet to be posted.
Napier with Turk Murphy, 1950 Live at Cinegrill, Hollywood-Roosevelt Hotel, 1950
In LA the band was booked as “Turk Murphy and the Circus Jazz Band” to compete with the popular Firehouse Five. They broadcast for
a while on KABC, the original source of this audio. As you can hear the band
was in top form and Murphy tore into rare song verses with gusto.
Subsequent travels took the band on to jobs at the Aragon Ballroom in San Diego, and Las Vegas.
Turk Murphy (trombone) Don Kinch (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Skippy Anderson (piano) Pat Patton (banjo) Geroge Bruns (tuba) Stan Ward (drums)
From a golf-themed promotion Mielke tried in 1951, The Fairway Rhythm Kings.
L to R: Bob Mielke (looking rather like a young James Cagney), unknown musician, Bill Napier (looking rather natty) and Bill Erickson
From the archives of SFTJF.
Golden State Jazz Band Boerger King Studios demo, 1982
The intimate studio environment highlights the clarinet of Bill Napier, typifying his tasteful soloing, rich but delicate tone, intriguing twists and subtle modulations. Bob Mielke (trombone) is loose and imaginative supporting the band. Ray Skjelbred (piano) ably backs the ensemble offering inspired solo improvisations. Bass player Steven Strauss drives the rhythm and his light tenor voice graces a couple of lyrical jazz standards.
Photo: Steven Strauss, courtesy Ev Farey.
loved this unissued 1982 Golden State demo session made at Boerger King
Studios. It was the only tape he did not want to part with.
Ev Farey (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Ray Skjelbred (piano, vocal) Steve Strauss (bass, vocal) Tom Stamper (drums)
Ev Farey warmly recalled Bill Napier in a 2015 interview: He was fun to play with. He could hardly read notes. But he had just a horrendous [good] ear. You didn’t even have to tell him the key or anything.
He was a good professional musician. He was always there. Always looked good. Never misbehaved. Was always thankful for the work. And everything about him was cheerful.
He never complained about rehearsing. They all used to come to my house in San Anselmo to rehearse once a week and never complained about it. Saved a lot of tunes for us. Pulling them out of the hole, especially new stuff.
And he could learn an arrangement -- I wrote the charts. Mostly with just introductions or interludes, but once in a while there were arranged passages. We would take a tune and rehearse it for two or three weeks before we tried to play it. And he would have the part down. Other people wouldn’t, but Bill without being able to read, he’d know the damn part. Had a lot of fun with him.
And he very seldom missed a job. We had a period with the Golden State where we were working a lot. Some of it wasn’t much of a job, but it was a job nonetheless and he always made them. He never bowed out because it was not worth it or something. He was a very loyal sideman.
The Golden State sort of finished up on about 1981 or ’82, I think. And then he started doing the Schlosser things after that. That was good stuff for him because Robbie paid good and Bill needed it.
An interesting story about Bill driving home one night on the freeway he was pretty smashed [drunk]. And he was following a California Highway Patrol car that was chasing somebody, got him to go off on one of the exits and stopped there. Bill just followed the car, pulled up behind them and stopped. And the officer came back, knocked on the window and Bill looked up. The officer said, “Can I help you?’ and nailed him. He was drunk.
Ev Farey Swing Ensemble, 1975
Ev Farey (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Ray Skjelbred (piano, vocal) Steven Strauss (bass vocal) Unknown drums
It’s noteworthy that during the swing set a minor insurgence breaks out when the two-beat faithful raucously chant “banjo, Banjo, BANJO!” almost with menace.
was a popular jazz bar at 487 Broadway in San Francisco in the early
'60s. Dick Oxtot fronted bands there with various line-ups often
including Napier, Bill Carter, Erickson, Mielke, Yost or others.
rare to find a positive comment about Burp Hollow, the rank booze sold
there, or its owner: a thoroughly unpleasant former Chicago mobster.
It closed in 1966. L to R: Bob Mielke, Bill Erickson, Pete Allen, Dick Oxtot, Bill Napier (Photo: Courtesy Oxtot collection.)
This rare tape from Burp Hollow, 1959
is a remarkable manifestation of East Bay revival-jazz players. Napier
sounds terrific and gets the most solo time. Drummer Max Leavitt was
not part of this coterie.
Bill Erickson (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Dick Oxtot (banjo, vocals) Peter Allen (string bass) Max Leavitt (drums)
Thanks to recordist Dave Greer. Find more of this, here.
A note on these recordings: The archival recordings heard on these
pages are offered as historic artifacts. They contain many musical and
technical flaws, or are incomplete or poorly balanced in places.
Personnel are listed as available, or as deduced from educated guesses.
Bob Mielke’s Bearcats Live at Sail ‘N - 1958 Arhoolie cassette C-1099 1998 Arhoolie Records Recorded by Chris Strachwitz 1958
(Note: Clarinet player Bunky Coleman, pictured right, is not present on this recording.)
P.T. Stanton (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Bill Erickson (piano) Pete Allen (string bass) Don Marchant (drums)
This session was recorded at the Tin Angel on the Embarcadero in San Francisco live in the mid-1950s. “Bill Napier, by then established as a major player in town, plays a lovely solo [on 2:19 Blues],” wrote Hal Smith in the liner notes to GHB BCD-285. Personnel includes Bob Scobey (trumpet), Clancy Hayes (vocals and banjo) and Fred Higuera (drums). 2.19_Blues.mp3 At_The_Devils_Ball.mp3
From: The Unheard Bob Scobey and his Frisco Jazz Band, GHB, BCD-285
ARCHIVE MUSIC Napier with Bill Erickson on trumpet at a Pier 23 jam session, early 1960s
Bill Erickson (trumpet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Bill Napier (clarinet) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Pete Allen (bass) Jimmy Carter (drums)
“The Fabulous Byron Berry – Pier 23 Polecats, April 11, 1960" "Recording
by Jack Stratford, initiated by Grayson ‘Ken’ Mills. Recorded zon
Wollensack tape recorder with stock microphone. Personnel identified by
Byron Berry (trumpet) Bill Napier (clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Bill Erickson (piano) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Al Conger (bass)