Kansas City Frank
by John Steiner
Franklyn Taft Melrose, born Sumner, Illinois, November 26th, 1907; father Franklyn H.; mother Molly; brothers Walter (about 1887); Lester (about 1895); Lee (about 1918); sisters Muriel (married Donaldson); Mamie (Smith); Belle (Lyons). Began musical education on violin, was largely self-developed as a pianist. Married Frances Sacerich (1917) in 1934. Their children: Francine (1938); Franklyn Jr. (1939); Ida Mae (1941). His mutilated body found at 7.30 a.m. Labor Day, 1941 at 130th and Oglesby, near Hammond, Indiana.
Note: There are several errors in the dates mentioned in the heading above. Using U.S. Census data, and information directly supplied by Frank’s daughter, Ida Melrose Shoufler, the correct details, with some additional information are clarified below.
Franklyn Taft Melrose was born in Sumner, Illinois on 26th November 1907 to Franklyn H. “Frank” Melrose (born February 1866) and Mary E. “Mollie” Melrose (born August 1869), who married in 1887. Frank Sr. was born in Illinois, while Mollie was born in Ohio to Irish parents.
Young Frank’s siblings were:
Walter, born June 1890, possibly 26th October 1889, died May 1973.
Lester, born December 1892, possibly 14th December 1891, died April 1968.
Muriel, born February 1896, later Mrs. Donaldson.
Mamie, born September 1898, later Mrs. Smith.
Belle, born c. 1902, later Mrs. Lyons.
(Hubert) Lee, born c. 1910.
Frank Melrose married Frances Sacherlich (1916-1997) in 1934, and their children were:
Francine, born 1935, later Mrs. Watson, died 1993.
Franklyn Eugene “Frank” born 14th October 1936, missing from 2nd November 1954, confirmed dead 12th July 1955. [VM]
Ida May born 1939, later Mrs. Shoufler. [BG]
FRANK MELROSE’S GENIUS, like that of most other first rank Chicago jazzmen, was sired by devotion toward the new art form he shared in developing, and damned by an inferiority complex. He and these others seem innately compelled to creative expression; their insides were on fire to say something the right way. But it depressed them to find the world did not understand. To describe Frank’s variegated personality or attempt an analysis of the known factors which shaped his sensitive nature toward introversion would be a task beyond our allowable scope. While a brief recounting of some of his history and achievements might offer intimation of his contributions to jazz, the story will depend at times in explaining his psychology, for there is the reason he died impoverished, with hardly a lot of the public recognition due to him.
All his years seem to have been an uncompromising struggle for a freedom, both in his music and in his living. Boyhood under tense discipline, from both father and brothers, led to conscientious objection to conventionality. Strict education musically brought forth addiction to the license and abandon of hot music.
Another part of the man’s trouble may have arisen from the fact that his surroundings generally lacked appreciation for his intellectual stature. When a boy of six or seven, he started violin with a formal teacher of the classic tradition and rapidly became so adept that within three years he was chosen to represent his district in a violin contest at St. Louis. It was evident before he was fifteen that he had perfect pitch and musical inventiveness; his perception and memory were invariably keen. At sixteen he was class president at Bridgeport Township High School. In later years he spent long hours relating to his wife or buddies with humor and detail the exploits of earlier days. From the vantage of these facts it appears certain that one of Frank’s early disappointments must have come with the realization that too many of his associates on the bandstands were I.Q. deficient and that too few aspired artistically.
By the time he was sixteen he had a number of lusty piano stomps and earthy blues in his repertoire, and had renounced the violin for the fuller harmonies of the piano. Since by this action the money spent on fiddle lessons seemed unproductive, his family showed little sympathy. Music by Jelly Roll Morton and the Williamses and Blythe came to his ears from the phonograph records brought home by his older brothers, both of whom owned publishing firms and specialized in popular and race music. The sheet music was there too on the piano. The rich, soulful sentiments of the blues found a responsive friend. When he discovered that he could learn to play in the manner of the Gods under the needle, the die was cast. Fortunately for biographical research, an immense Melrosiana is available in the memories of all Chicago Jazzmen. It isn’t necessary to qualify by saying ‘those jazz-men who knew him’ — all hot Chicago knew him, for like Freeman, Wettling, Tesch, or McPartland he was a leader of the parade.
In the summer after graduation, Frank left home a filial revolutionary, traveling first to St. Louis where he made nickels and dimes with the few piano things he bad memorized, depending on his piano-by-ear ability when pop stuff was requested. Cold weather and whisperings of better things in Kansas City impelled him further south as winter came; Kansas City got into his blood. The evidence points to the probability that there he crystallized his direction in music, stimulated by exposure to the influences of such musicians as Basie, Mary Lou and the dozens of race boys working around 18th and Vine, an area then bristling with one-room upstairs or downstairs speakeasies. Piano players were in great demand and Frank worked several white places and studied in the colored.
About 1925 Detroit became attractive, probably due in large measure to the presence there of a girl acquaintance about whom he had begun to speculate seriously. Nothing came of the love affair, but Detroit was then enjoying its Golden Age of jazz. Goldkette, Casa Loma and McKinney were active, and a hat full of pianomen including Zurke and Spand were coming into maturity. Although still definitely an apprentice, Frank found a long-term solo job in a bar-room where he was encouraged and furnished drinks for overtime by a patronly proprietor. This was a situation! The proprietor seemed to get almost as much kick out of his music as did Frank. The boss was the kind of fellow who’d call out ‘Hey, play that again!’ And these were formative years when playing it again was fun as well as constructive drill. It was in playing it again that he saw himself building; it was the second time when he could forget everything except a couple of new inventions like a trill, or a roll, or an experiment in the bass that he’d begin to think about but never put in before.
Frank was sincerely happy. He began to drink quite a bit. Maybe it is in their nature that some drink because of sorrow; for Frank it was more fun to drink when happy. Of course, one drinks professionally at a piano job, but then if one drinks when he is happy, and he is happy a lot, it begins to be a kind of treacherous habit. A windfall in tips would be inducement enough. Well, even getting into a good session with the swell big-band boys who’d come in for late jam led to a day or two of exhaustive alcoholic hilarity. It was somewhere in these years that drinking became a release from those damnable ideas of unessential responsibilities.
After this apprenticeship in the speaks of St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit, Frank returned to the Chicago area, and for a year hacked for bare subsistence at week-end jobs in corner taverns. Five other nights a week he wandered through dives seeking companionship, new ideas, sometimes getting drinks for sitting in, and offerings of new jobs that might pay a little more. His unique style, magnificently adaptable to small band support, and an immense natural ability for improvising or jamming made him not simply a welcome figure, but a man of spreading fame.
Consequently, good jobs began to come. In 1928 and 1929, Frank worked with the Cellar Boys, a group frequently changing in instrumentation and personnel but always intensely hot, sometimes led by Bud Freeman, sometimes by Wingy. Playing in the Loop, they attracted crowds of visiting musicians from nearby theaters. Publishers and recording scouts dropped in. During this period the Cellar Boys were recorded. Artistically, as well as financially, this was one of Melrose’s supreme periods. In these years, the after-hours sessions at the Three Deuces became a national tradition. Frank’s second home was the Deuces. Classmates in the Deuces piano school were Sullivan, Stacy and Hodes.
The chronology of his frequent trips back to Detroit and Kansas City are impossible to follow during the late ’20’s and early ’30’s. An impulse and a few dollars would take him whisking off to another city alone and without bothering to report his move to anyone. Sometimes he went in answer to a letter or telegram offering a job. It was after a short trip to Kansas City that brother Les lined up a recording date, the performance of which proved so Negroid that the sides were put in Brunswick’s race series, and Lester chose for his brother the nom de stylus of ‘Kansas City Frank’ to give the labels a strong race savor. The appellation struck.
During one of the Kansas City excursions, Frank met Speedy Foster, an untutored natural who played his runs agilely and attacked chords with brutal force. Speedy’s entirely different style fascinated him, and at the same time Speedy admired equally Frank’s stomps and blues and boogies. They became such friends that one would promote jobs for the other even when hundreds of miles apart. Speedy came to Chicago in the early ’30’s and lived with Frank for a while. He was introduced around. When last heard from a few years ago, Speedy was in southern Illinois broadcasting solos from a 50-watter.
In 1926 he began to make trips home. Although Frank left home with a touch of antagonism in his heart, absence and distance mollified his feelings. It may have been in this year or a little later that he sought out Jelly Roll Morton who was then working as soloist or with trios in the toney pleasure flats of the South Side. Frank became as devoted to the man as he had earlier to Jelly’s music. Together they would spend an afternoon in the Wabash Street piano show rooms trying instruments of a quality they had never known to exist. Or they would walk over to the dime stores on State Street to listen to new hits played by a girl who knew runs. Frank used to tell laughingly how Jelly would ask for instruction in how the runs were fingered.
During their subsequent Chicago years Jelly and Frank saw each other frequently jammed together in south side clubs, exchanged fellowship, and the satellite advanced far along the paths his mentor showed him.
In 1931, drummer Maurie Ross, who has since left music for delicatessen, took a trio, including Frank, with whom he had worked at the Cellar, and Bud Jacobson, who was then jobbing mostly on the north side, into a swanky basement speak across the street from the Merchandise Mart. The point was a code-knock-password-hunt-through-catacombs type of place. At least, in the glow of retrospection, it seemed to have been a lovable, characteristic pre-repeal dive with its dimness, the distant rumble of trains, motley clientele, bawdiness, brawling thugs, bad ventilation, and synthetic gin. But the boss was amiable, never caring what the band played or- that during their ten hours at bat Bud slept on a table back of the piano, or that Frank slept while Bud took a shot at the piano. In reminiscing on the happy 18 months at The Grill, Bud describes pointedly how the music affected him while he sprawled vacuously and dreamily during hours when business lulled. Bud would hear Frank improvising in a way that sounded like such ‘nice mistakes.’ Frank had a strong feeling for the eloquence of timbre and harmony.
Others who played with him have talked about Frank’s ‘nice mistakes’. Sometimes they were described as ‘squirrely’, sometimes as ‘fantastic’. Volly de Voe (Faut), arranging at the time for the band at Merry Gardens, came in almost nightly to complain that he couldn’t quite develop the Melrose fullness, even with the advantage of several reeds and brass. However, it seems a disappointment that Frank’s personal reticence was too much mirrored in his music; he might have developed a dynamic verve in performance fitting his customary harmonic eloquence. On non-blue tunes, an ability to express vitality is one of the piano’s greatest assets; Frank’s work, at least on records, seems sometimes short of ideal. Although in earlier years he copied precisely Jelly Roll’s style and phrasing, the flamboyant dynamics contributing so much to Jelly’s ultimate charm seem neglected in Frank’s performances. Frank was as deft, but he was not as loud where Jelly was loud, not as soft where Jelly was soft, not as furious or buoyant in climactic passages.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Grill job, Frank lived for a short period with the jack of all night-club trade, Frank Billings, who has been erroneously associated with several Mound City Blue Jug Blowers’ Victors. Billings was a brother dipsomaniac and for a time a bosom companion.
Within a few weeks drummer Ross had found a new spot for a trio. Al Gold replaced Jacobson, who was out touring with a big band. The joint was in Bucktown, near Grand and Halstead, a place frequented by college boys on the loose, beer-barons, hoods and hopheads; It was a fierce hell-hole where illicit liquor was the front for dope traffic and where killings became so regular that despite political protection, it was wiped out of existence. After one especially newsworthy shooting, Melrose and Ross were jailed for four days, first as suspects, then as witnesses requiring state protection. At this roaring place, north side musicians jammed in bands of six to a dozen on musicians’ nights off. Frank’s fame and acquaintanceship grew.
In the summer of 1932, Ross, now becoming a pretty regular booking manager for Frank, promoted a summer job at a resort in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The band consisted of Leroy Smith, Dixieland clarinetist, Eddie Danders, cornet, Bill Tonee, banjo, as well as Frank and Maurie.
When in the summers 1933 and 1934 the World’s Fair brought big money to Chicago, Frank and Jacobson, with three or four other instruments in a rapidly changing personnel, played an early morning spot just outside the southern gates of the fair grounds. Davey Tough and were among their drummers. Pete Daley (Daily) sometimes played trumpet, Max Miller guitar, and from the many music spots on the Fair’s Midway came a host of sitters-in.
While around Chicago he lived in rooming houses or hotels where be could get at pianos, and when out of work, went home to live for days or weeks at a time, especially along about 1933. His parents had moved to Hazelcrest, a few miles west. There was a little jobbing in nearby suburbs.
During the winter months of 1933-34, at Sam’s (a dance and dine road-house on Greenbay Avenue in South Chicago) Frank began a swell job with Jacobson, George Barnes, guitar, and Pete Daley (Daily) on horn. Immediately be was observed to be noticing with more than casual interest, a slender, pretty little female at the house next door to the place. On busy nights Sam would hire her to help out. Being addicted to blues piano herself, she frequently edged to the piano to watch, and soon was familiar with Frank’s best stuff. The band kidded Frank and the girl, whose name they found coincidentally to be Frances. The affair progressed slowly due to the guy’s shyness. But Frances was no timid soul, and when one early morning she was playfully pushed onto his lap, she stayed. That started the ball rolling. They were married in April.
In the years that followed, Frank remained around the mill-suburbs between Gary and Chicago. For a time he was at Sportsman’s Club with Jacobson, Daley (Daily), Barnes, and drummer Sleepy Caplin. For a while, the group played at the 101 Club in Cal City. Then back to Sam’s. When in 1935 they found a 10-month lob at the Continental in Cal City, Fat Harris joined on sax. In 1936 there was a long stay at the Cadillac and another at the Derby Club. At the Green Gab1es a road-house in the neighborhood, the band had Bill Moore on bass, Dunie Ward on clarinet.
According to Barnes, who has since become the noted solo guitarist, Frank was his teacher in musical theory. No conversation with Barnes concerning Melrose ever concludes without a spurt of superlatives praising Frank’s knowledge of theory and his musical ingenuity. In 1937 there was a job at Jackson’s Tavern with Max Miller. But work was running more frequently now to solo jobs. They paid a little better, and Frank was beginning to prove a draw along the Indiana border.
Frances had followed the piano man from spot to spot, finding lodgings to fit their incomes, but after a nomadic three years, both realized the advantages of a home where they could have a piano, no neighbors in the next room to complain about daylight sessions, and, perhaps most important, there was a baby coming. They found a cottage which fulfilled their requirements, at 4403, Wabash Avenue in Hammond. Life settled into a new phase. Frank began fishing and teaching. The home became a mecca for the better hot men around Cal City and Hammond. For five dollars they bought from a neighbor an upright which Fran still uses daily. They bought a phonograph and a heap of race records. Frank skirmished through the junk shops for Jelly Rolls and Lonnie Johnson and Spivey (because her voice resembled his wife’s).
Came Francine. Then a little over a year later, Franklyn Eugene. And in 1940, Ida Mae. The children were a real joy. While they watched, their Dad would play and sing softly for hours. He never sang on the job, although he knew the words for all his music, sometimes writing lyrics for his own compositions.
His contentment lead to a resolve to remain constantly with his family. No longer did the nomad ride into Chicago on a whim, or toddle off to a season-long resort job, or try a flier to K.C. Shortly the bookers, managers, and leaders learned that their offers were good only if Frank could return home at night. The circumstance of his dropping anchor in a small town like Hammond was a rather unfortunate one, for the Hammond area could not always offer steady work to a blues man. In the slack times Frank was working only part-time. Even with teaching there was not enough for the growing family. By the fall of 1938 the pinch had become so acute that he was forced to take a piano instructing position with the W.P.A. And even W.P.A. proved precarious business in its last years. When in the spring of 1939 funds ran out, Frank received a blue Form No. 403 notification of dismissal. Result: his memorable 403 Blues.
Sporadically thereafter came band jobs with many of the boys he had worked with formerly, and sometimes there was solo work. Every weekend meant a few bucks. At least he could pay the rent. Then for a time in the spring of 1940, conditions improved. He was at the Derby Club in Cal City six nights a week for months. Later on there were several weeks in Gary on another solo stunt. Then he spent a few weeks at the Yes Yes Club on South State Street’s penny arcade stretch, accompanying Anita O’Day and soloing.
Solo work was Frank’s forte. On the back-of-bar solo jobs he could play more intimately to a relatively attentive audience, he could use his own compositions, his beloved Jelly Roll music and his specialties which were not for a band to try interpreting; he was freer, conditions were more challenging, everything was good. Frank was not constituted to be a bandleader. He had no disciplinary mien to mold the band or a jaunty attitude for the dancers out front. He never led a band, although his piano was the soul of every combination with which he ever worked. But here in solo work he found the ambrosia of admiration; his eyes and ears told him that many listeners understood the eloquence of the art in his fingers.
When Ben Lincoln was scouting for talent to put on his Collector’s Item label, I urged him to set Melrose on wax. With Hoefer, Ben visited the Melrose cottage in late 1940, and after a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon of hot jazz and rice-in-peppers, a tentative recording date was arranged, unfortunately after a postponement Frank was secured for piano on the Signature date. Ben waited to see how the Signatures would go; but he waited too long. When in that winter Bob Thiele came into Chicago to choose a group for some Signature sides, I again indulged in some promotion for Melrose; but this effort would have been unnecessary since Melrose and no one else was Bud Jacobson’s choice. For their first professional recording date since the advent of swing, the Jungle Kings used the old technique of a bucket of whisky to brace them for an early afternoon job. Nervous tension, intoxication, the wrong hour, and the lack of technical skill for the problem at hand proved to be too many cards against them. Rushton’s bass sax sounded as if it were inside the mike, the piano solo sounded as if it came through an open window from next door, and some of the jamming was absolutely sloppy. Thiele had to reject the cuttings. Then Bud, who has more conscience than you ever saw before in any one man, appealed to the Union for permission to wax another session gratis. When an O.K. was granted, the four tunes finally issued on Signature were made, Melrose proved our hopes well-founded.
War brought intense activity to the steel plants of Gary, South Chicago and the surrounding countryside dotted with metalworking establishments. Frank took night courses in machining at the local high school, and shortly began as an apprentice at Press Steel Company in the neighboring town of Hegewisch. On weekends there was time for work with Joe Sheet’s orchestra at Cedar Lake, Indiana. But within three weeks, Frank became a full-fledged, full-time machinist working often 12 hours a day — Cedar Lake had to go.
For Sunday and Labor Day Monday 1941, Press Steel closed some departments; retooling. Securing his wife’s blessing, Frank took this occasion for the first carousal in months. With a budget of $10.00 be started for Chicago. Everybody saw him; he was everywhere, for the first hours at Jacobson’s, then around Wilson near Broadway, probably looking for Pete Daley (Daily). He talked with Max Miller. Then for several hours he jammed at Liberty Inn with Wiley and Boyce Brown. Finally, with Pete Daley (Daily) he went to the South Side. There he got into a fracas; he and Pete parted. At 7.30 a.m. on Labor Day his mutilated body was found at 130th and Oglesby, near Hammond. The following week his wife received the check from Press Steel for Frank’s last six days work there. It amounted to $85.00, the largest salary Frank had ever received.