West End Jazz Band • Burnin’ The Iceberg


In the Windy City, long before the Chicago Cellar Boys, before the Fat Babies, there was the West End Jazz Band. He was trained by cornetist Mike Bezin more than 30 years before this CD was released, according to lyricist Bryan S. Wright.

The West End JB was the first to specialize almost exclusively in 1920s material, but also often used arrangements of the original 1920s 78s on which it appeared. This resulted in a very wide repertoire that included many “hot dance” and novelty songs as well as jazz and blues. The music often featured vocals from banjoist Leah Bezin (Mike’s wife, often billed as Leah LaBrea), reed John Otto, trombonist Frank Gualtieri, and many vocals from Mike Bezin himself.

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To maintain the quality of their music, mastering their vast and complicated repertoire required constant practice even as band members read each arrangement from the music stands in front of them. It was not an improvised jam session group. As this writer observed firsthand, Bezin was a perfectionist. The most effective conductors who maintain a high standard have this trait in common. With the West End JB he succeeded.

This particular album, released in 2011, is the band’s twelfth, but it features the Chicago band debut of the phenomenally talented Andy Schumm. Although he is ostensibly used as a drummer, he is heard throughout the CD on cornet, clarinet and saxophone through the magic of recorded overdubbing. Taking a few cornet solos, we also hear him doubling up with Bezin to create a screaming horn section. Soon after, he would move on to the Fat Babies where, although not its leader, he would become the anchor of that group. After that would come his management of the Chicago Cellar Boys, guest appearances in Europe, and performances with several recording groups.

Not that Andy Schumm is the only good soloist on this album. Mike Bezin on cornet and trombone often has his say of welcome as well as John Otto (who will follow Schumm in the other groups) on clarinet and alto sax. The late and truly great tuba player Mike Walbridge has his moments, while Leah’s powerful rhythmic banjo (as well as Mike’s polished arrangement) makes people forget that this band doesn’t have a piano, even on tracks like “Torrid Rhythm” by Cliff Jackson where the original version featured a prominent piano solo. Trombonist Frank Gualtieri is a good reader and an effective soloist. Incidentally, although we don’t hear it here, Mike Bezin was also a top notch tuba player.

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Of the vocal novelties, the funniest comes from Leah’s rendition of a rather horrifying song originally made in 1925 by Aileen Stanley called “No Man’s Mamma” which extols the wonders of divorce since men are no good. . Other new releases include “Every Night I Bring Her Frankfurter Sandwiches” and “All I Want Is’ Little Ootsie Oo”.

The arrangements of “Hot Dance” draw inspiration from the recordings of well-known groups such as Paul Whiteman and Ben Bernie as well as very obscure bands led by forgotten people like Harold Austin. While all of the performances are well done, the hottest of several jazz tracks is this album’s title track “Burnin’ The Iceberg” which, unlike the rest of the studio-made album, was performed “live” at the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans. Bash in Huntington, WV on May 15, 2010, and recorded by an audience guy named Andy Senior, who gave the album producer his bootleg.

The West End Jazz Band continued for a while after this album was produced, but as this writer said, Mike Bezin just got tired of the strain of conducting and after so many years he disbanded the band. It was a good group for the time it lasted. Although this CD, one of their finest, was originally released in 2011, it is still available through Rivermont Records, Rivermont BSW-2216 – see website for price and ordering details.

burn the iceberg
West End Jazz Band

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Henry R. Wright