By Chet Williamson
He was member of city’s first generation of jazz musicians. His name was Oscar Werme, who was born in Worcester on December 3, 1893. He played bass horn, trombone and tuba, with such local groups as the Fidelity Orchestra and Swan Serenaders.
The later was led by the talented young multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger, E. A. Swan. The Serenaders were first organized in 1922 with the specific intent to play the new “hot music,” of the day, jazz.
In an interview in an April 24, 1927 edition of the Worcester Telegram, Swan is quoted as saying, “Jazz is coming and a perfectly legitimate development of modern music. All musicians are turning to it, some more, some less. The modern way of syncopating the classics is extremely popular and is bringing the best things in music to people who never heard of them before. Jazz is now firmly established, the music of the future, and already has become classic in a certain way; the only difference being that it is more alive than the older type of music.”
In the 1950s, James Lee, entertainment columnist for the Telegram ran this item: “Oscar Werme of 12 Heard St. has brought to the Main Stem [Lee’s column] a locally-historic picture, the first edition of Swanie’s Serenaders, which is reproduced herewith. The leader was the late Einar Swan, the Worcester boy who (as any Main Stem reader knows) composed the deathless song, ‘When Your Lover Has Gone.’"
Lee also noted that the orchestra “played together in 1922, first in Worcester, then in Webster. Three of its members, Werme, Swan, and Benny Conn, previously played together in the Fidelity Orchestra of Worcester. The instrumentation of the Serenaders was typical of the day: Piano, drums, sax (and clarinet), violin, banjo, trumpet, and trombone.”
|Swanie’s Serenaders, 1922: Front row, from left, Joe Toscano (banjo), Ernest Pahl (drums), Einar Swan (saxophone). Back, Julius Levinsky (violin), an unidentified man, Oscar Werme, and Benny Conn.|
Werme told Lee that pianist Swenson did not show up for the photo and an unidentified man stood in as a replacement (man in glasses). Other early local jazz musicians in this circle included Sammy Swenson, George Trupe, and Leo Kroll. Toscano was the teacher of the notable Worcester banjo player Paul Clement, and his brother, guitarist Pete Clemente.
Lee says that a couple of years later, Werme switched to tuba and joined Paul Whiteman’s Leviathan Orchestra. He spent for four years with the band. “Swanie went on the New York where his genius with practically any musical instrument won him solo spots with several famous orchestras.”
An early business card of the band read: “Swanie’s Serenaders. Have played Keith and Poli’s Circuits – Our engagement – Your Success.”
Keith was Benjamin Franklin Keith, one of top vaudeville agents in the country at the time. Poli, as in Poli Theaters, was Sylvester Zefferino Poli. In the late 1880s into the 1920s, he was recognized as the “largest individual theatre owner in the world.”
In New York, many of the Serenaders appeared under that name Palais Royal Players, which is not to be confused by Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra. Evidently, the Players were like a minor league team of Whiteman’s stable. The Palais Royal, located at Broadway and 48th Streets in New York City, was a large café and nightclub in Times Square. Whiteman started playing the venue in 1920.
A September 7, 1923 edition of the Norwalk Hour mentioned a Palais Royal Players gig in Connecticut. Under the heading: “Night of the Big Dance of Craftsmen’s Quarry” and subhead of “Will be Marked by Presence of the Palais Royal Orchestra in Pavilion,” the piece stated: “Following their appearance here, the Palais Royal players will play for an Allington, Penn., syndicate. During the coming winter they will play at the Ormond Hotel, Fla. The orchestra is making a big hit on its stay here, especially the quartet selections.
“The members of the orchestra are: Sam Swanson [sic], piano; Julius Levinsky, saxophone [sic]; Ernest Pahl, drum; Oscar Werme, bass horn; Leon Kroll, cornet; George Trupe, trombone; Edward Patrowicz, cornet; Joseph T. Tuscano [sic], banjo; Einar Swan, saxophone [sic], and leader.”
The dance was held at Roton Point in Norwalk and the reviewer went on to say that audiences at the venue were “listening to the best music in its history, is the consensus of opinion of all who have been attending the park since the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman’s unit came here. Everyone, including even those who do not dance but merely come to hear, says that manager Neville Bayley of the park should have had the players here earlier in the season. Much hope is being expressed that the players will be here next year.”
Swan’s entrée to the Big Apple was with Victor Lopez and after receiving the call, he moved to New York. Of the Serenaders, Werme and Patrowicz soon followed. Patrowicz hitched his horn to Eddie Duchin. Werme landed a gig with Paul Whiteman, where he played in the orchestra leader’s ensemble then known as the Levithan Orchestra. It was named after the S.S. Levithan (Vaterland), an ocean-liner that at one point in its storied career, was considered the largest ship in the world. According to the 1927 Telegram article, the band ran its course after its leader’s talents were recognized nationally: “The Swannie Serenaders’ were all right but Einar Swan stuck out from the rest of them like a bar of soap in a coal scuttle, and it wasn’t long before he received an offer from the famous Roseland Gardens in New York city, an offer which he accepted.”
A cutline from the dining room publicity photo reads: “The world's largest steamship when built, luxury liner Vaterland boasted elegant architecture and furnishings. It featured a winter garden, swimming pool and therapeutic spa rooms, smoking rooms, and a glass-roofed social hall with theatrical stage. The 800-seat dining room (above), a replica of New York City's Ritz-Carleton's, was finished with mahogany, walnut, gold, and bronze.”
|Marlboro, MA, July 1923|
As mentioned, Werme spent four years with Whiteman. The Telegram reported that after returning to Worcester, he was a “50-year member of the Athelstan Lodge of Mason, a past grand monarch of the Aletheia Grotto and member of Aletheia Grotto Band. Werme died at the age of 77 in 1971. Werme left the Swan Serenaders in 1922. Given this information, the best guess of his tenure with Whiteman is probably from 1923-26.
That means Werme played in the Levithan band on their first trip abroad and with the Palais players and orchestra thereafter -- which means he enjoyed some primetime with Whiteman.
It was at a time when Whiteman was first crowned, “King of Jazz.” It means, Werme may have been in the band when the Whiteman orchestra premiered, Rhapsody in Blue, with composer George Gershwin at the piano. It also means, that the Worcester tuba player sat in the horn section with such early jazz greats as Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.
After his roaring ‘20s tour with Whiteman, Werme returned to Worcester and became a cost accountant at Avco-Thompson Steel Division, where, until his retirement in 1958, worked for 30 years.
He married and settled down in modest home at 112 Heard Street, near the Auburn line. As mentioned, he was active in the local Masons and played in the organization’s band for 50 years. Werme died on August 27, 1971. He was 77.
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