Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Early Life of Irving Peskin Worcester’s Bix Beiderbecke

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade
Irving Peskin, circa 1929
When his obituary ran in the national press it was mentioned that he was a trumpeter who had played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers.

He died on February 4, 2011, at the age of 103. His name was listed as Isadore Nathaniel (Niel) Parker and he was born WorcesterAs a fan of local music history, I was embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of him. After months of research, however, I am now convinced that though never famous, he was one the very best musicians to have ever come out of Central New England.

Because of his brilliant “hot-jazz,” “roaring ‘20s,” trumpet style -- complete with inventive jazz improvisations and smart melodic lines, quick wit, round tone, and impeccable technique, I would even go as far as calling him the “Bix Beiderbecke of Worcester.”

Downtown Worcester in the 1920s

In his long lifetime, he wore a clothesline of names. His birth certificate lists him as Israel Peskin. City Hall identified him as Isadore Peskin. His parents were Russian immigrants who called him “Ezy” or "Izy."

According to the U.S. Census, the Peskin household between 1910 and 1920 included his father Hyumel or “Hyman,” (a tailor, who had a shop on Pleasant Street), Creashy or “Clara,” sometimes known as Kate (mother), and three children Charles, Isadore and Susie. 

The father also owned a delicatessen at 74 Harrison Street at one point. He was an early board member of the Worcester Credit Union, and an inventor with patent copyrights. Hyman was active in civic groups including the Worcester Relief Union.  In the History of Worcester and Its People, author Charles Nutt said that the organization, "has for many years done excellent work along charitable lines among the needy Jewish families."  

In 1908, the year Ezy was born, the Peskin family lived at 69 Water Street, the main thoroughfare of Worcester’s Jewish community. 

Water Street merchant, Worcester, MA courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum  

They were a musical unit who would gather in the parlor on weekends to play music. Ezy played the trumpet. His father sang. His sister played the piano and his brother, the clarinet.

At the age of four or five, his father bought Ezy a toy trumpet and by eight he was playing a Conn coronet. In an interview in 2003 with radio station WFMU in Orange, NJ, Peskin said, “I was fascinated with it … somehow or other I got a teacher, Frank Chaffin. Within a year or so I was playing little melodies on trumpet.”

Chaffin taught privately out of his home. The 1920 Worcester Directory listed him as musician living at 173 Austin StreetHe led his own band called Chaffin’s Orchestra.

Note: Peskin was 95 years-old when the interview was conducted about his Edison recordings of the 1920s. He was interviewed by Jerry Fabris, Curator of the Edison National Historical Site in W. Orange, NJ.

Peskin recalled that in grade school he had a music course. He said it was “very elementary,” but remembers that while the educator was teaching, the student was making staves and writing notes.”

Not long after beginning his lessons, Peskin also found work. Through the Grand Army of Republic (GAR), Chaffin arranged for his young trumpet student to play at funerals for veterans of the Civil War.  

1912 Conn Long Cornet

“I played, ‘The Vacant Chair’ and ‘Taps,’ Peskin said. “I got to be known that way, playing out there in the cemetery. Then I went with the Local 147. I was the youngest known member of American Federation of Musicians, at least in Massachusetts.”

Peskin told the interviewer that his family had a phonograph purchased at Walberg & Auge, and he listened to everything he could get his hands on and mentioned Jean Goldkette in particular, a band that featured Beiderbecke.

Peskin was also a huge fan of early radio. “We had crystal sets,” he said. “We were little kids. That was the big thing around Worcester. We used to get stations from New York and all over the place. We were tuned in listening to everything.”

As a teenager, Peskin played in the Holy Cross College Band, the Worcester Polytechnic Band, and at amateur night at various theaters throughout the city. With the prize money he purchased a piano for the family. He also notes that he was invited to Boston to play “on the mall,” and that his name became “known.”

The Royal Theater, Main Street, Worcester

“I was invited by WTAG to be an assistant manager,” he recalled. “I was still in high school. I was about 16. I wrote a song, ‘Alone with You in Love.’ That was the first composition I played over the air at WTAG. That was in the newspapers. I have clippings going back that far.”

WTAG's performance and recording facility

Also, in high school, Peskin, along with his brother Charles, formed his first band. It was billed as Irving Peskin and his Orchestra, “The Boy Wonder Cornetist.” “That’s what it said on the folder, the big folders outside the dancehall,” he said.

Peskin is one of two or three unidentified trumpeters, possibly sitting in the front row. 
Peskin went to Classical High School and played in the school orchestra, an ensemble that also featured his brother Charles on clarinet. An item ran with his class picture: “Charlie is rated as the best clarinet player in the consolidated orchestra. He has also mastered the saxophone, and is a member of our jazz orchestra.” It also noted that he earlier went to Sever Street Preparatory School. There is also a quote, which is attributed to Thomas Carlyle: “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.” 

Charles was asked the name of his favorite song by the school newspaper, Argus. He answered, "All By Myself," the great standard by Irving Berlin. 
At 15, Irving shared the first cornet chair in the school orchestra. At 16, he left school to play music full-time. “I actually hardly finished high school,” Peskin said. “I made it a point of going back.... I came back from New York, put in a few months, and got a high school diploma.”

Nevertheless, Peskin played the class prom in 1925. This item ran in the yearbook: “On Friday evening, June 5th, the annual Senior Prom took place at Terpischorean Hall. A radiant crowd, and excellent music supplied by Irving Peskin and His Boys, made this affair without any doubt the most enjoyed social event of the school year.”

The Peskins were classmates with Stanley Kunitz, a future National Book Award for Poetry winner, who in 1923 wrote lyrics to the class song. It should be noted that Irving was also a contemporary of other local notable musicians as Einar Swan (1903), Harry Tobias (1905), and Wendell Culley (1906).
Poet Stanley Kunitz, a member of the CHS debating team, 1923

As a “hot jazz” playing trumpeter, Peskin modeled his style after two leading lights of the 1920s.

“I patterned myself at first after Red Nichols,” he said. “I tried to adapt his style. That’s where I became fascinated by the beautiful style and the melodic lines. Later on I changed over to following Bix Beiderbecke. He was marvelous, marvelous.”  

Red Nichols

Bix Beiderbecke

While still in high school, Peskin wrote what became his best known composition, “Chinese Jumble,” a kind of tone poem with aural images of the Far East mixed with the rhythms and sounds of the Jazz Age.

“As a piece of music it was nothing,” he said. “It was filled with jumbles, little snatches of jazz phrases. No beginning. No end, just there. We called it a symphonette. We didn’t know what to call it. It was a potpourri of jazz phrases.”

Explaining the name he said, “At that time there was a black and white silent film on China -- the renegades, the warlords and the pirates on the rivers. It was a big film. We used to go to the film every week.”

“Chinese Jumble” was later recorded by Thomas Edison and published by Denton & Haskins. See:

Also, while still in high school, Peskin began studying with Georges Mager, principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Georges Mager, front row, fourth from the left

“I went to Boston every week for a lesson for three or four years,” Peskin said. “My training was in classical music. My interest was in jazz.”

At this time, circa 1925, the Peskin Orchestra started working dates around Boston“I had a monopoly on all the fraternity dances, all the college dances. It was my orchestra with my brother Charles, clarinet and saxophone. (Charles was a student at WPI, who later became a scientist.) 
Charles Peskin, CHS yearbook photo
The teenage Peskin would also get calls to play in other orchestras. “I was just out of high school. I got a call from Boston to do a gig playing trumpet in a band for a society function. Who was there at the time? Jerry Colonna. He was a trombone player. We became friends that lasted for many years. He was instrumental in getting me out of Worcester,” he said.

In addition to being a trombonist, Gerardo Luigi "Jerry" Colonna was a singer, songwriter, and comedian, best remembered for his work with Bob Hope.

The band that he and Peskin first worked together in was Billy Lossez and his Biltmore Orchestra. “He was the swanky society bandleader. So, I played a few dates with him. That was my first experience playing with quality stuff,” the young trumpeter said.

Note: This Providence-based band later featured trumpeter Bobby Hackett.

Peskin was known for being an inventive trumpeter. “I copied a lot of the style from Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols, but I developed my own style. Jerry Colonna recognized that immediately.”

In describing his own style further, Peskin said, “You hear the refined jazz style. It’s the trumpet style of Bix, my idol … It was very clear, nothing smudgy.”

When asked to describe the difference between Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols, Perskin said, “Bix was a composer of beautiful music. His talent was beyond. The whole music [world] recognized his talent. Red was a business man with less imagination.”
Bix Beiderbecke, Peskin's idol
Peskin drew from both players to develop his impeccable playing, but his lifestyle was quite different. Both Bix and Red were 5 years Peskin’s senior. Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols died of a heart attack at 62. Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke died tragically at 27.

Peskin lived until he was 103 and did not live the stereotypical jazz lifestyle of “live fast, love hard, and die young.” He was very much like Bix as far as being an imaginative player, but more like Nichols when it came to taking care of business. 

Speaking of his time in the recording studios in later years, Peskin said, “I appeared on time. I played the music on sight. No rehearsal. Left and got ready for the next session. I was strictly all business.”

The other prominent Boston band that Colonna and Peskin worked together in was Joe Herlihy’s Orchestra. It was the band in which the Worcester trumpeter would be first recorded and the one that brought him to New York. Here is “State and Madison,” a composition by Peskin recorded by Herlihy with the Worcester teen on trumpet: / For more see:

It should be noted that many of Herlihy’s bandmates also played in Jean Goldkette’s band, a group that once featured Bix Beiderbecke. --

“The first thing we did was to go up to Harlem and listen to the black musicians,” Peskin said, “and of course, some of them were the greatest in the whole business.”

The year was 1927 and Peskin found himself in the middle of the Jazz Age. He was 19. At the Roseland Ballroom he got to play with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson.

The dance floor at the Roseland Ballroom in New York
“It was the place at the time,” he said. “There was a spirit of camaraderie with the big bands. Wherever we’d go we’d sit in. I did that frequently.”

Soon, he was making the rounds in the Manhattan studios where his career flourished. Early important work came with Melvin Morris and the Piccadilly Players. Peskin then recorded for Edison Records, RCA, and Gennett, among many others. 

Here is a 1928 recording of the Piccadilly Players playing “If You Don’t Love Me,” featuring a very “Bixian” trumpet solo by Peskin:

At Columbia Records in the same year, Peskin recorded with vocalist Martha Copeland and pianist Rube Bloom on what is said to be one of the first takes of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”

Speaking of his early work in the New York studios, Peskin said, “We had very few, if any rehearsals. Many times there’s nothing on the paper. I wouldn’t write notes. That was verboten.”

He also said that different studios had different atmospheres. 

Gennett was casual, whereas Edison was all business. “No sitting around shooting the breeze,” Peskin said. “Business and that’s it. I did very little of that in my whole career. It was dignified. I think it was because of Edison. The attitude was scientific. We were in the laboratory. We were recording at the very beginning of this whole business. There was a dignity to it. There was a scientific edge to it. Experimentation is fine, but you do it on your own time, not on the other guy’s payroll.

“I was known to be a kind of iron-lipped guy. You see, the secret is I had been trained for symphony and playing the instrument correctly with a minimum amount of pressure on the lips.  

“My path in the music life was the smoothest thing. I didn’t have any trouble presenting my product. I was playing the style of Bix. I could play the style of Red, if the leader wanted it. I was so busy trying to do a good job, I wasn’t much on socialization. I’m sorry to say. They were the top men in town. I never stretched my freedom beyond what I knew was my capability.”

Commenting on jamming, Peskin said, “Not everybody can improvise. You are born with that. Many of the top notched players, in the league with Tommy Dorsey, had not been trained for symphony. They were mostly self-taught with a little instruction. As I understand it, from someone that they thought was superior – ‘learn from your top brothers.’”

In New York, Peskin also worked extensively in radio and with a score of orchestras. A partial list of notable musicians he worked alongside, include the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, Xavier Cugat, Ed Duchin, and Benny Goodman. There is also evidence of Peskin jamming with his idol, Bix Beiderbecke. His early playing can be found on recordings by blues singer Martha Copeland, Ukulele Ike, Carl Fenton, George Olsen, and Joe Herlihy.

Fabris theorizes that Peskin’s time in New York City was a little more than a year. “He relocated to Hollywood in 1929. Most of his adult career as a musician and arranger was in Hollywood. He was never a well-established New York City studio musician. He fell in quickly with the right people, then, as the phonograph industry collapsed in New York, he went west to work in the new industry of sound films.”
Music by Melville Morris, leader of Piccadilly Players

In Hollywood, Peskin’s resume expanded exponentially. Although he spent most of his career in the recording studios, therefore in the shadows and not in the limelight, Peskin was still a flash of luminescence in the 1920s. 

Commentator Chris Barry said it best when he noted that listening to the 2003 interview with the Worcester-born trumpeter was like time travel. “Equally fascinating is how a talented musician who worked and recorded in the thick of the Jazz Age seems to have operated under the radar of researchers for generations,” he said.

For local fans the rediscovery of Irving Peskin gives us even deeper roots in the development of jazz and for that we are forever thankful. 

Nathaniel (Niel) Isadore Parker, AKA Israel “Izy” and Irving Peskin

DOB: January 20, 1908
DOD: February 4, 2011

Special thanks to Hannah Walker and Jerry Fabris in the assistance of this piece. 

* Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also, see:  Thank you.