Canada’s King of Swing doesn’t like his title but the kids won’t let Bert Niosi abandon it
BACK in 1923 a cherubic little fellow, scarcely bigger than his clarinet, was in Cleveland, playing with Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. He was a mild sensation as he blew hot licks in a style that was played then almost solely by the New Orleans musicians, who were migrating northward, spreading the gospel of jazz. This lad of 14 years was Bert Niosi from London, Ont., who had been lured from school only a short time before by the glamour of music and bright lights.
Today Niosi leads a 16-piece band in Toronto's Palais Royal and is known widely as “Canada’s King of Swing”. Heisa trifle abashed about having played with the Lombardo band, which is considered “corny” in the circles he now moves in.
“In those days the Lombardos played some jazz,” he relates. “I was hired to play the hot clarinet solos.
It was a lot of fun, but only lasted six months. My family naturally thought a boy of 14 should be in school. So they made me come home.”
Last summer Niosi startled the usually serene patrons of the King Edward Hotel ballroom in Toronto, when he appeared as guest star with Don Turner’s orchestra, then located there. For more than a dozen choruses of a standard ballad, Turner grabbed instruments out of the hands of his musicians and handed them to Niosi, who played with fluid ease on them all, including the big bassoon. After thumping some torrid notes on the piano, Niosi was finally st umped when handed a violin.
He plays almost a dozen instruments. If you go to hear his band you may see him play any or all of the following seven: soprano and alto saxophones, clarinet , flute, trumpet, trombone and piano. Musicians in his band will assure you this is no mere display for virtuosity’s sake. Niosi lives his music so completely that he finds it hard to express himself on any single instrument. Playing a variety of them, however, he can plumb the depths of his musical imagination.
This ability to jump from instrument to instrument confounds other musicians. While many play well on two or more of the reed instruments, it is extremely rare to find them blowing both reed and brass horns. Among the brass horn men it is seldom that any play both trumpet and trombone. Nor is that the end of Niosi’s musicianship. He also arranges and composes instrumental numbers for his own band.
He has caught the eye and ear of American “name” band leaders, who have wanted him for their own orchestras. Such men as Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Bob Chester and Glen Gray have bid for his services. But Niosi has refused, preferring the freedom of working out his musical ideas to his own taste in front of his own band.
One New York booker has even offered to set Niosi up as a band leader in the United States. This offer has been refused also. Immigration regulations and union rules, plus the competition he would face there, have convinced Niosi that he can be far happier in Canada.
In person Niosi is free of the temperament often displayed by male and female prima donnas of the entertainment profession. He is a calm and relaxed chap who seldom loses his temper. Short, with a black pompadour and mustache, he resembles Don Ameche of the movies. In his very rare spare time he enjoys golfing or gardening. Like most dance bandsmen, he wields an expert cue at pool or snooker, and plays a fair game of poker.
But even while relaxing, his mind may suddenly begin tuning up on a new arrangement or tune. When he pulls a scrap of
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Canada’s King of Swing doesn’t like his title but the kids won’t let Bert Niosi abandon it
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paper from his pocket and begins jotting down musical notations, a new opus is usually on its way. A few years ago, during a dinner party to celebrate his 13th wedding anniversary, the merriment of the occasion moved him to compose. In honor of his 13 wedded years he called the new tune “Baker’s Dozen.”
His musical education began at the age of nine, when he first fingered the flute. His parents were not musicians but his mother perceived the spark of music in him. To her and a couple of understanding and able music teachers, Professors Venuta and D’Ippolito, he owes his firm grounding in music. He studied under them for five years, first learning to read flawlessly and then advancing to study theory.
By the age of 11 he played flute in the London symphony orchestra. Soon he led his own five-piece band in Wong’s café, meanwhile attending school.
When he returned from his jaunt with Lombardo, the clarion call of jazz trumpets still beckoned him from the schoolroom. His was to be a more grueling type of education. It consisted of sweating over his music for endless nights in smoky clubs and t heatre pits, of playing in dirty dance halls and swank society ballrooms, and of sit t ing in the brass and reed sections of good bands and terrible bands. While other teen-agers enjoyed their youth, Niosi worked to produce the music they danced to.
With an orchestra called the “London Laddies” he again embarked for the United States. They played theatres and night clubs in New York, Cleveland and Detroit for almost a year, then broke up and returned to Canada.
About this time Niosi had begun to try his hand at arranging, which he recalls was much different in those days of small bands and hectic jazz. “All you had to do in arranging then was to write an introduction and an ending,” he recalls. “In the middle part it was every man for himself.”
In the late twenties he led a band in London, Hamilton and Ontario resort spots. He formed a new, nine-piece band in 1931 and moved to Toronto, and surprised himself by being a smash hit. Finding Toronto the mecca of music and money he made it his centre of operations.
Dance music of the early thirties was a sad mess of syrupy notes. But even at that time Niosi’s band was swinging as enthusiastically, if not as well, as it does today. Then Benny Goodman formed his glorious crew of 1935, and a year later “swing” was part of America’s vocabulary. The dancing public now wanted music with a beat, and Niosi had a mellow batch to serve to all who would listen. His following grew. By 1937 he had been crowned “Canada’s King of Swing.”
Niosi has beamed happily at this recognition, but now he is convinced that his crown is a handicap. He feels it causes the public and some promoters to overlook the band’s other abilities in the field of ballads and showmusic. He Is unhappy about the implications of boiler factory pandemonium that the title implies to people who have never heard his orchestra.
“1 wish I had never been called ’King of Swing,’ ” he says. “It typt« me as a jitterbug band. That’s not my idea of music or of what a band should be. Of course I w-ant music with a beat —to be good an orchestra must have a rhythm section that will lift the band. But there must be good arrange-*
ments, harmonies with lots of tone color.
“After the war I might add about eight violins and a viola and cello to the band. You can get so much more variety and tone with strings added. Then we could play everything—the old jazz standards, modern instrumentals and beautifully scored ballads.”
At present the band can be heard two or three times a week on the air, sometimes on a national hookup. Also broadcast is the Niosi Sextet, the little band within the band. It jumps lightly and politely over the network for a half hour each week, as a sustaining feature.
The Sextet’s music combines the subtlety of arrangements and voicings that were the trademark of the former small group of John Kirby, plus some of the vigor and élan of the Benny Goodman sextets. With Niosi playing clarinet and flute, there is trumpet, tenor sax, piano, guitar, bass fiddle and drums. Outstanding besides Niosi in this outfit is Phil Antonacci, a young chap whose tenor sax solos are played with feeling, and in a barrel house groove reminiscent of Bud Freeman, the Chicago tenor man.
Lionel Hampton, the star Negro band leader, heard the Sextet when he played recently in Toronto. “Man, that’s one of the finest little bands I’ve heard,” said Hampton. He should know. For years he played with Benny Goodman’s sextets and quartets, and also directed small studio bands which recorded history-making jazz.
Niosi’s band has three trumpets, three trombones, five saxes, piano, guitar, bass fiddle and drums, a fairly conventional pattern, plus the leader, who is a man of all instruments. Its rhythm section, ably sparked by Sonny Hart on drums, is the only one in any Canadian band that can compare with those in good American orchestras.
The band has other assets. There is lead trumpeter Tony Furanna, whose tone and drive never let the band down through endless hours of blowing. Vic Brinkman, a recent addition, handles trumpet solos capably. Pretty Judy Richards sings ballads in a contralto as tasty as her trim figure. The reed section has a round velvet tone that lays a smooth foundation for the arrangements of Niosi, bassist John Dobson and alto saxlst Paul Presnail.
A Montreal engagement last year confirmed Niosi’s dislike of zoot suiters, who sometimes flock to hear swing bands. Band leaders dislike the boys with drape shapes, but because this type of trade Is sometimes their bread and butter they are usually discreetly silent about their feelings. In Montreal the band narrowly escaped being mobbed when harsh words flew between the musicians and the reet pleated boys. “I don’t like to play for the zoot suit crowd,” Niosi says now.
But for most of the kids who flock to hear him he has the highest regard, especially for their knowledge of music. “Ten years ago the boys and girls didn’t know much about music,” he says. “They just danced to anything you played. Now they know all about arrangements, and can identify a musician’s clarinet or trumpet solo off a record by his tone and phrasing. You’ve got to give them good music or they don’t dance or listen to you.”
His friends wonder how long he can stand his seven-day working week, with hours ranging up to 16 a day, and occasionally 24 hours around the clock. He leads his band four hours a night, rehearses it, composes, arranges, plans programs, works on radio •* ows and attends to the many details w**. h harry a busy orchestra leader. Yet he never tires of his music. He has been known
to play softly to himself on his clarinet just before he goes to bed at three o’clock in the morning.
Despite his weird hours and grinding schedule, Niosi is essentially a family man. He admits this is due in no small part to his wife, Margaret, a redheaded girl of Irish ancestry, whom he married in 1930 before he came to Toronto. They have three children: Pat Anne, 12, Jim, 11, and Roberta, four.
Niosi is inmost unique among dance musicians in that he can dance, and takes his wife dancing on the occasional night off. He also has taken his mother dancing during her periodic visits to Toronto. He is the first to concede that he is no jitterbug. Both Niosis are ardent rooters for the Toronto Leafs, and get to the game sometimes when the band is not working regularly.
Despite his late hours, he is not a night life character. He loves sports and the outdoors. His band used to boast a good softball team, on which he played second base. He once played golf in the seventies, but says lack of practice “has put me back where I started.” In the hunting season he always manages to get a few potshots at some ducks and rabbits over the week ends.
Among musicians he is known as an Honest John, easy to get along with. He still has seven of his original nine musicians of the band he formed in 1931 playing with him today, something unusual in dance bands. Several of his men have refused better offers to play elsewhere. Typical of Niosi is that he and his business manager, William Hamilton, work well together without a written contract.
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