Curtis Archibald Hitch
- Born: 23 Nov 1896, Gibson Co., IN 1 2 3 4 5 6
- Marriage (1): Margaret M. Wyttenbach in 1937
- Died: 10 Aug 1988, IN 7
From "A Hitch Orchard," Daisy Hitch Davies, 1931: "Curt for many years was a leader of the well known Jazz Band known as "Hitch's Happy Harmonists", Curt being an accomplished pianist himself. This organization was well known in Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and Wisconsin where they furnished entertainment for many functions. For a long time their phonograph records were popular sellers. Curt gave up this work some few years ago and entered the employ of the Indian Refining Company., as salesman in the Evansville District which position he now holds (1931). Curt was in the Officers Training Camp during the World War I but saw very little service. Republican. - Given by one of the family."
The following is from a book on Music in Indiana:
HITCH'S HAPPY HARMONISTS
This Evansville band, as evidenced by its Gennett recordings, offers a clear example of how one orchestra, upon hearing another, could make a significant departure from its accustomed style, and embrace that of its competitor.
The model in this case was the Wolverines. According to the Happy Harmonists' leader, Curt Hitch, and its cornet star, the late Fred Rollison, the change was a conscious one. Hitch's band was then four years old.
Curt Hitch was born November 23, 1897, in Gibson County, near the town of Princeton. His father was a farmer; his mother taught public school. Of the ten children in the family, Curt and a sister played piano, and a brother played drums. All were self-taught. Curt says that during his whole musical career he remained an improvisor.
He was twenty-three years old when he was approached by his friend Earl "Buddy" McDowell, who had booked a dance and needed a piano player. Curt's reply was quick: "You know I can't read music - besides, I know only a few good tunes."
Buddy was persuasive: "Don't worry about that. Just play them over and over again. Nobody'll care. All they want to do is dance."
Intrigued, Curt signed on. The dancers at the little community of Haubstadt thus became merely the first of many thousands who would be stepping in tempo to the music of the genial pianist and his men for the next seven years.
Curt and Buddy were the nucleus of a five-piece combination formed that year. The others were: Dewey Neal, bass sax; Maurice "Piggy" May, banjo; and Fred Draves, clarinet and alto sax. Dewey's brother Myron ("Rookie") was then working in the jazz leagues at Davenport, Iowa, with Carlisle Evans' band. He was in fast company as he played his C-melody sax beside such future jazz greats as Leon Rappolo and Lou Black (both to be members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings) and a New Orleans cornetist, Emmett Hardy, whom many consider to have been a prime influence upon the still-developing Bix Beiderbecke. Rookie was brought back to Evansville to replace the departing Fred Draves, in 1922.
Their first solid booking had been at the Vendome Hotel Tea Room and Pastry Shop. At 10¢ a dance, the weekly take amounted to several hundred dollars. "Not bad," says Curt, "considering a dollar was worth a lot in those days."
That year the band's sound was given more balance by the addition of two brass players: trombonist Jerry Bump and cornetist Fred Rollison.
Soon, through the influence of an Evansville youth serving as president of the ATO Fraternity at Bloomington, they got an introduction to the IU campus. Other organizations were soon bidding for their services, among them the Kappa Sigs, represented by Hoagy Carmichael.
"Remember," Hitch says, "in those days IU wasn't the giant place it is today. There were only several thousand students then, and when a new band came to play, everybody knew it. They'd parade you all over campus on the back of a truck, then maybe down to Sorority Row to serenade the girls. It was a lot of fun."
Curt says this was about the time the band settled on its name, borrowing in part from the historic Hoosier communal settlement of New Harmony. They were indeed "happy" harmonists, hardly any older than the college crowd they served. Using no music, their explorations were new each night. Fred Rollison in particular was in search of a jazz style, and must have had a spiritual kinship with the also-questing Carmichael. Roth would be transfixed at the sound of Beiderbecke.
Fortunately, the Happy Harmonists were on the scene when the Wolverines arrived to play a dance on campus. The wild enthusiasm provoked by Bix and his friends (especially when they blew Copenhagen, a tune they'd picked up from the Charlie Davis band in Indianapolis) was instructive. The Hitch men listened, and absorbed.
Maurice May listened to George Johnson, whose musical lines were in that day as highly-admired as Bix's (May was about to make a change to tenor.) Within the hour, Fred Rollison, too, had sensed discovery. Together, the Harmonists probed just what gave the Wolverines such a special sound: the ensemble voicing...the breaks...the musical "explosions."
In a matter or weeks, the transformation was complete. It was for the Indiana men a good move, and they rode it for all it was worth right through the mid-20s. As a unit, they outlived their model, for (unlike the Wolverines) they were capable of a well-rounded dance program-waltzes, and slow, romantic foxtrots-with which to complement their "hot" specialties.
As the face of the music changed, so did the face of the band. New additions from Evansville were the slightly-built clarinetist, Harry "Mousey" Wright, and serious, steady Arnold Habbe. Maurice May was on tenor, and Haskell Simpson, on tuba, provided his deep tones.
In the reorganization, Rollison became the musical director, though the band retained the Hitch name.
Though they played a great deal in and around Evansville, the Happy Harmonists were to be seen all over Indiana in the next years, making occasional forays into Illinois and Wisconsin, where they had a summer-long booking at Appleton's Waverly Beach.
Their name was spread by a series of recordings at Richmond. Curt says they had no illusions that making records would make them any money. "We considered them as promotion - it didn't hurt to advertise yourselves as a 'recording' orchestra."
The initial session in September 1923 produced Cruel Woman and Home Brew Blues. These represent the band's early sound. Five months later, there were three more releases: Steady-Steppin' Papa (a follow-up to Cruel Woman, according to Curt); Ethiopian Nightmare (Alexander's Ragtime Band in blackface); and Baptistown Crawl, named for Evansville's Negro district. In this session, Jerry Bump's talent for solo breaks is evident, and Rollison's pre-Bix style is mature.
By January 1925, when the Harmonists made their third visit to the recording studio, Jerry Bump had left to join Charlie Davis in Indianapolis. The instrumentation was now identical to that of the Wolverines and the style and sound of the band had moved in that direction. The repertoire this session at Gennett was chosen by the recording company, who had asked for material with ragtime flavor. Cataract Rag Blues and Nightingale Rag Blues were the result of head arrangements built up by Rollison, Wright and May.
They were back in Richmond the following May, under the temporary musical influence and direction of Hoagy Carmichael. It was easy for Hitch to sit this one out on the sidelines, for he admired both Hoagy's keyboard ideas and his compositional skill. "Besides," he says, " I could no more have played that stuff than the man in the moon."
"Hoagy had brought a couple of his own numbers along - had his own arrangements, too - Boneyard Shuffle and Washboard Blues. In those days you ran through the numbers a couple of times just to get the right position in front of the two recording horns sticking out of the wall. As I recall, Boneyard Shuffle went over OK, but when we had played Washboard Blues the guy came out and said they couldn't use it - it ran about twenty seconds short for a ten-inch record. Well, you can imagine how Hoagy felt at that.
"I told the man that these were Mr. Carmichael's own compositions, and his arrangements, and they both had to be recorded. Just then Hoagy took me aside and said if we'd all get out of the studio for a bit, he'd do something. Ten minutes later he had cooked up a piano interlude to go right in the middle of the thing, and it turned out to be the theme for his later hit Lazybones!"
That summer the Happy Harmonists played an engagement at Walnut Gardens, near Indianapolis. Following the Labor Day closing, Paulie Freed, a Moline pianist working at the Athletic Club, borrowed Buddy McDowell, Harry Wright and Fred Rollison for a pick-up session at Gennett, using the name of Paulie Freed and His Rhythmicians. Jerry Bump, along with Davisites George Harper and Min Leibrook was in attendance, plus banjoist Lennie Esterdahi of Moline. They cut two sides, neither of which were released. Fred later told Hitch that "everybody was trying to play lead - all chiefs and no Indians."
Despite this fiasco, Freed was able to lure most of the group to Chicago, with the exception of Rollison and Wright. Aside from a marathon recording session at Okeh with trumpeter Wingy Mannone (in which eight titles were cut, and never heard of again), there was little action for them. George Harper recalled years later a glorious moment in a rooming house when Mannone opened a package containing his new artificial arm. "My arm's here - my arm's here!" the trump- eter kept yelling. As he strapped it on, Harper's dry wit surfaced: "What are you going to call it, Wingy?"
Later, Rollison would make his break, joining Al Katz and his Kittens. His replacement, equally impressive, would be Evansville cornetist, William "Dub" Shoffner.
In 1927, the band quietly dissolved. Arnold Habbe enrolled at Indiana University, where he would become closely associated with the Hoagy Carmichael circle; Harry Wright and Shoffner headed for Indianapolis and the band of Connie Connaughton. Rookie Neal would follow suit in about a year.
Looking back at perhaps the most precious seven years of his life, Curt Hitch is grateful: "Money couldn't buy the extraordinarily satisfying experiences of those years, nor could more meaningful or lasting friendships be realized."
Curt echoes a thought common to all those who worked in the bands. The life was exciting. It was also rigorous, and the hours could be brutal. Travel was more often than not boring. Income was usually unpredictable, and the separations from families could work hardship, but the years have washed away much that was bad, leaving in high relief the friendships, the joy of playing and the gaiety of the crowds. These are the things that stick in the mind as musicians glance backward through the tunnel of time.
Curtis married Margaret M. Wyttenbach in 1937. (Margaret M. Wyttenbach was born in 1902 and died on 15 Nov 1984 in Evansville, Vanderburgh Co., IN 8.)