Conrad Janis is a jazz trombone player and actor who was originally from New York and now resides in Beverly Hills, California. He started his trombone career when he was given one by his mother's friend and business partner, musicologist Rudi Blesh. As a budding actor in California, Conrad would go out to a local club to catch Kid Ory and his original New Orleans jazz band on a regular basis. Eventually, he started his own jazz band - and through his connections - he would play with many major jazz musicians throughout his career. When he had down time in his career on Broadway, the movies, and television, you would find Conrad playing at the best jazz clubs in both New York and California. He would frequently travel back and forth as his acting career would dictate. Conrad played Mindy's father on the TV show "Mork & Mindy" which ran for four years. As a musician, he performed numerous times on "The Tonight Show" and also performed at Carnegie hall. I recently spoke with Conrad.
R.V.B. - Hello Conrad, this is Rob von Bernewitz from New York... how are you today?
C.J. - I'm fine
R.V.B. - I would like to talk about your fantastic musical career.
C.J. - Oh Ok.
R.V.B. - I understand that acting was a major part of your life but I learned about your musical career by reading a book on ragtime. I find your career very interesting in the fact that you actually started out as a guitar player.
C.J. - Well I played guitar before I played trombone, yes.
R.V.B. - When you were a young child, were you primarily exposed to jazz?
C.J. - No, I wasn't exposed to it at all. My mother and father were both interested in classical music and I took both, piano and violin when I was a kid. They were teaching me to play Beethoven and things like that. I didn't get into jazz until I was on the road with a show, when I was 14. I was traveling with my mother and we went out to San Francisco, and we ran into the musicologist Rudi Blesh. He was giving a lecture on New Orleans Jazz. Our show was headed to New Orleans in a week or so, after that lecture. That alerted us to the idea of improvised music. When we got to New Orleans, we looked up some of the people that Rudi Blesh had mentioned and we fell in love with the music... both my mother and myself.
R.V.B. - You picked up the trombone later on... in your early 20's.
C.J. - I was 19.
C.J. - They wrote the first book on ragtime in 1950 called "They All Played Ragtime". There had never been anything written on it before. They did a lot of the original research on Scott Joplin and all the ragtime people. In fact for a long time, they sort of owned a patent on the research. If you wanted to write about Joplin, you had to get their permission.
R.V.B. - Because of all of the research they did previously?
C.J. - That's exactly right... for the book. It's a very interesting book and it's the first one ever written on the subject.
R.V.B. - I saw it in the footnotes of the book that I'm currently reading, which was put out by Jazz at Lincoln Center and it features Eubie Blake. We'll pick this up later. When you picked up the trombone... how quickly were you able to play with other musicians?
C.J. - Well, it took me about 6 months. I was out here under contract with 20th Century Fox as an actor and I had a lot of free time. I spent it at a club in Los Angeles called "The Beverly Caverns". Kid Ory and his band were playing there and he had his original New Orleans jazz band... from New Orleans, out here with him. With Bud Scott on the guitar, Mutt Carey on trumpet, Minor Hall on drums, Eddie Garland on the bass and he was the trombone player of course. He led his wonderful band which I thought was a very exciting musical group. It was an authentic early New Orleans jazz band. This was in the late 40's. I was a teenager then. I used to go down there almost every night and listen to Ory play. Rudi's daughter Hillary, played trombone in her high school band and Rudi had given her a trombone and she finally decided that she didn't want to play anymore... in the band. She'd rather have the social life of a high schooler'. She returned the trombone to Rudi and Rudi had nothing to do with it so he gave it to me because he knew I listened to Kid Ory. When I picked it up and started fooling around with it, I found that I had inadvertently had learned a great deal of Kid Ory's repertoire. A few weeks after that, I had asked fellow named Nesuhi Ertegun... who was the brother of Ahmet Ertegun... they formed Atlantic Records and recorded Ray Charles and a lot of other people... if he knew an amateur band in the area that I could play with. He did... and I formed a band. We entered into a contest in the Record Changer magazine. Bill Grauer and Orin Keepnews ran it, and it was about trading old jazz records. It also had articles in it on jazz musicians. They decided to run a contest for amateur jazz bands from all over the world. We entered the contest and won it. Shortly after that I returned to New York, to do some acting on stage... and formed a band there in New York. With Bob Greene... who had a Jelly Roll Morton style, and Baby Dodds... the original drummer from King Oliver's band, along with a few other musicians, and we started playing professionally.
R.V.B. - How did you come up with the name "The Tailgate Jazz Band"?
C.J. - Well, when I was in the band out here we were called "The Canal Street Stompers". They decided to make me the leader of the band. When they did that, they decided to change the name and we came up with the name Tailgate Jazz Band because I played so loudly that it became the dominant feature of the band.
R.V.B. - Part of the charm of that band was the fact that you had the young front line... the young good looking guys, along with the old masters on the rhythm section.
C.J. - Yes, when I came back to New York. I started playing professionally back here. I decided to see if the two guys... Rich Smith on trumpet and Tom Sharpsteen on clarinet, if they wanted to come back here and play with me. They did, and they came back. We had a band in our late teens... early 20's. We had three veteran musicians... Danny Barker on banjo, Elmer Schoebel on piano... from the old Friars Society Orchestra in the 20's, and Freddie Moore on drums. We had a veteran rhythm section with a young front line. People seemed to like that idea.
R.V.B. - You're originally from New York?
C.J. - Yes. Born, bred and brought up in New York... Manhattan.
R.V.B. - What was your childhood like in Manhattan?
C.J. - Oh, it was wonderful. My father was an art dealer and my mother was an author. She wrote books on art and music. He also wrote books on art. He was a very well known art dealer, in fact for about 25 years, he was the premier art dealer in New York City. He used to handle people like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Franz Klein, all of the abstract expressionist artist's. He made them all famous.
C.J. - That's right. That was one of the clubs that we played at. We also played at a place called "The Central Plaza"... downtown on lower 2nd Avenue. It was a Jewish catering hall, and on the weekends, they turned it into a jazz club. We used to play there to 6 and 7 hundred people on Friday and the same on Saturday. On Monday and Tuesday we played up at "The Metropole", which was on Broadway and 47th Street. Wednesday we played in Brooklyn and Thursday we played out in New Jersey. On Sunday we played a couple of jobs in Brooklyn. We had 8 jobs a week and we were doing very well.
R.V.B. - That sounds like you stayed very busy. Did you realize at the time that you were one of the first groups to start the Dixieland revival era.
C.J. - I guess we did. There was the Turk Murphy band out in San Francisco. We were among several groups in New York. We were probably the most popular because we had the veteran rhythm section. That helped us along greatly.
R.V.B. - When you were playing in these clubs, did you invite special guests up to play?
C.J. - We didn't really have people sitting in. Every once in a while... for instance Hot Lips Page, the great trumpet player sat in with us, but very seldom. We were playing a different repertoire than they were playing back then in New York. We were playing a much more early New Orleans repertoire... nore King Oliver and Louie Armstrong. Even the veteran players didn't know the tunes. It didn't really behoove us to have people sit in.
C.J. - Rudi had a record company. My mother and Rudi formed a record company called "Circle Records". They recorded, among other people, Louie Armstrong, Wild Bill Davis, James P. Johnson and a of people like that.
R.V.B. - Did you meet James P. Johnson?
C.J. - Oh yes. The very first band I had ever led, I had James P Johnson on piano. I had Baby Dodds on drums, Edmund Hall on clarinet and Pops Foster on bass.
R.V.B. - That's an all-star band of unbelievable proportions.
C.J. - Well I thought so. The reason I hired them was because I loved their playing. They happened to be available and I had them come up to Connecticut to a jazz club where I started playing every weekend.
R.V.B. - Did James P. Johnson bring a ragtime style into the music?
C.J. - He had a wonderful stride style. Not only ragtime but stride... where the left hand plays the bass notes back and forth, while the right hand improvises the melody up on top. He was a master at that.
R.V.B. - The other people in your band had a great history also.
C.J. - Pops foster was the premier bass player down in New Orleans. Baby Dodds was the premier bass player down in New Orleans. Edwin Hall was a very well known clarinetist around the New York area. They brought a lot of the early jazz to the music, which is what I was interested in.
R.V.B. - That's why everything was so successful... you had a very talented mix of payers.
C.J. - I didn't hurt to play with all these greats. They're all legendary musicians.
R.V.B. - Was is that the young front line that attracted people to your music?
C.J. - I think that was part of it sure. The idea that young people were playing this music that was popular back in the early teens. This was in the 40's now.
C.J. - No. They recorded us with our band. We recorded with Ralph Sutton on piano, Bob Wilbur on the soprano saxophone, and our band. We recorded it in Rudi's apartment. He had a wonderful piano and very good acoustics in his apartment... downtown in Greenwich Village. We recorded there for my mother and Rudi's record company, Circle Records.
R.V.B. - I understand Eubie Blake was in on one of those sessions?
C.J. - Yes, we played with Eubie. I knew Eubie. Everybody played with everybody down there because people weren't available so you had to get substitutes.
R.V.B. - So you eventually moved back out west.?
C.J. - Yes. I went back and forth between New York... doing Broadway plays, and California... doing movies. When I was in California, I played with California musicians and when I was in New York I played with New York musicians.
R.V.B. - Briefly touching on your acting... was it considerably different acting on Broadway in New York as to acting on a movie set in California?
C.J. - Well yeah, there's a different technique that you have to use. On Broadway, you're live and you have to throw the performance all the way to the back to the theater. In movies, They're up very close with their camera's, so you have to be much more subtle.
R.V.B. - Right. Now the band out in California... The "Unlisted" band.
R.V.B. - Approximately what time period did you start that band?
C.J. - We started that in the late 70's, and it's still going.
R.V.B. - I understand you had a jam session yesterday.
C.J. - Yes we did. We play once a week. We played out here for many years. We were 10 years in one night club in Santa Monica called "Lunaria".
R.V.B. - I see that you were very successful. You did a lot of television appearances also.
C.J. - We did 15 Johnny Carson shows.
R.V.B. - Was each one as exciting as the first?
C.J. - They were all exciting. We also played 8 sold out performances at Carnegie Hall.
C.J. - Well, it was very exciting, because to sit there and play in that great venerated hall. It was very exciting. We had George Segal, the actor with us then. We were on the Carson show, and Carson happened to ask "What do you guys see for the future of the band?" George piped up and said "Carnegie Hall", as a joke. Later that night Steve Lawrence called up George and said "We're going back to Carnegie hall in two months. If you guys want to play on the bill with us... we'd love it." So we did. We went back on Carson and told him about the fact Steve had heard about it while we were on the air with him. So we got the job at Carnegie Hall and Carson loved that idea. Immediately, what happened was... because it was mentioned on the Carson show, we sold out Carnegie Hall for those 8 performances. Steve Lawrence, Edie Gorme, and our band. We weren't opening for them... we were part of the bill. When we got back, Carson had us on the show again to ask how it had gone. He was kind of tickled by the idea that he had barely mentioned the band and we got the gig.
R.V.B. - So the band, not only appeared on the Carson show but you did a bunch of other talk shows.
C.J. - Oh yes, we did Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and all kinds of different shows.
R.V.B. - On your website, I sampled "The Joint is Jumping" video. That was a session that's loaded with very interesting people... Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore, and so on. How did that come about.
C.J. - There was a strike out here and nobody was working. Everyone was chomping at the bit to work. My wife decided to put it together and she wrote it. Her name is Maria Janis. She got Dudley Moore and Jack Lemmon... who both play very good piano... Dudley, especially. We got Bea Arthur to sing. We got Dirk Benedict, who also plays the trombone. Jackie Cooper... who was a professional drummer as well as an actor. There are a lot of guys that play music, who are actors. Clint Eastwood plays piano. Debbie Reynolds plays the tuba. Richard Gere plays cornet.
R.V.B. - It's good to be diversified.
C.J. - I don't know whether they make any money doing it, but they certainly enjoy it.
R.V.B. - What's better than creating music. It relaxes people, it solves world problems, and it's never going to die.
C.J. - I agree with you. I think it's terrific.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy still going strong and playing music at this point in your career?
C.J. - I have loved playing since the first time I picked up the trombone. I still love playing it. I still practice every day... even when I'm not working. Now we got the band back together again and we're all having a good time.
R.V.B. - Is there any regrets that you have in your career, where you wish you had done something that you didn't do?
C.J. - Well I can't think of anything. I've had a pretty satisfying career... acting on Broadway, acting on television, acting in movies, and playing with the band. I've been very busy.
C.J. - Right... "Get Smart". I liked that show too. I did one of the early ones. I think I did the 12th episode. They had just found out because the shows don't go on the air the minute they make them... that it was a big hit. They were very excited about that, and it was great fun to do it. Don Adams and several of the producers were friends of mine. We had a wonderful time doing that show.
R.V.B. - Are there any acting performances that your really proud of?
C.J. - Well, we did "Same Time Next Year" on Broadway. The two character play... that was great fun to do. We took it on the road across the country and played it in Los Angeles for several months. I always enjoyed acting, no matter what part I'm playing in. I've done a bunch of Broadway shows. I love doing live theater... I love working in front of an audience. I also love making movies and doing television. When we were doing television in those days, it was live. We did the show in the studio and it was broadcasted out to the country at the same time. It's almost like an opening night. You had 3 days to memorize the script... which was always a little dicey, because that's not really enough time. It was kind of exciting and also for the audience in those days too. They understood that while they were seeing it on television, that it was actually happening live in the studio at the same time.
R.V.B. - It was an amazing time period.
C.J. - I've always enjoyed acting. I started acting when I was 6... in school. I was always a ham.
R.V.B. - Did you ever travel overseas to either act or play music?
C.J. - Yes... both. I went to London in the late 50's to star in a show on the Broadway of London... which is called "The West End". I starred in a show with Sarah Marshall... who was the daughter of Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. The play was called "The Velvet Shotgun". While we were on the road, we played in Oxford England, and the kids from Oxford had a jazz band. They came back stage and invited me to sit in with the jazz band. They put on a session at midnight, after our show closed for the evening.
R.V.B. - How are you enjoying your later years in Beverly Hills?
C.J. - I love it out here. I'm active with the band and I'm active acting and I can't ask for anything more than that.
R.V.B. - I can't ask for anything more than having this opportunity to speak with you. Thank you for taking the time. I'm glad that you're enjoying what you do. Thank you and have a nice day.
C.J. - Nice talking to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Conrad Janis visit his website. http://www.conradjanis.com/
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