Sunday, August 12, 2012

Deuces Wild

Deuces Wild: Flo Cassinelli, Spider Rondinelli, Dan Mastri, Bob Negri

The Deuces Wild were Pittsburgh's hottest local jazz band in the late forties throughout the fifties and into the early sixties. The roster changed more times than a runway model and the group split into competing bands, but the Deuces always took the stage with the area's top talent laying down the swing.

The quintet more or less morphed into existence. As far as we can decipher from our jumbled notes, Tommy Noll, a popular City drummer, founded the band, then Reid Jaynes took the reins, followed by Jon Walton and finally Tommy Turk became top dog all within the span of a couple of years.

Trombonist Turk (who recorded with Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald) joined the original quartet of pianist Jaynes (who had a double keyboard act with Erroll Garner at Al Mercur's), local drummer Noll, bassist Cliff Hill (who famously plucked the stand-up in the Benny Goodman flick "One O'Clock Jump") and tenor sax Walton (who blew with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw). Bassist Joe Wallace (who also played in the PSO) is often considered an original member too, so it's likely the Deuces' roster was fluid from its inception.

Old Mon speculates that the band's name was taken from Artie Shaw's 1942 hit "Deuces Wild" and is credited by some to Dick Brosky. That tale's a coin flip since he wasn't an original member, but replaced Noll early on in the band's tenure. (Walton played with Shaw and helped found the band, so he seems a likelier suspect.) Then again, the phrase is common enough, so roll the could just as easily been determined during a little penny ante action.

Over the years, the Deuces Wild bandstand was home to a who's who of local jazz greats. Its regular musicians included trombonist Turk, sax players Fiorvante "Flo" Cassinelli & Walton, pianists Bobby Negri, Ray Crummie & Jaynes, bassists Danny "The Fox" Mastri, Harry Bush, Wallace & Hill, and drummers Arnold "Spider" Rondinelli, Carl Peticca, Brosky & Noll.

Cassinelli, Crummie, Jaynes, Negri, Rondinelli, Turk and Walton are all members of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame. That's flexing a lot of jazz muscle for one band.

Other local luminaries either sat in as featured sidemen or were session players for the band. Some of the artists were vocalists Tiny Irwin & Jeanne Baxter, trumpeters Roy Eldridge & Hershey Cohen, pianists Chuck Cochran, Beverly Durso & Dodo Marmarosa, and drummers Art Blakey, Terry McCoy, Bill Price & Rodger Ryan.

They first played at Lenny Litman's Liberty Avenue Carnival Lounge after the war in the forties before moving on to his Penn Avenue Midway Lounge in 1950, becoming Pittsburgh's can't miss act. Billboard noted that the Deuces had "built up a fanatical following" by 1947. After their run in town, the group split into two in 1955 and changed venues (Harold Betters took over their gig at the Midway) but not names.

The breakup could have been caused by the dreaded "artistic differences," or perhaps by too many players for too few seats, or just maybe the schedule caught up to them. They played Monday through Saturday from 9-2 with Saturday matinees, their sets every hour, 40 minutes on, 20 off, and they were well known for their after-hours jams with the other cats.

Whatever the reason, Tommy Turk's version with Harry Bush, Dick Brosky and Jeanne Baxter headed to the South Hills and settled in at Brentwood's Point View Hotel on Brownsville Road. Flo Cassinelli's Deuces with Bobby Negri, Danny Mastri and Spider Rondinelli played the Hill jazz club circuit while summering at The Cowshed in the Conneaut Lake resort region.

Both Deuces' outfits co-existed just fine in Pittsburgh's small pond, unlike the bitter battles fought by groups riding today's oldie circuit. They all ran in the same circles and their daily bread was earned through non competitive bookings and not record royalties, eliminating most of the potential backsplash.

In the 1950s, the Cassinelli Deuces did self-release at least four 45s on their own vanity record label. The first record was released in 1955, and the band wrote the sides with the exception of Harry Jame's swing favorite "Ultra," which they recorded twice. The two slabs of wax we could trace were "Ultra" b/w "Down Home" and "Ultra" b/w "That’s All That Matters to Me." If you know of the others, give us a yell.

By the early 1960s, the Deuces Wild era had run its course. Turk's move to Vegas in 1959 was one trigger, though he did return home often to play until his death, while Cassinelli and Negri formed their own groups. In June, 1972, they had a final reunion gig during The Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, playing a tribute show for Roy Eldridge.

Couldn't find any band vids, so here's Artie Shaw's "Deuces Wild."