an interview with George W. Kay
Chink Martin (real name Martin Abraham) is one of the oldest musicians who is still active in music today. Born in New Orleans on June 10, 1889, he took up string bass and tuba at an early age. He is the father of string bassist Martin ‘Little Chink’ Abraham, Jr., and brother of Willie Abraham a famous New Orleans banjo, guitar and bass player. Originally a guitarist, Chink switched to violin and mandolin before choosing the tuba and string bass as his instruments.
Chink started playing tuba with the Reliance Band and Jack Laine around 1910, He began doubling on string bass and played with many bands in New Orleans before joining the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923 in Chicago. He returned to New Orleans in 1924 and worked with John Bayersdorffer and Freddie Newman before joining the reformed New Orleans Rhythm Kings in New Orleans in 1925. He also worked regularly with the New Orleans Harmony Kings under drummer Tom Earley and later with the New Orleans Swing Kings. He continued to free lance with various bands in (and) later became a staff musician at WSMB and (in) New Orleans in the 194os and 1950s.
Chink is now playing regularly on string bass with the Crawford-Ferguson Night Owls since he joined the band in the 1960s. This interview was taken aboard the S.S. President on March 20, 1971, before Chink took the stand for the first set. (GWK)
Q: Chink, you are certainly one of the senior citizens of jazz. When did you start playing?
Chink: I started playing music in New Orleans when I was 11 years old. I was living at that time on Esplanade and Royal Street. Then I moved over to Ursulines and Royal. I had one brother, William Abraham who played tuba and string bass. My son Martin Abraham Jr., plays banjo and bass.
Q: What did you choose as your first instrument?
Chink: My first instrument was guitar. I learned from a Mexican professor who lived here for a while and died New Orleans. I learned to play Spanish guitar and we had an orchestra of Mexicans who used to work in town. That was back, I would say, about 1904 to 1905. I stayed with the guitar for a while, but then I changed to violin. Later I switched to mandolin. But I couldn’t get any work so I picked up bass viol.
Q: Were there many bass players at that time in New Orleans?
Chink: No, there were very few bass players in New Orleans. They were very scarce. A little before 1908 I was playing with the Reliance Band under the leadership of Jack Laine. He used to run Laine’s Band and the Reliance Band. It was Laine who got me to switch to tuba. Laine’s regular tuba player got sick and he came to me and said, ‘Chink, I’ve got a job for you tomorrow’. I said, ‘That’s fine. But how can I play string bass in a marching band?’ Laine said, ‘You are not going to play string bass, you are going to play tuba’. I told Laine that I never had played a tuba. He just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t give a gol’ durn whether you ever played one or not, but you are certainly going to play one tomorrow! Just put a cork in it. I’ve got to have ten men and you are going to play a tuba!’ That was my first experience with a tuba, and believe me I stuck with it.
Q: Well, did you ever take lessons on the tuba?
Chink: I didn’t take any lessons at all, and nobody showed me how to play it. I just picked it up as I always had a good ear for music. I love music and I knew when I was playing wrong and when I was playing right.
Q: After you left Papa Laine’s band, when did you get into the jazz bands?
Chink: Jack Laine had a jazz band, but at that time it was called a ragtime band. Jazz came up much later. All the bands were called ragtime bands. From Jack Laine’s band I started playing with every band and every musician in the city of New Orleans.
Q: I just recently saw a picture of Tom Earley’s band called the Harmony Band, and you’re in it.
Carew: I played with Tom Earley’s Harmony Band in 1916 and 1917. That band played all over town and had a lot of jobs. In 1922, Paul Mares and Leon Roppolo came down to New Orleans and asked me to go with them to Chicago to join the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. As I recall it, Oscar Marco on violin and Scaglioni on clarinet didn’t work out in the band. They had some kind of union trouble in Chicago and had to return to New Orleans. I wasn’t union either but that was another story.
Q: Tell us how you got into the union in Chicago and became a member of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Chink: I did some manoeuvering in Chicago and they accepted me. See, I couldn’t read a note. I couldn’t tell one note from another. You had to take a written test to pass the union and I failed it the first time because I didn’t pay attention. They gave me a bum steer the first time around because they told me that all I would have to do was call up and I would get my union card. But I found out that was wrong. You had to pass a written test. I found out at the union hall that you really had to read. When I failed the first time one of the officials asked me what was the trouble. He asked me, ‘Can’t you play a cymbal or a triangle?’ and I said, ‘No, the only instruments I know are the tuba and the string bass’. Then I asked him, ‘Give me another chance to take that test, but put me last so I will have a chance to listen to the music that they are playing’. The union official was convinced that I couldn’t pass just listening to the music and I told him that I thought I could do it. So in two weeks he sent me a card to report to take another test. Of all the tunes they played that day, I knew one of them perfect, and would you believe it, that was the tune they asked me to play for my test!
Q: Then you joined the New Orleans Rhythm Kings at Friars Inn in Chicago?
Chink: The Friars Inn was a big cafe in the basement holding three hundred people. It was a legitimate club and I played there for about two years. We had Paul Mares, Leon Roppolo and George Brunies from New Orleans besides myself. When I first started, Elmer Schoebel was playing piano and his place was taken later by Mel Stitzel. Benny Pollock was on drums.
Q: Did you make some records with Gennett in Richmond Indiana?
Chink: Yes, I made about eight or ten numbers with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings at the Gennett studios. We had three piano players with us for those sessions. They were Mel Stitzel, Jelly Roll Morton and Kyle Pierce. They played the piano for their own arrangements. I remember very well recording with Jelly Roll Morton. It was probably the first mixed band ever to record. I’ve heard some people say that they tried to say Jelly Roll was a Cuban but that isn’t true. He was black.
Q: Where did you go after you left the New Orleans Rhythm Kings?
Chink: I came back to New Orleans for a short while and then I returned to Chicago to work with George Brunies at the Adams Inn. The place was owned by Dany Barone. There was no name given for the band. I played there for about a year and then I returned to New Orleans in 1925.
Q: Did you rejoin the New Orleans Rhythm Kings at that time?
Chink: No, I did not rejoin the New Orleans Rhythm Kings immediately. I played with Johnny Bayersdroffer’s band at the old Tokyo Gardens at Spanish Fort. Steve Loydcano was on banjo and Johnny Miller was on piano. I was with Bayersdorffer when the band played in Indianapolis across from Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines. Both bands came out very well from that contest.
Q: Do you remember Bix in Chicago during those days?
Chink: Before the New Orleans Rhythm Kings broke up at Friars Inn, we used to play at the Marigold Ballroom. Bix used to come in and sit in with us. Bix was a great player, I can tell you that.
Q: Do you remember recording a duet with Leon Roppolo for Gennett?
Chink: Yes I remember that duet. I played guitar with Leon who played lead guitar. The tunes were Bucktown Blues and Angry. This session was never released by Gennett and the masters were destroyed.
Q: When you returned to New Orleans in 1925, you played with several bands as I understand it.
Chink: I was playing with Johnny Bayersdorffer and the Halfway House Orchestra. I also made the Okeh records with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1925. Brunies didn’t come back and we used Santo Pecora on trombone. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings didn’t play around town very much when they returned to New Orleans. What I am saying is that there were only three of the originals from the N.O.R.K.’s in the band when it returned to New Orleans.
Q: Will you tell us when you went with Johnny Miller’s New Orleans Frolickers?
Chink: I was with Johnny Miller for a little over five years, playing at the Court of Two Sisters and the Club Frolic. The group at the Court of Two Sisters included Johnny Miller on piano, Johnny Krugie on violin, myself on string bass and we had a man on vibraharp. That was later, around 1930.
Q: Do you remember playing with Johnny Miller at Club Frolic?
Chink: Yes, I remember playing with the band at that time. We recorded Dipper Mouth Blues and Panama for Okeh. I had progressed so fast on tuba that I was much in demand then as a tuba player.
Q: Chink, how long have you been playing with the Crawford-Ferguson band?
Chink: I have been with the band for five or six years every Saturday night on the President. I could play tuba, but the doctors advised me to let the horn alone. You will see that my fingers on my right hand are taped. I love music and I play hard. When I strike the strings I raise blood blisters and I could never raise any corns. So I have always taped my fingers as long as I have been playing string bass. I use the Kay string bass because I like the big tone I can get on it.
Q: How old are you, Chink?
Chink: I will be 82 next June. I had a stroke last year and that is one reason why the doctor told me not to play tuba. I am in good physical condition and I spend a lot of time working in my garden. I guess it is my music and my garden that keeps me going.
Note: Bucktown Blues/Angry featured a guitar duet by Martin Abraham (Chink Martin) and Leon Roppolo. The matrix numbers show that this session was recorded on July 17, 1923. The masters were destroyed.
The session by Johnny Bayersdorffer and Orchestra on February 12, 1925 was not the same personnel on the OKeh record. The late Dr. Edmond Souchon wrote that Charlie Martman was trombonist on the Gennett date. Hartman said the masters were destroyed because the banjo was too close to the microphone. (GWK)
§ § §
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated April 1972, Vol. 25, No. 4, pages 18—19 and 39.