Wendell Cassino Simpson

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This interesting character played a vital role in Chicago's hot music scene during the mid-1920s. The entire drama of his exciting professional life, his subsequent mental derangement, incarceration,…
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This interesting character played a vital role in Chicago's hot music scene during the mid-1920s. The entire drama of his exciting professional life, his subsequent mental derangement, incarceration, and death took place in, or not far from, Chicago. Firstly, he is said to have studied piano with Augustus Zinky Cohn. His earliest appearance on phonograph records occurred in 1923, when he sat in with trumpet man Bernie Young. During the year 1925, Simpson could be heard performing with the Moulin Rouge Orchestra. He then joined up with an orchestra fronted by violinist and alto saxophonist Arthur Sims. Simpson can be heard on "Soapstick Blues," and a couple of other sides waxed by Arthur Sims Creole Roof Orchestra on June 21, 1926. After Sims passed away that same year, the band continued to operate under the leadership of Bernie Young. Simpson stuck with Bernie through 1930. But it was the year 1929 that gave us much of this pianist's best ensemble work on records, as he became a member of Jabbo Smith's Rhythm Aces. Interacting with such notable individuals as Omer Simeon, Banjo Ikey Robinson, and the fiery Jabbo himself, Simpson was now helping to create some of the hottest and toughest records to come out of Chicago during the late 1920s. Among the handful of sides by the Rhythm Aces issued on the Brunswick label, Simpson's spicy handling of the ivories is most evident on those famously frantic numbers "Jazz Battle" and "Ace of Rhythms," the steaming "Sau-Sha Stomp," "Take Your Time," and the very solid "Little Willie Blues." His wonderful laid-back support was an essential element in sustaining the mood of low-down masterpieces like "Let's Get Together" and "Take Me to the River." Simpson worked with, but does not appear on, the few extant recordings made by the legendary Erskine Tate. During the years 1931-1933, Simpson engaged in what has been described as "freelance recording," and led various ensembles under his own name, utilizing the talents of Jabbo Smith and a young Milt Hinton. (According to Hinton, Simpson liked to name musical compositions after types of food, for example "Ham Hocks and Beans.") The fateful turning point in Simpson's life occurred when he began accompanying vocalist, comedian, dancer, and sometime-female impersonator Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon. They seem to have made only one recording session together, on June 23, 1933. The titles were "Mama Don't Allow It," "Spank It," and "The Mortgage Blues." What was it about Half Pint that made Simpson want to kill him? Some dangerous volatile component in the chemistry of their combined personalities? Something unforgivable that Jaxon said or did, triggering a homicidal reaction in the over-wrought pianist? Or maybe Simpson was simply going crazy. That's apparently what the authorities believed, as he was institutionalized in March 1935 at the Illinois State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Elgin, Illinois. Even this, it seems, could not prevent him from making music. He played piano and vibraphone in the hospital's 26-piece dance orchestra, and beat the bass drum in their marching band. He even made a series of solo piano recordings during the mid-1940s, right there on the grounds of the mental hospital, where he lived out the rest of his days.