Bob Mielke’s favorite headshot, selected for the cover of his biography, A Life of Jazz. Photo: Courtesy Dave Radlauer

Bob Mielke 1926-2020

The passing of trombone player and bandleader Bob Mielke (1927-2020) at age 93 on April 16, 2020 was the result of age and fragility, not the pandemic.  He had been in slow decline for decades, though still able to play at parties and special events until recently.

Mielke (pronounced, “milky”) and his East Bay jazz ensembles, most notably The Bearcats Jazz Band, were a distinct and independent voice in the great Traditional Jazz revival that swept through San Francisco and the environs in the mid-20th century. He was one of the most imaginative trombonists to emerge from the Frisco Revival.

Bob’s personal trombone style fused elements from Kid Ory’s New Orleans tailgate tradition, the Harlem swing of J.C. Higginbotham and plunger mute techniques of Ellington’s “Tricky Sam” Nanton. His exemplar for playing New Orleans trombone parts was George Brunis in the 1939 Muggsy Spanier Ragtime Band records. Over the decades he was associated with some of the most illustrious names in Jazz: Sidney Bechet, Bob Wilbur, Joe Sullivan, George Lewis, Muggsy Spanier, Darnell Howard, Don Ewell, Jess Stacy, Bob Helm and Lu Watters.

The Bearcats with clarinetist Bill Napier at the Lark’s Club, Berkeley, 1955.  L to r: Bob Mielke, Dick Oxtot, Bill Napier, Peter Allen and P.T. Stanton. Photo: Courtesy Dave Radlauer

By 1955 Bob Mielke and The Bearcats were leading a second wave of the Frisco Jazz Revival at The Lark’s Club in Berkeley. Shaping a distinctive sound based on driving rhythms, creative soloing and skilled voicing of the horns, Bob and his associates fused New Orleans ensemble parts with Kansas City-style riffing.

Mielke’s bands were bold and inventive, rejecting the prevalent Dixieland formulas of Eddie Condon’s jam sessions, East Coast cutting contests and the Traditional Jazz style of Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. Instead, they adopted as a starting point the popular New Orleans four-beat style associated with George Lewis or Jim Robinson, adding their own innovations.

For 23 baseball seasons (1969-92) Bob Mielke’s Swinging A’s Oakland Baseball Band brought vintage jazz to ballpark audiences, private parties and Traditional Jazz events. It was a solid quintet playing a limited role at home games of the Oakland A’s Major League Baseball team. On the side, Bob booked the jolly quintet for sports, civic, casual or Trad Jazz events.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Bob Mielke’s New Bearcats carried the music forward, performing at nightclubs, casuals, Trad Jazz events and festivals. He was playing with a wide range of groups — most notably in the Golden State Jazz Band of Ev Farey and jazz ensembles of singers Barbara Dane and Barbara Lashley.

Bob Mielke playing in the 1980s. Photo: Ed Lawless

In the 2000s, accidents and physical challenges sidelined Bob, though he remained a beloved musician.  Enduring a slow decline over decades, he loved blowing trombone at parties and informal jams.

Leaving an indelible imprint on the Frisco Jazz Revival, Bob Mielke was an original bandleader was a distinctive instrumental voice.  Mielke’s passing closes the chapter on a second generation of West Coast Traditionalist musicians who built their personal mode of expression drawing from New Orleans music, the sounds of early records, Harlem, Chicago and Kansas City Jazz.

Bob’s long-time friend and associate, multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker sends this personal remembrance:

“He had the darkest and richest trombone sound one could produce. He was a great thinker about music and jazz, his sometimes-grumpy exterior protected the soul of a great artist. I will miss his beautiful tone and perfect trombone lines in the ensemble, and the conversations about all kinds of art from classical music to photography . . .  Godspeed Bob, you will be missed.”

Bob’s family invites people to share their memories of Bob on his remembrance page.

This obituary was first published in Syncopated Times on April 19.

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