Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Mole, Miff (Irving Milfred)

Miff Mole was one of the first to bring the tailgate style of Kid Ory and other New Orleans trombonists to his hometown of New York, and he made some of the first jazz recordings. In doing so, he added his own, more soloistic approach to the instrument, which was characterized by wide leaps in pitch and clear, rhythmic articulation. This virtuosity prompted Tommy Dorsey to call him "the Babe Ruth of the trombone."

 Miff Mole

As a member of The Original Memphis Five, Mole played on some of the first jazz recordings, and went on to record with some of the other top musicians of early hot jazz, including cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey. His legacy as a trombonist stretches beyond jazz, as he performed under Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Radio Orchestra and was a successful teacher.

Born on March 11, 1898, in Roosevelt, New York, Mole began his musical studies on the violin at age 11. His father, also a violinist, augmented Mole's training by having him sit in with his own dance band. Two years later, Mole purchased a used alto horn, which he learned to play in addition to the violin. After seeing a trombone playing in a local parade, he decided to teach himself yet another instrument at age 14. Already self-taught on the piano, he learned the trombone slide positions by playing pitches on the keyboard and finding them on the slide. During high school, he devoted himself entirely to his trombone study under the tutelage of classical trombonist Prof. Charles Randall in New York.

While classically trained, Mole found himself in the midst of New York's burgeoning hot jazz scene when, at age sixteen, he got a job with a small band at the College Arms in Brooklyn. That was when the sounds of early jazz began to find their way into Mole's ears, starting with the music of Hank O'Hara.

Mole began to study the first jazz records and became one of the early masters of the new trombone style. His proficiency led him to land the trombone chair with the Original Memphis Five. The group began performing at the Harvard Inn on Coney Island, at the time run by gangster Al Capone. The group then embarked on a nationwide tour which included performances in Los Angeles, where Mole remained when the rest of the ensemble returned to New York.

Mole returned to New York in 1919 to play a five-month engagement at the Roseland Theater with the Sam Lanin Orchestra, and continued working with them until 1924. He also recorded with other groups during this time, including again with the Original Memphis Five in 1922.

He left Lanin to play with Ray Miller in Atlantic City along with saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. Mole shaped the role of the trombone in these ensembles as a combination of tailgate-style counterpoint and occasional melody, perhaps informed by his early training as a violinist. While playing with Miller, Trumbauer and Mole first heard cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and the three came to be close friends.

Mole also became friends with another groundbreaking cornetist and trumpeter, Red Nichols. The two began co-leading their own recording sessions in 1925 under a number of group names including Hottentot, the Red Heads, Arkansas Travelers, Red and Miff's Stompers, the Five Pennies and Miff's Molers. Other important collaborators on these records included Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Adrian Rollini and Joe Venuti.

"Buddy's Habits," recorded with the Five Pennies in 1926, is one example of this ensemble's work. Mole was often featured as a soloist with this group, a role that was unusual for trombonists at the time. Two sides that feature Mole's solo work include "Delerium," recorded with Red and Miff's Stompers in 1927, and "Riverboat Shuffle," recorded the same year with the Five Pennies.

Mole's early innovations on the trombone are especially apparent in the Five Pennies' recording of "The Original Dixieland One-Step," starting with the first solo break. In the version popularized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and widely copied, the trombone break features a long, brassy glissando. Mole, however, plays a fast, pointillistic figure that more closely resembles clarinet phrasing than the traditional trombone passage. Throughout the rest of the song, however, he blends into the mix in a more "tailgate" style but with a clear, articulate sound and good control across a wide range of pitches, particulalry in the lower register.

Mole also recorded regularly with Bix Beiderbecke in the late 1920s, and can be heard on Beiderbecke's famous recording of "Singin' the Blues." No stranger to Beiderbecke's heavy drinking and partying, Mole, along with Beiderbecke and Jimmy Dorsey, once missed a recording session after a long bender, and the musicians performed what Mole later described as their best set together on top of a double-decker bus leaving the studio.

In 1929, Mole was offered a chair in the NBC orchestra and played with them throughout most of the 1930s. He also led his own group, Miff's Molers, until 1930, and did other occasional studio work. In 1934, he played the famous trombone solo from Ravel's Bolero, beating out a number of outside classical soloists who auditioned for the part. Mole briefly played second trombone in the group under Arturo Toscanini, but left in 1938 to join Paul Whiteman.

Ironically, it was his desire to play more jazz that led him to join Whiteman's group, the same reason he cited when leaving two years later. While with Whiteman, Mole played briefly alongside fellow jazz trombone pioneer Jack Teagarden. Teagarden left the group at the end of 1938, two weeks after Mole's arrival, but enough time for the two to record together in Whiteman's December 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, billed as "An Experiment In Modern Music" and featuring the work of a number of budding composers including Duke Ellington. "Blue Belles of Harlem" was Ellington's contribution to the concert.

Mole left Whiteman in 1940 to refine his own trombone skills and to open a teaching studio in New York, where he fostered over 50 young trombonists, including Eddie Bert. Mole left teaching in 1942 to join the Benny Goodman band, but decided to leave to form a small Dixieland ensemble a year later. He continued to play with small groups in both New York and Chicago for the rest of the 1940s, working with Muggsy Spanier, Dave Tough, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell and many others. Although he was thoroughly in the Dixieland-revival camp and derided as one of the "moldy figs" by some of his peers in the bebop community, Mole maintained a healthy respect for bop. He even appeared with his friend and fellow trombonist Jack Teagarden at Dizzy Gillespie's debut at the Blue Note, praising the performance in a 1948 Down Beat interview.

Mole began to develop serious health issues in 1945 that limited his ability to perform regularly, starting with hip surgery in 1945 that produced numerous complications. His last gig came with Pee Wee Russell in 1960, a year before his death on April 29, 1961 in New York City. He had been scheduled to play at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival, only to arrive and find out that riots at the festival that year had caused his performance to be cancelled.

Miff's friends in the jazz world, led by fellow trombonist Charlie Galbraith, had planned a "Miff Mole Day" in New York to celebrate the trombonist's career on June 21, 1961, but Mole did not survive to see it. Proceeds from the concert went to help his widow and family pay off the debts that he had incurred from his lengthy medical treatments. After his death, even his prized trombone had been seized by the Welfare Committee of New York, from whom he had been drawing support in his later years.

Despite the tragedy of his late life, Mole left a legacy as one of the first models of the jazz trombone style. Many of the music's subsequent trombone virtuosi learned how to play by transcribing his solos with the Original Memphis Five and the Five Pennies. This enduring influence led one of his earliest admirers, Tommy Dorsey, to aptly describe him as "the trombone player's trombone player."

Select Discography

Slippin' Around, Vols. 1 and 2 (1998 and 2000, Frog UK)

Miffology (2006, ASV Living Era)

with The Original Memphis Five:

Collection, Vol. 1: 1922-1923

with Bix Beiderbecke:

Bix Beiderbecke, Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues (2008, Columbia)

with Red Nichols:

Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, 1926-1930 (2003, Fabulous)

Red Nichols & Miff Mole 1925-1927 (1998, Challenge)

with Paul Whiteman:

Paul Whiteman: Carnegie Hall Concert December 25, 1938 (2005, Storyville)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez