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Gene Franklin’s Pier Five Jazz Band
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Jim Riley

When band leader and clarinetist Gene Franklin Oliver’s life ended on April 19, the band he originated also died. True, the Pier Five Jazz Band hadn’t played for several years, since Gene had moved from Baltimore to Ocean City; but he was always hoping to recover enough from his throat cancer to rent a hall and have another dinner for his many fans, and to reassemble the band that had become a legend in Baltimore’s jazz history.

   Gene Franklin was self-taught, and couldn’t read music, but he had an excellent ear, and a sweet, clear tone. He could sound like Benny Goodman. In the 1950s his band played for dances at Yale, Princeton, and other Ivy League colleges, as well as Baltimore’s top jazz clubs. They enjoyed a large, devoted following. Somewhere along the way, Gene acquired pianist Wilder Chase, who had played with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Through the years, other fine players passed through the Pier Five’s ranks, most of whom continue to play jazz somewhere in the Baltimore area.

   There is only one recording in existence that reflects Gene’s artistry, an LP album from 1956, entitled “Baltimore Jazz.” The band’s personnel at that time, besides Gene on clarinet, included Bob Waller on piano, Mike Palmere on trumpet, Ken Read on trombone, Bill Goodall on bass, and Larry Algire on drums. This rare recording also has historic value, as it contained a priceless vocal by composer (and Baltimorean) Tom Delaney, singing his “Jazz Me Blues.”

   I joined Gene’s band in 1966, when the Pier Five was already more than a decade old, and was considered to be the best traditional jazz band around. It was quite an honor for me -- I replaced Johnny Prentiss on banjo, who had moved to California. After applying for union membership I was quickly exposed to the high standards that Gene set -- the band had to sound good, and look professional -- always wearing jackets and ties. During the thirty or so years I was with the Pier Five I not only learned much from Gene, but from the musicians he hired as well. At that time the band’s personnel, besides Gene, consisted of Al Straub, Tylden Streett, Mike Poreman, Walter Marquardt, and John Spicer.

   Even with his high standards, working with Gene Franklin was easy, and a joy for an improvising musician. The reasons were two-fold: Gene’s relaxed style was communicated to his men not only in his playing, but in the way he managed the gig. The set routine was twenty minutes on and twenty off -- enough time to play, to relax, to mingle. But the main pleasure in working with Gene was his unerring ability to lay down the right beat -- not too fast, not too slow, but always in the groove. Let me emphasize this, because, to me, it was Gene’s greatest natural musical gift.

   Many band leaders don’t have the knack that Gene had regarding placing the beat where it feels good, and where patrons can’t resist tapping their feet, or getting up to dance, and musicians have ample room to play to their best advantage. Occasionally, and I sincerely mean occasionally, band leaders stomp off a beat that band members will acknowledge with a smiling “Good tempo!” But Gene Franklin put the right beat on every tune he played.

   When he moved to Ocean City, he continued to play with small combos in that oceanside town. And as time went by, we regretted the miles that separated him from his fans and friends in Baltimore. We missed him then, and now we’ll miss him more. But we are proud to say we once shared the bandstand with Gene Franklin and his Pier Five Jazz Band.
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