Jack Purvis: Mental Strain At Dawn

December 11, 2015 at 12:42 am (adventure, crime, jazz, Jim D, mental health, wild man)

Jack Purvis, 11 Dec 1906 – 30 Mar 1962 (?)

Purvis must surely be the strangest, most picaresque and mysterious figure in the entire history of recorded jazz. As well as being a phenomenal trumpeter (one of the first – if not the first – of the white players who were obviously influenced by Armstrong), he was also a compulsive liar, con-man, gun-runner and drug smuggler. Naturally, he was also a jail-bird: but one who once, having been released, broke back in, so that he could continue to direct the prison orchestra for their radio debut.

He made no records after 1935 and seems to have committed suicide in 1962 (but even that is in some doubt: there was, according to Richard M. Sudhalter, at least one reliably attested encounter with a man claiming to be “Jack Purvis … I used to play trumpet” after that date). He had a wife and daughter, both of whom were reduced to broken-hearted despair by his antics and absences.

Many jazz musicians could be called “eccentric”, but Purvis’s lifestyle and behaviour went well beyond that: he was almost certainly mentally ill, which makes the title of this 1929 record especially appropriate: ‘Mental Strain At Dawn’:


  1. Robert R. Calder said,

    The late Angus Calder asked around for unusually unusual jazzmen to include in his Dictionary of Alternative Biography, and was sold on Purvis before he was given a tape actually to hear the man. Maybe it was the flying school, or the prison orchestra — for a perfectly formed piece of literary art Johnny Chilton’s initial entry on Purvis in Who’s Who of Jazz, Storyville to Swing Street is unbeatable. It’s almost tragic even the little more that appeared in Storville Magazine turned up, rather spoiled the balance. The tenor saxophone solos on one of Purvis’s band sessions with Angus’s hero J.C. Higginbotham et al. were hailed as among the very best of their day, once a little research had been done and they were known not to be by Coleman Hawkins, who not so amazingly in retrospect was even better on the other Purvis band date. The influence of Louis Armstrong on Hawkins was very notable on some early recordings, before Hawkins heard the young Art Tatum. Purvis of course recorded a number entitled “Copyin’ Louis” (which he did!) but he does phrase like the Hawkins of 1930 or Hawkins phrases like him, though the broader tenor sound couldn’t be got round some of the more staccato trumpet spurts on “Mental Strain…”

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks for those thoughts, Robert. I take it you’re related to Angus? The tenor sax player on the April 3 1930 ‘Jack Purvis and His Orchestra’ (an early example of a racially-integrated recording band) was for many years believed to be Hawkins, and the tenor playing on those sides (Dismal Dan, Poor Richard and Down Georgia Way) does indeed sound like Hawk; but in a 1971 interview the organiser of the session, Bob Stephens, recalled that it was, in fact Castor McCord from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. The tenorist on the May 1 1930 sides by a very similar band (also including Higgy) was Greely Walton. I’m not aware that Purvis ever recorded with Hawk.

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