Bryce Edwards- At 23, The 20s and 30s Are His Bailiwick
By: Alix Cohen
January 9, 2024: Attending The Bryce Edwards Frivolity Hour feels like going back in time. The artist inhabits 1920s/1930s music like a bespoke suit. He plays at least six instruments and sings in the nasal, megaphone-like, wah-wah and eef fashion popular then. (Eefing is a cross between scat singing and mouth trumpet, often sung in raspy falsetto.) According to Bryce, the term was coined by Cliff “Ukulele” Edwards (no relation) who was, by the way, the voice of Jiminy Cricket. “By the mid 1920s, the unique style spawned all kinds of imitators.”
His shows are not parody, but rather appreciation. The young man has steeped himself in history and performance of a chosen era. He dresses the part and organically peppers conversation with “gee,” “gosh,” and “heck.” Organically is the important word here. There’s nothing false or pretentious about his manner. Conversation can be a fascinating tutorial.
Illustration by Bryce Edwards
Bryce comes from an artistic family. His parents work in different aspects of the fashion industry. His aunt has a klezmer and jazz band, his grandmother was an opera singer, her husband – Bryce called him “Papa Bob” – legendarily sang western swing with the Spade Coolie Orchestra “back in the day. He told wild tales. Where the hell do you pull Spade Cooley out of the air?” The colorful Cooley, it should be noted, brutally murdered his second wife, Ella Mae Evans. Incarceration combined with the waning of his chosen genre, put grandpa out of a job
Always knowing he wanted to perform, Bryce’s been onstage since six years old (in a youth theater group); professional since 12. A manager found him at a showcase. There were readings, regional musicals and commercials. “I was the voice of the Charmin bear,” he tells me grinning.
Bryce (at 18) and Papa Bob
Papa Bob would sing early songs a capella around the house, some dating back to the oughts and teens. Bryce found himself drawn to and learning these from repetition. He sang things like “Little Nellie Kelley I Love You,” and “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on a Saturday Night?” His grandfather would mime uke and saw. “I play saw behind closed doors. I’m working on it,” Bryce adds. There were also some records – Ruth Etting, classic Bing Crosby, Rudy Valle, Helen Morgan.
When he was 12ish, Bryce taught himself ukulele to accompany his own singing – George Fornby and Cliff Edwards style, flashy vaudevillian strumming. “Fan strokes, thumb stuff and whatnot.” Fornby apparently had more songs banned from the BBC than any person in history. “While not quite explicit by today’s standards, I think some of them are still surprisingly raunchy,” he says. Voice lessons started then as well, beginning with songbook and musical theater. The young man now concentrates on emulating period sounds.
Moliere’s Critique of the School for Wives. Bryce is Lysidas (18 years old)
At Baldwin Wallis College, known for its theater department, Bryce moved on from kazoo and ukulele to learn tenor banjo. The tenor is considered a bit old fashioned, I’m told. It’s associated with New Orleans type jazz and closer to a mandolin in the way it’s played. “Banjo is my go-to because its bright, pingy sound feels appropriate,” Bryce explains. Frequenting open mics, he decided he should play a real instrument, rather than ukulele. Bryce ZOOMED with the great jazz banjoist Cynthia Sayer who put him on solid ground. (He acted but doesn’t consider it part of the immediate future.)
“Back in the 1920s, banjo was the stringed instrument for jazz, mainly because it cut through an orchestra without amplification,” he says. “It recorded well. A huge banjo craze swept the nation. By 1932, they had electric recording.” At that point guitar moved forward with a mellower Chicago jazz style. A different strum pattern was developed for crooner ballads and swing tunes. Eddie Lang and Nick Lucas pioneered it in the 20s, Django Reinhart in the 30s. Next came mandolin, a more melodic instrument with “a rustic, jangly sound,” Bryce uses on tunes prior to the 20s.
Illustration by Bryce Edwards
“1925-33 is the most interesting period of popular vocal to me,” he says. “Al Jolson and Billy Murray had voices that could be heard in a concert hall and cut through all the surface noise of an acoustic record. This sort of recording process requires a crazy big voice, trust me, I’ve tried it. Electric recording (1925) allowed for more intimate and varied performance.”
“People think of Cliff Edwards as a novelty artist, but he was an incredible vocalist with a sense of humor AND could sing a ballad and make you cry,” he says. “In 1923, he made records with just his uke that are extremely intimate. Early singers are often dismissed, but they’re incredibly expressive.” Cliff Edwards eeked, Lee Morse yodeled, Adelaide Hall growled.
Bryce devours history and music. He suggests sampling Whispering Jack Smith, Gene Austin, Annette Henshaw, Lee Morse, Ethel Waters and Adelaide Hall in addition to those artists mentioned. “I read as much as I can to add context to my shows,” he says. “The Mooche,” a signature, 1928 jazz song by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, has scat singing by vocalist Gertrude “Baby” Cox. It’s wahhh, whahhh is a perfect example of what this artist is reintroducing.
There are unrecognizable instruments on a Frivolity Hour stage. The Stro-ukulele was in a private collection behind a glass case for half a century. “An antique dealer gave me a very good price because he knew I’d actually play it,” he says. “Its horn directs sound directly into a recorder. They started making them before 1920 and I’d be surprised if there were more than six in existence. It’s not necessarily better than a regular uke, but it’s such fun.”
He continues: “I’ve been obsessed with the Strohviols UK company since I was a kid. It no longer exists, but there’s an American counterpart that now makes a resonator guitar- no horn. It’s very much sought after. Stroph had a good idea, it just took another company to refine and recontextualize it.”
Stroh Ukulele, 1920. Lorelei and Brian Edwards Photography
The Banjolin is a banjo/mandolin hybrid found in ragtime orchestras and swing bands prior to the 1920s. James Reece Europe’s 1913 “Down Home Rag” written for Vernon and Irene Castle, features 5 Banjolins. “Mine is from 1926. I got it at a flea market. If you’re looking for an instrument that contains the loud, harsh tones of the banjo with the rich pitch of the mandolin, then look no further,” he says, raising an eyebrow. It’s evidently punchier than a mandolin.
Songophone, 1900. Ome Custom Tenor Banjo, 2022. It’s modeled after a 1920s Bacon and Day Silverbell (Photo by Neal Siegal)
Then there’s the Songophone. Bryce’s dates from about 1900. They were produced as an improvement on the newly invented kazoo – better projection – and advertised as suitable for a marching band. “Just kinda goofy,” he comments. During that period, William “Red” McKensie played professional comb (paper over a comb) creating the kazoo sound. He had his own band, but also worked with Glenn Miller, Coleman Hawkins, Bunny Berigan, and Jimmy Dorsey. “I’m very much influenced by The Goofus Five,” he says.
Couesnophone (Public Domain)
The Couesnophone, also known as the Goofus is a musical instrument resembling a saxophone harmonicor. Its reeds vibrate when keys are activated and the player blows through a tube. Imagine a combination harmonica and accordion. “I play Frisco Slide Whistle too which is iconically on Paul Whiteman’s ‘Whispering.’” he says. “It’s weird to hear jazz greats playing strange instruments, but so indicative of the era they call The age of wonderful nonsense. I try to capture that. Novelty is a hard thing to pull off. It’s pure, simple, innocent.” The artist takes novelty very seriously. “In a way I play it straight,” he adds. Like farce, this is the only approach that works to bring material to authentic life.
Bryce started in a double act called Mr. Harris and Mr. Edwards with childhood friend, Quintin Harris. They did a lot of repertoire from The King Cole Trio and The Rat Pack. He then resolved to take a risk with his own iconoclastic musical bent. The Frivolity Hour has played Don’t Tell Mama’s and Birdland in Manhattan as well as several venues in the Hudson Valley where he lives. On Tuesday nights, he can often be found jamming at Mona’s in the East Village, a center for this kind of music.
Scott Rickets (cornet), Jay Rattman (here-baritone saxophone),Bryce Edwards (tenor banjo), Conal Fowkes (piano), Ricky Alexander (clarinet, tenor saxophone) Photo: Matt Baker
The performer’s bucket list begins with an album, of course, then perhaps a film made in the style of an early Soundie. Also a visual artist, Bryce hopes to find a way to combine the two talents. Until then, he reads, listens, and performs, sowing audiences with infectious smiles like Johnny Appleseed.
My 2023 review.
Bryce Edwards Frivolity Hour returns to Birdland January 22 at 7 p.m.
Opening Photos by Matt Baker