Joe Bithell, influential Bay Area jazz musician

By Betty Barnacle

San Jose Mercury News

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

He sang and played old-time bluesy jazz in clubs throughout the Bay Area, spinning out tunes from the Roaring '20s through the '40s, what fellow aficionados call the golden age of jazz.

Music was everything to Joe Bithell, according to his close friends from all walks of life.

Mr. Bithell died at 76 on Feb. 19 of a heart attack, a half-hour after singing one of his favorites, ``Call Me Dr. Jazz'' for other musicians on their afternoon off at a private San Mateo open house. A gathering in his honor will be held Saturday.

Bill Armstrong, a sideman in Mr. Bithell's Silicon Gulch Jazz Band when the regular banjo player was a no-show, summed up the band's performances as ``OKOM -- our kind of music.''

In the Guadalupe Society, a club at St. Lawrence the Martyr Church, and the American GI Forum, both in Santa Clara, Gus Ayala became close friends with Mr. Bithell.

``Joe and his first wife, Patricia, worked for the United Farm Workers union,'' Ayala said. ``He had a band. Music. It was Joe's life.''

Harry Bithell remembers his big brother as a teenager listening intently at home to jazz with his buddies. He had a standing date for the past 10 to 15 years to go to Sacramento for the jazz festival, this time to do the listening as his brother performed with a washboard band.

``We all are in shock,'' said Armstrong, one of the musicians present when Mr. Bithell died in San Mateo.

``There was no indication Joe felt bad,'' he said. ``We talked for 10 to 15 minutes and then he said he had to go to the car and get some music. He walked back in and collapsed.''

Kara Bithell, a goddaughter of labor-movement leader Cesar Chavez and a dancer whose dream it was to perform while her father sang live, said Mr. Bithell was in apparent good health. But she said he had heart surgery three or four years ago. Armstrong said the band leader had stents put in his heart.

Born in Utah, Mr. Bithell was raised in the East Bay, where he graduated from Alameda High School in 1947. The next two years he spent in the U.S. Army and, while finishing up his education at San Mateo Junior College, he joined the National Guard. He was an officer when he left 18 years later.

Music also is important to his second wife, Ida, who plays piano and once had her own band, his daughter said.

To support his family, Mr. Bithell got a job as an engineer at Western Electric in Santa Clara and didn't start his band until he retired after 25 years in 1980 when he was in his 50s.

But he hadn't waited that long to perform. Friends and family said he would visit jazz clubs on the Peninsula and in the East Bay, where he was welcome on stage to sing with several bands.

``He was very good on gospel music and had a nice rounded medium to bass range,'' said Armstrong.

Self-taught on the tuba, trumpet, jug and washboard, Mr. Bithell was a charter member of Washboard International and a member of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California and the South Bay Traditional Jazz Club of San Jose.

``He was very enthusiastic and really loved the music,'' said John Dodgshon, who played trumpet with Mr. Bithell's band for eight years. ``He did a lot for many musicians, giving them jobs in his band or finding other jobs for them. He had a positive influence on jazz here in the Bay Area, particularly the South Bay.''

He had a photographic memory not only for the music he loved but also for the whereabouts of those who played and shared his love of jazz, Armstrong said.

Nancy Gray praised Mr. Bithell, her stepfather, for ``living his life to its fullest. He loved his family and his music, and he actually went out singing.''

Joe Bithell

Born: Feb. 17, 1929, in Logan, Ariz.

Died: Feb. 19, 2005, in San Mateo.

Survived by: Wife, Ida Bithell of Santa Clara; children, Kara Bithell of Madera and Marianne Bithell of Davis; brother, Harry Bithell of Laguna; stepchildren, Dennis Whittemore of Tracy, Bob Whittemore of Londonderry, N.H.; Nancy Gray of Murrieta and Sandra Strawn of El Paso; 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services: A gathering in Mr. Bithell's honor will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Avalon, 777 Lawrence Expressway, Santa Clara.

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