Before there was a “Sam The Bugler” (the racetrack trumpeter in New York) there was “Buglin’ Sam” DeKemel.
Before there was a “Sam The Bugler” (the racetrack trumpeter in New York) there was “Buglin’ Sam” DeKemel. He was born Mathew Antoine Desire’ Dekemel (sometimes spelled De Kemel) on January 15, 1903 in New Orleans. Sam and his dad, a waffle chef, had a horse-drawn wagon, and in the 1920s sold their waffles (covered with powdered sugar) for five cents. His father, also named Matthew Dekemel, started the waffle business when the family lived in San Antonio. It was the younger Matthew who, in the 1920s and ’30s, sold hot waffles throughout New Orleans. Ned Hémard, in “New Orleans Nostalgia-Remembering New Orleans History, Culture and Traditions” wrote, “He (Sam) used to come down the street, blowing a bugle from his wagon real loud. Bugling Sam might not have been a great bugle player but he was a cranked-up loud one.”
Waffles were sold from horse-drawn carts and catered to many neighbors around New Orleans to people who enjoyed hot and fresh sugar-dusted waffles. Another New Orleans favorite is Chicken and Waffles although it’s not known whether Sam and his father sold that combination.
The Dekemel Waffle cart. Sam is seated in the cart with his bugle
Sam purchased a M1892 Field Trumpet in G (commonly referred to as a bugle) and used it to announce when the cart came into the neighborhood. He said he was taught to play by his Grandmother. Around 1921 he started playing “Tiger Rag” on his bugle.“Tiger Rag” was such a popular song emanating from New Orleans that it had many authors claiming credit. Originally known as the “Jack Carey” or “Number Two”, it was souped-up from a French quadrille. Its composer is said to have been Achille Baquet, with cornet and trombone breaks worked out by Punch Miller and Jack Carey. Jelly Roll Morton claimed it as his own, as did Nick La Rocca (whose Original Dixieland Jazz Band made it famous in 1917-1918).
You could play “Tiger Rag” on the bugle if you bend the third note (the E) down a bit.
On a bugle you can only play the notes of the overtone series. So you really can’t play all the notes of a song but you can enough for people to get the idea of the tune. For example you can play Amazing Grace on a bugle with enough notes for people to recognize the hymn.
So a bugle playing in a Jazz Band can seem to be a novelty or maybe a gimmick. You can’t play chromatic notes and all the tunes need to be in the key of G. But Sam got involved with Tony Almerico’s Parisian Room Band. They recorded an album called Clambake on Bourbon Street which featured Sam on his bugle. He is featured on Waffle Man Blues, and St. Blues. He also recorded Bugle Call Rag for Capitol Records, and Has Anybody Seen My Kitty?
So could he really play enough notes on a bugle for a real Jazz solo? If one were to believe Hollywood movies you would think it possible. Take the scene in “From Here To Eternity” where the bugler Robert Lee Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift) plays some hot Jazz licks on his Regulation bugle. Hollywood studio trumpeter Manny Klein performed the “bugle Jazz” showing that it was possible to play some of the Jazz licks on a bugle with the exception of the last run in the penultimate measure. Supposedly producer Harry Cohn insisted Klein should play it on a bugle. Klein told him it would sound way better on a trumpet, but Cohn wanted it to be a bugle, so they recorded him on the bugle and Cohn thought it was good. But after Cohn left, Klein went back to the studio men, and insisted they hear him play it on the trumpet, and it was so much better that they recorded it, and then they used that recording in the movie, and lied and told Cohn it was the bugle recording. I don’t know if that is a true story, but the clip is wonderful. To a close listener it does sound like the last notes are indeed dubbed in.
Here is a transcription of that solo-Thanks to Alex Heikkila of Monroe, Louisiana and John Schmitt of Baltimore Maryland for their help!
To be sure, on the featured selections the band has to play in G to accommodate Sam on his bugle and the trumpet playing was done by bandleader Tony Almerico. Sam manages to play solos on the bugle on blues tunes by using the notes of the overtone series along with bending notes to create a bluesy sound. It was pretty creative considering the limitations of the bugle. As he put it, “You got to have a tough lip to blow a bugle this way. You got to use your tongue, your throat and your stomach to push out those sharps and flats because you don’t have any valves.”
In addition to playing Sam was known for his sense of humor. He was known for being a cut-up and a bit of a prankster. According to Al Rose in “I remember Jazz: six Decades Among the Great Jazzmen”, Sam had a uninhibited, vulgar comedy style common to a certain class of New Orleans musicians. But he could be funny and drew a following. “Dekemel wasn’t one of the town’s brighter intellectual lights, and as a result he was frequently the butt of the practical jokery of his musical confreres, who often were a mere half-step above him in vertebral evolution.”
In later life, Matthew Dekemel was a probation officer, and when he retired from law enforcement, called races at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. He died January 6, 1967 at the age of 64.
In April 1968, Matthews’s widow donated the bugle to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, It was accepted by Joe Gemelli, vice president and Durel Black president of the New Orleans Jazz Club.