Eli Konikoff - Pioneer Award
BMHOF Class of 2015
There was a time when Eli Konikoff was considered the face of Dixieland jazz in Western New York.
Konikoff was both a bandleader and trombonist, although he told the Buffalo News that he originally didn’t want to play the instrument.
"I was in the sixth, seventh grade and I wanted to play in the school band, and I didn't want to play the trombone," he told the News in a 1975 interview. "But it was the only instrument they had left."
That was at Buffalo School 31. And as it turned out, it worked out just fine.
Konikoff grew up to make his reputation playing in the swing bands with Woody Herman, Wild Bill Davidson and Jack Mayhew in the days of the touring big bands.
Konikoff’s son Ross said that as he remembers the story, his father was playing with his Dixieland band in the lounge of the Town Casino when the Woody Herman Band (aka the Thundering Herd) came through.
“They were short a trombone player, and he filled in,” said Ross Konikoff. “And then we went with them.”
His stint with Herman wasn’t long, but he showed he could play with one of the top bands of the swing era.
But his ability went beyond his playing. He developed into an all-around entertainer.
“He came across not only with his playing, but with his personality,” said his son, Eli Konikoff Jr. “He took command on stage, not only with the band, but soloing and leading the band. He had a quality of being a leader.”
Eli Jr. started playing professionally with his father around age 14 or 15. He said his father occasionally had him play clubs where he hadn’t reached the drinking age yet.
One of their more memorable gigs, Eli Jr. said, was when his dad took him to play a gig in East Aurora. His father didn’t mention what the performance was.
It turned out to be at the Knox estate, where the Knox family was hosting then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
“These are the kind of affairs he would be called to do back in the heyday,” said Eli Jr. “I remember him sitting there, talking with Gov. Rockefeller and all of his friends, just laughing and joking. … He would tell his jokes, and he had them roaring.
“He could entertain the highest of classes, yet at the same time he communicated to everybody. He touched everybody with his personality.”
But he took to Dixieland in the 1950s, when he formed the Yankee Six with members including Paul Preston and Jim Koteras (who would later go on to found the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame group the Barroom Buzzards). Konikoff led the Yankee Six until 1973.
Preston, a clarinetist and saxophonist who played with Konikoff for 13 years, said Konikoff “played the swing style. He had a great tone … and a great ear for ensemble playing. He was an excellent leader.”
Plus, Preston notes, Konikoff had “one tremendous asset: he was able to go out and get work.”
That meant playing society gigs, country clubs, weddings and bar mitzvahs as well as doing festivals, concerts and club shows.
He was noted for his sense of humor as well. His obituary in the News said he played his final show in leading a quartet at the Buffalo Yacht Club on New Year’s Eve in 1995.
“He also sang a number of songs and told jokes that night,” it said. “‘I knocked them out of the box,’ he said afterwards, with characteristic enthusiasm,” it said.
He died eight days later in Buffalo General Hospital after a short illness. He was 80.
At their peak, Konikoff and the Yankee Six played six-nights-a-week engagements at the Town Casino, where – according to the News – they shared the bill with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
They were also featured on Bob Wells' weekly "Music Appreciation Night" TV how on Ch. 2 in the early 1960s.
The News said that at the peak of his career, Konikoff followed a grueling schedule that saw him rising at 6:30 a.m. to join his brothers in running Custom Cleaners on Hertel Avenue. Then at night he would return to the bandstand.
Eli Jr. said his father and most of the Yankee Six members were devoted family men who had other careers as well as music. It cost them some opportunities musically.
“There were school teachers and a couple of other professions in the band, and they had families and children,” he said. “They had opportunities to go to New York and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show at that time. So a lot of doors had been open, but they were unable to walk through them because of their family commitments.”
In 1971, Konikoff was a principal player with an all-star Dixieland band that toured the U.S., said the News. After the Yankee Six ended, he played regularly at parties and clubs with groups such as the Morgan Street Stompers and Sentimental Journey.
He was also involved in many charitable causes, performing on fund-raising telethons and at other fundraisers.
Music definitely ran in the family, as well, and Konikoff’s family is adamant about the role that his wife, Frances, played in Konikoff’s career and their upbringing. She was a piano player herself, and at times went out to do shows with her husband. She was the one there to hold everything together, Eli Jr. said.
Meanwhile all of the Konikoff went on to play music. Eli Jr. was the drummer for SpyroGyra during the band’s “Morning Dance” era, while Ross, played with Buddy Rich before spending decades in Liza Minnelli’s band. His other two children were daughters Randi, who did session vocals and jingles work in the area, and Barbara, who has been an active singer as well in choruses and groups.
In 1985, Buffalo Major Jimmy Griffin declared his 70th birthday “Eli Konikoff Day” in the city.
(Profile by Elmer Ploetz)