The Mississippi Rag
In 1925, Sidney met his wife, Harriet (Hansi, to friends and family), at a New Year’s Eve party in an artist’s studio in Greenwich Village. She was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University and a "thoroughly modern" ‘20s flapper. When Sidney arrived at the party flamboyantly sporting a full-length raccoon coat, pork-pie hat and galoshes, she blurted out, "Oh, I could never go for someone like him!" They were married almost immediately and Conrad was born three years later.


Conrad at age 2, with mother and Father

For Conrad Janis,
Acting and Jazz
Share the Spotlight

by Jim Uhl

 
   

Two unusual factors set Conrad Janis on the road to becoming a jazz trombonist and band leader:
* His parents were deeply involved in the modern art movement.
* He hated school.

You can guess that this is not going to be one of those up-from-the-slums or I-learned-my-horn-in-the-marching-band pieces.

This is about someone who sat, literally, at the feet of master trombonist Kid Ory for several years, who has played a significant role on the Classic jazz scene for more than 50 years, who has worked with dozens of historic jazz figures on both coasts, whose Tailgate Jazz Band members in the ‘50s were the first revivalists after the pioneers like Bunk Johnson to play New Orleans style in New York City, and whose joyful tailgate trombone powers his own Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band, which is now in its 34th year, its elevnth at Lunaria’s Restaurant and Club in Los Angeles.

And, oh yes, who has been a sought-after actor on Broadway, the movies and TV for even longer than he has been a professional musician.

"Eclectic" is as good a word as any to describe a man who has run with the bulls at Pamplona, been a race-car driver and press photographer, snared his first Broadway role at age 13, was co-director of a major art gallery in Manhattan, and won a "Twist" contest in Harlem with Valerie Harper in the early ‘60s. It sounds as if his life would make a fascinating biography, right? It’s in the works — if only he’d slow down enough that it could be finished.


 
     

Their passion was modern art, a much maligned and misunderstood genre, especially at that time. They wrote about art and they amassed a world-class collection of Twentieth Century masterpieces, including major examples of Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Pollock, Leger, Kandinsky, Matisse, Dali and others. It was just a step from there to establishing the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan, which for decades was one of the most respected in the world.

The French Government awarded Sidney the "Commander of Honor" for what he did in popularizing French modern art. In 1966, Conrad’s father gave the entire Sidney and Harriet Janis collection to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City — 109 paintings, the largest gift MOMA ever received..

It is possible that if it were not for art, Conrad would never have learned jazz.


Conrad grew up on Central Park West in Manhattan. Except for the fourth grade in Public School 6, he attended Walden and the Little Red School House. They were both excellent private schools, he concedes, "but I didn’t learn anything. However, they put on a lot of plays. I had a pretty good voice and always got the lead. But, from about the third grade on, my greatest ambition was to get out of school."

One of his classmates, Roger Boxill, was already appearing on Broadway in "Lady in the Dark." One day, Roger said to Conrad, "Hey, I’m going to audition for ‘Junior Miss’ at the Lyceum Theater. Why don’t you come along?’‘

Conrad recalls, "I had seen the play and I thought it would be fun to get a look backstage."

When they arrived, the audition line already stretched out the stage door and several blocks up the street — maybe 400, 500 professional actors. Roger and Conrad seemed to be the youngest. "They took us through in groups of six. After an hour, we got our turn. The legendary director, Moss Hart, told us to ‘move up stage.’ That means to go to the back, but I didn’t know that. I went forward and stood there alone. He laughed, but he must have remembered me because I was one of only 30 who were handed sides (scripts) and told to come back next week to ‘read’ for a part. I got it ""At age 13, I was on Broadway. And I had left school for good. I enrolled in a Child Actor’s correspondence school, but I never did any of the lessons."

On the other hand, now that he didn’t have to, he became an avid reader and devoured anything he could get his hands on, from Hemingway to Faulkner, from Joyce to Freud. He hasn’t stopped since.

In 1942, after its successful Broadway run, "Junior Miss" went on to do more than 700 performances on the road. Being a minor, Conrad was accompanied by Hansi.

"My mother loved to travel," Conrad says. "She had friends everywhere. While I was busy doing the show, she was visiting museums, art clubs, lectures, and modern art collectors throughout the U.S.

It was her infectious zest for life, culture and the avant garde that led Harriet to the San Francisco Art Museum, where she discovered jazz!

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Sidney Janis dancing with Grace McCann
 
    Conrad’s father, Sidney, who had been a dapper vaudeville hoofer at age 17, reluctantly gave up his dancing shoes to become a very successful Manhattan shirt manufacturer. He prospered in the Depression of the ‘30s because (1) he didn’t believe in playing the stock market, and (2) he made a two-pocket dress shirt that could be sold for $1; Macy’s and Gimbel’s gobbled them up.  


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Email: flamingo@conradjanis.com
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