The Influence of New Orleans Musicians on Classic Jazz
The Influence of New Orleans Musicians on Classic Jazz
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the influence of New Orleans musicians on classic jazz. It notes that New Orleans has long been considered as the source of jazz, and the city's deep musical roots remain important until today. This chapter also discusses the lore of New Orleans and the people who keep it alive. It includes an outline of some important venues that played a significant role in the development of jazz, and introduces Oscar “Papa” Celestin, a popular New Orleans trumpet star and bandleader.
The city of New Orleans has long been recognized as the birthplace of jazz. Although some pundits would challenge that claim, it cannot be disputed that great numbers of jazz musicians have emerged from the Crescent City since the final decade of the nineteenth century. The Mississippi River was a two-way conduit, bringing the component elements to New Orleans and transporting the city's music to northern riverports. The city's deep musical roots remain vital today, partly because the music itself has such power but also because many people have worked to preserve that heritage. The articles in this chapter celebrate the lore of old New Orleans and the people who keep it alive.
The Jazz Journey—From Lulu White's Mahogany Hall to Carnegie Hall
A casual exploration back through jazz's fascinating history would lead us along a trail of colorful locales. Along the way, we might visit these important venues:
1944: Minton's Playhouse, New York City (the bop experiments of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, etc.).
1935: The Palomar Ballroom, Los Angeles (Benny Goodman sets the pace for the swing era that followed).
1932: Chicago's Grand Terrace (where Earl Hines' nightly broadcasts excited nationwide listeners).
1927: The Cotton Club, Harlem (the tremendous impact of the Duke Ellington Orchestra).
1922: The Lincoln Gardens, Chicago's Southside (the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band with young Louis Armstrong).
1917: Reisenweber's Cafe, New York City (where the Original Dixieland Jazz Band introduced a new music to the world).
1899: Sedalia, Missouri (Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” started a craze that has influenced popular music for almost a century).
Our retrospective trek would inevitably lead to the prime source: New Orleans; the infamous Storyville section; and Lulu White's Mahogany Hall.
(p.179) Mahogany Hall was an imposing three-story structure built from rough-hewn granite blocks. It stood at 335 Basin Street near Iberville, just a block away from Tom Anderson's landmark saloon, the first barroom illuminated by electricity in the country. Anderson's publication, the Blue Book, became the essential pleasure guide of the Storyville district. It listed each sporting house, with descriptions of the lavish interiors and lewd photos, addresses, and phone numbers of the individual whores. The yearly Blue Book was the most erotic public directory of prostitution ever printed in the United States.
According to the Blue Book, “Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, aside from the handsome women, possesses some of the most costly paintings in the South.” The city's most famous bordello was housed beneath castle-like turrets. It faced the Mississippi River, approximately a half-mile from the Canal Street ferry landing. “Lulu White's parlor had mirrors that cost $30,000,” Jelly Roll Morton recalled during his Library of Congress interview with curator Alan Lomax.
Historian Danny Barker told me, “The place was all colored lights and mirrors—lots of mirrors—some even on the floor where the girls danced. You talk about miniskirts—their dresses were up to here. They wore lace stockings and big garters and not much else. Each girl kept a bill inside her stocking way up by her thigh. The denomination of the bill was the girl's price. Some had $2 bills, some $5. Occasionally you'd spot a ten—not often.”
The famed New Orleans composer Spencer Williams was born in Mahogany Hall, the most glittering of all the Basin Street mansions. His mother, Bessie Williams, was Lulu White's sister and one of the “entertainers” at the hall. His loving “aunts” helped raise him. Williams' classic compositions, “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “Basin Street Blues,” were musical tributes to his birthplace.
Early jazz musicians found Storyville a lucrative area. Most of the barrelhouses and gin mills employed piano players, known as “professors,” to entertain their patrons. Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton frequently played for sex dances in Lulu White's glittering, mirrored parlor on Basin Street. Proprietors of Storyville bordellos generally preferred using solo performers over bands, but Lulu White was one notable exception. The beautiful octaroon madam occasionally had bands playing for special occasions such as Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve. They performed in her adjacent corner saloon and in the hall's brilliantly decorated parlor. Kid Ory (who usually avoided revealing details of his early life in New Orleans) told me he played a (p.180) band gig for Lulu White as a very young man. When he came to New Orleans from his birthplace, Woodland Plantation, this was one of his band's first jobs.
Mahogany Hall was just one of Storyville's many jazz venues. Around the corner, in a wooden structure on Bienville Street, Jimmie Noone and Buddy Petit entertained patrons at Frank Early's cabaret in the block behind Tom Anderson's Cafe. Lorenzo Tio, Jr., played clarinet with cornetists Freddie Keppard and King Oliver at the “Big 25” on Franklin Street. John the Greek's, across the street, was an early venue for Buddy Bolden's band. Papa Mutt Carey began his career nearby at the 101 Ranch. Oscar Celestin held forth from 8 P.M. until 4 A.M. the next morning at the popular Tuxedo, also on Franklin Street. Kid Ory's Brownskin Babies worked in the next block at Pete Lala's Cafe.
The action continued in the dance halls, saloons, and cafes where bands played nightly—the Primrose Orchestra, Jack Carey's band, and the Magnolia Sweets, to name just a few. In his book I Remember Jazz (Louisiana State University Press, 1987), historian Al Rose lists the names of more than two hundred musicians who worked in Storyville between 1898 and 1917.
The city of New Orleans scorned the presence of the “immoral” music. An editorial in a local paper, circa 1917, condemned jazz as “a musical vice.” Decrying the fact that New Orleans was the birthplace of the “despicable style,” the editorial urged: “We should suppress it! Its musical value is nil—its possibilities of harm are great! The music and the musicians are not acceptable!”
The tenderloin district flourished until 1917, when the navy closed it permanently in an overly protective gesture to “protect the health of the young servicemen in the area.” The gilded palaces of sin were shut-tered, and the ladies who worked there quickly transferred their activities to other parts of the city.
The city finally demolished Mahogany Hall in 1950, when the entire block was razed to create space for a department store warehouse. The New Orleans Jazz Club managed to save the huge marble cornerstone bearing the carved inscription, LULU WHITE; it is now exhibited at the Louisiana State Museum at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. During the demolition, Dr. Edmond Souchon salvaged some wallpaper from Lulu White's parlor and sent me a small piece.
Unfortunately, jazz has never completely lost the stigmatic image of its sinful past. While Storyville nurtured the developing music, it also branded it with an unholy connotation that endured for decades.
(p.181) Jazz nearly died in the Crescent City until the 1940s, when the music was accorded worldwide acceptance as a respectable “art form.” The musicians who remained there, then middle-aged, also became “acceptable.” Although many were past their prime musically, they rapidly were revered as sources of pride rather than shame.
In the early 1960s, the same newspaper that years before urged the suppression of “despicable jazz” editorially praised the New Orleans Jazz Museum, referring to it as “a significant addition to the cultural heritage of the city.”
The many healthy influences contributing to jazz's maturation have gradually diminished its stigmatic aura. The younger players are armed with educations at noted music conservatories. They have elevated jazz's image and extended their musicianship beyond the self-taught skills of the seminal heroes that preceded them.
Having survived the perilous journey from Lulu White's Mahogany Hall to Carnegie Hall, this American phenomenon has finally outlived its early blemishes and is universally recognized as our nation's true classical music.
Papa Celestin and the Voodoo Queen
Almost half a century ago, I pledged not to divulge this extraordinary story. Since none of the participants are still alive, the time has come to reveal it.
It happened around midnight one evening in March 1951. Lucille and I were seated at a front table in our usual Los Angeles haunt, the Beverly Cavern, enjoying Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band. The Cavern's bandstand faced the entrance. During the last song of a late set, the musicians began making eye contact with one another and nodding excitedly toward the door. Someone very special apparently had entered the club. We turned around and watched a smiling black gentleman approach the stand. When the music stopped, Ory and his sidemen leaped off the stage to greet their visitor. We soon learned that the unannounced guest was none other than celebrated New Orleans trumpet star and bandleader Oscar “Papa” Celestin (pronounced “cell-is-stan”).
His smile broadened as he climbed on the stage. “I did not come to play,” he said. “I am on my way to Oakland to visit relatives. I just wanted to greet my old friend Kid Ory for the first time since he left (p.182)
We watched the ecstatic bandstand reunion continue for the next ten minutes. Not realizing it was intermission time, Celestin picked up Andrew Blakeney's trumpet and declared, “How about playing something?” Turning to Ory, who looked surprised, he said, “Let's play ‘Basin Street,’” and he tapped off the starting tempo. The band followed him, and Celestin took an extended solo. At sixty-seven, he still played with great vigor, blowing strong arched phrases tinged with vigorous emotional bursts. After singing the verse and two choruses, he played another long rousing solo and concluded the number. The Cavern shook with applause.
Ory looked disturbed. As he reached for the microphone, Celestin grabbed it and announced: “I'd like to play for you all night, but I'm gettin' kinda tired and I've got to get up in the morning and catch a train. I want to leave you with a number I play every night in New Orleans.”
(p.183) He began a lengthy unaccompanied solo on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The room fell silent as the audience fell under the tender hymn's spell. Gaining intensity after a few choruses, Celestin's muted tones gradually heated. With his eyes closed and his horn tilted toward the ceiling, he ended the third, thrilling chorus on a clear sustained note. Then, nodding to pianist Buster Wilson, who gracefully picked up the accompaniment, the aged trumpet king passionately sang the next twenty-four bars before signaling for the final chord. After a few moments of silence, the thrilled patrons roared their approval.
Beverly Cavern owner Rose Stanman, sensing a blockbuster booking, asked Celestin to return the following week as special guest star. He agreed, and she quickly hung a huge banner outside that read: “COMING NEXT WEEK—NEW ORLEANS GREAT—‘PAPA’ CELESTIN WITH KID ORY'S CREOLE JAZZ BAND—NO COVER—NO ADMISSION.”
We were at our usual table the following week. Celestin strolled in ahead of the others and climbed onto the bandstand. We watched him remove his trumpet from a well-worn case, insert the mouthpiece, and carefully place the horn, a dented mute, and an equally dented metal derby on a small standard. He opened a carton, removed a stack of LPs, and piled them next to the trumpet stand. He was ready for business. Then, stepping off the stage, he sat in an empty chair at our table, extended a hand, he said, “It's nice to see you. My name is Celestin.”
I shook his large, soft hand and praised his brief performance the week before. He cheerfully accepted an invitation to be a guest on my radio program, Jazz on Parade, and we chatted amiably until the rest of the band arrived.
Every seat was filled. The band sounded wonderful with the added horn; Andrew Blakeney gracefully blended a second trumpet part that greatly enhanced the ensemble strength. Celestin managed to maneuver every number into a feature spot and completely dominated each set. It soon became apparent that Kid Ory was not comfortable sharing the stage with the dynamic trumpet player, who was accustomed to being in charge.
The guest star attracted full houses throughout the week and delighted every audience. Few of the patrons had heard of the musician previously, but I am sure they never forgot him. However, Ory's displeasure increased as his fellow New Orleanian monopolized the spotlight with his vocal and instrumental mastery. He received requests every night to repeat “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” During the intermissions, he moved to our table to sell his LPs and happily autographed (p.184) them for the fans. Between sales we planned the format of the forthcoming radio program, and I enjoyed several conversations with the legendary New Orleans jazzman.
Despite his visible annoyance with the situation, Kid Ory never sounded better. Stirred by a strong competitive spirit, he made his tailgate slurs into torrid slashing responses to Papa Celestin's impassioned muted horn. The crowd acknowledged each number with roaring applause while guitarist Bud Scott shouted approval, Celestin grinned—and Ory frowned. By the end of the week, conditions had deteriorated considerably. Listeners were aware they were hearing something very special; they also sensed Ory's hostility. His guest trumpeter blithely assumed the starring role, obviously with great enjoyment.
Kid Ory's anger reached a boiling point on the final night of Celestin's engagement. Throughout the evening the trumpet star was extremely ebullient. The closing number, his nightly reprise of “Closer Walk,” became the highlight of the week. This time, he climbed off the stand to wander among the audience, blowing whispered notes into happy patrons' ears. On the stage, clarinetist Joe Darensbourg blew mellow low register harmony while the rhythm section churned softly. The applause did not abate until Celestin played two encore choruses—while Ory glowered.
The musicians left the stand and went into a small room next to the kitchen to pack their instruments. Lucille and I remained in the club with several fans, discussing the thrilling musical experience we had just shared. Some very disturbing sounds came from the kitchen area. We heard loud shouts, some cursing, and a clatter of breaking dishes. Soon a highly agitated Kid Ory stormed from the back room carrying his trombone case. He dashed through the club and out the front door.
Celestin appeared on my radio show the following night, and I asked him about the turmoil at the Cavern. “I'll tell you later,” he said.
The old trumpet master was an ideal guest. Responsive and glib, he offered insightful fragments of jazz history. He was born January 1, 1884, on a plantation near Napoleonville, not far from New Orleans, and claimed to be the oldest New Orleans jazz musician still plying his trade. Other than a leg injury sustained in an automobile accident several years earlier and a slight hearing loss, he seemed in good health.
As the program evolved, I began to notice a striking similarity between Celestin and his contemporary, Jelly Roll Morton. His sharp memory, lack of modesty, and deep melodic voice tinged with a Southern (p.185) drawl all called to mind the late piano legend. At one point I thought: this could be Jelly himself sharing the microphone with me.
The interview was generously sprinkled with anecdotes about Tuxedo Hall, Judge Fogarty, Storyville, Frankie Duson, Lake Pontchartrain, Manuel Perez, Mardi Gras, George Baquet, Basin Street, and Freddie Keppard—all pivotal chapters in the Crescent City saga. He had begun his career at historic Tuxedo Hall back in 1910, in a band that included trombonist George Filhe (who later joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago), Alphonse Picou and Lorenzo Tio, Sr., on clarinets, and Peter Bocage and Celestin on trumpets. The band remained a fixture there until the manager, Harry Parker, was killed in a shooting brawl. Tuxedo Hall closed its doors permanently, but Celestin continued to call his band the Original Tuxedo Orchestra throughout his career, and he used the name for another group (the Tuxedo Brass Band) he founded in 1911. The collective personnel of the latter group reads like a who's who of New Orleans jazz.
Papa remembered old Judge Fogarty, the nemesis of New Orleans' lawbreakers. Fogarty, an imposing figure on the bench, applied a firm hand to those who strayed. A typical court exchange, Celestin said, might go like this:
“What have you got to say for yourself, prisoner?” “Well, Judge, I …”
“Thirty days! Take'im away!”
“And off to the city jail he would go,” Celestin laughed. “Incidentally, the condemned man had better not glance back. If he did, Fogarty would exclaim, ‘Ten dollars additional!’”
Celestin also shared memories of trombonist Jack Carey, a brother of Mutt Carey. The pioneer jazzman won quite a following around the turn of the century for his spirited playing of “Tiger Rag.” Carey was so closely associated with the controversial tune that fans called it “Jack Carey” and replaced the familiar “Hold that tiger” strain with the words: “Oh, Jack Carey!” Celestin had never heard Buddy Bolden, but he had certainly heard the legends regarding Bolden's powerful horn. “Folks said they could hear his horn for a distance of twelve city blocks,” he said, adding: “Of course, Floyd, in New Orleans our blocks are much shorter than those you have here.” Without waiting for a question, he continued:
I remember back in New Orleans around 1909 or 1910, when Kid Ory's band and my band would meet down on Sixth and Howard Streets, I think (p.186) it was. We'd be in wagons, like they used to move furniture. Well, my band would play and his band would play—and we'd try to drown each other out in a fight to see which was best. We'd play maybe two or three hours, fightin' each other—and then we'd go to a saloon, have a few shots, and we'd all be friends.
When the program ended, I repeated my query about the previous night's fracas at the Beverly Cavern. Again, he evaded the question. Perhaps, aware of my close relationship with Kid Ory, he thought it best to avoid the subject. I wondered if I would ever hear details of the incident.
Less than a week after Papa returned to New Orleans, a long letter arrived from him. He wrote, in part
I enjoyed being in your company and with Mrs. Floyd. I will never forget your friendliness, making me feel at home, and welcomed in your house.
As for Kid Ory, I am disturbed and displeased with his actions the last night I was in the Beverly Cavern. He wanted to kill me! Such a man does not deserve the cooperation of you and your friends. He tried to get to me with—not one—but two long kitchen knives to stab me. That made me feel sick! That man should be shot!
When I showed the letter to bassist Ed Garland, he admitted to witnessing the episode Celestin described. The rest of the players had left, and Garland watched in horror while the two jazz patriarchs engaged in their horrible dispute. He asked me not to divulge the details of the affair. Until now, that request has been honored.
I visited Celestin later during a trip to New Orleans. He was playing at the Paddock Bar on Bourbon Street. Clarinetist Alphonse Picou, a veteran of the Original Tuxedo Orchestra, still played at his side. The two jazzmen had met shortly after the turn of the century while playing at Madame Lulu White's bordello on Basin Street.
Papa Celestin died December 15, 1954, a few hours before a sculpture of him was scheduled for presentation at a civil ceremony in his honor. His funeral, one of the largest in New Orleans history, was led by the Eureka Brass Band, followed by his own Tuxedo Brass Band. The procession included a dozen funeral limousines, thirty private cars, and thousands of walkers. The two bands played “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” repeatedly as the parade wound its way through the French Quarter. Newsreel footage of the drama was seen in theaters throughout the world.
The great trumpeter took many memories of jazz's birthplace with him. But he created at least as many memories for the fans who saw (p.187) him play. I appreciate the opportunity to have known this great man. His priceless letters, photographs, and greeting cards are among the most prized mementos of my involvement with the musicians who created classic jazz.
Papa Celestin recited this interesting New Orleans voodoo tale on my radio program in 1951:
- There lived a conjure-lady, not long ago,
- In New Orleans, Louisiana—named Marie Laveau.
- She made a fortune selling voodoo and interpreting dreams.
- She was known throughout the nation as The Voodoo Queen.
- Folks came to her from miles and miles around, She showed them how to “put that voodoo down,”
- To the voodoo lady they would go—rich, educated, ignorant, and poor. She'd snap her fingers and shake her head,
- Then tell 'em ‘bout their lovers—livin’ or dead.
- An old, old lady named Widow Brown,
- She asked why her lover stopped comin' around. The Voodoo gazed at her and squalled,
- “I seen him kissin' a young girl up in Shakespeare's Hall,✽
- Standin' near an oak tree in the dark.”
- Poor Marie Laveau,
- Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen,
- Way down yonder in New Orleans.
- Marie Laveau helped them in her hand,†
- New Orleans was her promised land,
- Quality folks came from far and near,
- This wonder woman for to hear.
- (p.188) They were 'fraid to be seen at her gate,
- And would creep through the dark to hear their fate.
- Holdin' dark veils over their head,
- They would tremble to hear what Marie Laveau said.
- Poor Marie Laveau, Marie Laveau,
- The Voodoo Queen from New Orleans.
- She made grisgris✝✝ with an old ram horn,
- Stuffed with feathers and shucks from a corn.
- A big black cat urn and catfish fin,§
- Made a man get religion and give up his sin.
- Poor Marie Laveau,
- Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen,
- She got rich on voodoo in New Orleans.
- Sad news got out one mornin' at the dawn of day,
- Marie Laveau had passed away.
- In St. Louis' Cemetery she lays in her tomb,
- She was buried at night on the waste of the moon.
- Poor Marie Laveau, Oh, Marie Laveau.
- The folks STILL believe in The Voodoo Queen, ‘Way down yonder in New Orleans.’”
The mystic tale, laced with curious jargon, spurred my curiosity, and I decided to do some further investigation of the Marie Laveau story.
To clarify a few of the obscure references, I enlisted assistance from the late Dr. Edmond Souchon, a prominent New Orleans physician, who divided his time between medicine and the New Orleans Jazz Club. He gladly added many details to this story.
Catholicism was the principal religion of most seminal New Orleans jazzmen, but voodoo rituals and superstitions, inherited from slave ancestors, often played a secondary spiritual role in their lives. Jazz discographies list scores of early voodoo-themed tunes, including “Voodoo!,” “Voo Doo Blues,” “Witchcraft Blues,” “Mojo Blues,” and “Black Cat Blues.” Jelly Roll Morton's 1928 Red Hot Peppers recording of “Boogaboo” expresses a sinister ritualistic theme. Morton, during his final years, believed a witch's curse from years before had caused his declining health.
Souchon and Celestin both told me the voodoo cult still flourished in New Orleans as practiced, perhaps, by ancestors of the infamous (p.189) Marie Laveau. Yes, Marie was a real person. She lived and died before the turn of the century, dispensing voodoo lore until her death on June 16, 1881. Her mixed ancestry included black, white, and Indian blood, resulting in an exotic appearance that added to her allure and helped her attract followers.
The illegitimate daughter of Charles Laveau, she was born before the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. She married Jacques Paris in New Orleans on August 4, 1819. Paris died shortly after the marriage, and, according to Southern tradition, Marie became known as “The Widow Paris”—even after her common law marriage to Captain Christophe Glapion, who served with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812.
The mystical queen bore fifteen children by Glapion, and great-grandchildren of that union live in New Orleans today. Perhaps, as Doc Souchon suggested, some are still practicing Queen Marie's voodoo rites, using potent powders and grisgris to protect them from “Papa La Bas”—the Devil.
Madame Laveau ruled a vast voodoo empire from her home in the Vieux Carré. The Paris cottage was situated close to famous Congo Square, where slaves danced every Sunday afternoon while their owners watched with avid amusement. Dressed in colorful robes, she told fortunes, sold grisgris, and dispensed love powders to aid in affaires d'amour. Her restored cottage still stands on St. Ann Street between North Rampart and Burgundy Streets.
At nearby Milneburg, Marie Laveau's Maison Blanche was the setting for sordid activity. Here, for an appropriate charge, rich white merchants enjoyed the services of beautiful quadroon girls while Marie looked on. When whites were not present, the house became a weird stage on which orgiastic voodoo rites were performed, often accompanied by groups of New Orleans musicians. The Queen, wearing the ever-present “tignon” (a seven-cornered headpiece), led her followers in rites that included the drinking of warm blood from an animal sacrificed for the occasion. Boiling cauldrons, into which live black cats were tossed, added to the aberrant scene. Burning torches cast grotesque shadows that swayed to the maddening rhythm of tomtoms (usually oil cans covered with animal skin, beat with the leg bone of a large turkey). Naked bodies, dripping with perspiration, pulsated with undulating motion. Whiskey and rum in generous quantities added impetus to the shuffling feet and volume to the fetish songs. The rituals usually ended with the dawn, when the exhausted followers collapsed (p.190) in pairs. Their sensual heap of writhing flesh, lost in the throes of voodoo abandon, reflected the dominance of the Voodoo Queen.
Similar ceremonial movements inspired dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham, who conducted ethnic dance research in Haiti during the '60s. She very successfully incorporated voodoo imagery in her touring ballets with West Indian dancers and jazz musicians.
Fearful, dramatic voodoo rites are still enacted in New Orleans and other major American cities. Yes, the folks still believe in The Voodoo Queen, 'way down yonder in New Orleans.
Danny Barker—The Jazz Troubadour
At the 1969 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in a corner of Beauregarde Square, a group of young black musicians crowded around a slight man wearing a striped blazer and a yellow straw hat. The kids clutched their battered and tarnished horns and listened attentively as their mentor readied them for their entrance into the square. “Let's get that beat goin',” he said. “We won't start playin' until we get their attention with that beat. Now, with the bass drum, let's go … boom, boom, boom, boom! That's right, start marchin' …. keep that beat goin'! Keep that beat goin'!”
With the thumping bass drum setting the cadence, the group of smiling youngsters strutted into the square preceded by the great Danny Barker. An expansive grin reflected his approval as the young musicians, marching under a banner marked “Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band,” moved through the crowd. On his signal they broke into a spirited “Bourbon Street Parade,” leading a flock of teenage second-liners through the paths of the old commons, on the same ground that shook a hundred years earlier beneath the pounding feet of African slaves.
Then sixty-two years old, Barker had spent many illustrious years playing banjo in Cab Calloway's swing orchestra alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Jonah Jones, Chu Berry, Keg Johnson, Milt Hinton, and other great sidemen. He had played on monumental recordings with some of the finest jazzmen of his time. His songwriting credits included “Save the Bones for Henry Jones (‘Cause Henry Don't Eat No Meat),” made famous by Johnny Mercer and Nat “King” Cole, along with most of the fine blues tunes recorded by his talented wife, Blue Lu (p.191)
Barker loved his city and the music identified with it. The booming bass drum sounds that filled Beauregarde Square that afternoon in June 1969 were his pronouncement to the world that jazz was young again, and the youth of the Crescent City would keep it alive and swinging for future generations to enjoy.
Danny Barker was born into a family of fine musicians. His grandfather played with Bunk Johnson in the old Onward Brass Band, and his uncle, Paul Barbarin, was one of New Orleans' finest drummers. Barker could remember hearing Joe Oliver in Manuel Perez's Imperial Band and Sidney Bechet, then seventeen, playing clarinet with the Young Olympia Band. He also recalled hearing the Tuxedo Brass Band, Sam Morgan, Chris Kelly, and the legendary drummer Black (p.192) Benny. And he knew tidbits that brought the New Orleans jazz scene to life in vivid detail. Speaking of one local character, Barker said:
He was called “Joe Never Smile,” because he always had a grim expression on his face. Joe drove a team of horses that pulled the casket wagon at funerals. For an extra fee, he could arrange for the horses to cry during the procession—he squeezed onion juice in their eyes.
When I was very young, I heard clarinet pioneer Alphonse Picou talking about a Negro symphony orchestra in New Orleans early in the 1890s. Historians have conveniently overlooked this cultural aspect of my heritage.
It's a shame that the early jazz stars were never recorded. They were recording Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa at the time—but no one was interested in musicians like Buddy Bolden, Chris Kelly, Manuel Perez, and Buddy Petit. Some of the best early jazz players, like Kid Rena and “Big Eye” Louis Nelson, didn't record until long after their prime.
The older people in New Orleans always talked about the great Buddy Bolden. They said his trumpet could be heard from Lincoln Park to downtown—over seven miles away. That legend, if true, can be attributed to the caliber of Bolden's blowing—and the area's swampy acoustics.
Barker also remembered the Boozan Kings, his childhood street band; one-nighters with Jelly Roll Morton; and a Broadway theater appearance with Mae West. He achieved fame and success, but he never forgot the arduous travel, the dingy hotels, or the heartless strictures of segregation.
Barker rose to prominence as rhythm guitarist and banjo player with famous bands led by Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Benny Carter. He played on innumerable recordings in every jazz style, from brass band to bebop. The list of musicians he has recorded with spans the whole history of the genre: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Wingy Manone, Papa Mutt Carey, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Conrad Janis, and Wynton Marsalis.
In 1945 he recorded four songs with Sir Charles and His All-Stars, whose lineup included two young, unknown saxophonists. “They want a beat and big fat chords,” pianist Charles Thompson told Barker. “You can do that.” He did—and the recordings helped catapult Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon to stardom.
A fine songwriter as well, Barker penned the suggestively titled “Don't You Feel My Leg” for his wife, Blue Lu Barker, and recorded it with her in 1938. Radio stations refused to play the record because they considered the lyrics too raunchy: “Don't you feel my leg, 'Cause (p.193) if you feel my leg, You're gonna feel my thigh, And when you feel my thigh, You're gonna buy some rye, And if you buy some rye …” The song became a smash despite its lack of airplay; Decca Records even halted the pressing of Guy Lombardo records to meet the demand for Lu's big hit. “Don't You Feel My Leg” received a dramatic boost during a Harlem rally for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third-term campaign, Barker recalled:
About five hundred dignitaries were seated in a portable grandstand in front of a church at 137th Street and Seventh Avenue. I stood behind them, in a crowd of about a thousand, waiting for the president's arrival. We heard music in the distance. It grew louder. Soon a truck appeared. It slowly passed the church blasting Lu's record from a large speaker on its roof: “Don't you feel my leg. ‘Cause if you feel my leg …” I was embarrassed. Someone shouted, “Danny Barker wrote that—I just saw him over there!” That's when I split—I ran down an alley.
Danny and Blue Lu Barker came to California in the early 1950s for a brief stay. His first job was with Albert Nicholas' quartet at the St. Francis Room on Eighth Street. Danny and Nick, both from New Oreans and veterans of the Fifty-Second Street New York scene, worked compatibly with pianist Gideon Honoré and bassist Leonard Bibbs.
Barker approached his playing with a casual assurance, deftly accentuating the music and giving a fresh interpretation to timeworn lyrics. His personal imprint on tunes such as “Bill Bailey” and “Hard-Hearted Hannah” brought new life to those old standards, and his humor verged on pathos. He was an exceptional entertainer; when he sang his saloon songs, you could almost smell the sawdust on the floor.
Barker's last LP, the 1988 release Save the Bones (Orleans Records No. OR1018), captures him at his best. Producer Carlo Ditta very astutely provided an ideal forum for Barker's glib conversation and music, showcasing him in an intimate setting rarely heard on record. The LP features him alone with his Gibson guitar, playing with the same warmth he displayed whether entertaining in the living room of his little New Orleans home on Sere Street or on stage before thousands of fans. Not since 1938, when the great Jelly Roll Morton left a rich legacy on a series of Library of Congress recordings, had a New Orleans jazzman so eloquently expressed himself.
Barker was a man of many interests and skills. In addition to his musical, compositional, vocal, and storytelling talents, he possessed a fine artistic sensibility. He painted beautiful landscapes and portraits (p.194) exhibited in private art collections. Barker also was deeply concerned with the history of jazz; his two books included a trove of valuable material dredged from his seven decades as a musician.
Barker returned to his native New Orleans in 1965 and quickly assumed a role of leadership. With an eye toward the future of New Orleans jazz, he established the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band, a youth-oriented jazz workshop. Barker's energy and high ideals set a lofty example for his students. Under his loving guidance, scores of underprivileged black children received an opportunity to have fun and expand their experiences and skills. Using instruments collected from cellars and garages, Barker taught “his boys” to take pride in their heritage and to dare to succeed. Thanks to his encouragement and dedication, many youngsters eschewed street gangs for street parades. Many of today's successful New Orleans jazzmen are graduates of Barker's Fairview Baptist program.
With his abiding respect for the past and vast knowledge of jazz history, Barker was ideally qualified to serve as curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Although he spent almost forty years away from his New Orleans roots, he always retained a firm grasp on the Crescent City idiom and was extremely proud of having had thirty-eight relatives who played jazz in New Orleans. During his tenure in the early 1970s, the museum attained a lofty position in the archival world.
In 1991 the National Endowment for the Arts presented Danny Barker with the American Jazz Masters Fellowship and Lifetime Achievement Award. A few months later, the U.S. Postal Service issued a jazz cachet in his honor. And the City of New Orleans declared January 29, 1994, “Blue Lu and Danny Barker Day.” He was eighty-five years old when he died later that year.
I was unable to attend Danny's big, beautiful, noisy funeral. The procession included a band of more than forty musicians, six grand marshals, and a second line numbering in the hundreds. The parade was organized by Greg Stafford, trumpet player and graduate of Danny's Fairview Baptist Church band. Reading the reports in the New Orleans papers, I was reminded of Danny's unique version of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” which captured the song's essence as only Danny could:
- When I die, I want you to dress me in straight laced shoes,
- (Put my shoes on because I might have to run from the devil.)
- I want a box-back coat and a Stetson hat
- (Put my hat on, because the cinders might be falling.)
- (p.195) Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
- So all my (phoney, whiskey-head, reefer-head) friends
- Will know I passed away standing pat.
- I want sixteen snow white horses
- (No ponies, no jackasses—all horses.)
- Sixteen chorus girls from the Apollo
- To sing and dance me a song.
- Put a jazz band on top of my casket
- To blow the “Memphis Blues” as they slowly stroll along.
At his last Los Angeles appearance, in the Hollywood Bowl in 1990, Danny Barker strode to the microphone and said: “I'm brave! I've gone through the Depression, six recessions, two World Wars, and forty years in New York's Harlem. I'm a genuine specimen of tragedy—but I'm brave. I'm gonna die standing up!” Actually, he died during his sleep on March 13, 1994. But, in the hearts of those who loved him, he still stands tall—as a jazz giant should.
Lorenzo Tio, Jr., and the Clarinetists of the Crescent City
THE DYNASTY OF LORENZO TIO, JR.
Louis Cottrell, Jr.
The music ended. I carefully lifted the fragile Okeh disc, holding a priceless link with the formative era of jazz. Consider the title, (p.196) “Lou'siana Swing.” The tune was recorded in 1924—four years before Jelly Roll Morton first employed the verb-noun “swing” (on his 1928 recording, “Georgia Swing”) and eight years before Duke Ellington firmly established the word in our musical vocabulary with his monumental “It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing.” Less than a decade after that profound pronouncement, we were deeply involved in the swing era—which, ironically, caused a temporary lull in New Orleans jazz's popularity.
The room was still ringing with sounds recorded three quarters of a century earlier. The spectral musicians included Peter Bocage on trumpet; John Lindsay on trombone; Louis Cottrell, Sr., on the drums; and the peerless New Orleans clarinetist Lorenzo Tio, Jr. This is one of the few recordings of Tio's classic French woodwind sound, which influenced scores of reed players. Tio was an active working musician, playing in the leading bands and orchestras of New Orleans, but he had his greatest impact as a clarinet teacher. His students are among the exalted heroes of jazz. They, in turn, influenced hundreds of younger musicians. As a result, the systemic influence of Lorenzo Tio, Jr., can be traced through much of jazz's history.
He was born in New Orleans in 1884. His father, Lorenzo Tio, Sr., and uncle, Luis “Papa” Tio, migrated from Mexico in 1881. They, too, were famous clarinetists, playing in the Excelsior Brass Band and in various Storyville saloons before the turn of the century. The earliest trace of Lorenzo Jr.'s activities dates to 1897, when, at the age of thirteen, his name appeared on the roster of musicians performing in the New Orleans Lyre Symphony. Later, he joined the Eagle Band, formed in 1911 by Frankie Dusen. That early group included three other promising youngsters—Sidney Bechet, “Big Eye” Louis Nelson, and the legendary Freddie Keppard.
Tio, Jr., followed his father and uncle into the Excelsior Band in 1914. He also played in New Orleans groups led by Oscar Celestin, Manuel Perez, Joe Oliver, and A. J. Piron, with whom he made his only recordings. Tio worked with Perez as early as 1915 in one of the first jazz bands to play a regular dance job in Chicago. A few years later, New York audiences heard him with the Piron orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom.
To a neophyte, the clarinet, seemingly of minor importance in a jazz combo, is subservient to the brassy sounds of trumpet and trombone. But seasoned fans recognize the small woodwind's significance in a traditional (p.197) jazz band's front line. When skillfully blown, it can accentuate the true flavor of the music—like filé powder spices a gumbo. It can be low and mellow, or it can soar into high cascades of flowing brilliance and explode with a fusillade of spiraling sparks. In its middle register, the horn produces sensuous slurs and swooping dives. The clarinetist can weave a musical thread that merges with the brass instruments and binds them into a unified musical fabric.
The precursor of the clarinet was first used in orchestras three centuries ago. Its name, surprisingly, came from a trumpet. In the seventeenth century, brass sections in European orchestras usually had three different trumpets, each with a particular register. When the clarinet was introduced, it had the same tonal quality of the highest-pitched trumpet, the clarino. The new horn was called the “little clarino,” or clarinette.
Over the years, the clarinet has appeared in a wider range of sizes and pitches than any other instrument. Most of those models have fallen into oblivion. We usually hear the B-flat horn today, but New Orleans brass bands favor the harsher E-flat clarinet, which is better suited for cutting through the heavy brass in the large street bands.
The Boehm system of fingering now in use was adapted from a flute method to facilitate faster playing, but many older New Orleans musicians preferred the earlier Albert system, which was easier to play and produced a mellower tone.
The clarinet is usually a hollow tube of ebony wood (metal horns are also used). The wooden horn has five separate close-fitting parts with thirteen keys and twenty side holes. Scores of tiny springs often malfunction; keypads become waterlogged; and a vibrating reed must be in perfect condition to produce a proper tone. Adding to the challenge, the clarinet requires different fingering in the upper register than its lower range. An agile player can fluidly span about three octaves on this demanding instrument.
The horn is deeply rooted in the history of jazz. Faded tintypes of the celebrated Buddy Bolden band, taken before 1895, show a pair of clarinetists—Frank Lewis and Willie Warner—proudly holding their Albert system horns.
The instrument figured prominently in the early popularity of jazz when the New Orleans bands moved north. They brought with them a wealth of talented reedmen that inspired generations of future clarinetists. Their young followers would eventually spawn the swing era (p.198) and included such artists as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Buster Bailey, Joe Marsala, Clarence Hutchinrider, Peanuts Hucko, Matty Matlock, Irving Fazola, Jimmy Hamilton, and Sol Yaged.
In the mid-1940s, saxophones temporarily replaced clarinets as the preferred reed instrument among the bebop set. However, a few modern stylists still made effective use of the “blackstick,” including Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Giuffre, and Tony Scott. Although most modernists eschew the clarinet, its vintage sound permeates the classic jazz scene. Today the horn is played by such contemporary greats as Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern, Chuck Hedges, Bob Reitmeier, Antti Sarpila, Abe Most, Rick Fay, Ken Peplowski, Bob Draga, Evan Christopher, Mahlon Clark, Dan Levinson, Alan Vaché, Jacques Gauthé, Claude Luter, Brian White, Maxim Saury, Pete Fountain, and Bobby Gordon. Nearly all of these players have inherited, directly or indirectly, the wisdom of Lorenzo Tio, Jr.
During his long teaching career, Tio skillfully molded the talents of many of the great New Orleans players who brought jazz to the public's attention. His illustrious students carved out an important role for the clarinet in small jazz bands and larger orchestras. While all of Tio's pupils retained a semblance of their teacher's flowing, rhythmic staccato style, each developed a personal, readily identifiable sound. Each combined technical virtuosity with imaginative approaches to improvisation. An aural examination of the music created by these fine reedmen can be extremely rewarding.
Johnny Dodds was the prototype for all jazz clarinetists and, aside from Tio, the most influential. Chicagoans heard Dodds' rich, robust tone and powerful attack in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band as far back as 1920 at the Lincoln Gardens. Among the nightly listeners was an impressionable young Benny Goodman, who frequently credited Dodds as his earliest inspiration. Goodman subsequently had his own following, continuing to pass down the gospel according to Tio and Dodds.
Emile Barnes was born in 1892, the same year as Dodds. His career, one of the longest in jazz, covered almost six decades. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to record in his prime. Unlike most of Lorenzo Tio's pupils, Barnes spent his best years in New Orleans, playing in small clubs and dance halls where he received little exposure. Historian-producer Bill Russell did make some recordings of Barnes when the clarinetist was well into his sixties. Even at that age, Barnes demonstrated the deeply moving, emotional quality of his playing.
(p.199) Jimmie Noone's tone was lighter, a bit more florid than Dodds' but typical of Tio's personal style. Noone's array of followers includes Buster Bailey, Joe Marsala, and fellow Tio trainees Barney Bigard and Albert Nicholas. The recordings he made during the late''20s with his Apex Club Orchestra in Chicago featured Earl Hines' piano and firmly established his reputation as one of jazzdom's all-time greats. The impassioned “I Know That You Know,” his first Vocalion record, still exemplifies a perfect tone, solid control, and beautiful articulation.
When Noone died in 1944 on the day he was to appear on the weekly Orson Welles Mercury Theater radio broadcast in Los Angeles, Wade Whaley joined the Kid Ory band for a dramatic tribute. Whaley, who also studied with Tio in New Orleans in 1916, worked with the leading Crescent City bands before following Ory to California and became a regular member of his Creole Jazz Band. When Ory made his historic Sunshine recordings in 1921, Whaley was out of the city and missed the opportunity to participate in that epic event.
Albert Nicholas, who played beautifully on Jelly Roll Morton's recording of “Blue Blood Blues” in 1930, came into prominence on Morton's last record dates for Victor a decade later. His flowery yet extremely assertive style retained the familiar Tio flavor and pleased audiences in Europe and the United States.
Omer Simeon was probably Morton's favorite clarinetist; he appears on most of Jelly's Red Hot Peppers classics. Touches of Noone and Nicholas are evident in Simeon's tones, a further indication of the strong thread that links all the clarinetists Tio tutored. Simeon added a traditional voice to the reed section of Earl Hines' and Jimmy Lunce-ford's orchestras when swing was the thing. Later, that authentic touch sparked small bands led by Kid Ory, Zutty Singleton, and the De Paris Brothers.
Albert Burbank displayed a sharp stylistic contrast from the others. While the subliminal Tio aura flowed beneath the surface, his singing tone had an earthier quality, a distillation of jazz's basic elements. Burbank's individual style was based on this pure residue—the true essence of New Orleans music. He influenced George Lewis and his myriad offollowers, including Dr. Michael White, the currently popular traditionalist in New Orleans.
Tio also tutored the Chicago musician Darnell Howard. Many years ago, Howard told me about his relationship with the great New Orleans teachers. To my knowledge, this segment of jazz history has not been previously documented.
It was about 1924. I was hired to play tenor saxophone and violin in a band led by a New Orleans musician, Charlie Elgar, who was working at the Dreamland Cafe. When we moved to the Wisconsin Roof Gardens in Milwaukee, Elgar sent for Lorenzo, who played with him in New Orleans before World War I. After he joined the band, we became buddies. He liked my violin playing and offered to show me how to make the same runs on a clarinet. I bought a used horn in a pawn shop and, for a year, we spent hours together each night after the job. He was a wonderful teacher.
This story accounts for Howard's distinctive New Orleans feeling, which collectors have long been at a loss to explain.
Barney Bigard was undoubtedly the most successful of Lorenzo Tio Jr.'s disciples. While serving as an apprentice in a cigar factory, Bigard and a cousin, Don Albert (Albert Dominique), visited Tio's house daily for music lessons. Albert, who became a very successful trumpeter and bandleader in the' 30s, spoke glowingly of Tio's skill teaching brass instruments in addition to reeds. Barney Bigard added, “Old man Tio would not let us blow our horns until we had mastered the rudiments of harmony. He insisted we learn to read music first.”
Wellman Braud, the eminent New Orleans bassist, preceded Bigard in Duke Ellington's orchestra. When Ellington expanded the group for its debut at the Cotton Club in 1927, Braud suggested he hire Bigard. The clarinetist joined the band at the end of the year, and for the next fourteen years Bigard's Tio-tinged Creole horn provided the distinctive timbre that helped establish a worldwide reputation for the Ellington orchestra. His tenure with the Duke defined both of their careers; the productive liaison unleashed Ellington's inherent arranging skills and nurtured Bigard's astonishing style. The fantastic sweep and torrential majesty of those long glissandi on scores of the Duke's recordings remain quintessential definitions of jazz clarinet. Bigard's trademarks, the gliding flights up and down the chromatic scale, are reminders of his graceful agility. His firm imprint on the Ellington sound continued through the years, as each successor mirrored the patterns he developed.
Louis Cottrell, Jr., the last of Tio's students, led his own band until he died in 1978. (His father, Louis Cottrell, Sr., was the drummer on the A. J. Piron record that triggered this nostalgic flow.) I can still see his smiling face as he stood in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral next to the towering statue of Andrew Jackson on July 4, 1976—Louis (p.201) Armstrong's birthday and the bicentennial of the nation. On that day we unveiled the long-awaited Louis Armstrong statue (see Chapter 8). Cottrell's soaring clarinet filled Jackson Square with a verve that would have pleased Professor Tio. As the television cameras recorded the unveiling of the new bronze figure of Satchmo, Cottrell's band and Danny Barker's Jazz Hounds played a joyous “Happy Birthday.”
It is interesting to note that six of Tio's pupils—Dodds, Noone, Nicholas, Bigard, Howard, and Simeon—occupied the clarinet position in King Oliver's band. Similarly, during the early years of Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band, the succession of Tio-tutored clarinetists included Noone, Whaley, Bigard, Simeon, and Howard.
Although none of Lorenzo Tio's protégés are alive today, their spectres haunt the sleazy bars on Bourbon Street, the old halls, and the posh hotels and restaurants in New Orleans. These establishments continue to reap a bountiful harvest from those fertile seeds planted years ago.
When Barney Bigard died in 1980, he was the last survivor of the regal Tio graduates. The influence of that dynasty has been sustained by several generations of succeeding clarinetists.
Surprisingly, New Orleans has produced few young players interested in perpetuating the artistry of their grandfathers. (But, after all, Florence has produced few Raphaels or Donatellos lately, either!) One brilliant exception is Michael White, a professor at Xavier University who plays at Preservation Hall and appears with his own group at various venues around New Orleans. He also plays in the Excelsior Band—the same band that featured Lorenzo Tio, Sr., and Luis Tio more than a hundred years ago. Tim Laughlin, another fine contemporary clarinetist with a stellar reputation in the Crescent City, is a protégé of Pete Fountain. Laughlin was born in New Orleans, leads his own band, and has recorded several CDs.
The Holiday Inn Downtown Superdome recently commemorated the clarinet with a 150-foot-high mural on the side of the hotel. Undoubtedly the world's largest painting of the horn, it advertises the hotel's popular Clarinet Club, where Brian ƠConnell appears five nights a week playing first-rate clarinet inspired by his mentor, Willie Humphrey.
Talented young clarinetists have come from Europe, bringing back to New Orleans the original music that swept the world. Chris Burke, an Albert Nicholas-Barney Bigard admirer, moved to town from England several years ago, keeping the buoyant spirit of New Orleans music alive with his youthful enthusiasm and talent. Another jazz émigré, French clarinetist Jacques Gauthé (a Sidney Bechet student), has (p.202) forsaken his career as a leading chef to devote himself full-time to playing and promoting the music he loves. Besides making regular appearances with his Creole Rice Jazz Band, Gauthé has produced a nightly series of traditional jazz performances at the Meridien Hotel on Canal Street, just across from the French Quarter. Clarinetists Brian White and Sammy Rimington make frequent visits from London; Claude Luter, Pierre Atlan, and Maxim Saury drop in regularly from France; and Orange Kellin travels routinely from Sweden. These European musicians, with their deep appreciation of jazz, are preparing for the future while remembering the past.
It would be unfair to suggest that Lorenzo Tio, Jr., and his students were the only important New Orleans clarinetists. Many others contributed greatly to the rich heritage we are still enjoying. This long list of important musicians includes Leon Roppolo, Yellow Nunez, Joseph “Brother Cornbread” Thomas, Sidney Arodin, Tony Parenti, Edmond Hall, Herb Hall, Clarence Hall, Joseph Cordilla, Lester Bouchon, Paul Barnes, Theo Purnell, Dink Johnson, Charles McCurdy, Harry Shields, Larry Shields, Alphonse Picou, Achille Bacquet, George Bacquet, Sidney Bechet, Bujie Centobie, Raymond Burke, Lawrence Duhé, Israel Gorman, John Casmir, John Handy, Andrew Morgan, Gussie Mueller, Wooden Joe Nicholas, George Lewis, and Big Boy Goudie.
Similar lists could be assembled for each band instrument. No city in the world has, or ever will, produce such a wealth of musical talent.
The resonant sounds of the clarinet will always add luster to jazz. They remain as living tributes to the brilliant dynasty launched by Lorenzo Tio, Jr., almost a century ago.
Willie James Humphrey, Jr.
Until his death in 1994, Willie Humphrey was the undisputed dean of New Orleans clarinetists. He traveled the world with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, gathering fans and friends along the way. Despite the fame, he always retained a gentle affability that reflected the warmth of his New Orleans heritage. Thousands of admirers shared a great affection for the great clarinetist. It was impossible not to love Willie Humphrey.
The Humphrey name has been highly respected in New Orleans for generations. Willie's grandfather, “Professor” Jim Humphrey, was a great teacher, and his father, Willie, Sr., also a teacher, played clarinet (p.203) in the Eclipse Brass Band from 1901 to 1910. Willie's brother Earl, a fine trombonist, died in 1971. His youngest brother, Percy, one of jazz's most underrated trumpeters, played a beautiful melodic lead. His relaxed phrasing seemed nonchalant, but, blowing into his dented metal derby, he generated an intense heat in Preservation Hall that almost charred the walls of the hundred-year-old structure. Willie and Percy played side by side in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for more than seven decades, but they seldom spoke. The younger brother's subdued, almost stoic, attitude contrasted with Willie's demonstrative verve. Percy was ninety when he died on July 22, 1995.
Born in 1900, Humphrey first learned to play the violin. As a teenager, he sat in with Kid Ory at Pete Lala's Big 25 in Storyville. Willie began playing E-flat clarinet in the Excelsior Brass Band in 1919, staying with this group for years. He played at Tom Anderson's restaurant on Rampart Street, on Mississippi riverboats with Fate Marable, and with Freddie Keppard and King Oliver in Chicago. Willie appears in newspaper photos with Oliver's band playing between innings at the 1919 World Series—when the Black Sox bribery incident rocked the sports world.
I have an enduring image of the great jazzman sitting on an antique wooden chair in Preservation Hall in front of pianist Sing Miller and between Percy and banjoist Narvin Kimball. He had occupied that same chair since 1961, when the hall opened. The audience, just a few feet away, seated on the floor in front of the bandstand, was oblivious to the dusty atmosphere, the humid air, and the cramped seating arrangement. From my favorite position, near the door to the carriageway, I had a good view of Willie charming the tourists, many of whom were hearing New Orleans jazz for the first time.
Humphrey also led his own Crescent City Joy Makers and was a regular with the Eureka Brass Band, led by Percy. Following the Humphrey family tradition, Willie also found the time to teach aspiring young musicians.
I became a fan and friend in 1954 during his appearance with Paul Barbarin's New Orleans Band in Los Angeles. Barbarin's nephews, trumpeter John Brunious and acclaimed New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, were also in the group. The evening wasn't complete until Willie sang and did a little jig to “Liza Jane.” The routine continued pleasing crowds for the next forty years.
The famed French clarinetist Claude Luter, an admirer of Humphrey's, often traveled to the Crescent City, and he heard his American counterpart play during every visit. Luter grew concerned over the condition of Humphrey's timeworn clarinet, which he carried in a scarred old case patched with tape. The bell of the ancient Albert system horn was cracked, and rubber bands supplanted broken springs on several keys. Luter finally commissioned the Selmer Company in Paris to manufacture a custom horn for his friend. This was a formidable and very expensive task: Albert system tooling was no longer in use, so many parts had to be made by hand.
(p.205) The following year, Claude Luter returned to New Orleans, proudly carrying a new instrument made from special aged ebony with shiny silver keys. Willie's name was carved in the bell. The engraved gold nameplate on the handsome leather case said: WILLIE HUMPHREY, NEW ORLEANS, U.S.A.
On Claude Luter's opening night at the Meridien Hotel with Jacques Gauthé's Creole Rice Jazz Band, Willie appeared as guest artist. A large crowd filled the lobby bar and overflowed onto an adjacent stairway to the balcony. Luter and the band played the first set, and the surprise presentation took place during the intermission. Claude spoke very little English, so he asked me to introduce Willie and make the presentation for him. After an ornate fanfare, I called Humphrey to the bandstand and, flanked by Luter and Gauthé, handed him the beautiful case. When he opened it and viewed the contents, he embraced Claude, Jacques, and me and tearfully expressed his appreciation.
But when the second set began, he left the new instrument with his wife, Ora, and climbed onto the bandstand holding the old horn. Assisting him up the steps, I asked him why he did not bring the Selmer. “I'm gonna have to get used to it first,” he said. “It will take a while before can I play it in public.” We were all disappointed, but an instrument is a highly personal thing; after playing one clarinet for so many years, Willie needed some time to become acquainted with the gift.
Several years later, when I asked him about the new horn, Willie confided: “Floyd, I've never played it. It was wonderful of Claude to get it for me. I've never seen such a beautiful thing. I know it cost a lotta money. But I just could not get used to it. The action is different—the keys respond differently. I guess I'm just too old to re-learn.”
Willie Humphrey died on June 7, 1994, at the age of ninety-four. When my wife and I visited Ora at the Humphreys' Cadiz Street home a few years later, I recognized the leather Selmer case standing in a corner. The instrument had never been played. It was next to the battered old horn Willie continued playing until the end.
The day after Willie Humphrey died, a full-color photograph of him spread across three columns of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's front page. A cartoon on the editorial page depicted a winged angel holding a clarinet and asking a winged harpist, “Can I sit in?”
I am sure she said yes.
Willie Humphrey exemplified an adored patriarchal New Orleans figure, a consummate showman, a great musician, a historian of New Orleans jazz—and a dear friend.
One of history's most unusual recording sessions took place in clarinetist George Lewis' New Orleans home on St. Philip Street one day in 1944.
Lewis was confined to bed, slowly recovering from a severe injury received while working as a laborer on the Mississippi docks. He had not played his horn for several weeks. Two of his friends, banjoist Lawrence Marrero and bass player Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau, accompanied him on a somber hymn and an untitled blues. Eventually issued on Bill Russell's new American Music label, the two recordings did much to advance the reemergence of classic jazz.
“Just a Closer Walk With Thee” reintroduced gospel music to jazz's vocabulary, and “Burgundy Street Blues” (pronounced “Bur-GUN-dy”) became one of the most famous and most imitated clarinet solos in the history of classic jazz. Lewis had never played the tune before; the wistful blues theme, unmatched in feeling and tone, was improvised during the recording. Wherever George Lewis played for the next two dozen years, “Burgundy Street Blues” was his most requested number. He recorded many subsequent versions of the tune, always under better conditions, but he never surpassed the emotional impact of the initial effort.
Those important 78 rpm American Music discs delighted fans of traditional jazz, who were clamoring for authentic New Orleans recordings. Russell subsequently produced historic recordings by Bunk Johnson's band, with Lewis on clarinet. Both men played vital roles in launching the revival era.
Lewis was born in 1900. The self-taught clarinetist played with the Black Eagle Band at age eighteen and worked with Buddy Petit and Joe Rena in the early 1920s. He formed his own band (the New Orleans Stompers) and played with the Eureka Brass Band, Olympia Orchestra, and Bunk Johnson.
After his seminal 1944 recordings, the clarinetist founded his own group. George Lewis' New Orleans Jazz Band swept to national prominence, spearheading the revival movement in the 1950s. The great little band had many brilliant facets. They displayed a versatile approach to rags, blues, stomps, and pop tunes. Each of the influential jazzmen became an icon to generations of musicians.
True to the Crescent City tradition, these performers worked hard to entertain. Purnell, Watkins, and Howard shared humor and distinctive vocals; Robinson, when moved by the music, often waved a white (p.208) handkerchief and danced a sprightly jig, while diminutive Slow Drag, dwarfed by his huge string bass, flirted jovially with nearby female patrons.
In 1952, they came to Los Angeles to appear in the giant Dixieland Jubilee at the Shrine Auditorium and were the hit attraction, with Lewis' impressive solo on “Burgundy Street Blues” highlighting the long program. Based on their initial success, Lewis and his band returned for the next four Dixieland Jubilees. After their second appearance, they were booked into the Beverly Cavern, temporarily replacing Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band.
This was the band's first club date away from New Orleans, and the musicians spent their intermissions in the kitchen, as was the custom in segregated New Orleans. Though Lucille and I urged them to join us at our table, they timidly remained in the back room. Finally they yielded to our invitations and mingled amiably with fans during their breaks. Before the engagement ended, their demeanor had changed drastically, and they relaxed between sets with their new friends.
Robinson enjoyed imbibing, and one evening he accepted too many drinks from generous patrons. During the coda of “Muskrat Ramble,” he moved his slide to its most extended position, leaned too far forward, and toppled off the high bandstand. The sixty-year-old trombonist bounced against the table beneath him, causing glasses and ice cubes to fly through the air, but he landed on his feet and completed the coda without missing a note! The band played Kid Ory's “Muskrat Ramble” every night, but that was Jim's only flight.
To save the band costly hotel bills, members of the Southern California Hot Jazz Society arranged inexpensive housing for them. Our friend Monette Moore, a prominent blues singer in the '20s, volunteered her large home, and the Jazz Society provided nightly transportation to the Cavern. Several parties at Monette's house warmed our relationship with the Crescent City jazzmen. We hated to see them leave when their Cavern engagement ended, and they were just as sorry to go. For the first time, they had received open, welcoming hospitality from white people, something they had never enjoyed under the racial conditions that still existed in New Orleans.
When we took them to the train station, Alton Purnell, who had been drinking, was most upset. He sat on his suitcase, tightly holding Lucille's hand, and insisted he would stay in Los Angeles. I had to physically assist him onto the train. Eventually, Alton did move West and became a vital part of the local jazz scene.
Thirty years after his death, those wonderful bedside recordings from 1944 remain among jazz's most important landmarks. Clarinetists throughout the world, most of them born after that historic session, are still striving for Lewis' plaintive lucidity. The sweet, simple sounds of his “Burgundy Street Blues” still reverberate at jazz clubs throughout the world. The individual styles of Lewis and his sidemen have been perpetuated by generations of musicians. As a result, each is assured of immortal status.
- He never will brag, but you and I know
- Of his worldwide career on the keys
- He's played for presidents—royalty, too
- And plays with the greatest of ease!
- From “Alton,” a poem by Alicia “Judy” Wood, 1987
Some unfathomable destiny must have been at work the day New Orleans piano giant Alton Purnell was born. He came into the world in 1911 in the small house on St. Peter Street now known as Preservation Hall. A small “honky tonk” barroom sat adjacent to the house, providing the infant Purnell with his first exposure to jazz piano. Perhaps he absorbed some of his future keyboard prowess from the three legendary “professors” who played next door—Manuel Manetta, Fats Pichon, and Walter Decou. As he matured, Purnell received additional inspiration from an underrated local pianist named Burnell Santiago, whose rolling, percussive style meshed perfectly with the surging New Orleans beat for which Alton became famous.
“When I started playing the piano, it was considered a rhythm instrument,” Purnell often told me. “Those bands didn't want you to play all over the keyboard. You play just chords and back up the man who is soloing. That's how I play. Maybe the other fellows sound good to the public. I try to sound good to the musicians I'm playing with. I'm a band piano player.”
He benefited from excellent on-the-job training playing in New Orleans bands led by “Big Eye” Louis Nelson, Avery “Kid” Howard, Os (p.210) car “Papa” Celestin, Isaiah Morgan, and Sidney Desvigne. Working regularly as a singer and pianist at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street, he soon had a reputation as one of the city's most popular entertainers.
Equally skilled as a vocalist, Alton always probed deeply into the meaning of lyrics and expressed them beautifully. He attributed much of his singing skill to the innovative New Orleans entertainer Pleasant Joseph, also known as “Cousin Joe” and “Smilin' Joe.”
“‘Cousin Joe’ often said, ‘You gotta tell a story. Those words are as important as the music. Tell the folks what they mean!’” When Alton crooned “I love you,” distaff hearts fluttered.
He left New Orleans in 1945 to join Bunk Johnson's band at the Stuyvesant Casino in New York City. Working with Johnson and, later with George Lewis, he gained a solid following among traditional jazz fans. Those two bands, with almost identical personnel, epitomized the elusive New Orleans sound postwar listeners avidly sought. Both paved the way for the tremendous revival of classic jazz that occurred in the '50s and '60s. Young musicians, especially European traditionalists, emulated the style of the Johnson and Lewis bands, and Purnell became a role model for aspiring trad pianists. The last surviving member of the Johnson-Lewis period, he continued to have a strong influence on emerging generations of musicians.
I met Purnell backstage at the Shrine Auditorium in 1952. The George Lewis band was in Los Angeles for the Dixieland Jubilee, making its first appearance west of Louisiana. During the next few years, the band returned several times, playing at the Beverly Cavern in Los Angeles and the Club Hangover in San Francisco. With each trip, Purnell's love for California grew. In 1956 he decided to leave Lewis' band and move to Los Angeles permanently. For more than three decades, his brand of music and humor brightened the local jazz scene.
His first L.A. job was with the Roaring '20s Creole Jazz Band at Ben Pollack's Pick-A-Rib on the Sunset Strip. The group included Minor Hall, Johnny St. Cyr, Buddy Burns, Keg Johnson, George Orendorf, and Barney Bigard. (Pollack repeatedly promised he would produce an album by this wonderful band, but the recording date never took place.) Purnell also regularly attended the monthly Southern California Hot Jazz Society sessions, often bringing a group of New Orleans expatriates that included Mike Delay, Ed Garland, Sammy Lee, Paul Barnes, and Teddy Edwards. Those Sunday afternoons at Larchmont Hall were memorable events.
(p.211) As word of the pianist's musical skills spread, he began receiving offers from abroad. In 1964 he starred on the BBC television program Jazz 625 with Keith Smith's Climax Jazz Band, sparking a love affair with British audiences that flourished for decades. The following year he was featured at the 20th Australian Jazz Convention, becoming the first New Orleans pianist to perform at the Sydney Town Hall. Geoff Bull wrote in the convention program, “I feel sure that Alton Purnell will be a source of lasting inspiration for many in this country.” That prophecy was correct; Purnell won the hearts of Australian fans thousands of miles removed from his St. Peter Street roots. In 1966 he toured Europe with the New Orleans All-Stars under the aegis of Keith Smith. On St. Patrick's Day 1970, Sid Bailey's Fair City Jazz Band featured him at Kelly's Pub in Dublin, making Alton Purnell the first New Orleans musician to appear with an Irish band.
The pianist's status abroad soared in the 1970s. He toured Europe with Barry Martyn's English band in 1967, 1970, 1971, and 1972. In December 1971 he was a special guest at a mammoth Louis Armstrong tribute concert in San Remo, Italy, appearing with American jazz stars Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Earl Hines, and Albert Nicholas. A year later, he charmed Italian audiences as headline artist with Luciano Invernizzi's Bovisa New Orleans Jazz Band in Milan. Recordings made in Denmark, Germany, France, and Belgium added to his international popularity. The greatest overseas triumph occurred a few years later in Japan. A double album with the New Orleans Rascals in Osaka demonstrated the extent of George Lewis' inspiration. Each member of that enduring band, which is still active after forty years, retains the influence of Lewis and his colleagues.
In 1970 Purnell became president of the Southern California Hot Jazz Society, and the organization benefited greatly from his judgment and guidance. Under his leadership, the SCHJS energetically supported the Louis Armstrong Statue Fund, and he acted as the fund's unofficial spokesman as he toured the world.
When Barry Martyn moved to Los Angeles to form the Legends of Jazz in 1973, Alton Purnell was the logical choice as pianist. The recordings he made with the Legends and special guest Barney Bigard vividly testified to the artistry of the self-proclaimed “band piano player.” Under Martyn's direction, the Legends of Jazz became the foremost traditional jazz band of the 1970s, showcasing such stellar musicians as Joe Darensbourg, Andrew Blakeney, Louis Nelson, Ed Garland, and Purnell on numerous domestic and international tours.
(p.212) For several years, the Legends of Jazz starred in the “A Night in New Orleans” concert series that I co-produced with Martyn. It was my privilege to introduce Purnell to audiences throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. I watched the warm response each evening as he strode to the piano, beaming broadly, and softly played a blues background while I introduced the rest of the band. I remember Alton proudly leading the Eagle Brass Band in a street parade down West Berlin's broad Kufurstendamm advertising our “Night in New Orleans” concert at the giant Philharmonie Halle in May 1976.
Purnell's health began to fail during the mid-'80s, forcing an end to his touring days, but he continued to work in the Los Angeles area. He frequently played with George Marois' New Bull Moose Party Band and Chris Kelly's Black and White Jazz Band. He made his final local appearance at the 1986 Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival, playing with the latter group, led by Bob Allen on trumpet.
When Purnell died on January 14, 1987, he left behind thousands of adoring fans, dozens of outstanding recordings, and untold numbers of pianists who emulated his smooth, sensible keyboard style. And he left knowing that the house in which he was born still swelled every evening—as it had in his childhood—with the sounds of the music he loved, the music he was born to play.
More than a decade has passed since we followed the Resurrection Brass Band escorting Alton's bier to its gravesite at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Lucille tearfully plucked a small sprig of daisies from the flower-draped casket. They beamed brightly for several days in a small vase on our window sill.
Those little yellow blooms eventually withered; but our fond memories of the band piano player remain very strong.
Bill Russell was probably the world's foremost authority on New Orleans jazz. As a journalist, scholar, historian, record producer, composer, and performer, he devoted most of his eighty-seven years to exploring the music and its deeply shrouded history, and he played a vital role in passing traditional jazz down to a new generation of listeners. As a direct or indirect result of his efforts, serious jazz clubs today exist throughout the nation; a major jazz festival takes place somewhere in (p.213)
A gentle and selfless man, he lived very simply in a tiny French Quarter apartment without telephone or air conditioning. The doorbell had not worked for decades. His crowded main room, illuminated by a single hanging bulb, was cluttered with piles of papers, records, letters, and files. The walls were covered with pictures of his beloved jazz musicians and autographed photos of three famed classical violinists: Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifitz, and Eugene Ysaye.
He was born Russell William Wagner in Canton, Missouri, in 1905. He first heard jazz as a boy, listening to the music wafting in from riverboats on the Mississippi River. After studying classical music with Arnold Schoenberg at Columbia University in New York City, he set his sights on becoming a composer, changing his name to William Russell so that people wouldn't confuse him with the famed German composer Richard Wagner. Russell eventually abandoned those ambitions (p.214) and joined an itinerant Chinese shadow puppet show, accompanying the drama on dozens of Eastern percussion instruments. In a 1970 interview, he told me:
I traveled back and forth across the country with the Red Gate Shadow Players for six years. The performances were at night, so I spent every day searching for old jazz records in barns and attics. I could never eat lunch because my hands were so dirty from handling the dusty records. I always carried bananas with me. A banana could be peeled and eaten without taking the time to wash.
Around 1929, I found a record by Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. It was “Shoe Shiner's Drag.” I liked it so much, I never stopped collecting. I remembered my childhood music teacher, who always said, “Don't listen to jazz. It'll corrupt your taste!” I realized he was wrong. This was in the Depression, and you could buy records for a few cents each. After finding that first Morton record, I could not stop. Eventually I owned every Morton recording.
Russell came to New Orleans for the first time in 1937. “It was an exciting experience just being there,” he recalled. “I roamed the streets all day and all night, absorbing the sounds and the smells of the city.” During his six years on the road with the Shadow Players, Russell began interviewing musicians and writing articles for small publications. Serious jazz criticism was virtually nonexistent at that time, but Russell's perceptive writings helped get it started. One of his essays, published in France by Hughes Panassie in Le Jazz Hot, was the first important article about boogie-woogie piano. In 1939, Russell collaborated on Jazzmen, the first anthology of jazz. The Jazz Record Book soon followed. Each of these landmark publications helped reestablish New Orleans music as a viable genre worthy of serious attention.
Russell began writing during the heart of the big-band era, at a time when the major record firms had no interest in recording early jazzmen or reissuing any of the treasures held in their vaults. But Russell's articles and books demonstrated that New Orleans jazz still enjoyed a devoted following. Eventually he would help prove that it commanded a record-buying audience—and the power to attract new listeners.
During Russell's interviews for Jazzmen, Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams told him about a long-forgotten New Orleans trumpet player named William Geary “Bunk” Johnson. He was then sixty-two years old and working as a field hand in New Iberia, Louisiana. In 1942, Russell produced recordings of the legendary musician, a contemporary of Buddy Bolden and reputedly Louis Armstrong's teacher. On the strength of those records for Russell's American Music label, (p.215) Johnson and his band were booked in New York City. They were a huge success. Soon the entire world was aware of New Orleans' vital role in musical history.
Russell's American Music label eventually popularized many other overlooked New Orleans musicians, including George Lewis, Jim Robinson, Wooden Joe Nicholas, Dink Johnson, and Baby Dodds. Without those valuable recordings, we might never have learned of these surviving pioneers, and we certainly would never have heard them playing New Orleans jazz as it sounded around the end of the nineteenth century. (The very influential American Music recordings have recently been reissued on CD by the George H. Buck Jazz Foundation in New Orleans.)
In 1958, Russell was named curator of the newly established William Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz. He began a series of oral history interviews with assistance from Richard Allen. This vital program continues today under the aegis of Tulane University. He also amassed an enormous personal archive, which he stored in cardboard boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in his apartment. Russell boldly labeled each box with the subject's name: “MORTON,” “ARMSTRONG,” “PICOU,” “DODDS,” “OLIVES,” “NOONE.” He knew where each priceless document belonged and could easily locate any item.
Russell's hoard included the most important Jelly Roll Morton collection in the country. The two met in 1938 while the pianist was appearing in a run-down nightclub in Washington, D.C. Russell's interviews with Morton launched a lifelong project that culminated only a few months before the writer's death in 1992. After years of research, he finally completed his long-awaited definitive biography, Oh! Mister Jelly (recently published in Denmark). The information in those boxes and the knowledge imprinted on his brain were raw material for three other books on jazz. Two of them (Bill Russell's American Music and New Orleans Style) were compiled and edited by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine and published after his death by Jazzology Press in New Orleans.
When I visited Bill, he always pointed out the box bearing my name. It contained every item I ever sent him—letters, clippings, our Christmas and birthday greetings—over a thirty-year period. Also stored there was an old manuscript, a chapter he had asked me to write for his Morton book. He had received a grant to support the project and insisted on paying for the chapter, sending me a check in 1970 for $35 over my objections. I decided to keep the check as a souvenir. (p.216)
A few months later he sent me an irate letter: “My check has not cleared. You are screwing up my bookkeeping and the grant is in jeopardy. Please deposit at once.” I made a photostat copy and complied with his demand.
The last time I saw him—many, many years later—he opened the carton labeled with my name and took out some cash. “Here's the $35 I owe you for the Anita Gonzales story. You never cashed my check!” Again I refused, saying, “Bill, I cashed your check twenty years ago.”
I thought that was the end of the matter, but Russell apparently had not given up. After he died on August 9, 1992, I received a letter from the Historic New Orleans Collection, the willed repository of his priceless data. Attached to the letter was a four-page inventory listing the contents of his “Floyd Levin” carton, now preserved in acid-free folders. The list included seventy-nine items, including photos, clippings, manuscripts, magazines, letters, cancelled checks … and $35 in cash.
Here is a typical example of Bill Russell's unassuming demeanor:
(p.217) In 1988, Lucille and I were invited to attend the unveiling of a bronze head of Eubie Blake, our gift to the William Ranson Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. I knew Bill Russell was also invited, and since he lived just a few blocks from our hotel, I offered to drive him to the university. He said, “Thanks, Floyd, but that would be an imposition. I'll take the streetcar.” I insisted and said we would pick him up at 9 A.M.
He was waiting in front when we arrived, holding a paper sack and a folding canvas chair. He told me the sack contained a sandwich and some notes he promised to Curt Jerde, the curator of the Tulane Jazz Archive. When I asked about the chair, he said, “I don't want to occupy a seat; there will be a lot of important people there.” He scoffed when I said, “Bill, you will be the most important person in the room.”
A large crowd attended the reception. The room overflowed with dignitaries—writers, politicians, academicians, and fans. After the speeches and the unveiling, a caterer served cocktails and appetizers. Looking around for Bill, I found him at the back of the room. He was seated on the little folding chair, nibbling his sandwich. When I asked why he did not have the delicious barbecued shrimp, he said, “I wanted to make sure there was enough for all the prominent guests.”
(✽) “Shakes peare's Hall” was once a dance hall for the younger, more select Negro society in New Orleans. The hall was destroyed by fire before the Civil War.
(†) “In her hand” meant “right before their very eyes.” She concocted the various colored powders, oils, or fetishes used to produce the voodoo spell while they watched.
(✝✝) “Gris-gris” (pronounced “gree-gree”) is a fetish used to ward off evil spirits or produce harmful effects on an enemy.
(§) “Catfish fin.” Catfish are plentiful in New Orleans, and the fins are considered poisonous. Serious infection, even death, results from stepping on these long, sharp fins.