Jimmie Noone, a brief review
A new little book has recently appeared, and, because it deals with a New Orleans jazz pioneer who has been somewhat under-appreciated (in my opinion), I considered it worthy of bringing to your attention. This booklet chronicling the career of clarinetist Jimmie Noone has been put together by Jim Williams, who played tuba in one of the top Midwestern traditional jazz bands, the Salty Dogs Jazz Band. Retired as chairman of the State of Illinois Parole Board, Williams, 76, has collected and researched jazz and blues recordings for 40 years. He has authored research articles for a number of publications as well as liner notes for traditional jazz CDs. The following brief review appears here for the first time. ___________________________________________________________________________________
Williams, James K., Jimmie Noone, Jazz Clarinet Pioneer (Discography by John Wilby), 119 pp., privately published, 2010. (Available from James K. (Whip) Williams, 801 S. English Avenue, Springfield, IL 62704, firstname.lastname@example.org. $20+$4 shipping)
This book is essentially divided into three parts. The first (pp. 1-57) considers Noone’s importance, his life, his clarinet style and compositions, and concludes with a two-page bibliography. A second (pp. 58-100) is a full discography of Noone’s recordings from 1923 to the time of his death in 1944 compiled by John Wilby. The third section (pp. 101-119) is a “gallery” of black-and-white photographs (though illustrations are liberally spread throughout Williams’ text as well). The vast majority of the photographs are from the well-known collections of Duncan Schiedt and Frank Driggs. Indeed, this collection of photos represents one of the real strengths of this book.
The date and place of Jimmie Noone’s birth has been an issue of contention among jazz scholars over the years. Williams acknowledges the problem, but comes down with the following solution (which I have not seen in any other publication about the clarinetist): “James (Jimmie) Noone was born April 23, 1894 on the prodigious Stanton Plantation, according to his 1917 draft registration card” [reproduced on pp. 10 and 11]. He goes on. “The plantation’s 1,600-plus acreage was a major sugar cane producer located about 8 miles down the West Bank of the Mississippi River below New Orleans. The land now is occupied for the most part by English Turn, a Jack Nicklaus golf course community.” The author suggests that the youngster’s parents, John Noone and Lucinda Daggs, were employed at the plantation.
The clarinetist died from a heart attack on April 19, 1944 in Los Angeles. His death certificate (which is reproduced on p. 45) states that he was born on April 23, 1896, but, for reasons that are not clear to me, Williams prefers the draft registration date of two years earlier. (The author further muddies the waters by asserting that Noone’s death took place “four days before his 47th birthday.” If not a misprint, that would place his birth year at 1897, a date that I have seen nowhere else and conflicts with his earlier conclusion.) The birth year that I have seen most often for Noone is 1995—on no good grounds, in my opinion. So, it seems that the solution lies either with the date on his draft registration or that on his death certificate. Williams prefers the former.
The above issues aside, the author recounts the clarinetist’s career from the time he and his family moved to New Orleans in 1910 and the youngster abandoned the guitar and took up the clarinet. His formal training on that instrument was under the classically trained Tio brothers. Already by 1913 he was playing with pioneer trumpeter Freddie Keppard’s band, and his reputation soon took off. In late 1917, after the closing of Storyville, he moved to Chicago and rejoined Keppard who seems to have been his brother-in-law.
From that time on, Noone was essentially based in Chicago, where his reputation as a major jazz player and bandleader was established. It was during those years when the wonderful recordings of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra were made. One of the many well-known clarinet players influenced by Noone was Benny Goodman who frequently attended his gigs (and played duets with him as a fellow student of symphonic clarinetist Franz Schoepp).
Williams details his activities in Chicago and on the road for the next two and a half decades until he relocated to Los Angeles in 1943, where his career got a boost from the trad revival that was getting underway at the time. It was there that he was brought together with several well-known former New Orleans musicians—trumpeter Mutt Carey, trombonist Kid Ory, banjoist/guitarist Bud Scott, and others—to become the regular band on the CBS radio series hosted by Orson Welles, a lover of New Orleans jazz. Unfortunately, there was serious disagreement between Carey and Ory about who would lead the band (Ory finally won out), and Williams speculates that the dissension stressed out “the usually placid Noone, possibly contributing to his heart attack.”
Jimmie Noone was one of the first jazz clarinet players that I listened to seriously as a teenager. (I still have some of those recordings on 78 and 45 rpm discs.) His style is distinctive and unmistakable, with the trills, the staccato runs, the rather moderate vibrato (by New Orleans standards), and the tone that approaches the “legit.” Of course, as most early New Orleans clarinetists, he played an Albert-system instrument.
While this little book is not presented in a formal scholarly fashion, the author has succeeded in gathering together in one place most of the existing scholarship about Noone and has complemented the narrative with a very nice selection of illustrative material. One can hardly go wrong for that price.