Steve Masakowski, Big Easy Innovator
(Instant Harmony Music, 2014)
My first reaction upon completing this new book was, “Wow! What a masterful biography of a major jazz musician.” Okay, the presentation is a somewhat unorthodox as a jazz biography, but, if you are interested in the facts presented unpretentiously, they’re all there.
Given space limitations, I will simply note upfront some of the strengths of this treatise. Lasocki is an authority on the subject, having already written books on Astral Project as well as on individual members of that band (Tony Dagradi and James Singleton). He is a highly qualified music scholar, with numerous publications on a variety of musical subjects. The book is thoroughly researched and documented. It includes detailed interviews with the guitarist as well as others who know him (including some of Steve’s former students).
Besides being an extremely full treatment of Steve Masakowski’s life and music, I found the book to be a most valuable account of the modern jazz scene in New Orleans over the last 30 years or so. Thus it becomes an important historical document as well. But, most importantly, it reveals Steve Masakowski as an unusually gifted musician, composer and educator—as well as a humble and down-to-earth human being.
The narrative is not obscured by breezy language, but there are sections where the technical detail may be over the head of most members of the general public. That should not deter the interested reader, however.
In short, if you’re a Steve Masakowski fan (how can any jazz lover from New Orleans not be?), this book is a must read. I recommend it highly.
OffBeat, September 2015
Intriguing and Quirky
Nick Sanders Trio
You Are a Creature
Hot new pianist Nick Sanders is a New Orleans metro native, NOCCA trained, who went off to the prestigious New England Conservatory for his undergraduate and master’s degrees. Now in his mid-twenties and a New Yorker, he is fast making a name for himself in the jazz world.
Creature is the pianist’s second album, both on the New York-based Sunnyside label, which is widely known for its presentation of unique musical voices.
I have to say that I was struck by the bizarre album cover with its sideshow contortionist on the front and the somewhat off-turning representation of the program on the backside. While one can never tell a book by its cover, the exterior does at least hint at the music that lies within. It, too, is a bit unconventional, yet it certainly cannot be fully digested on first hearing.
Nick Sanders was initially trained in the classics, and that is evident throughout with his superb technique, command of dynamics and, for me, nods to the Impressionists. There can be no doubt, however, about his firm commitment to jazz. He can swing. That is, of course, abetted in no small degree by his talented playmates: bassist Henry Fraser and drummer Connor Baker, both of whom have been with him since their NEC days. Indeed, the three work so well together that the latter two become more than just a rhythm section.
All of the music is original—there are no standards here—and the work of the pianist himself. A variety of moods and emotions are created, often, in fact, in the same piece—and often in surprising, quite unexpected ways. It can be pretty, melodic, pensive, then—unpredictably—strikingly discordant or dissonant. The variability of human emotions seems to be what the pianist is implying in choice of album title (and title track).
Sanders is unique, but, at the same time, a product of his teachers: the influence of the late Alvin Batiste is evident here, as is that of the wonderful pianist Fred Hersch who also produced both of his albums. Hersch has praised Sanders as a ”true original…already world-class and an intriguing and quirky composer as well…” That sums him up pretty well.
If you missed Sanders and his trio in their performance at Snug Harbor on March 27, check this out. I’m sure the group will be back in town in short order.
OffBeat, April, 2015
Duke Heitger's Steamboat Stompers
by Thomas Jacobsen (OffBeat, February 2015)
Hot trumpeter Duke Heitger came from Toledo, Ohio and settled in New Orleans in 1991 immediately upon graduation from college and became an overnight sensation as a disciple and interpreter of the music of Louis Armstrong.
Since that time, Duke has traveled the globe in the course of achieving an international reputation as a jazz horn player. He still spends a good deal of time on the road but, when in New Orleans, he leads the popular Steamboat Stompers on the riverboat Natchez.
This is the latest in a series of recordings of that fine band. His talented collaborators on this disc—pianists David Boeddinghaus and Steve Pistorius, reedman Tom Fischer, and multi-bassist Tom Saunders—are oft-heard members of that group. Only ace drummer Hal Smith no longer lives in the Crescent City.
The music here represents a tasteful and refreshing stylistic variety, from two-beat trad to four-beat small-group swing. The bulk of it has long been associated with New Orleans and goes back (with the obvious exception of “Do You Know What it Means…”) to the early decades of the last century.
Most are familiar, but there are a few outliers like “I’d Give a Dollar for a Dime,” the old Eubie Blake number done so well with a laid-back Pistorius vocal. Other tunes bring to mind other bands: “Love Nest” clearly evokes the memory of Bix; “Smokey Mokes” makes me think of the West Coast revivalist bands; “Rose of Washington Square,” Condon or the Bobcats. And so on.
But the overarching theme is New Orleans, with the opening (“Way Down Yonder…”) and closing (“Do You Know What it Means…”) tracks paying tribute to Duke’s adopted home. And it is he who stands out above the rest for his excellent trumpet playing (Louis looms large over the session) and fine vocals. He’s become quite a crooner.
This is first-rate New Orleans jazz played by gifted musicians who know how to play it well.
I recommend it warmly.
As longtime admirer of Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff, I welcomed this opportunity to hear another talented baritone-saxophone artist. Adam Schroeder, a native of the Midwest and now based in Los Angeles, is one of the rising stars on this anchor of the saxophone family.
Schroeder is joined here by an all-star rhythm section. Young guitarist Anthony Wilson is a first-rate player who solos on each of the of the album's 11 tracks. The stellar bass-drum combination consists of the great John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, best known perhaps as co-leaders of the outstanding Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Schroeder is also heard with that outfit, so it is not surprising that this quartet works so well together.
The program is a thoroughly pleasing collection of familiar evergreens and tasteful originals by the leader himself. On the non-original material, such "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," Benny Carter's "Southside Samba," or Thad Jones' "Let's," Schroeder emphasizes the importance of melody. "Each of the songs written by others had to have great melodies first and foremost," he says. "These are tunes that make you smile when you first hear them, and then reveal their compositional and harmonic depth the more you listen to them. Tyhey also offer vast freedom of expression for everyone to improvise on." His original material ranges from contemplative to funky and up-tempo, but the whole album demonstrates the saxophonist's skills and creativity as well as providing space for all members of the group to spread their wings.
All in all, those who dig mainstream bop will love the recording. I recommend it.
(OffBeat, November, 2014, p. 57)
Quiet Storm (Offbeat, August, 2014, p. 16)
One of the most tasteful guitarists around is the remarkable Warren Battiste. Still swinging at the age of 88 (he’ll be 89 in November), Battiste is universally admired among local guitarists. As Steve Masakowski puts it, “The fact that he continues to have so much enthusiasm for music and playing the guitar truly inspires me.”
For Battiste, melody is of prime importance, and it shows in his playing. “When I grew up,” he says, “my father (a professional guitarist and banjoist who performed at Preservation Hall and other local clubs) always told me, ‘Whatever you play, don’t lose sight of the melody. Let the people identify with the melody.’” Then he quickly adds with a chuckle, “Establish the melody and then you can go crazy afterwards.”
He has a lovely harmonic sense, as well. “Mr. Warren Battiste has a special harmonic and melodic approach to his style of playing that makes it unique, “ says guitarist Detroit Brooks who, like Masakowski, considers the veteran an inspiration. “It has captured the attention of most guitarists I know in this city.”
Warren Battiste grew up in Mid-City, “what they call the ‘Back o’ Town’ neighborhood,” he says. He graduated from the old Albert Wicker High School, then started working and playing guitar—despite his mother’s urging to the contrary. “She wanted me to be, like my other brothers and sisters, a school teacher.”
Yet, under the influence and tutelage of his father William, he chose to forsake further schooling and embark on a career in music. He played some gigs on Bourbon Street on banjo, but it was the guitar that really appealed to him. “I was attracted to it,” he recalls, “because it had a better sound than the banjo. My heart wasn’t in the banjo. For me, it was irritating.” Then he added, with a characteristic laugh, “I hope no other banjo player hears me say this.”
Battiste was in Special Services while in the military and had an opportunity to gain valuable experience by playing with some fine musicians. After returning from the service, he enrolled at the Grunewald School of Music on Camp Street, where he was able to expand his knowledge of theory and harmony.
He began playing around the city and soon—in 1959, to be exact—the legendary saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who happened to be in town and heard him play, invited Warren to join him and his band in New York. That was the beginning of a career that had Battiste working in and around New York and North Jersey with some of the biggest names in jazz for decades.
So, he and his wife Annabelle, a nurse, moved to the East Coast and eventually bought a large house in New Jersey, where they raised their family of ten children. He was with Jacquet for four or five months as a result of which, “I became very popular and everybody wanted me.”
He then went on to play with famed soul-jazz organist Jimmy McGriff and, later, with a group led by another organist, Jack McDuff. “I got into that organ circuit thing,” he recalls, “and that limited me from playing a lot of jam sessions because we were traveling, going to New Jersey and playing on the Boardwalk. It was like Bourbon Street.”
“Then I played with (saxophonist) Frank Foster and a little bit with Dizzy Gillespie because his guitar player asked me to take his place. (Vibraphonist) Milt Jackson—we called him ‘Bags’—came to the jam sessions (in Harlem). I played with most of the guys. Thelonious Monk. You’d be surprised how many great musicians there were. They had so much great talent. It blows your mind.” He gave the wonderful trumpeter Woody Shaw his first gig. “He’s from Newark and came out of arts high school for kids with great musical potential. I played a gig at Montclair, N. J., and I needed a trumpet player. He used to play at the jam sessions, but they would allow him no drinks because the ABC Board would close the place down. So, I invited him to play, but the guy at the club said they couldn’t allow him to play (because of the age rule). So, every intermission we’d make him go outside and sit in the car.” (Another burst of laughter.)
As a guitarist, he numbers many guitar greats among his closest friends: George Benson, Bucky Pizzarelli and Kenny Burrell, to name just a few. In fact, the last-named gave him the idea for his favorite musical combination. “Years ago,” he says, “Kenny Burrell had a trio—bass, drums and himself. Later, when he travelled, he added a piano. I got that from him.” Battiste can be heard in that quartet format on one of the recordings he cut here: Quiet Storm in New Orleans, a wonderful 2008 CD with pianist Larry Sieberth, bassist Jim Markway and drummer Richard Hale. It’s an excellent example of the Battiste sound.
Happily married for 64 years, Warren Battiste and his wife still call New Jersey home. But he manages to get back to his birthplace for several months each year and can be heard at clubs such as Snug Harbor or Sweet Lorraine’s. So, catch him whenever you can. As Detroit Brooks says, “At 88, he’s still humorous, vigorous and actively playing, which makes him a very special person.”
Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses
The Lookback Transmission
Aurora Nealand is one of the exciting young musical talents in the city these days. She came to town nearly a decade ago and has played with a number of traditional jazz bands during the interim. In 2010, she formed her own band, The Royal Roses, and they soon released their wonderful tribute to the great Sidney Bechet. That recording received a good deal of critical acclaim, gaining her national attention as a rising star on soprano saxophone.
A multi-instrumentalist, Nealand’s first love seems to be traditional jazz (though she is also well known in experimental musical circles locally). In addition to her fine reed playing, her skill set includes singing and composing as well. This album is an excellent testament to her versatility and many talents.
Nealand is joined here by several of the city’s most creative musicians, pianist/composer Tom McDermott (with whom she can be heard regularly at Buffa’s), multi-bassist and composer Matt Perrine, trumpeter Dave Boswell, and guitarist/vocalist Matt Bell, among others. Altogether, her band numbers nine in all, a bit more than normal for a trad band, including the somewhat unusual combination of sousaphone and bartone saxophone (the latter ably manned by Oliver Bonie).
Led by Nealand's fiery playing on soprano and clarinet, the Royal Roses run through a varied program ranging from originals to gospel and Caribbean (including some tasty vocals in French). The standard trad warhorses are conspicuously absent but Bechet's shadow looms large over the program (which also includes numbers by Jimmie Noone and Bessie Smith). In sum, this is well over one hour of scintillating sounds. A bit unconventional, perhaps, but a definite winner nonetheless.
Offbeat, June, 2014, pp. 53-54
The International Trio & Olivier Franc
(New Orleans Jazz Productions)
Drummer Trevor Richards, who now splits his time between New Orleans and Germany, has led the International Trio for 33 years (and 16 previous recordings). German clarinetist Reimer von Essen has been his sidekick for most of that time, while New Orleans pianist David Boeddinghaus has also been a part of the recording trio on more than one occasion in the past.
Their special guest for this recording is the fine Parisian soprano saxophonist, Olivier Franc. As the listener will readily hear, monsieur Franc is a devoted student of New Orleanian Sidney Bechet’s music. He is featured on the traditional “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and plays the lead on most of the other tunes—including Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble.” (Can you imagine that tune without a tailgate trombonist?)
Boeddinghaus, as any local jazz fan would expect, is outstanding throughout this collection. He flies solo on two numbers, Handy’s “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues” and Jelly Roll’s “Tank Town Bump”—and very impressively, I might add. He’s an exceptionally talented musician.
Von Essen is featured on the classic “September Song.” But I particularly liked his work with Franc on Ellington’s “Stompy Jones” and New Orleans’ Jimmy Noone’s wonderful “Apex Blues.”
This is, in short, a special treat for all lovers of classic jazz, especially those of New Orleans persuasion. I recommend it highly.
Offbeat, April 2014, pp. 82-83.
Published reviews of Traditional New Orleans Jazz...:
1) Times Literary Supplement (London, UK), May 13, 2011 (John Mole)
2) Just Jazz (UK), June 2011 (Jack Smithey)
3) IAJRC Journal (US), June 2011 (Andy Simons, a Brit)
4) LA SCENA MUSICALE (Montreal, Canada) submitted May, 2011 (Ron Sweetman)
5) Blogcritics/ book review (US), July 17, 2011 (Michael Jones)
6) Cadence (US) June, 2011 (Michael Steinman)--also to be expanded/edited on his blog.
7) Darmstadt Institute of Jazz (Germany), September, 2011 (Wolfram Knauer)
8) Allaboutjazz.com (US), October, 2011
9) JAZFAX (US), October, 2011 (Russ Tarby)
10) OffBeat, January, 2012 (Tom McDermott)
11) Jazz Podium (Germany), Dec, ‘11-Jan, ‘12 (Wolfram Knauer)
12) Musica Jazz (Italy) v. 68, n. 3, March 2012 (Alessandro Achilli)
13) Journal of Folklore Research, Reviews, January, 2013 (Matthew Alley)
14) Jazzology Newsletter, April, 2013 (Paige Van Vorst)
Here are a couple of reviews that appeared in the January, 2014 issue of Offbeat magazine:
The Flute Mastery of Frank Wess
Frank Wess, arguably one of the top jazz flutists of the twentieth century, passed away last October at the age of 91. While a member of Count Basie’s marvelous band in the 1950s (he was also a fine tenor saxophonist), Wess became a major figure in bringing the flute as a solo instrument to the attention of jazz audiences. He was truly a jazz master, and was in fact officially recognized as such by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2007.
This recording, Wess’s only all-flute album as a leader, was produced in April, 1981 by the legendary Gus Statiras, a longtime collaborator of George Buck. Statiras put together a remarkably talented quartet to back the flutist: the great Tommy Flanagan, piano; veteran Chuck Wayne, guitar; George Mraz, bass, and Ben Riley, drums. Such experienced and talented musicians make the recording sound as if the group had been working together for years.
The quintet collaborates on four jazz standards plus two Wess originals. What makes this recording somewhat atypical is that Statiras has chosen to include four alternate takes on three of the standards and one of the originals. It’s always fascinating to hear how the solos of top players vary from take to take.
This is, in short, wonderful music…and you’ll learn from it, too.
Rick Trolsen’s New Orleans Po’Boys
2013 Lort Records (Neslort Music)
Rick Trolsen is an extremely versatile musician and certainly one of the top trombonists in the city. Indeed, no less of an authority than veteran bandleader Al Belletto has called him the “best trombone player in the country.” Now that’s high praise.
Trolsen’s talent and versatility are well-illustrated in this recording in a variety of ways. In addition to some fine trombone work, he can also be heard on gravelly-voiced vocals on several tracks, most notably on his six original compositions among the CD’s 16 tracks, and, as a most pleasant surprise, his singing and fine piano playing on the final track.
At the same time, he has assembled an excellent group of collaborators for this session. They include the wonderful Charlie Fardella, trumpet and vocals; the distinctive Bruce Brackman, clarinet; John Rodli, guitar and vocal; Russell Welch, guitar; Steve Braun, bass; and Benji Bohannon, drums. As those names should indicate, the group’s musical style is traditional, and they play such old warhorses as “St. Louis Blues,” “San,” “Smiles,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Bye Bye Blues,” “At Sundown,” and “Running Wild.”
This is first-rate Dixieland jazz played by guys who know what they’re doing and, at the same time, a fun musical experience. Incidentally, you’ll be interested to hear Trolsen’s voice introducing soloists and speaking to listeners on several tracks.
The following article appeared in the Tessiner Zeitung of Locarno, Switzerland, 29 June 2007, p.22.
STEVE BLAILOCK REMEMBERS ED FRANK, "He was my total hero," says the late New Orleans jazz guitarist
Guitarist (and banjoist) Steve Bailock (1944-2013) moved to New Orleans permanently in 1984. Among the musicians with whom he worked in those early years was pianist and arranger Ed Frank, whom he calls "my total hero." Tom Jacobsen, a journalist from New Orleans, met with Steve BIailock a few days ago in the courtyard of the Collegio Papio. Here are some of the thoughts [Steve] shared with him.
[TJ] So you played frequently with Ed Frank? "Yeah," answered Steve Blailock, "we worked every night together in the lobby of the Marriott [Hotel]. We had a trio: Ed and me, and Gerald Adams on bass. It got to where he called me for a lot of recording sessions. anything he was on. He was probably the quickest cat I've ever known. He played like Bud Powell, you know. a real strong bebop player. But he also had all those New Orleans influences too. He and James Booker were roommates. He was actually married to Booker's sister. That was his first wife. He was so quick in so many ways. One night we were playing a gig and a guy came up and said. 'You play really well, but why do you only use one hand when you play?' And Ed, just like that, said, 'gig don't pay much.' (laughs) He was always doing something like that. People would be talking and trying to figure stuff out, and Ed would be sitting there with a big grin on his face and he would sum it up in three words. People were boring him to death.
"His sister is a psychologist. Her name is Edwina. and she was probably the closest person to Ed. She's lold me stories about when he was growing up. He couldn't understand why people couldn't grasp things as quickly as he did. He had a problem with that, but he would never show it. He always had this beautiful presence about him. Every time you saw him. He always made you feel good. a real supporter. I think that's why he was loved so much. He helped so many people. He had so much to offer.
"On that second cut on my CD [Mixed Bag, 1996], ''I'll Close My Eyes," when we went in to record it, I played it through one time. He looked over t0 me and said, 'You going to play it that way?' I said. 'Yeah, why?' He said, 'Cause that ain't the way it go.' So I told the recording engineer, 'Let Ed play this just by himself.' So I learned how the song really went, and we recorded it the next day. But I came in for a session another day--we were doing some overdubs and Ed didn't tell me anything about it--and he had written this beautiful synthesized string arrangement t0 put behind it. To me, man, that's the most beautiful thing on the session. I didn't even ask him to do it. He just did it.
"He had tremendous obstacles going against him. We spent aboul two weeks together. I just stayed over at his house, and we wrote. We were doing a CD for a lady there in New Orleans. And she wanted all the music original, s0 we sat over there for two weeks and wrote it. His house was totally immaculate, with that one hand. Every pair of pants was hung up, every shoe, just everything was immaculate. And he was a single guy.
"He was funny, man. You know what he did? He went up to a guy in New York one time and said, 'You know, you'll never be the man your mama was.' (laughs uproariously) Once he called his girlfriend in New Orleans and said, 'You know what I'm doin'? I'm sitting here with a white boy with a gold tooth that plays the blues and he wanted me to go to sleep'!' (laughs)
"He was just so quick. He could write arrangements at the drop of a hat, complex stuff and just beautiful. Playing with him, Tom, I have never worked with anybody that played the perfect chord changes like he did. It was perfect logic. stuff that I wouldn't think of in a millIon years. It just led exactly where it should go. That was totally his, and that's one reason why I miss him.
"People couldn't just pick that up. It was pure pleasure playing with Ed. Ed was there for one purpose: to make you soar. And that's what he did. I couldn't say enough good things about him."
April 7, 2012
The following is a piece that will appear in the June issue of The Clarinet magazine. In fact, it can now be seen on the website of the International Clarinet Association as a "Preview Article," which follows (photos omitted):
THE JAZZ SCENE
by Thomas W. Jacobsen
New Orleans Clarinetists Today: Pete Fountain
The following is the first in what I hope will be a series of occasional pieces about jazz clarinet players presently working in New Orleans. Accordingly, it seems most appropriate to begin with a brief account of the life and career of the dean of the city’s clarinetists: Pete Fountain. There is probably no more popular or highly esteemed jazz musician in New Orleans today. He has truly become a legend in his own time.
Pete Fountain was born Pierre Dewey La Fontaine Jr. in New Orleans July 3, 1930. Soon thereafter his father changed his own name to Peter Dewey Fountain, thereby modifying his son’s surname as well.
Young Pete was raised in a modest double “shotgun” cottage at 822 N. White St., between Dumaine and St. Ann Streets, one block on the lakeside of N. Broad St. It was an ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood (said to be predominantly French-Spanish-Italian) in what would today be known as Mid-City.
Fountain was introduced to jazz at a tender age. He would hear music played by the likes of Sharkey Bonano, the Prima brothers, clarinetist Raymond Burke and other top local bands while standing outside the Top Hat Club (St. Ann and Dorgenois, on the downtown side of Broad), just a few blocks from his . His father, who drove a beer truck for the Dixie Brewing Company, was an amateur musician. When a doctor recommended that the youngster take up a wind instrument because of weak lungs, he bought Pete a clarinet (at age 12). From that point on, the boy set his goal to be another Benny Goodman. Soon, however, a neighbor introduced him to the music of Irving Fazola who immediately became a second idol. His devotion to Fazola soon led to his nickname “Little Faz” among local jazz fans, and he later replaced his idol on a gig the day Fazola died. Pete inherited at least two of Faz’s clarinets. He in turn gave one of them, a Boehm model to which Faz had switched from a “half-Albert” in his later years, to his erstwhile protégé Tim Laughlin.
Fountain’s formal musical training was of limited duration by today’s professional standards. It began in public school at McDonogh 28, just a few blocks from his home. At the same time he took private lessons on clarinet at the State Band School of Music, which was run by well-known jazz cornetist Johnny Wiggs (John Wigginton Hyman, 1899–1977).
His music education continued at Warren Easton High School, where he had been recruited because of his talent. There his band instructor encouraged him to take additional private lessons with Emanuel Allessandra, a member of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Because of work opportunities and his growing reputation as a jazz musician, Pete left school two months before graduation. With that, his formal music education came to an end. But, as he has often said, his real jazz education was gained on “The Street,” working with veteran jazzmen at the clubs on Bourbon Street.
One of his fellow students at State Band School was the fine trumpeter George Girard (1930–1957), about three months his senior. The two boys became close friends, played together, and recorded, for the first time, with drummer Phil Zito’s International City Dixielanders (1949). That band broke up but re-emerged as the Basin Street Six, a talented and tight group that made three recordings on the Mercury label in the early ’50s. Fountain and Girard also recorded with veteran trombonist Santo Pecora and his band.
While in high school, Pete had met the Assunto brothers, trumpeter Frank (1932–1974) and trombonist Freddie (1929–1966). They formed the Junior Dixieland Band, a group that won a national amateur competition sponsored by bandleader Horace Heidt in 1947. They gained celebrity status as a result of subsequent touring with the Heidt organization.
The Assuntos then formed the Dukes of Dixieland in the early 1950s, and Fountain recorded and briefly toured with that band in the mid-’50s. Despite the band’s success, he returned to New Orleans when his second child (son Kevin) was born. (Pete and his wife Beverly were married in 1951, and they have remained a team ever since.) He recorded with well-known local bandleaders such as drummer Monk Hazel and trumpeters Tony Almerico, Sharkey and Al Hirt, and he made his first recording as a leader in 1954 (Pete Fountain and his Three Coins).
But Fountain’s big break—one that would redirect the course of his career and establish his reputation for good—came in 1957 with a call from popular bandleader Lawrence Welk. He was hired as the Welk band’s jazz clarinetist for their weekly television shows from the West Coast, thereby exposing him to millions of viewers—a great many of whom immediately became fans—across the country. Pete became an overnight star.
Fountain stayed with Welk until 1959, by which time he decided that he had had enough. Like so many New Orleans musicians who leave the city to pursue opportunities elsewhere, he succumbed to the powerful magnetism of his birthplace and returned home. He did not agree with those who criticized him for “going commercial” during his Welk interlude, arguing that it had been an opportunity to introduce many people to jazz who had not been exposed to it before.
Upon his return to his home town, Fountain realized a long-held dream by opening his own club on Bourbon Street. With his newly-acquired star appeal, it became an immediate success drawing fans from all over the country. That was followed by a larger club on Bourbon Street until he opened a more posh venue in the Hilton Hotel Riverside in 1977. The latter remained his local base until 2003, when he decided that 43 years as a club owner was enough. During this period, Fountain was a frequent guest on national television talk shows (including 59 appearances on the Johnny Carson show) and made scores of records. In all, he has made about 100 recordings. Three of his albums (Pete Fountain’s New Orleans [considered by many his best], The Blues, and Mr. New Orleans), as well as one single (“A Closer Walk with Thee”), have “gone gold.” Recognition of his popularity in his hometown was reflected by the erection of a life-size statue of the clarinetist in Music Legends Park on Bourbon Street in April 2003.
With a vibrato that is perhaps the most identifiable characteristic of his big sound, Pete has been quoted, “Between Faz and Benny, I tried to come up with my own style. I tried to combine Faz’s fat mellow sound together with Goodman’s drive and technique.”
The years since then have not been easy for Fountain. Like so many along the Gulf Coast, his primary home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi—along with the entirety of its contents and memorabilia—was totally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. This had a severe impact on his life in so many ways, not least in terms of his health. For the first time in 45 years he missed participating in Mardi Gras with his Half-Fast Walking Club (HFWC) in February 2006. In the following month he had open-heart (quadruple by-pass) surgery, from which he recovered successfully (even performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival later in May). Loyola University of New Orleans awarded him an honorary degree that spring as well.
Nevertheless, he resumed his regular gig at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis and was back living there in a renovated home. His last performance at the Hollywood was in December 2010. He put his property up for sale and moved back to his old home in the Lake Vista neighborhood of New Orleans, where he continues to reside today.
Pete resumed his participation with the HFWC at Mardi Gras in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and, as of this writing, 2012. The group observed its 50th anniversary in 2010, and it was an honor for me to be part of that special occasion.
Fountain and his family celebrated his 80th birthday with a festive party at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl Club in New Orleans in July 2010. The hall was filled with hundreds of his admirers, and, of course, Pete “tooted” for them.
Fountain’s health remains fragile, but he expresses no interest in retiring. Since his major heart surgery, he suffered two minor strokes and a severe case of the shingles. As of this writing, he was playing very few gigs apart from his annual appearances at Mardi Gras, French Quarter Festival (he’s played at all of them since the beginning) and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (“Jazzfest”). Tim Laughlin, Pete’s ”best protégé” (as he puts it), has always been at his side in his public performances in the last few years. “He is my man,” Pete often says publicly.
I can only say, in conclusion, that I join his many other admirers in wishing Pete the very best and looking forward to his appearance at Jazzfest 2012.
Pete played his Leblanc France Pete Fountain model clarinet with a large 15 mm bore and gold-plated keys on some 40 albums and countless live performances. Fondly known as “Old Betsy,” he gave the instrument to his buddy Tim Laughlin in 2009, replacing it with a modified version known as the Leblanc Fountain “Big Easy” model, with an O’Brien mouthpiece and ligature. He uses M.A.R.C.A. (#2 ½ ) reeds.
For further reading
Charles Suhor, “Pete Fountain,” Downbeat 28 (1961) 20–21
Pete Fountain with Bill Neely, A Closer Walk, The Pete Fountain Story, Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1972
Nick Compagno, “A Closer Talk with Pete Fountain,” The Clarinet 20:1 (1992) 34–38
Thomas W. Jacobsen, “Tim Laughlin, Second Banana or Heir Apparent?,” in Traditional New Orleans Jazz, Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music, LSU Press, Baton Rouge (2011), 41–52
John Swenson, “A Half-Fast Walk with Pete,” OFFBEAT, April, 2011, 44–48
Selected recordings as leader/featured soloist
Pete Fountain’s New Orleans (1959, Coral CRL 57282)
The Blues: Pete Fountain with Charles “Bud” Dant’s Orchestra (1959, Coral CRL 57284)
Mr. New Orleans (1963, Coral CRL 757440)
Pete’s Place: Recorded Live at Pete Fountain’s French Quarter Inn (1964, Coral CRL 757453)
Cheek to Cheek (1993, Ranwood RDS 1009.
1. French Quarter Festival, April 2008. Pete, still in frail condition, acknowledges a warm reception from his countless admirers.
2. Pete Fountain’s boyhood home today. It is the left-hand half of the double.
3. Rock ‘n’ Bowl, July 2010. Tim Laughlin and Pete “tooting” at Pete’s 80th birthday party.
4. Same venue. Pete and wife Beverly.
David Baker, A Legacy in Music
By Monika Herzig, with contributions by Nathan Davis, JB Dyas, John Edward Hasse, Willard Jenkins, Lissa May, Brent Wallarab, and David Ward-Steinman. Foreword by Quincy Jones
Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2011
Review by Thomas Jacobsen
While the word does not appear in any of its more than 400 pages, this attractive volume clearly belongs to the academic literary genre known by the German term “Festschrift.” As such, it implies (normally just one) volume celebrating the life and achievements of a highly respected academic. The contributors to the volume are usually the honoree’s colleagues and/or former students.
In this instance, the volume celebrates Professor David Baker of the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (IU) on his 80th birthday (December 21, 1931). All contributors--with the exception of our own Willard Jenkins and Dr. Nathan Davis, director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh--have a connection with IU in one way or another.
Born in Germany, Dr. Herzig came to the United States in 1988 and eventually received her doctorate in Music Education and Jazz Studies at Indiana University. She is a jazz pianist and composer, a former student of Baker and now his colleague on the IU faculty. Dyas also has his PhD degree in Music Education from Indiana; Hasse has his doctorate in Ethnomusicology from IU; May received all her degrees from Indiana and is an associate professor in her alma mater’s music school; Wallarab is also on the music faculty at Indiana; and Ward-Steinman is an adjunct professor in the Jacobs School of Music. Even Quincy Jones has an honorary doctorate from IU and gave the commencement address there last year.
As a former member of IU’s faculty myself (now Professor Emeritus), I got to know David Baker as a friendly acquaintance. We started at Indiana in the very same year, 1966, he in the School of Music and I in the College of Arts and Sciences. We once served together on a large pan-university committee, and David kindly allowed me to sit in on his popular jazz history class in 1987. (It’s not often that one faculty member has an opportunity to see another faculty member in class on an almost daily basis, and I have to say that that experience was a distinct pleasure for me.) I also had occasion to see Baker in action many times on the performance stage, both in the Musical Arts Center on campus and at the nearby club known as Bear‘s Place. I know a number of his former students who are now professional musicians. I have also run into David many times since retiring, most recently when he was in New Orleans as an NEA Jazz Master to deliver a lecture at Loyola University last year.
Under the circumstances, Howard Mandel rightly warned me--”in the interest of journalistic integrity re the JJA”--to not hesitate to point out any of the book’s “flaws or limitations” (if they existed) in my review. I have attempted to take his advice into careful consideration as I contemplated that which follows.
The volume is divided into nine chapters plus six appendixes; a bibliography of Baker’s written works; a Baker discography; and a selected list of publications about David Baker. Also included in the book is a CD with 11 tracks of selected Baker compositions and performances by him on both trombone and cello.
Quincy Jones notes in his foreword that Baker, then a trombonist in his band that toured Europe in 1960, “could really play.” He goes on to say, “As my success grew scoring films, arranging, and producing, I tempted David to come and join me in Hollywood. But his dedication to teaching, and to the program he built at Indiana University, was stronger than the promise of riches and fame.” That pretty much captures the spirit of the man represented in this book. As JB Dyas observes later (Chapter 4, “Defining Jazz Education”), “David is an eminent performer, composer, arranger, bandleader, and conductor--but I believe he has made his greatest contributions as a pedagogue.” Indeed, those contributors who studied with him, beginning with the comments of Herzig in her preface, emphasize Baker’s high standards as a teacher as well as the high expectations he has for his students, who included the likes of Randy Brecker, Jamey Aebersold, Chris Botti, Jim Beard, John Clayton, Shawn Pelton, Herzig herself and on and on. But the aim of the Baker Festschrift is to give as complete a picture as possible of the many dimensions of this remarkable man.
In Chapter 1, May surveys Baker’s youth in Indianapolis, where he grew up, and his relationship with peers such as fellow trombonists Slide Hampton and J. J. Johnson.
Herzig outlines his early career in Chapter 2, including his winning Downbeat’s New Star Award in 1962, attending Indiana University (MA, 1954), his first real jazz education at the prestigious Lenox School of Jazz, his early compositions and performing with the George Russell Sextet, and his first teaching position at Lincoln University in Missouri.
The turning point in Baker’s career--the 1953 auto accident that eventually caused him to give up the trombone and turn to the cello and jazz education--is covered by Herzig and Davis in Chapter 3 (“New Beginnings”).
JB Dyas, vice president of education for the Thelonius Monk Institute, discusses thoroughly and in considerable detail Baker’s approach to jazz education in Chapter 4.
In Chapter 5, Brent Wallarab, trombonist, arranger and co-leader of the Buselli-Wallarab big band, joins with Herzig in evaluating Baker’s contributions as a composer and arranger--especially as they are reflected in his “21st Century Bebop Band.” I had occasion to watch this band, with its unusual instrumentation--cello, tuba, flute (played so well by David’s wife Lida), piano, bass and drums--evolve in the 1980s.
Composer David Ward-Steinman discusses the scope and details of some of Baker’s compositions, estimated to be more than 2,000 in all, in Chapter 6 (“The Composer”).
John Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian, analyzes in detail Baker’s intimate relationship to that institution, especially the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the new Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology (just released in the spring of last year). Chapter 7 is exceptionally thorough and the longest in the book.
Chapter 8 (“Social Engagement“) focuses on David Baker’s service to his profession by addressing his relationship to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council on the Arts, the late National Jazz Service Organization, the late National Association of Jazz Educators and its successor, the late International Association for Jazz Education. Jenkins succeeds in demonstrating Baker’s devoted and tireless service to jazz.
In a “Coda” (Chapter 9), Herzig offers a most interesting analysis of the state and future of jazz education.
Finally, just to mention the appendixes: A (“List of Compositions”), B (“Awards and Honors”), C (“Service”), D (“Performing Experience”), E (“Teaching”) and F (“Professional Societies and Organizations, Past and Present”). I would have liked to see a list of Baker’s best known students (especially those who are now performing) as well, though I understand the difficulties of preparing such a list.
Jazz education has come a long way since its formal beginning at (then) North Texas State in 1947. As we all know, countless institutions of higher education now offer jazz courses and/or degrees, and several centers of excellence now exist (Indiana University certainly among them). Maybe I’m overly sensitive since I live in a city where two fine programs in jazz education can be found, at Loyola University and the University of New Orleans (as well as the first-rate program on the secondary school level at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts). Yet, while fully realizing this volume is intended to focus on David Baker, Herzig’s presentation rather gave me the impression that IU is at the center of the jazz ed universe.
I give warm thanks, in conclusion, to Ms. Herzig for putting together the Baker Festschrift. Unlike many other examples of the genre, this one has real substance. It is a fine tribute to this extraordinary man and a valuable contribution to the history of jazz for the last half century. I recommend it highly.
I have been going through old materials preparing my next book, and I came upon the BECHET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION that the city of New Orleans observed in 1997. It was a wonderful occasion, and a local musician--the late Jacques Gauthe (1939-2007), a Bechet devotee--played a major role in the celebration. He did a Bechet tribute album that year ("Echoes of Sidney Bechet") as well, and I was honored to have been asked to do the liner notes for the CD. Those notes follow below. I would only add that Jacques was a fine musician and good friend. He is deeply missed in this city.
The year 1997 marks the lOOth anniversary of the birth of one of the pioneering giants of jazz, Sidney Joseph Bechet of New Orleans. [Editorial aside: Gauthe later told me that Bechet had told him that his birth year was really 1891 and they even celebrated his centennial in France in 1991. I have not confirmed this.]
Accordingly, the city of New Orleans and the Consul General of France (where Bechet spent most of the 1ast decade of his llfe) have joined with other organizations to honor the great performer and composer with a Centennial Celebration. This recording is its own testimony to the enduring influence of Bechet's music.
Sidney Bechet was born in New Orleans' Seventh Ward on May 14, 1897. He took up both cornet and clarinet at a young age and was soon playing parades, picnics, and saloons with the likes of eventual jazz legends Buddy Petit, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard, Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Kid Ory. By his mid-teens he had become a fuII·time working musician and was widely considered the top improvising clarinetist in a city known for its many fine jazz clarinet players.
But before long the restlessness and wanderlust that characterized most of his adult llfe led him to leave his birthplace, not to return for more than a quarter century. The immediate magnet was the midwestern metropolis of Chicago, and the year was 1917. Despite clear successes in the Windy City, his rapidly growing reputation soon brought him to New York and, by the spring of 1919, to Europe for the first time.
The opportunity that led to the first of many transatlantic voyages for Bechet was provided by the distinguished black composer and conductor Will Marion Cook who hired him for a concert tour with Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra. He was an instant success in Europe--as is reflected by the oft-cited review of a 1919 concert in London by the eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who referred to the 22-year-old Bechet as "an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso" and "an artist of genius."
The next dozen years found Bechet spending most of his time abroad, with periodic visits back to the States. Highlights of those years include his first American recordings (with Clarence Williams and Louis Armstrong) and his growing recognition as an outstanding soloist on soprano saxophone as well as clarinet. He was from the outset a dominant and powerful musical presence, and those qualities--along with the intense passion of his playing--also marked his personal llfestyie.
The nearly two decades that followed his return to America, in the fall of 1931, were difficult for Bechet. Yet it was also a lime of some of his greatest recordings: the sessions with the New Orleans Feet· Warmers, Noble Sissle's big band, Muggsy Spanier, and of course the great Blue Note sessions, to name but a few. He made two brief trips back to New Orleans in the mid-Forties, but they were his first and last visits to his home since leaving it in 1917.
He was back in Europe by 1949 and soon making plans to settle in France permanently. He did so in 1951, at the age of 54, and remained there until his death from cancer (on his birthday) in 1959. Bechet's years in France brought the celebrity, wealth, and adulation that had somehow eluded him in his earlier years. He became a star of the first magnitude almost at once.
Jacques Gauthe, who grew up during those years, remembers it this way. "Bechet was a hero," he says. "He had a powerful impact on everybody, from seven-year-old kids to seventy-year-olds. He came [to France] at the right moment. Right after the war, after the suffering of six years, the people needed something to enjoy, and Bechet came with his soprano and his music. He adapted real well to France, he appealed very much to the French people, and he spoke French.
"The jukeboxes in cafes were full of his music," says Gauthe. "Out of 50 records [in a jukebox] at least half were Bechet. It was incredible. If it wasn't me putting a coin in the machine, it was somebody else--and it was always Bechet music."
Few American musicians are better qualified to pay tribute to Sidney Bechet and his music than Jacques Gauthe. Born in 1939 near Toulouse in the south of France, Jacques grew up in a musical environment and was listening to jazz (including Bechet) on radio and on records in his uncle's collection from an early age. His father was in the food business and wanted Jacques to grow up to be a chef, but it became pretty clear that the lad had ambitions to become a musician. While he started out (somewhat grudgingly) on piano, things changed rather dramatically at age 12.
While visiting relatives in Paris in 1951, Jacques was taken to a concert of Bechet with the band of French clarinetist Claude Luter. "That's it," he told his parents. "I want to play clarinet." They obliged, and he began studying the instrument at a music conservatory. He returned to Paris with his uncle for another concert in the following year, when he first met Bechet and began a friendship with Luter that has lasted to the present day. He moved to Paris for eight months when he was 14 ("I listened to Bechet at the Colombier [club] every night," he recalls) but returned to Toulouse when his parents discovered that he hadn't been attending school as experted.
Yet Jacques continued to stay in touch with Luter, who came to be something of a mentor. He and Bechet played several concerts in Toulouse over the years, but one (in 1957) was particularly memorable for Gauthe. "Claude invited me to the bandstand," be recalls. "And Bechet recognized me. He said, 'Oh, I remember that kid. You play clarinet.' I was scared to death," he laughs, "but we did three numbers and it was okay. I was invited to the restaurant the next day to eat with the whole band. I asked Bechet one thousand and one questions, and all the time he was saying, 'You have to work on your technique. Stay with your teacher at the music school, do all your scales as fast as you can, learn the chords.. .' Technique, technique--that was his main message. He told me later, 'Don't play like me. Be yourself...'"
But soon Bechet was gone. By that time Gauthe was recording, playing tenor and alto saxes in swing bands and clarinet (occasionally even cornet) in his own Dlxleland group. He was also gigging with other American expatriates in France, like clarinetists Albert Nicholas and Mezz Mezzrow and saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Don Byas. Then the bug bit him. (He describes it as a "virus" transmitted by those Americans.) "Every European musician wants to go to New Orleans, at least once in his life," he says.
So, he and his wife Nelly took a week's vacation in the Crescent City in 1965. They were so taken with the place that, three years later, they packed up the fami1y (by then including three kids) and moved to New Orleans. Jacques viewed it as a two-year trial experiment, but fortunately he had followed his father's advice and was able to secure employment as an associate chef at Galatoire's restaurant. Soon be became executive chef at the exclusive Plimsoll Club.
With the security of his day gig he was able to ease himself into the local music scene. There were some surprises. "When I first arrived in New Orleans," he recalls, "nobody knew Bechet--not even the musicians. That shocked me. I was mad about it. So, when I got a chance to have a program in the early days of [public radio station] WWOZ, that was the only music I played. I played Bechet all the time."
While Bechet was his number-one influence, Jacques Gauthe's musical interests are wide ranging. "I like everything in jazz, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Sonny Rollins," he says. "I have a panoramic view in my tastes. As long as it swings, I like it." Sidney Bechet would bave probably said much the same.
In 1984 Gauthe decided to retire from cooking and focus his considerable energies on music. Again he gave himself a two-year trial period. He developed the jazz program at the Meridien Hotel where his band, the Creole Rice Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was the house band for years. He continues to lead and tour with that fine group today.
Soon thereafter Jacques took up the soprano saxophone seriously. It has come to be his preferred instrument because, as Bechet believed before him, it is a more powerful lead instrument than the clarinet. "Bechet was really a trumpet player," he smiles, "and maybe that's why I too like the soprano.
"I want to play more Bechet because nobody is playing it," says Gauthe, "especially in this town. Sidney is the cause of why I moved, why I'm here, why I'm a musician. So I think I have to give that to him and promote his music as best I can. Sidney Bechet's music is swing music. Bechet never played New Orleans music the way people understand New Orleans music today. If you like to put 1abeIs on it, I would say Bechet was playing New York style already in 1920, probably even while be was here in New Orleans.
"Here [on this CD] we have recorded mainly tunes that Bechet wrote in France while he was playing with the Claude Luter band," he concludes. "I grew up with that. Maybe it's sentimental, but it came out naturally that I would play those tunes that I heard as a kid."
INTERVIEW WITH THE REVEREND ANDREW DARBY JR.
Conducted at St. Bernard Community Baptist Church, Sunday, June 6, 2004. The church is located just across the street from the St. Bernard Public Housing Project.
[The first part of taped recording included portions of a concert at the church and remarks by Rev. Darby]
TJ: You mentioned to me on the telephone when we talked last week that you met Danny Barker and invited him to form the Fairview youth band around 1970. Can you be any more precise?
AD: No, I would have to check with some people. But I could say anytime from ‘69 to ‘70 because that
was when we first started parading. We paraded around the neighborhood. The first year Danny Barker
brought a lot of renowned musicians that came around and did our first Easter parade. We used to form in the St. Bernard project [western Gentilly] and have our outside services, and he would bring in a lot of [good musicians]. I think a guy named Cottrell, Barbarin, a lot of old guys. Some of the older guys were kinda [hesitant] but the young guys were so aggressive, and they said they were gonna stop the young guys [laughs]. One old man--I think he was a drummer--he was standing on the labor union hall on Claiborne and said, “next year I’m going to stop these kids.” Because when the kids would play they would never run out of wind, but the old men would play a while and walk a while [laughs]. But the old man had gone on to heaven and those kids were still marching. So we had a lot of fun with them.
I traveled with the kids many places, locally. We dedicated Louie Armstrong’s--I think it was one of his birthdays--out at Milne Boys Home. Because Louie Armstrong was in Milne Boys Home--that’s where he
came from. Louie Armstrong’s wife was at this occasion, at Milne, and I brought our children, with Danny. And we went up to a celebration out from New Roads, LA--took a bus load of kids up there. People up there celebrating [life?], some of them went naked [laughs] and the kids just played and played. And this was a lovely means of creating money for the kids. As I was telling you, brother Barker was invited to go to a Easter Seal program at one of the hotels in New Orleans, and he asked the kids about it. And the kids asked what kind of money they were going to get. Barker say, they don’t have any money--they just want you all to come and do a number. They say, we don’t wanna go. So I encouraged them, saying “go on and play, don’t worry about money.” And they went, and they got a “gig,” as they called it, from playing at that to go to Kentucky. And I remember when they came back from Kentucky, all of them were smiling. They had money in their pockets--they were wonderfully compensated. So many of them make me happy today, when I see them doing well. You know, making a living off of what they were just doing casually because they were school kids.
But how the band really got started, Danny just came and joined the church. I didn’t really invite him. I just met him at the church. And he said, while he was sitting in the church, he looked up on the choir stand and the members of the choir transformed into his family that had passed on, like angels on the choir stand. He said they were beckoning him, you know. He had a vision while he was sitting in church. And he came up and joined, and I baptized him and he became a part of our fellowship.
TJ: And you said he was a Catholic.
AD: Oh, yes. He and his wife, both of them were Catholic. And they joined. Well, Lu Blue [sic] sang in the choir for a long time. And Danny would always work with the band. He went around entertaining school children. He could get more...more...gigs! And there was a guy, Durrell Black--you heard of him? He was an entrepreneur, a businessman. I think he owned a radio station or something. He’d always give them money, large sums. Danny used to always talk about him.
TJ: Would he still be alive?
AD: I don’t think so. He was an old man then. He was as old as Danny, or older. But he was a well-off old guy, and he used to always give money. I remember that very vividly. He would always help the
kids, and the kids liked money--they needed it--so... Many of them were poor--all of them were. But the family was supportive. We traveled around to different churches and schools, and we entertained. I
think Danny got hooked up with the school board to go and entertain at schools. They would meet in auditoriums, and we’d take the band over there and play some numbers.
And we also went to prisons with those kids. I remember going to Scotlandville and performing. When we went to Angola [state prison], we didn’t get out of the bus, but we rode around in the bus and played. And the guys in Angola would shout, “That’s New Orleans music! That’s New Orleans music!” [laughs] We had a lot of good times with the kids, you know. I’m very grateful today to see those kids having done well. Like I say, that’s the same thing we’re doing right now. We still work with these kids and try to give them a chance. Many of them that wouldn’t be able to leave this neighborhood, but with their talent… We’ve got some kids out there right now that could leave this neighborhood, but I will put monies together, load ‘em up and hit the road. We’re going to Louisville the third Sunday evening.
TJ: What is that occasion?
AD: That is a religious conference with the Baptist Church, a Sunday school congress. My wife directs the band in the Sunday school congress. Kids from all over the country come and they bring their horns. And we bring along a lot of instruments. I have a number of instruments here. We load them up in the bus, and kids that don’t have stuff we share with them. My wife takes kids that can’t play music at all, and she can get them playing in no time. Then the thing about it is, when they start here, they go to school and go on.
So this is the kind of things I’ve done for 36 years here--at this church and at Fairview Church. Since 1968.
TJ: So, did you come to New Orleans then?
AD: Oh, no, no, no. I live in the house I was born in. My father was a clergyman. My grandfather used to develop real estate and property, and I was with him and saw how he would do that. So I wanted that big church down there, but we couldn’t afford that. I put it together piece by piece. I got a man to draw the plans and went to City Hall and got them approved.
TJ: You’re talking about Fairview?
AD: Yeah, Fairview. Well, I did the same thing down here! I put this together. We never had a loan to build this. We bought this and put it together piece by piece. It’s not totally finished right now [laughs],
but by the grace of God we’ve been able to function. We’ve been wonderfully blessed. We keep our doors open. We just last year got our first grant. I have a non-profit corporation, and we have a number
of teachers who are working here. And I’ve got wireless internet in here and a bunch of computers. We’re linked up with the University of New Orleans, and now we’re partnering with Southern University. My
wife worked last week in partnership with Southern University. So we plan to bring kids from our tutoring program back to Southern University, where they can get that infusion to help to inspire
them to go further. Last year they did that for the first time. That is what my wife did her proposal on, training people who would be difficult to train by using technology. That’s what she wrote on, and
her dissertation is on the worldwide web. So that’s what it’s all about, trying to make a difference in a very dormant situation.
TJ: Well, you clearly are making a difference.
AD: And we started off with nothing [laughs]. Now my membership, I hardly have 10% that live in this community. Most of my members come from other places, the West Bank. Another girl lives right down the street from Al Copeland, the chicken king. She’s a little St. Bernard project girl. That was her granddaughter that sang [earlier this evening]. She’s a registered nurse, just came back from California on a nursing instructional tour. But they come back here to give back. A lot of people...they’re kind of satisfied. [laughs] Twenty years ago I was sleeping on the floor here. But today, 20 years later, I’ve been
to 10 different countries. My wife decided she wanted to go back to school and get her masters and her PhD and teach. She was planning to be a lawyer, but she decided she wanted to teach. We took $40 and opened up a little candy shop out front of the church. I bought the candy wholesale. The next week we were doing a $1000 a week--just turning it over. Then I started buying a grocery store, the Liberty Grocery Store, but it was taking so much of our time. So we closed it up. We came back here and started working back with the church. In the community--I generalize--everybody that die back here, whenever they have death, they come see me. I have their funeral right here. Send ‘em away in class. Some of them come and see me before they die: “I want you to send me away like you sent my boy away.” [laughs] I can’t put ‘em in heaven, but they just like...[laughs] People just come from all over, looking to have a great time--at funerals, you know.
TJ: When did you leave Fairview and come here?
AD: 1983. Started the church in ‘83. 1982 was my last year at Fairview. And 12 people left with me. My wife had bought this little building--it was like a little double house--and a guy offered us $1100 a
month for this place. It was demolished, just like a haunted house. I said, if it’s worth $1100 to him, it’s got to be worth more to me. And I wouldn’t take that $1100, and at that time I needed money real bad.
Something just didn’t allow me to take what he had. And then, after a while, our relationship just didn’t work, so I came down here and started off in this little building--with just a few people. But just blessed us and blessed us. I could have been a lot further with the building, but I spent so much money traveling, exposing these kids. You see, I think that’s very important. So many of the kids from our church, they would never know nothing but the St. Bernard project. I have been as far as Ontario and Niagra Falls, Canada, with these kids. Like I say, this year we’re going to Louisville and we’re going to stay in a beautiful...we always stay in the headquarters hotel. I don’t know how God opens the way for us to do that. We never stay in Days Inn [laughs], we always stay in the headquarters. And that puts riches in them because, in my life, I wasn’t rich but my daddy always owned his own home. I saw my grandpa develop subdivisions with a third-grade education. I saw him put his name on a sign, you know. So I had that exposure. I knew other black men who developed subdivisions, Joe Bartholomy, the man who built City Park. You ever heard of him? That’s a great name to look up.
TJ: Was he a relative of the mayor [Sidney Barthelemy, who was mayor of New Orleans from 1986 to 1994]?
AD: He might have been. I don’t know. All I knew is the guy who built City Park. He was a great golfer, and he built all those mounds out there. I used to work for him, years ago when I was a youngster.
Being around all these successful guys--Adam Haydel developed a subdivision. You heard of him? He has a graveyard down in Gentilly, a subdivision on the West Bank and a subdivision in New Orleans East.
So these are guys that I have been exposed to. When you have that exposure, it affects you, and especially black men. I can look at a white man all I want, but it doesn’t ring a bell in my head. But when I see a black man doing it, you know, [laughs] it tells me it’s within reach. And a lot of kids have told me that about myself. One guy used to do electrical work. I was putting up the meter box when we were building on that church down there, and the guy’s little boy--it was his little son who sang tonight. He say, “I saw you doing that, and I want to be a man like you.” I’m trying to get him to go to school now. But he is a tremendous worker with his hands. But that’s why it’s important to have strong men in the community. And a lot of people don’t want to do anything. They don’t like me. They just get mad. I’m not going to encourage you to do nothing! I want you to succeed, you know, and go. But a lot of people want to get into that rocking chair and just rock and wait on blessings to come.
Whatever I can do in this community... I go to the schools for graduations, whatever is going on that I can do for the community. My wife and I go around and help to push, whatever we can do. This year she’s been working on her graduate stuff and couldn’t attend with me like she normally does. But we have had a great time pushing this neighborhood--if housing wants to have a meeting, our doors are open. When I first started here, we used to feed 30 guys sitting up under the tree. Guys said, “Reverend, I don’t have any way to eat tomorrow.” So I said, "Come back tomorrow." So for about 3 years straight, we fed, and all those guys--alcoholics, winos--they all joined. I baptized all of them, and they became members of our church. And just about all of them I buried--none of ‘em were as old as I am, but they were guys that had been caught up in habits, you know. But they all helped to build the church. There’s one right now that just recently died, Chaney. They all worked with me helping dig out the foundation. So that’s been a real beautiful journey. One night a guy knocked on the door in this building--my wife and I were here--and he said, “Let me come in. I want to talk to you.” We let him in, and he said, “Don’t leave this community. We need you back here.” I was at a point where I did not know whether I would stay back here or leave. But God blessed us. So this is where we are today, working with people and children, motivating them and pushing them. In the Black Baptist Church we are not subsidized by anybody. We are totally on our own power.
Thomas W. Jacobsen
(This first appeared in the May, 2006 issue of The Mississippi Rag.
I have been sitting on this CD for nearly six months now and decided that a review of it must get out as soon as possible. Therefore, the following is published here for the first time. For more about clarinetist Ken Peplowski, see my article, “A Conversation with Ken Peplowski,” which is reproduced here on the Archive page.
By Thomas Jacobsen
IN SEARCH OF… Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor saxophone) with Shelly Berg, piano; Tom Kennedy, bass; and Jeff Hamilton, drums [tracks 1-9]; Peplowski with Greg Cohen, bass; Joe Ascione, drums; and Chuck Redd, vibes [tracks 10-12]. 1.The Thespian (5:12); 2. Love’s Disguise (8:00); 3. When Joanna Loved Me (5:16); 4. Falsa Baiana (7:03); 5. A Ship Without A Sail (5:53); 6. With Every Breath I Take (4:55); 7. In Flower (5:32); 8. Peps (5:29); 9. This Nearly Was Mine (4:38); 10. No Regrets (6:20); 11. Within You and Without You (4:49); and 12. Rum And Coca Cola (5:20). Capri 74108-2. CAPRI Records Ltd., Bailey, CO 80421, www.caprirecords.com.
Ken Peplowski has been one of my favorite jazz clarinet players since I first heard him on record more than two decades ago. Eventually, I had an opportunity to interview him less than 10 years ago for The Clarinet magazine. (That interview, published in 2003, can be seen on the Archive page of this site. It reveals the clarinetist’s wide-ranging interests and talents as well as his fetching sense of humor.) Peplowski is also a first-rate saxophone player, and you will hear him on tenor sax on this CD as well.
The recording was released last March and features music from two different recording sessions. The first is represented by tracks 1-9, and, as he adds in the liner notes, “the last three tracks have been lifted from a self-produced, and, until now, unissued session I did in 2007.” These tunes, he goes on to write, “come from a period when I was fed up dealing with various record companies for various reasons, and decided I would just put out my own session. I recorded an entire disc’s worth of tunes…and decided to leave most of that self-produced session in the can. The final three selections on this CD, though, are the tracks from that session that are still pestering me for release…
Ken Peplowski has always impressed me with his knack for finding lovely melodies and playing them with sensitivity and great beauty. His choice of tunes to play on this recording is a good example of that. They come from the Great American Song Book as well as less well-known sources and include two originals (tracks 7 and 8) by his fine pianist Shelly Berg.
Peplowski is heard here on both clarinet--his primary instrument--and tenor saxophone. As it turns out--perhaps not accidentally--there are six tracks of each on this recording. As always, I am partial to the clarinet, and that instrument can be heard on tracks 2, 5, 6, 8, 11, and 12. Most are pretty ballads. I am always amazed at his gorgeous (almost “legit”) intonation and the grace and beauty with which he executes his repertoire. The uptempo “Peps” reveals another side of his playing: his impeccable technique and mastery over his instrument. And, of course, New Orleans listeners will be struck by the final track, about which he writes, “’Rum and Coca Cola’ was a reprise of a performance Joe Ascione and I did at a benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims at a rock club in Manhattan… We went in and did an homage to the late, great Professor Longhair… It’s his version of this tune we’re referencing.”
Peplowski’s saxophone tracks are also impressive, again including a number of lovely ballads. I particularly liked his Getz-like treatment of “Falsa Baiana,” in which drummer Hamilton provides a catching samba groove, and Berg’s original “In Flower,” a tribute to the late Billy Strayhorn.
Peplowski writes about the last three numbers, “I’m rather proud of this recording--the only rehearsal we had was me ’talking down’ what would probably happen in the arrangement and what I wanted in the way of feel from each of the participants [Greg Cohen, Joe Ascione and Chuck Redd], and away we went. One take, and one take only!”
Well, in my view, Peps should be “rather proud” of the recording as a whole. He rarely disappoints.
The two following reviews appeared in the current (September, 2011) issue of The Clarinet magazine (Vol. 38, No. 4, 2011, pp. 96-97). (I wrote and submitted them months ago.) You doubtless know about the first clarinetist, but the second one may be new to you (he certainly was to me):
by Thomas Jacobsen
Remembering Song. Evan Christopher, clarinet; Bucky Pizzarelli, acoustic guitar; James Chirillo, electric guitar; Greg Cohen, bass. Evan Christopher: “The Remembering Song--Prelude;” Evan Christopher: “The Wrath of Grapes;” Henry Creamer and Turner Layton: “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans;” Evan Christopher: “The River by the Road;” Evan Christopher: “The Remembering Song--Interlude;” Tommy Ladnier: “Mojo Blues;” Evan Christopher: “You Gotta Treat It Gentle;” Jelly Roll Morton: “My Home Is in a Southern Town;” Evan Christopher: “Serenade;” Evan Christopher: “The Remembering Song;” Evan Christopher: “Waltz for All Souls;” Henry Creamer and Turner Layton: “Dear Old Southland.” ARBORS RECORDS ARCD 19383. Total time: 60:20. www.arborsrecords.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I have suggested before in this journal, Evan Christopher is widely recognized as a rising star in jazz clarinetistry--despite performing in a style (pre-bop) and being based in a city (New Orleans) far from the media mainstream. His growing reputation is perhaps no more evident than in the naming of his 2010 album Finesse as the “Jazz Album of the Year” by the Sunday Times of London in December of last year. Unfortunately, that announcement was made just after my review of that album (in the March issue of this journal) went to press.
The CD under consideration here was actually recorded some six months or so before the Finesse album. I have to admit that, upon first listening, it did not seem to measure up to the latter or some of Christopher’s other recent recordings. But I would hasten to add that, as is so often the case, first impressions are not always accurate. Indeed, I found this a most pleasant and listenable disc. Understated as it is, it is, in my judgment, New Orleans clarinet playing through and through--no doubt about it--though Evan is the only New Orleans resident in this fine group.
Christopher is joined in this drumless-pianoless quartet context by three of the top East Coast string-playing jazzmen (all of whom, of course, are well acquainted with New Orleans music): the veteran Bucky Pizzarelli on acoustic (not exclusively rhythm) guitar; James Chirillo, electric guitar (with many fine solos); and bassist Greg Cohen. All contribute mightily to the success of this recording.
Evan Christopher has increasingly become recognized as a composer as well as instrumentalist, and all but four of the album’s tunes are his original compositions. Moreover, the four exceptions are presented in an exceptional/original manner.
While the two guitars and bass plus clarinet might suggest a bow to Django--and that would not be surprising in view of some of Christopher’s recent albums--I would say that only one track (Evan’s “Wrath of Grapes") gave me that feeling. In fact, I would say that the shadow of New Orleanian Sidney Bechet loomed largest over this collection, not so much in Evan’s playing as in the inspiration behind the album’s concept. In Bechet’s semi-mythical autobiography Treat It Gentle, he talks about his music, “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end.”
The Bechet influence is also present in several of the tunes. “The River by the Road” is another reference to a passage in Bechet’s autobiography; “Mojo Blues” is by New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, a longtime early collaborator of Bechet both musically and in the tailor shop they operated jointly during the Depression; “You Gotta Treat it Gentle” is clearly drawn from the title of Bechet’s autobiography; “Dear Old Southland” was, of course, a tune often played by Bechet (mostly on soprano sax); and so on.
But there is more of New Orleans as well. Jelly Roll’s “My Home is in a Southern Town” (the original sheet music of which hangs on my study wall in front of me as I write these lines) is a complex and not often heard piece by the great piano master. Christopher’s “Waltz for All Souls” is a bow to another New Orleans clarinet tradition--Evan calls it “the New Orleans Revival" vocabulary--the woodwind champion of which was the famous George Lewis. In this piece Evan evokes the oft-imitated Lewis sound.
Evan Christopher lived in Paris following the devastation associated with Hurricane Katrina. He says, “Essentially, Delta Bound with [pianist] Dick Hyman [recorded just a few months after Katrina and discussed by me in the September, 2008 issue of this journal] was about leaving New Orleans but staying tied to the city through the music even though I wasn’t sure I’d ever live here again. This record is about being back.”
And back he is, newly married, and--we hope--permanently settled in the city.
Clarinet is King. Songs of Great Clarinetists. Dave Bennett, clarinet; Tad Weed, piano; Paul Keller, bass; Peter Siers, drums. Cole Porter: “Begin the Beguine;” Roby Mellin: “Stranger on the Shore;” L. Hampton, T. Wilson and B. Goodman, “Dizzy Spells;” Joe Primrose, “St. James Infirmary;” Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell: “You Are My Sunshine;” Traditional, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen;” Chu Berry, Anne Caldwell, and Tom Delaney, “ Wire Brush Stomp;” Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, “Where or When;” Dick Winfree and Phil Boutelje, “China Boy;” Barney Bigard and Duke Ellington, “Mood Indigo;” Ira and George Gershwin, “Oh, Lady Be Good;” Artie Shaw, “Nightmare.” ARBORS RECORDS ARCD 19409. Total time: 58:27. www.arborsrecords.com or email@example.com.
This is my first exposure to the clarinet music (he also plays piano and guitar) of Dave Bennett, despite the fact that this is his third recording (and second on the Arbors label). A Michigander by birth, Bennett, now 27, took up the clarinet at age 10 and played his first professional gig at 13. By the age of 15 he was playing regularly with a Dixieland band and was soon gigging with a variety of groups around Detroit. He’s clearly a talented young man.
At the age of 19 (2003), Bennett formed his “Tribute to Benny Goodman Sextet,” and his first two recordings were tributes to BG. His 2009 Arbors CD was a celebration of 100 Years of Benny. It is pretty clear that Goodman had a profound influence on Bennett from early on in his career.
That influence continues to be evident in this recording though he says he’s working to develop his own sound and style. “[I] am always interested in stretching myself,” he emphasizes. To this listener’s ears, however, that is only really obvious on the recording’s last track, his somewhat bizarre arrangement of Artie Shaw’s theme song, “Nightmare.” While I have to say that I prefer the original, one certainly must give Bennett credit for trying “a different approach.” Calling it his “favorite track on the CD,” he admits that it is also “the most far out.” I certainly cannot argue with that.
I would call the CD’s remaining tracks rather straightforward mainstream swing, played very well by a clarinetist who knows his way around the horn. The subtitle of the recording is a slight misrepresentation in that Goodman and his music dominate, with clear references to Pete Fountain (himself heavily influenced by Goodman) as well as Artie Shaw. The one aberration is the puzzling inclusion of “Stranger on the Shore,” a tune that made a pop idol out of Brit trad clarinetist Acker Bilk in the early 1960s. I would be hard pressed to rate Bilk on the level of greatness achieved by the three just mentioned.
Bennett is heard here with his regular working quartet, a fine group led by pianist Tad Weed. The clarinetist deviates from the quartet context on two occasions: working only with drummer Siers on “Wire Brush Stomp” in a (hypothetical) bow to Goodman and Krupa. Likewise, he is heard with bassist Keller on Barney Bigard’s “Mood Indigo”(where he sounds more like Fountain than Bigard).
Dave Bennett is most certainly a talented young clarinetist who plays ballads with taste and sensitivity while having the technical chops to handle uptempo numbers with ease and confidence. “I want to make new music, a new style,” he says. A worthy aim to be sure, and I look forward to following him as he proceeds down that path.
The following brief tribute to Lionel Ferbos appeared in the July, 2011 issue of OFFBEAT magazine (photo not included):
The Century Mark
Lionel Ferbos turns 100 this month…
On Sunday, July 17, the incomparable Lionel Ferbos will be one hundred years old. In order to maintain his chops, he still practices his horn from 45 minutes to one hour every day. Musically, Ferbos goes back to another time, that critical formative era when jazz as we know it was beginning to take shape. The first recordings generally agreed to qualify as “jazz” did not appear until six years after he was born.
The trumpeter’s longtime bandmate, clarinetist Brian O’Connell, has suggested that his style of playing is what we might have heard around the turn of the last century, when ragtime was the rage. Ferbos has been billed as “the oldest performing jazz musician in New Orleans,” but he disagrees. “They think I’m a jazz player,” he says quietly, “but I’m not a real jazz player. I’m not much of an improviser, you know.”
Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that he is an excellent reader. He can pretty much read anything that is put on the music stand in front of him. That ability is the result of his first lessons on cornet with the highly respected local trumpet teacher, “Professor" Paul E. Chaligny, at the age of 15 (in 1926) and subsequent work with the likes of Angelo Castigliola. Ferbos recalls that Castigliola “didn’t teach black people, but he said, ‘You’re advanced. So I’ll take you.’”
That year, 1926, was an exciting one in the early history of jazz. It was then that some of the first recordings from Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five were released, but those recordings do not seem to have had a significant effect on Ferbos. “It’s a funny thing,” he says many years later. “There were those real good blues players. I never had the feeling, and my mother didn’t like the blues records in the house. She wouldn’t have them, so all I heard was a nice type of music all the time.”
That--plus his reading ability--led to many jobs as a lead trumpet player in larger dance bands or society orchestras, not to mention his days with the legendary WPA Band during the Great Depression, but the money was never enough to support a wife and two children properly. Despite a desire to go to Chicago as so many other New Orleans musicians of his generation had done, he stayed close to home. To make money, he followed in his father’s footsteps by running a sheet metal business.
It was not until Ferbos reached his late 50s that his music career truly blossomed. Pianist Lars Edegran, leader of the popular New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, was looking for a trumpet player to fill a spot in his band in 1970, and encouraged by the late Dick Allen, hired Ferbos. Edegran later recalled that “Lionel had been the best possible choice for that role,” noting not only his “excellent” reading ability but his “wonderful skills as a vocalist.”
Joining NORO opened an entirely new world for Ferbos. “We rehearsed a whole year to play one job, and after that everything started happening,” he remembers. It led to countless tours through the States and abroad, including his first trips to Europe; an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival; films (including Pretty Baby, which he considers a career highlight); the hit show, “One Mo’ Time;” and numerous recordings.
Ferbos today plays Saturday nights with the house band at the Palm Court Jazz Café, and he appears occasionally with the core of that group under the name “the Louisiana Shakers,” a handle borrowed from a band formed and headed by the famed Captain John Handy in the 1930s. Ferbos started out as lead trumpet with Handy’s band at the age of 21.
Lionel Ferbos’ career has been long and distinguished. He has been the recipient of countless awards over the years, most recently being recognized by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation at this year’s Jazz Fest. Despite occasional episodes of ill health and the loss of two of the people closest to him--first, his son, Lionel, Jr., then his dear wife of 75 years, Marguerite--he continues to do what he loves to do. And there are no signs of his putting his horn down anytime soon.
I close on a personal note that illustrates his dry sense of humor. I dedicated my new book to him and wanted to get him to sign my personal copy, so I approached him at this year’s French Quarter Festival while he was seated in a wheelchair waiting to go onstage. I asked him if he could take a moment to sign my book. He looked at me in the eye sternly and said, “Don’t have the time.” Before I could slink off into hiding, he chuckled and wrote a nice inscription.
By Thomas Jacobsen
The following piece appeared in the March, 2011 issue of The Clarinet, pp. 80-81.
THE JAZZ SCENE
by Thomas W. Jacobsen
Remembering Kenny Davern: A Review
Clarinetist (and sometime saxophonist) Kenny Davern passed away on December 12, 2006 at the age of 70, after more than a half century as a professional musician. He has been widely praised, both by critics and musical colleagues, as one of the top jazz clarinetists of his generation. As fellow clarinetist, New Orleanian Tommy Sancton, put it a few years ago, “Kenny is a clarinet player’s clarinet player. Since Benny Goodman disappeared from the scene, Kenny has had no peer in the swing-mainstream mode. By almost any standard—tone, intonation, lyricism, invention, taste, feeling—he is in a class by himself, and has a distinguished body of recordings to prove it.”
An homage to Davern recently appeared in the form of a fine biography, The Life and Music of Kenny Davern, Just Four Bars (Studies in Jazz, No. 63, Scarecrow Press, 2010), by his friend Edward N. Meyer. Meyer, who teaches jazz history at St. Edwards University in Texas, earlier authored a well-received biography of pianist Dick Wellstood, one of Davern’s closest musical friends and associates. “When I interviewed Kenny Davern for my book about Dick Wellstood,” Meyer writes, “I knew that someday I would write Kenny’s biography.”
Meyer has done his homework thoroughly in preparing this study. In addition to that with Davern, he interviewed more than 50 musicians and others who worked with or knew the clarinetist well. Beyond that, he consulted a variety of other sources (see pp. 421-429). Primary among them were his several interviews with Davern’s widow (and second wife), Elsa Davern, and Kenny’s detailed “date books” from 1971 onward. The downside of the latter for this reader, however, was that the author’s narrative sometimes reads a bit like a telephone directory. After reading the almost day-by-day account of the life of a touring musician I felt nearly as exhausted as Kenny must have been when he returned from one of his many extended trips abroad.
The book also includes an extensive list of “the issued recordings of Kenny Davern” (pp. 343-420). (I did not count them, but I would guess that the total closely approaches 200.) The list includes the personnel and playlist for each recording. I noted in a couple of instances that, although first issued as an LP, only the subsequent CD identification was given. More often, when both existed, both were given. This discographical information seems to be carefully compiled and is clearly presented. It is a valuable component of the book.
Meyer chronicles the clarinetist’s life from its “difficult beginnings” through to the “journey’s end” in 17 chapters (342 pp.). While presented in fairly careful chronological order, there were moments when I found myself wondering exactly what year was being considered.
Kenny Davern bristled at being referred to as “just a dixielander,” but it is pretty clear from his recorded repertoire that his early heroes—the so-called “Condon gang” (guitarist Eddie Condon and his Chicago-New York style of jazz)—remained influential throughout his career. He frankly admitted that the music of the first three decades of the last century most appealed to him, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was an idol and dear friend. He was also influenced by New Orleans clarinet players such as Leon Ropollo and Jimmie Noone and, for a while at least, played an Albert-system instrument to achieve the New Orleans sound. Eventually, he admitted to Dan Morgenstern, “The reason that I went back to Boehm is because you could not tell the difference. People I played both systems for could not hear any real difference between me playing Albert or Boehm systems... I think that Jimmie Noone or Johnny Dodds or any of those guys, including Irving Fazola, would have sounded the same—no matter which instrument they chose. So strong were their personalities...”
Yet, given Davern’s intellectual curiosity and adventurous spirit, we might also note his flirtation with the avant garde. Trombonist Roswell Rudd and reedman Steve Lacy were friends, and they played together from time to time. They even made a recording together in the mid-seventies. But we must remember that both Rudd and Lacy started out playing in the traditional jazz idiom. The recording should be considered an aberration for the clarinetist.
Davern was also a serious student of classical music and accumulated a large record collection of classical composers and performers. As a teenager, he studied with Leon Russianoff. Later, he studied with David Weber, and the two maintained a close relationship until Kenny’s death.
Technically, Davern had few limitations, but he did not flaunt his facility with the instrument. He was comfortable in both the chalumeau and upper registers, favoring the latter for effect. Meyer: “Many clarinet players can play up to double high C, but not with any facility and often by attempting to turn a partially controlled squeak into a note. Davern could play those notes in the center of the pitch with relative ease and, on occasion, could reach F above double high C...” He was “absorbed” with the instrument in all respects, its history as well as details of its construction and operation.
The clarinetist always preferred to work in small groups, especially trios and quartets, and his recordings with pianists such as Wellstood and Ralph Sutton or guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden are among his best. Yet probably even more widely known are his many recordings with fellow reedman Bob Wilber (with whom he did not always see eye to eye) in the fine combination known as Soprano Summit and, later, Summit Reunion. The two played soprano saxophone as well as clarinet on those recordings, but Kenny had rejected the soprano for good by the mid-1990s.
Davern was born, raised and, when not on tour, spent most of his professional life in the New York area. But, for a variety of reasons, he and his wife Elsa decided to start a new life in the Southwest by building a home in and moving to New Mexico in 2001. That seems to have been the beginning of the end for him.
Kenny Davern was a complex individual: a self-taught intellectual; a social animal, yet a private person; a perfectionist who could be difficult to work with; and an insecure person with depressive tendencies. At the same time, he was a warm, generous man, loving husband and father to his two step-children, and loyal and devoted to his best friends. He was deeply affected by the deaths of close friends Pee Wee Russell (1969) and Dick Wellstood (1987). But it was the death of his longtime drummer and friend, Tony DeNicola, in September, 2006 from which he never really recovered. Kenny died just three months later.
This book is an excellent account of the life and music of a major jazz musician of the last half of the twentieth century. It should be of interest to all clarinetists who care about that genre of music.
Photo Caption: Album cover of Kenny Davern’s last recording on the Canadian Sackville label. It features New Orleanians David Boeddinghaus on piano and drummer Trevor Richards. March, 2006.
Drummer Dickie Taylor was the leader of the Dukes of Dixieland for the last 20 years of his life. The following interview was conducted about 15 years ago in a noisy restaurant in New Orleans East. Also present was Dickie's wife, Roberta (Bobbie, a New Orleans native), and, because of the accoustics, some of the remarks attributed to Dickie may in fact belong to her. This is just the first half of the interview, only snippets of which were published in The Mississippi Rag. Part 2 will come later.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE LATE RICHARD “DICKIE” TAYLOR
New Orleans East (restaurant), December 11, 1995
TJ: I know you’re from Chicago originally. What is your birth date.
RT: One-two-three-four-oh. (i.e.January 23, 1940)
TJ: I know you played around Chicago, but when did you come to New Orleans?
RT: Yeah, I started playing when I was about 15 in clubs around town. That was kinda my demise from school, but I graduated from high school in 1958. I worked for Chess Records for a while doing demos and a lot of rhythm and blues stuff. I was playing rockabilly and R&B—I loved it. When I got out of high school, I worked with different groups around town and did the same with Chess. Little show groups. Oh, we went out to Vegas for two weeks and played some dinky joint and met up with Ronnie Kole, a local Chicago guy. I worked with some guys who were doing Art Blakey stuff and Cannonball [Adderley]...that kind of stuff in Chicago. Our influences were good there because you had all kinds of music in Chicago in the ‘50s. You could go see Count Basie. I saw Count Basie’s band first time when I was 14 years old. And oddly enough the first jazz band that I saw in my life was the Dukes of Dixieland. It was in a little firehouse out in Lombard, Illinois. The Butterfield Firehouse. And we were towed out there. Actually, one of the kids’ dads—he played trombone—and he insisted that we go out and hear “real music” instead of this “guitar crap” that were listening to. So he took us to hear the Dukes. Actually, we had heard this kind of music because we had tried to play it. We had a little jazz band in the 8th grade. We bought a couple of these books that had all these stock arrangements: Fidgety Feet, Muskrat Ramble, the Saints... We had fun with it.
But it was really neat to see live music, number one. And, number two, all these people sitting around in chairs at the Firehouse were having fun! And the band was having fun!
TJ: When was that?
RT: I couldn’t tell you the day, but it was about 1954. All of us kids, we were overwhelmed. Look at this! Ours didn’t sound that good, you know. We all became fans of the Dukes at that point. Every time they came to town, we would try to see them play—though we were kids. We’d go downtown and sneak in until they’d run us out of the club, you know. There’d always be someone on the outskirts, patrolling the perimeters of those clubs. They’d toss us out after 10 minutes, but what the heck. Ten minutes was better than nothing.
So, we heard Ellington, Basie... Remember the Blue Note?
TJ: Oh, yes. I was there several times—even under age, with my parents. There was a place you could sit and drink lemonade or whatever, as a kid. Of course I was from out of town...
RT: That was a wonderful place. We couldn’t afford the dollar Cokes. But that place for kids was wonderful. Sam Woodyard and all those great drummers. For a drummer it was like being in heaven. There was so much going on, musically, in Chicago, and I enjoyed them all. There was some good Country-Western going on at that time. Homer and Jethro. Remember them? Those guys were excellent musicians. Very corny, but they were marvelous. Jethro, who just passed away a couple of years ago, played mandolin and he was amazing. He used to come and sit in when the band was in New Orleans—the Kole Trio—oh, yeah. Homer was one of the best little guitar players. A little guy. They could play jazz: “Seven Come Eleven,” “Airmail Special,” and all that stuff, and they could do it. A lot of the Nashville guys could play jazz.
TJ: So was it Ronnie Kole who got you to come to New Orleans.
RT: Yeah, Ronnie got me out of town.
TJ: Did Ronnie go to New Orleans first?
RT: No, no. We put together a show group—in those days you had have a show group to make some money. So I put together a band called “The Heavyweights.” Everyone was heavy. The combined weight of the band was close to 1500 pounds! (laughs heartily) The singer weighed 450 pounds. He was called Von Hoffman, from Decatur, Illinois. And light on his feet, like a bird—could really dance. The weight never bothered him. He was immense, about 6’2” with curly red hair, and he could really sing—like Ray Charles. Jeez, it was a really good band. A named Bob Snyder, a saxophone-clarinet player, a darned good musician. [Missed name of piano player.] So we kicked around the country with that show band for a couple of years. We played the Eastern Seaboard: Albany, NY; Ocean City, MD; Norfolk; and all those show clubs in the Catskills, 2-4 or 6 weeks at a time. Played Vegas. There were some nice hotels there, not like the ones on the outskirts of town like the first time. (laughs) We traveled around the country doing these things between 2 and 6 weeks at a time. And we wound up in New Orleans.
And Al Hirt revamped his club back in about 1964. He really did it, had a circular stage. Did you ever have a chance to see that club?
TJ: Yes, I did, sometime in the early '70s.
RT: Beautiful. The stage came up out of the floor, and it was like an amphitheater with seating all the way around, and the stage rotated. It became a joke after a while. It kinda got worn, and was known to throw a musician or two off. (laughs) We were the house band there, and I’d watch the stage go up and we’re looking for places to fall—gracefully, you know. But it was the prettiest place in town.
RT: Right at St. Louis and Bourbon. That was his place. The waitresses wore togas, goddesses, lovely ladies, and they brought out these flaming drinks. It was quite a deal. He booked everybody there: Boots Randolph, Buddy Rich’s band, Carmen Cavallaro... They had some great entertainment. Earl Hines, Jimmy Smith, Errol Garner played there. They booked some wonderful acts. It was neat for me, a thrill to sit down with all these wonderful players.
TJ: I think I’m missing something....
RT: I jumped ahead of myself. We were booked in there as the show group for a couple of weeks, and they liked us so much that they asked us to stay. So we would up staying for six months. But we had some other obligations. So we went over to Tampa, Florida and did a thing for six weeks and came back, then to Miami, Florida and came back over. And they offered Ron the position as kind of the musical director of the club and for us to be the house band. But things didn’t work out financially. The Heavyweights wanted big bucks, so Kole broke the band up. We were in Miami, and everyone got nervous that the band was being broke up. Then Ron called Al and said, “I want to go back to New Orleans, and why don’t you come with me. We’ll do a trio thing, and we’ll be the house band at Al Hirt’s.” I said fine, but it didn’t materialize for a few months. So, we kinda hung loose there for a while. That’s when we joined up forces with Everett [Link]. Everett started up with us in about ’65, I think. I can’t put it all together exactly because we were the Heavyweights for a couple of years, ’62, and Everett joined us in ’65 as a trio at Al Hirt’s. That was his first year. At any rate, we were [at Hirt’s] for a considerable time and got to play with some great groups.
Then Kole opened his own club, but we stayed on Bourbon Street for five years at a place called “Kole’s Korner”—from ’65 to 1970. Then we moved down to another place, The Court of Two Sisters, for a year. The Royal Sonesta Hotel had a wonderful club downstairs, Economy Hall.
The trio thing was working very well. It was a good thing because it was big enough to do many things, and it was small enough to be affordable. We could play things and go places that some others couldn’t do. But the group decided to poop out in the late ‘70s, didn’t want to do night clubs a whole lot anymore.
But I was fortunate enough to tie up with Eddie Bayard and Connie [Jones] and get to play this music that I listened to as a kid. There were a lot of good bands in town. My favorite group in the city to hear was Louie Cottrell’s band at Heritage Hall. And I still loved hearing Hirt’s band though it wasn’t really Dixieland. I don’t think Pete Fountain’s music is really Dixieland either. It was a clarinet-feature band just like Al’s featured the trumpet. But they were just such good players. Al Hirt was marvelous. I was never in awe of a musician—drummers or anything—as much as I was of him. He was amazing, and I know he gets a lot of flack from local musicians but he don’t deserve it because he’s a phenomenal player.
TJ: Great technique.
RT: Oh, he had the technique. Plus, he had that little show biz thing that appealed to the people. And he played to the people. That was the nice thing about Jumbo. He always played to the people. The biggest thing that hung him up was tippling the booze. It got him loose. But when he was on, he’d walk out and play a song six inches from a person’s ear and they’d sit and listen to it. And it was loud. He could fill up a room with trumpet.
Bobbie: I’ll tell you a little story. I was there. [She was working at Hirt’s club at the time, and Dickie was not on hand.] One night Buddy Rich and his band were there. And it was the last show of the night, and Rich says to Jumbo, “Hey, big man, why don’t you come down and play with a real band, instead of a rinky dink band. Can you play this kind of music?” Everyone knows what Rich was like—he was awful. Jumbo went upstairs and got his horn and walked over to the trumpet section where there was a lot of young kids—they were aces, good players—and he just blew through those kids. I don’t remember the tune. They were laughing at first, then they sat there with their mouths open by the time the song was over. He just blew through it. He was a conservatory player. He could read. I admired Al.
RT: That was a very nice era with Pete’s and Al’s clubs on Bourbon Street. The Famous Door had people like Santo Pecora. Ronnie Dupont had his aggregation there. There were many good things happening. You could walk up and down Bourbon Street and hear some jazz. There were lots of New Orleans cats who could do that. Connie was with Pete, as was Charlie Lodice. A beautiful, wonderful drummer. Mike Serpas. Eddie Miller. Jeez, they had some good players. But Bourbon Street was different. Wide open. More fun, a little less kids and more adults. More jazz, less T-shirts.
TJ: I only go back to the early ‘70s.
RT: The Famous Door was going.
TJ: The Blue Angel.
RT: Yeah, the Blue Angel had some jazz.
TJ: George Finola was just starting.
RT: Yeah, George Finola. There’s another excellent player. A Chicago kid too. We got to be good friends. I worked with him a lot in the early ‘80s. A neat little guy and he could play good.
TJ: Well, he really impressed me in those days. I thought he had a really bright future.
RT: Everybody said he was George Girard come back. I think he stayed busy in town. If Kevin were out of town, I’d call George. Connie [Jones] and George are my first choice players.
TJ: So, what were the Dukes doing in those days?
RT: Frank died in ’73, and John Shoup who owns the name of the band made friends with the guys up in Chicago. We play in his yard, but the sandbox is his... (laughs) And that’s where the cats hang out. He was a longtime fan and became friends with the brothers. I think he lived up in Chicago, and, when Frank died, he just didn’t want the band to go away, you know. So, he talked to the Assunto family and bought the name and tried to keep that band intact. I think [clarinetist] Harold Cooper...I don’t actually remember who all was with the band at that time. But he tried to keep that band intact, adding of course another trumpet player. But then I think Harold had some problems, and guys quit and retired. So he would hire other guys in hopes that they could keep that particular style and what they stood for together. They had some great players in the band. Connie had the band for a while, then Otis Bazoon, the clarinet player. Oh, he’s a nice player and one of my very best friends. He and Connie—the guys who grew up in New Orleans—are players who are really part of New Orleans. There are a lot of guys who are not part of New Orleans, but those guys are. Ronnie Dupont...I could name you a dozen more, but it doesn’t matter. They all grew up playing the music, and they are all influenced by the earlier bands. They show, every time they play, where they’re from and how much they like what they do.
Then [trumpeter] Frank Trapani took over in the late ‘70s and ran the band until, I don’t know, until he died, ’88 or something like that. You remember Frank Trapani?
TJ: Oh, yeah.
RT: Then they kinda bounced from pillar to post for a couple of years. They tried different combinations. They did work sometimes, and they didn’t work. I joined them in 1990.
TJ: Yeah, okay. Tell me about that.
RT: Well, I was working with Connie at the Sheraton, and that thing ended early in ’90. So, I called John Shoup’s band manager, a lady named Laura Brannick, and told her I was available. I told her that I didn’t want the job steady, necessarily, but I knew they had gone through some problems earlier trying to find a drummer. And they offered me the job at the time. I declined, but I said I would be happy to substitute. So I did that a little bit, and then they asked me if I would like to do it fulltime. The band at the time had a young man by the name of J. B. Scott on trumpet, a brilliant player. Do you remember him? Heavy set kid, weighed about 300 pounds. But, boy, he could play. And some local guys too, some of whom I knew.
After I took the job, they asked me if I would talk to these guys and form a direction for a New Orleans kind of music. I tried to do it gracefully because I was coming from just the drummer’s position. They asked me to help the guys do some more Dixieland and get away from the more modern stuff. I think a couple of people got offended. So I wound up with a trumpet player... (laughs) So they said, “Get a band.” So, we hired Al Barthlow, a trombone player. You know him?
TJ: Oh, yeah.
RT: A good player. And Timmy Laughlin. Actually, wound up with Tom McDermott, Laughlin, Bernie Attridge...and we were just starting up. I mean, it was there. Tim used to say, “I can’t play these fast tempos, but he sure did learn, didn’t he? And J. B. said, “I can’t play those licks.” But I gave him records, and he was a really good player. And Al, I always thought he played like Cutty Cutshall. Not fancy or anything, but he belongs and makes everything work. An excellent musician. He wrote charts for the band, always knew how to get those three horn harmony things to work. Always knew the right notes, and always was obnoxious...but lovable. He was one of those people you always wanted to choke, but he was one of my best friends. He really is. Connie and I used to talk about all the time. “Why do we have this urge to suddenly want to choke Al Barthlow so he can’t talk anymore?” (laughs heartily) Then we’d turn around and say, “How come we like him so much?” So it wound up being a pretty nice band. Did a CD in, I think, November, ’94. [List CDs with that band: “Hearing is Believing”—1990; “Salute to Jelly Roll Morton”—1991.] Actually, I had a commitment...both Al and I went out with Connie’s band because he signed a contract for a seven week tour. So, John Shoup was very nice about it, saying I should go ahead with it since I had the commitment. So, I said, “If it was you, I’d do the same for you.” So, we did the thing with Connie, came back and recorded an album. And the band kinda settled in. We did some nice things. We continued to travel around the country. We lasted that way for a couple of years. We did a tour in Germany for almost five weeks. In the meantime, J.B., the trumpet player, had had an offer to go back to school and get his masters degree and do a fellowship thing. Really a wonderful educational offer, and a lot of us encouraged him to take it because that don’t often happen. I was kind of a two-edged sword on that. I was happy for him to go because it was a wonderful opportunity, but then what do you do after you have the tooth pulled? [laughs] So, we were fortunate. Kevin [Clark] came over and said that he would like to do this. I don’t think he was the trumpet player that J.B. was, but his concept with the music was, I think, a little better than J.B.’s. J.B. was kinda like a Al Hirt player, and Kevin was more like a Murphy Campo player. Did you ever hear Murphy?
TJ: Yes, indeed.
RT: I worked with Murphy for years. I’ll tell you what, to me, he was probably the best of the natural New Orleans players, the hot players. Al was a great show player, Connie is probably the prettiest player in town—he plays hot too—but Connie has that pretty Bobby Hackett sound. He knows music, and it shows in his playing. His taste is unbelievable.
TJ: He never plays a bad note.
RT: No. He’s one of those guys who polishes each one of those notes and then he goes home. He casts them out like pearls.
Anyway, Kevin had that little gift of the New Orleans feel to his playing that J.B. really had to work at to get. So we shuffled that around, and of course Al had some illnesses. He became so unsure of his playing that he just stepped down. He said, “I just can’t go on with this.” We’re still friends and maintain contact, and, if Ben [Smith] is ever away, Al is always the first one I call. Really only changed a
couple of guys. Bernie [Attridge], after about a year or year and a half, decided he didn’t want to travel so much. So, we got Everett [Link}. Of course Everett was the bass player with Kole’s group.
TJ: What had he been doing?
RT: Oh, he had been working around town and with a girl named Sandy Cash at the Hilton.
TJ: Oh, yes.
RT: They had a nice little trio, with Bob Molinelli on piano. Everett always kept himself in pretty good shape playing with various bands around town. And Tim was gone for a bit, and we went through a couple of players. Jeff Walker was a very talented player from the West Coast and a friend of Kevin’s. He was on the band for a year. And got into illness problems because of the humidity down here, and he moved back to the West Coast. Evan [Christopher] worked with us for three or four months. We’ve been fortunate to have some really nice clarinet players. But I always liked Tim--he has that nice pretty sound.
TJ: Yeah, I like his playing. How stable would you say the group is now? Can you look forward for a period of time?
RT: Yeah, I think so. I admire the playing of each one of the group, and I admire each one as a person. Really nice guys. The first time, it was like raising my kids all over again. But it’s settled in now. Each one of them has his own little project. Kevin has his little thing going, the brass band thing.
TJ: The Nightcrawlers.
RT: Yeah. Timmy is doing his side records. And Tom McDermott is always doing his thing—of course, Tom has not been working with us.
TJ: Yes, that’s what I was going to ask. Is Tom with you or not?
RT: No, not really. Jamie [Wight] has been doing it. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. You know, six months down the line I may be gone! (laughs)
TJ: I heard from Leslie Johnson, the editor of the Rag, that you’ve got some big tour coming up, to be published the Rag. She was informed about it from some guy named Levinson. Who is he?
RT: Some guy who was the press guy for Woody Herman. John [Shoup] moves in those circles. I don’t know. But I guess he covers the West Coast. But John really feels strongly about this new CD. [“Bob Cats Remembered: A Salute to Bob Crosby and the Bob Cats,” 1995] He loves it.
TJ: Let’s talk about that a bit. You’ve done a Jelly thing, and Connie said last night that you are planning a Bix album. I hear some Bix in Connie’s playing, though he—or at least [his wife] Elaine—denies that.
RT: Oh, of course. There’s a soft, pretty way to play that music, and there’s a hard driving way. It’s like putting Bobby Hackett on one end of the spectrum and Wild Bill Davison on the other. There’s the hotter approach and the sweeter, more musical approach, and both are equally as good. Actually, they complement each other. Yeah, we did ask Connie to work with us on that. [See the “Sound of Bix” CD, recorded in May, 1996.] That should be nice. We’re going to try to do the same thing.
The album we did here—of course the Crosby band was one of my favorite bands. Before the Jelly album I approached John Shoup about doing a Bob Cats album, and he said, “Nobody knows who the Bob Cats are. No, let’s go to New Orleans.” So we did the Jelly Roll thing. [“Salute to Jelly Roll Morton,” 1992] I think, if we’d had a little more time with that Jelly Roll album, it would have been better. Tom McDermott did a wonderful job with the arrangements. But we had a time schedule to meet, and any time you compress it and it’s not comfortable and force it to fit, it doesn’t work as well. I wish we could do that album right now—with the original guys, J.B. and Al—but they weren’t comfortable with the arrangements yet. We didn’t get it down dynamically. We were allowed to get the Crosby stuff... We worked that into the shows we did. Kevin did a great job on the arrangements—he did most of them. It kind of evolved. We did the “Honky Tonk Train Blues” because I’ve always been a big fan of boogie woogie since I was a kid. Some things were self-arranged. Everett and I have been doing “Big Noise from Winnetka” forever. I asked Kev to do the “Nobody Knows,” which was done off a thing done by Paul Weston. Oddly enough, Paul Weston was an arranger for the Crosby band. His real name was Westfield or something like that. [Actually, Paul Wetstein.] He was commissioned by the city to do like a concerto for New Orleans. I think Matty Matlock, Eddie Miller, Dick Cathcart, an alto player named Ted Nash were on it. Have you ever heard this “Crescent City Suite”?
TJ: No, never.
RT: It’s wonderful. I ought to make a copy of it for you.
TJ: Well, those are good musicians. I loved all of those guys.
RT: I think it was done in the late ‘50s, maybe the early ‘50s. In fact, when I got here to town, portions of this were used on commercials—Dixie beer, the bread companies, the funeral parlors, public service announcements—these melodies were great. And Eddie Miller played a couple of beautiful things. I’ll make you a copy of it. You need to have that. At any rate, that was the thing—“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”—and Cathcart played it great. I thought what we did complemented the music on the album. It was different, you know. I think, when you make an album, if everything sounds kinda the same, you fall into that trap. On the Crosby thing we’ve got a little boogie woogie, the “Wang Wang Blues” thing—that was another nice effort by Kevin that got off a Phil Napoleon album. We structured it different, but we used it the way they did it. But he managed to find ways to make all of those things fit. And the guys were all very cooperative. That was the key to the success. Everybody sat down—you know, Ben and Tim, they added their expertise and made certain changes because, you know, Ben is very smart trombone player. He knows how to make his part fit, and little Timmy the same thing. They had the feel for it. Everybody chipped in. I thought Kevin deserved that because he spent an awful lo
of time on it. And John and I discussed it and agreed, “Let Kevin be the producer and arranger.” He’s a talented kid, as well as being a nice guy. But the end result was the efforts of everybody. Maheu chipped in and helped an awful lot. I think Kevin did a great job on his arrangement of “My Inspiration.” Tom McDermott probably played the tastiest I’ve ever heard him play. I went home and I gloated. It’s like having your cake and eating it, both you know. I’m just thankful that everybody took hold of the rope and hauled on it. That’s the way those things work good, when everybody gets interested enough and the enthusiasm is there. I think that’s pretty exciting, and I look forward to the Bix thing. I’ve got some ideas for that too. Probably make people who love Bix say, “What’s he got planned?” But I won’t be trying to copy Bix’s thing, you know. We didn’t do that with the Crosby thing. We just tried to get the essence of what they were doing. That’s what I would like to do with the Bix thing.
TJ: The Dukes were quite appropriate for the Crosby album because of Eddie Miller, Fazola and New Orleanians like that.
RT: Yeah, because of all of these people who played with the Bob Cats. They had Nappy Lamare, Eddie Miller, Irving Fazola, Ray Bauduc—they were all from New Orleans. That was their thing with this band. When they put that band together, Crosby was drawn—like a straw—from three people who were being considered for it. They took him because he was a likeable guy, Bing’s brother, warm personality, and so on—and they needed somebody like that to front the band. The recording company would dictate how that kind of thing would go. So they said, “Okay, we’ll do this if you if you let us record some small group stuff, too.” What they did was take the early New Orleans traditional guys and converted them into the swing thing. These guys were the gappers, the ones who brought the Dixieland of the ‘20s and brought it into the ‘30s and ‘40s. So it worked in the Swing Era too. That was one of the change-over groups—the forerunners—for the so-called Dixieland of the ‘40s and ‘50s. There were three or four bands that did that: Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven, Muggsy Spanier, Wingy Manone, and guys like that. All of sudden they were doing the 4-beat, more Swing kind of traditional jazz. That’s the way I see it. If you listen to the music, that’s the way it feels. You know, drummers go by the way of feeling—you feel your way along. They’re completely different. If you want to play the traditional thing, you play more of the choke cymbal, the wood block and the press roll thing. It’s a little tighter sound, you know. The Dixieland stuff is a more open sound, the 4-beat thing, a lot looser. Anyway, the Crosby group, I felt that would be good.
The Beiderbecke thing, I think, will be a challenge. You want to capture the essence of it. I’ve already figured out a dozen songs I want to do on that album: “Davenport Blues,” “Goose Pimples,” “Jazz Me Blues,” “Rhythm King,” etc. We’re going change up some of them. You see, I get these horrible ideas and I thrust them on people. (laughs) I don’t take any credit for arrangements, but I like to have ideas on how things are done.
TJ: Let me back up a minute and ask you one question in terms of your role in the band. John is obviously the boss, not necessarily musically.
RT: He is. He has the final word, and I gotta be the salesman. But it’s getting more and more now that he trusts my judgment on things. Which is great because he never did that before with people. I have people constantly saying to me, “Do you really get along with John?” He’s kinda hard-nosed, but he’s been good to the band. When we were out of work a bunch of times, he came up out of his pocket and helped them along. And there was always a Christmas bonus, which I had never heard of before. He never forgets the guys.
TJ: Well, one hears things about him—not always complimentary.
RT: Well, I’ve heard them too. Maybe so, but not toward us. He might be a ruthless guy to deal with as far as booking the band or something. I don’t know. He’s a business man, number one. As long as I’ve got a good working relationship with him, that’s fine. He’s trusting my judgment, and that much I thank him for. I do this. I’ve been a musician since I was a kid. I can’t profess to being a great literate player—I’m not. I’m a drummer! (laughs) That’s all I am, but I play with some good guys. I’ll be honest with you. I pretty much control what the band plays. I always try to keep in the framework of the original Dukes because I remember them. I want to whatever tunes—“Goose Pimples,” “Ostrich Walk”—kinda like the Dukes would do them, even though they are Bix things. Because that’s who we are. I hope this thing comes off. I have some great expectations for it.
TJ: I don’t see how you can miss, with a guy like Connie playing with you on that stuff.
RT: Well, Kevin is going to play on it, too. Of course, Connie may well raise his eyebrows about this, too. But I don’t expect everybody to agree. That’s what’s fun about being the bandleader (laughs)—you don’t have to wait for everybody to agree! And that part I’ll be a little rigid about because I like having control of the thing. I’ve worked with show groups enough. You put a little glitz in the thing, enough to make it showy, but be sincere about it at the same time. I think people always respect the music. It’s not always easy to get the younger guys to understand that. They love you, but they love you because you are playing the music they came to hear. These people who come to hear us play expect to hear what the Dukes of Dixieland did. I think that’s one of the problems John had early on: some of the groups strayed so far off the path that it ended up hurting them. That’s the part I will be rigid about. I want the band to sound like the Dukes. I want the enthusiasm. I like the little schtick on the stage because it makes it saleable. If it’s saleable, people will buy tickets to hear the band. And, if they do that, the band will stay alive for years to come.
TJ: So, briefly, how would you characterize the Dukes? What does the Dukes’ sound mean?
RT: The Dukes’ sound to me—and I’m sure you heard them a lot—was the free-wheeling New Orleans stuff. They were all good players, but they had a tremendously lot of fun playing it.
TJ: I never saw them live. Only on TV.
RT: Of course television kinda freezes everybody a little bit. (laughs) But in the clubs, when the beers were flying through the air and they loosened up, they had a great time. They had a great rapport on
the bandstand. They might have fought like cats and dogs off the stand it was, “Here’s New Orleans for you, take it or leave it.” And that’s what I want: “You want to hear New Orleans jazz? Here it is. We’re going to give you a couple hours worth.” I don’t want the audience to hear what Chicago sounded like, or San Francisco, or.... You can’t get any more New Orleans than the Dukes of Dixieland. The kids grew up here, their dad was a band teacher here and played with all the bands, and they had all those influences to make a genuine New Orleans sound. They were very much that way in the ‘50s, when they were hot.
TJ: Well, Tim is New Orleans. Ben. Everett.
RT: Yeah. I’ve been here 32 years, I guess...you know. (laughs) I admired the music as a kid. I understand a bit of it, and I’m not talking about the traditional sounds because I think there’s enough. Chris Tyle and his group, Preservation Hall, Eddie Bayard’s band—they try to get the more traditional sounds. They do great! But I want to have the open sound, the Dixieland sound—stuff like Santo Pecora, Murphy Campo and those guys. I like that. I think it was a very honest, open—wonderful time to hear those guys roar through these tunes. I guess I don’t know what I would call that. We’re probably 25 years out of date, like trying to polish up an old Rolls Royce or something.
TJ: Jack Maheu was a nice choice on the Bob Cats album.
RT: Well, we thought it would be fun to have him on the album...because he was a Duke back in the ‘50s. I love his “My Inspiration.” He stayed in touch with that feel, that sound. What can you say? The guy is just one of the grand masters of the clarinet. And he’s a gentleman. And I feel the same way about Tom Fischer. You know, he’s another Chicago kid.
[END OF PART 1]
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 groups, 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 Noone's 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 playing 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.
From Indiana to Mecca: Indiana Traditionalists Find Home in New Orleans
This little piece appeared in Midwest Jazz (no longer with us), fall 1994, pp. 21-22. (Photographs have been omitted.) It's ironic that David Boeddinghaus and Tom Fischer were students at Indiana University when I was on the faculty there, but we never actually met. I do remember a student dixie combo playing at an off-campus pizza joint called, if memory serves correctly, Rapp's Pizza Train. Would we have ever guessed that the three of us would end up in New Orleans two decades or more later? Those two young men have certainly done I.U. proud since they left Bloomington.
A significant direction in the traditional jazz scene over the last decade has been the co-called “jazz repertory movement.” The movement represents something of a return to the basics, a renewed attention to and appreciation for the formative period and early styles of jazz. As reedman Bob Wilber, one of the movement’s early advocates, put in an interview with W. Royal Stokes, “The concept of jazz repertory is to present different styles of jazz, re-creating earlier performances. It’s...not just imitating old records, it’s being creative in the idioms of earlier music.” Nor is it slavish note-for-note copying of the solos of the old masters like Joe Oliver, Johnny Dodds, or Jelly Roll Morton. In order to be a valid and a vigorous part of the living jazz tradition, Wilber and other practitioners of the music stress the fundamental importance of improvisation. “Without it,” he emphasizes, “jazz is dead music. You can’t take an improvised solo and copy it and do it as well as the original creator.”
The repertory movement has attracted a surprising number of talented young musicians, and it is not surprising that many of them have gravitated to the Birthplace of Jazz. Two of these young lions were summoned from the Midwest to the Crescent City to play in the highly regarded New Orleans touring and recording band, “New Orleans Hot Jazz,” led by vocalist [banjoist/guitarist] Banu Gibson. Since their arrival this pair of thirty-somethings is among the busiest and best musicians in New Orleans today: pianist David Boeddinghaus and clarinetist Tom Fischer. Both are graduates of the prestigious School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington [now known as The Jacobs School of Music], each has worked regularly with other New Orleans groups as well—Fischer with trumpeter Al Hurt, and Boeddinghaus with clarinetist Jack Maheu—, but it was Banu’s good judgment that brought them to the Big Easy.
Boeddinghaus was the first of the two to come to New Orleans. At Gibson’s invitation he arrived within a month of completing his master’s degree in piano in 1983. He has become a mainstay of the band in these eleven years and is now its musical director, with a major hand in shaping the band’s makeup as well as its musical style. In 1988, when Banu decided to expand the group to seven pieces by adding a reedman, Boeddinghaus pushed for the hiring of his old Bloomington buddy. “I wanted Tom real bad...,” he now reflects.
Fischer had been gigging successfully around his native Chicago area since graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1981. He was working regularly—most notably, recording and touring Europe with the Red Rose Ragtime Band—and understandably had reservations about uprooting himself from home and a steady work environment. But he finally made the decision to move in January, 1989 and has never regretted it. His addition to the band has obviously introduced an important new voice (he also plays all of the saxes, including bass) to the band’s sound.
It is ironic that neither Boeddinghaus nor Fischer had planned to become professional jazz musicians when they entered I. U. While introduced to early jazz through his father’s record collection, Boeddinghaus came to Indiana from his home in New Jersey intending to “immerse myself in musical studies” and become a classical pianist. It was not until after a year of study in Vienna as part of his I. U. program that he began to think otherwise. He decided to take some time off from school, went home, and eventually found himself gigging in the New York area with groups like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. He returned to Bloomington with a new commitment, met Fischer, and joined the “Dixieland” band with whom the latter was playing at a local pizza joint.
Fischer did not hear a Dixieland record until his freshman year at Indiana. He grew up listening to classical music (his maternal uncle is an organist and music professor); and during his senior year in high school he played with the Youth Symphony of Greater Chicago and taught aspiring young clarinet students. Once exposed to traditional jazz he began eagerly collecting records and, with friends from the university’s famed marching band, formed a Dixie combo. With the help of bookings through the Music School they were soon playing concerts, festivals, and other gigs throughout the state of Indiana and beyond. His commitment to the music was such that, for his senior recital, his professors allowed him to play three traditional jazz standards—“Royal Garden Blues,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”—“at the end,” he smiles wryly.
Neither Boeddinghaus nor Fischer regrets his background in classical music, nor do they consider themselves traitors to their Indiana training. Though born after the “trad revival” of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, both have come to love and respect traditional jazz. Feeling that it has too often been dismissed by other young jazz musicians, they have become serious students (no, scholars) of the music—and their knowledge is awesome. “Traditional jazz is so much more diversified than anyone has ever given it credit for,” says Boeddinghaus with impassioned emphasis. “The music advanced, but that doesn’t negate what came before,” adds Fischer, comparing earlier and later jazz styles. “That doesn’t make it less desirable or less genuine or valid as a music. Renaissance classical music is not inferior music to something that came 400 years later. I truly believe that it stands on its own as music, and it is not merely a precursor to what came after it. And the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton stands on its own.”
At the same time, they themselves have not neglected later jazz styles. “You’ve got to listen to everything,” Fischer goes on. “Anything where you grow as a person or as a musician is going to help you. It’s good for you intellectually and musically. It gives you another angle on what came before, on the traditional stuff...”
When Boeddinghaus first hooked up with Banu Gibson, the band had a tuba and Banu was playing banjo (in addition to singing). Eventually a string bass was substituted for the tuba and Banu, a fine musician in her own right, switched from banjo to tenor guitar. These changes “opened the doors unbelievably,” says Boeddinghaus, “because now we can play anything up till World War II. It’s important to recognize that, already by the late ‘20s, the guitar, through Eddie Lang, and the string bass, through guys like Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, Al Morgan and Pops Foster was part of jazz. I do miss the tuba and banjo on some early things, but any kind of band with a string bass and a guitar can pretty much play the entire repertoire.”
“At this point in time we perform, for the most part, in a manner similar to a band from the mid-‘30s. I could fudge on that on either end. We have enough understanding and love of earlier jazz that, if we want to play a jazz composition from the late ‘20s, we’ll play it in a way that we sound like it. We can switch gears. But the important thing is that we love this period, and this is how we play.
“There is such a vast amount of jazz recorded in the ‘20s and ‘30s by so many different artists, and yet they all improvised within that same melodic and harmonic structure. Even though you can tell stylistically in a second that’s James P. Johnson, that’s Fats Waller, that’s Joe Sullivan, that’s Jess Stacy, there is still a coherency stylistically in what they are playing. You can tell that this is a guy from the mid-‘30s. They’re doing different things individually within that harmonic and melodic framework, and yet you can tell that this is a record from the ‘30s.”
“When I sit and play, going through my head as I play, are Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson... I’m doing the best I can trying to assimilate a number of influences into a given style, and I think it’s true of most of the band. Tom Fischer is a very, very versatile musician. He has his own style, but, if you told him to play specifically like Frank Teschemacher or Pee Wee Russell or Benny Goodman, he could pull it off. He can also play like Charlie Parker or Zoot Sims and some other musicians of that period and later.”
So, gentlemen, what does the future hold for you? “If I have a musical mission it is to make good music—creative, expressive good quality music,” says Fischer. “That’s what we’re all trying to do with Banu’s band.” And Boeddinghaus concludes, “Realizing your fullest potential as a performer and as, overall, a musician—I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
They seem to have learned some musical lessons in Indiana.
Shaw Centennial Year Celebrated with A New Bio
This is my review of the new Artie Shaw biography by Tom Nolan that appeared in The Clarinet, September 2010, pp.64-66.
I began writing these lines on Sunday, May 23, precisely one hundred years after Artie Shaw was born Avraham Ben-Yitzhak Arshawsky in New York City’s Lower East Side. As we now know, Shaw eventually died on December 30, 2004, at the age of 94.
While I have no statistics to prove it, I cannot think of any jazzman about whom more has been written over the years, other than perhaps Armstrong or Ellington or maybe his arch-rival Goodman. The amount of ink devoted to Shaw--to say nothing of films as well as radio and television air time--is truly incredible.
The first major work recounting his musical achievements was written by music scholar Vladimir Simosko (see my September, 2000 review in this journal), and, in my opinion, it remains the best and most authoritative account of the bandleader’s musical career. Yet, as I suggested, it failed as a biography in that it left one wishing for more insights into “Shaw, the man.”
A slightly earlier--and considerably more modest--biography was John White’s Artie Shaw: Non-Stop Flight (1998), a study not even mentioned by Simosko. At the time of its publication, White was Reader in American History at the University of Hull in England. It fell short, in my opinion, on both original musical analysis and biographical details. White seems neither to have interviewed Shaw nor anyone in his musical circle, other than just one of the clarinetist’s many former assistants and companions, Midge Hayes.
Both of those books appeared well before Shaw’s death. As I noted in the case of the Simosko volume in particular, that meant that Shaw himself--a person of giant ego and supremely conscious of his image and legacy-- had to give it his stamp of approval, which he did. That virtually assured the reader of not getting a fully accurate picture of the man behind the clarinet.
But now we have author Tom Nolan and his freshly minted Shaw biography, Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake, The Life of Artie Shaw (W.W. Norton, 2010). The book’s title, incidentally, stems from an oft-used Shavian quotation from a poem about a musician’s attitude to his work: “Three chords for beauty’s sake, and one to pay the rent.”
Nolan’s opus--some 430 pages in length--is the first major study about Artie Shaw to appear since the latter’s death and, accordingly, begins to fill the void left by the Simosko volume. The clarinetist clearly had no veto power over this account of his career!
Nolan has won critical acclaim for his biography of mystery writer Ross Macdonald. He is not, however, a jazz scholar, which is quite apparent from numerous statements in the book. (For example, he makes note of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album, “which would become the best-selling traditional jazz album of all time.”) So one does not read this book for the author’s musical analysis or insights. (There are, however, some valuable appraisals of Shaw’s playing by musicians who worked with him.)
Yet Nolan has done his homework in preparing this study. He has digested scores of printed and broadcast sources, interviewed “a hundred” musicians and others who knew or worked with Shaw and, not least, had “several conversations with Artie Shaw from 1990 to 2004.” One of his most touching interviews, in my view, was with Artie’s second son Jonathan (there was barely mention of his first son, Steven, in the book), whose observations about his father revealed a rare and sensitive understanding of the man.
With all his sources and preparation, Nolan could have presented us with a scandalous account of the clarinetist’s career--given Shaw’s endless dalliances with women and his many unpleasant personal traits--but he doesn’t. Under the circumstances, his account is remarkably balanced. “I have written this biography,” he notes (correctly, in my view), “with care, respect, and affection.”
The book is eminently readable. It is divided into 57 short chapters, themselves frequently further subdivided. The documentation is presented in, for me, a novel manner (by chapter and by page), but it works well once one becomes comfortable with the abbreviations used. There is a valuable annotated list of interviewees and other sources consulted, a select bibliography, and a complete index.
As I read through this book, I could not help but think of my own fleeting interaction with Mr. Shaw. It took place some 20 years ago, by which time Artie had taken up residence in California, and was kindly facilitated by the bandleader’s then manager, Bill Curtis of Boston. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and Curtis gave me some useful advice before I called Shaw. (I had written him a few years earlier but received no response.) First off, Curtis said, don’t call before 10 am PT and between that time and noon would be the best time to catch him. Do not mention the following: Shaw’s marriages, anything about being his “number one fan,” anything that would intrude on his personal life, and remember that he likes to talk to people of intelligence.
So I took a deep breath and called Shaw the next day. Artie himself answered the phone. (“People call me all the time. Usually my secretary answers. You’re lucky you caught me.”) I told him that I was coming to California in a couple of months for professional meetings and asked if there would be an opportunity to interview him. “Give me a call when you get to California,” he said, “and we’ll see what can be worked out.” We then went on to have a 15-20 minute conversation. He talked and reacted at lightning speed, even at that age (80). He talked about writing his magnum opus. “I’m obsessing about it--1800 pages written, nearly finished. Two other books in the works. Not enough time.” Having read everything he had written, I foolishly said that I felt as if I knew him. “You don’t,” he responded curtly. He asked me what I did, to which he then responded, “I despair of education, but anything’s better than music. I despair of music.” At one point, he said I seemed “confused.” I said that I was ill at ease, to which he quickly retorted, “Let’s not quibble over semantics.” Other Shaw quotes during the conversation included: “Nobody listens to me when I say why I quit.” “I don’t have much money.” “I don’t know what ‘jazz’ is today. ‘Jazz’ is a term that went out with Bunk Johnson.” “Am I at peace? No. I’m busy and compulsive about [the book.] Time is getting short for me. I’m in good physical shape.” (Just for the record, Nolan reports that the magnum opus was never finished, yet it was submitted to a publisher shortly before Shaw’s death.)
So, when I arrived in California two months later, I gave him a call. No answer. I left a message. I called him again the following morning, and again he answered the phone. He said that he had gotten my message and tried to reach me the previous night. (There was no evidence of that.) He reiterated how busy he was “trying to finish up“ the book, with many (unnamed) projects planned thereafter. He said that he really had no time to talk. It would be, for him, just “idyll talk, but please understand…” I did of course understand. But I will never forget that brief opportunity to talk to the great man.
I met Shaw face-to-face about six years later, after hearing his lecture at a Bix Beiderbecke festival in Davenport, Iowa. I asked if he would autograph my copy of The Trouble with Cinderella, and he said “no.” End of story. I have to add that I was really turned off by some of his insensitive utterances in that speech, especially the disparaging remarks he made--in public--about his first son Steven. But that’s Artie Shaw, or at least one side of the man.
The Nolan book gives the most complete picture of “Shaw, the man” to date. While there will inevitably be criticisms of the book, I consider it a must read for all who know and admire Shaw’s music.
Yet I doubt very much that this book will be the last Shaw biography. We know that others have been in the works. That promised by Cliff Rothman has yet to appear, and the talented biographer, jazz authority and lyricist Gene Lees may have taken his major study of Shaw to the grave with him. Jazz critic Doug Ramsey, in his obituary of Lees (who died last April 22), wrote, “He was completing a biography of Artie Shaw. I have read some of the manuscript. It is definitive.”
So, is the “definitive” biography of one of the most complex human beings in jazz yet to be written? I believe so. The “Mystery of Artie Shaw,” as one interviewer once put it, remains to be solved.
Faz, A New Orleans Clarinet Giant
The following is one of the first profiles that I published in The Clarinet. It was in response to a request from a reader. The Clarinet, Vol. 26, March 1999, pp. 28-31 (illustrations omitted) (The article was later reprinted in de Klarinet, No. 7, March/April 2000, Groningen, The Netherlands.)
Considered by many as one of the finest jazz clarinetists to come out of New Orleans (a city with a rich clarinet tradition) and one of the giants of the Swing Era, Irving Fazola--not unlike a number of other early jazz greats--had a relatively brief time in the limelight. Born Irving Prestopnik in 1912, “Faz” rose to national prominence in the mid-1930s, but by the end of the following decade he was gone--at the age of 36.
Fazola, originally a nickname given to him by his boyhood friend Louis Prima (and said by some to be based on the three solfeggio notes, fa-so-la), eventually became his surname, though never legally formalized. (While he recorded under the name of “Irving Fazola” and was known by that name throughout the music world, his gravestone in St. Vincent’s Cemetery in Uptown New Orleans bears the simple inscription “Irving Fazola Prestopnik 1912-1949.”) Occasionally also referred to as “Nick” (presumably from Prestopnik), it seems that he himself preferred to be called “Faz.”
Fazola experimented a bit with a Boehm-system clarinet when young, but, as so many early New Orleans jazzmen, he soon settled on an Albert-system horn and played that for the rest of his life. His Selmer Albert is on prominent display today in the New Orleans Jazz Museum [Old U. S. Mint] on Esplanade Avenue. In fact, he took lessons from Santo Giuffre, the leading Albert teacher in the city at the time. He came to be a good reader and had a good ear, but he seems to have had problems with improvisation initially. He was helped out in that respect by an older clarinetist friend, Bill Bourgeois (who later came to be a well-known sideman with the Sharkey Bonano band.)
Bourgeois reportedly would take Fazola with on gigs and hum musical ideas for him to replicate. Tim Laughlin, the fine young clarinetist in New Orleans today and a one-time student of Bourgeois, confirms the way it went. “Fazola, who had an incredible ear, could hear that and just mimic it back,” he says, “and that’s how he got started playing jazz.”
Leon Roppolo (1902-1943), the great clarinetist of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, was an early idol of Fazola. (Fazola later admitted to having a great admiration for Benny Goodman as well.) It is interesting that the present king of Crescent City clarinet players, Pete Fountain, counts Fazola and Goodman among his major influences and is known to consider Tim Laughlin as something of a protege. We might then construct simple musical genealogy for one significant "school" of New Orleans jazz clarinetists: Roppolo-Fazola-Fountain-Laughlin. If one listens carefully to all of them, the lineage makes some sense.
In any case, young Prestopnik began playing with a variety of local bands from a tender age, and he soon gained acclaim for his wonderful tone, technique and blues playing. Fellow New Orleanian and Bob Crosby bandmate, drummer Ray Bauduc, later observed, “Fazola’s clarinet is the closest thing to perfect blues instrumentally I’ve ever heard.”
By the early ‘30s Faz’s local reputation was such that he began to be swamped with offers to join touring name bands. One such invitation came in 1932 from bandleader and drummer Ben Pollack. Faz declined (as he had with all other such requests), but the dogged Pollack finally succeeded in late 1935. The clarinetist joined the band and made his recording debut in 1936 [at the age of 24], being featured on Pollack’s theme song, “Song of the Islands.”
A number of former Pollack band members had formed the Bob Crosby band at about that time, and they also wanted Fazola. He left Pollack and, after a brief sojourn with the Glenn Miller Orchestra (during which time some have suggested that he had a role in creating the band’s distinctive lead-clarinet sound), Faz finally joined the Crosby Band in 1938.
Fazola stayed with Crosby until 1940, and this period probably represents the high point of his career. His recording output was prolific. He was a winner of two consecutive Down Beat annual polls (1940 and 1941) as the top jazz clarinetist. Crosby
band biographer John Chilton considers his arrival as a turning point for the band and notes that, “Fazola’s contribution to various recordings by the Bob Crosby Band and the Bobcats [sic] strengthened a widely held viewpoint that he was one of the greatest jazz clarinet players of all time.”
The late Bob Cat bassist Bob Haggart came to be a good friend and supporter of the slightly idiosyncratic clarinetist. “When we heard the recording of Jimtown Blues that Faz had made with Ben Pollack’s Band,” he was quoted as saying, “we knew that he was the man we needed on clarinet.” And, in clear reference to Fazola’s monumental size, he added, “To look at him you would never think he could play such beautiful music.” Haggart composed a lovely ballad for him (My Inspiration), and Faz’s gorgeous treatment of it came to be his signature number with the Crosby band.
After leaving Crosby, Faz’s health and homesickness (the latter a characteristic of so many New Orleans jazz musicians) had him on and off the road with a variety of bands (not the least of which was a brief stint with Claude Thornhill, which even found him playing some bassoon) until 1943. Thereafter he retired to New Orleans, where he stayed musically active for the remainder of his life.
Something of an introvert, Fazola’s weaknesses were wine, women and food (not necessarily in that order), and his health suffered accordingly. At 5’8” his weight reportedly reached 300 lbs. at one point. “Faz just couldn’t do anything in moderation; if he had a fifth of whiskey in front of him he’d drink it all, and I’ve seen him sit down and eat four dozen oysters. One big ‘poorboy’ sandwich, which would have been a lunch for anyone else, wasn’t even a snack for Faz. He’d have to order another, and then another,” said Dave Weinstein, a New Orleans bandleader with whom Fazola had worked.
But I cannot resist sharing my favorite Faz story [whether apocryphal or not], though lack of space requires that the late Al Rose’s original account be somewhat compressed.
It seems that Rose was putting on a concert in Philadelphia and wanted Fazola in the band. He felt it was necessary, however, to warn Faz a week in advance not to show up with alcohol on his breath. “I didn’t hesitate to remind him of the times he had reported to me in no real condition to perform,” Rose relates, “and although, in justice, I freely admit he was never an actual embarrassment to me, he didn’t play those dates like Faz could play.”
So, at about 7 p.m. on the evening of the concert, Rose got a call from Horn and Hardart’s Automat Restaurant. “The manager was on the line and wanted to know if I knew Mr. Fazola,” he continues. “He went on to explain that Mr. Fazola had eaten more than he had intended and as result had found himself wedged, apparently forever, in one of those captain’s chairs. He apparently could not be pried loose, even with the efforts of the manager and a strong pair of busboys. I immediately sent an ambulance…and hurried over there myself.
“The manager hadn’t exaggerated. There was Fazola, clearly jammed into the chair. ‘What the hell happened?’ I demanded, concerned for his condition and for my concert.
“’Well, I gave you my promise,’ he reminded me, prepred to put as much of the blame as possible on me for the inconvenient circumstance. ‘I told you I wouldn’t drink nothing’ today and I didn’t.’ But he went on to tell how he’d gotten into town on the train a little too early and had just decided to while away the time over a hamburger or two.
“’How many did you eat?’ I asked him. ‘Thirty-six,’ he admitted. ‘I feel okay. I just can’t get up out of the chair.’”
Rose goes on, “So the two ambulance attendants, the two busboys, the manager and I carefully loaded him, with the chair, into the ambulance, drove to the Academy of Music, and unloaded him carefully right at center stage of the auditorium. I paid everybody off and sent them on their ways.
“Patrons of ‘Journeys Into Jazz’ who remember that night may recall thinking it odd to come to their seats promptly at 8:30 and see one of the great stars of jazz sitting contentedly on the stage putting his clarinet together. Those who were present may be pleased to know, at last, how that came about.
“During the first half of the concert, Faz kept his seat--playing magnificently, but not standing for his solos as was customary. At intermission time, pianist Joe Sullivan, a trombone player named Munn Ware, and I pulled him loose. The second half of the concert went off without a hitch, though I did substitute a chair without confining arms. Faz then got up to do his solos, and nobody could tell we had started the evening with an emergency.
“After the concert,” Rose concludes, “Faz sheepishly suggested he’d like to go somewhere to eat. I took him to Billy Yancey’s. And Faz ordered--you guessed it--hamburgers.”
At the age of 33, Faz is reported to have said to a member of one of his last bands, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve lived as much life as people who get to be 70.” He died at home in his sleep just three years later.
Irving Fazola’s recording career was only of some ten years’ duration, but it proved to be a relatively productive decade. While he recorded with a dozen different groups or so (all as a sideman), his major output was with the Bob Crosby bands from 1938 to 1940. It seems that the only recordings under his own name as leader were his last.
The most complete listing (it is not without errors) that I know of can be found in George Hoefer’s “Faz Greatest White Blues Man,” Down Beat, May 20, 1949, pp. 12-13. This can be supplemented by listings in jazz encyclopedias or discographies, e.g. Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900-1950, vol. 2 (under Fazola) (1974) or Brian Rust, The American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942 (1975). Yet, even taken together, these are still incomplete.
Most reissues of Fazola recordings are, unfortunately, on foreign record labels, but many can be procured through good jazz record shops in this country. The most representative Faz compilation known to me appeared (fortuitously) just as these lines were being written: Irving Fazola, FAZ, Living Era CD AJA 5279 (ASV Ltd., London, England). It includes selections from his earliest recordings with Ben Pollack in 1936, through his work with Bob Crosby, Jess Stacy and Muggsy Spanier, down to the only recordings under his own name in 1945 [and 1946]. There are some nice rarities here too, not the least of which are two swinging tracks by “The Musical Maniacs”/”Rhythm Maniacs” of 1937.
Fazola’s many fine recordings with the Bob Crosby Orchestra (including the Bob Cats) can be heard on any one of several Crosby reissue series. I can recommend two of them (though I have not listened to all of the CDs): Bob Crosby and his Orchestra, vols. 6-12 (1938-1940), Halcyon DHDL 125-132. Halcyon CDs are owned and marketed by SUBMARINE, Enfield, Middlesex, England. And Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats, vols. 1-3 (1937-1940), Swaggie CD 501-503. Swaggie is an Australian label.
For Further Reading
I have relied heavily upon the fine study of British musician and jazz historian John Chilton, Stomp Off, Let’s Go! The Story of Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats and his Band (1938), especially chapters 5 (“Enter Fazola”) and 21 (“Irving Fazola”). Apart from brief entries in a variety of jazz encyclopedias, see also Hoefer, op. cit. (supra); Gilbert M. Erskine, “Irving Fazola and the Glenn Miller Sound,” The Second Line, 29 (Winter, 1977) pp. 43-45; Al Rose, I Remember Jazz, Six Decades Among the Great Jazzmen (1987), pp. 23-25; and Al Rose and Edmond Souchon, New Orleans Jazz, A Family Album (3rd edn., 1984) passim (including several photographs documenting various periods in the clarinetist’s career).
There are no recorded interviews of Fazola to my knowledge, but the wonderful collection at the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University includes scores of interviews with musicians who either played with or knew him. I consulted the transcripts of a number of those interviews. The Second Line, the quarterly publication of the New Orleans Jazz Club, also has several articles about musicians who worked with and talked about Fazola.
[P.S. August 2010: This article is clearly now well out-of-date, and I have made no attempt to update it. I will merely add here a reference to an excellent album by Fazola “descendant,” Tim Laughlin. It’s called The Isle of Orleans (Gentilly GR-172), recorded in 2002 and released in 2003. It includes a great tribute track, “Blues for Faz,” a Laughlin original. If you’ve not heard this CD, I highly recommend it.