The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina exposed America to a number of complex social and political challenges, not the least of which is how to restore and preserve the soundtrack of the “American Century” — the jazz music that was born in the city of New Orleans.
In this financially challenged era, relatively few dollars will be devoted to cultural restoration and preservation — particularly when, understandably, survival is on the front-burner. Before any of the funds required of a cultural restoration of New Orleans are adequately distributed, Americans and those representing them will likely have to be reminded of the city’s essential role in their country’s societal foundation. Leading musicians, educators, journalists and fans of the culture will need to step forward and contribute in ways that stimulate policy makers and ultimately affect results.
This edition of “Conversation with Gary Giddins” is the first of three Jerry Jazz Musician features devoted to the importance of New Orleans culture. In an enlightening, passionate conversation, Giddins — for many years the country’s most eminent jazz critic — discusses the beginnings of jazz in the city of New Orleans, its prominent figures, and what needs to be done to properly market jazz in a city that has contributed so much toward shaping the soul of America.
Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
“Basin Street Blues”
Words & Music by Spencer Williams
Won’t you come along with me
To the Mississippi?
We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams
Steam down the river down to New Orleans
The band’s there to greet us
Old friends will meet us
Where all the dark and the light folks meet
Heaven on earth! They call it Basin Street
Basin Street is the street
Where the elite always meet
in New Orleans, land of dreams
You’ll never know how nice it seems
Or just how much it really means
Glad to be, yes siree,
Where welcome’s free, dear to me
Where I can lose
My Basin Street Blues
“So, in the year of 1902, when I was about seventeen years old, I happened to invade one of the sections where the birth of jazz originated from.
“The Tenderloin District in New Orleans was considered second to France, meaning the second greatest in the world, with extensions for blocks and blocks on the north side of Canal Street.
“Every place in New Orleans had a gambling house, and I don’t know of any time that the racetracks were ever closed — a hundred days of races at City Park, then they would be at the Fair Grounds for another hundred days — and so they would go on continuously for three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
“I’m telling you this Tenderloin District was something that nobody has ever seen before or since. The doors were taken off the saloons from one year to the next. Hundreds of men were passing through the streets day and night. The chippies in their little-girl dresses were standing the crib doors singing the blues.
“The streets were crowded with men. Police were always in sight, never less than two together, which guaranteed the safety of all concerned. Lights of all colors were glittering and glaring. Music was pouring into the streets from every house…”
– Jelly Roll Morton
JJM We have heard so much about the losses associated with Hurricane Katrina in terms of dollars and human lives — justifiably so — but what seems to have been forgotten is the cultural devastation it caused. What does New Orleans represent to the United States in terms of culture?
GG New Orleans is one of the world’s unique cities, just as New York, San Francisco, Paris, Prague, or Venice is. But even among American cities, New Orleans represents a cultural oasis unlike any other. Because of its history, New Orleans is our most European and, at the same time, Caribbean city. It is a city famous, on the one hand, for its corruption — which seems to be limitless and impervious to reform — and, on the other, for a playground atmosphere, as a place where people go to have a good time. Yet despite a history that includes Storyville, the nation’s most fabled red light district, New Orleans is less decadent socially than, say, New York. The French Quarter is basically a “PG-13” honky tonk theme park, where people go to hear music, eat, drink, and buy gewgaws. The whole city is a living archive for research — especially music research but also in subjects like the slave and sex trades. It has great beauty and a live-and-let-live temperament. Tourists like me go there in part to experience its peculiarly avid, omnivorous feeling for life. It’s a grown-up city, our movable feast.
JJM You wrote in a recent Jazz Times that the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce never did for jazz what Nashville did for country music. Why not?
GG We have a deadly virus in this country: It’s called racism. They were embarrassed about the city being associated primarily with black residents, and they were especially embarrassed about its association with prostitution, which is why the prostitution laws in New Orleans are harsher than in many other cities in the United States.
At the end of the 19th century, Alderman Sidney Story set aside a district within New Orleans where prostitution was not illegal. Consequently, a city within the city was created, with Basin Street being the dividing street between the French Quarter and what became known as “Storyville.” It lasted some twnty years, until 1917. By the 1930’s, when jazz musicians had popularized much of Storyville’s history, tourists were coming to town looking for Basin Street. The interest in New Orleans’s tenderloin only served to embarrass the Chamber of Commerce. They re-zoned the district, wiping out Basin Street, literally — they removed the street signs. After World War II, when tourists returned — especially tourists from Japan — they sought out Basin Street and were disappointed not to find it. Eventually the city put the signs back up, but by this time Storyville’s cribs and mansions had become a housing development and there wasn’t much to see except the signs. None of it was preserved.
At best, jazz is tangentially related to Storyville because musicians played in some of the area saloons, but there were plenty of other places in the uptown area and in the quarter, as well as parks in the city and along Lake Ponchartrain — picnics, funerals and other parades, on advertising wagons, and so forth. The closing of Storyville didn’t greatly affect jazz, but it appeared to because it coincided with the Great Migration, spurred by the desire of African Americans to escape Jim Crow laws, which were accompanied by increased lynchings and shootings, as well as new opportunities in the industrial centers of the North. The Chicago Defender and various black leaders campaigned to relocate much of the black South to the North. The most gifted musicians were part of the migration. Yet instead of celebrating New Orleans as the cradle of jazz, the Chamber of Commerce tried to ignore it. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s, when a white guy opened up the miniscule Preservation Hall, that tourists had an inexpensive place to stand, in an un-air-conditioned room, and hear New Orleans musicians play music characteristic of the city. These were not nationally known musicians, although some, like George Lewis, had become quite famous. For the most part, they were local guys who never left. As they began to die out, two well-known white locals, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, started successful nightclubs that became popular with tourists. Their clubs were on the other side of Canal Street, in the wealthier district. By the 1970’s and 1980’s, jazz was disappearing from the Quarter, replaced by rhythm and blues in the tradition of Professor Longhair. By the time of Katrina, there wasn’t much jazz in the Quarter. You might catch a street band in the afternoon, but rhythm and blues was most prominent. The music clubs that hired jazz musicians were on the other side of Canal, in a less touristy district, and because the musicians were hired for one night per week, it was harder for them to establish a firm jazz presence. Obviously, if the city had created, say, in the affluent 1950’s, a jazz version of the Opry it would have established jazz as a magnet for visitors and brought millions of dollars into city coffers. Instead they bulldozed Louis Armstrong’s street and home, replacing it with a parking lot.
It is important to remember that New Orleans was the most sophisticated southern city of the 19th century. When Atlanta was a train depot, New Orleans was a striving metropolis with an opera house. It was richly cultural — a place where you could participate in a very comprehensive kind of cultural life. Nashville, on the other hand, wasn’t even a depot — it was just a one-horse town. But by building the Opry and creating an environment that celebrated country music, it encouraged performers to build estates there and invest in businesses. Consequently, Nashville has become a significant destination for the better part of fifty or sixty years. The fact that they could do that in Nashville for country music and not in New Orleans for jazz is an example of racism coming home to roost at a huge civic cost.
JJM While surfing the web recently in anticipation of our conversation, I found a terrific web site produced by the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. The site publishes the walking tour maps handed out to park visitors, and on the bottom of many of them — in bold type so it can’t be missed — a message reads, “We encourage you to use good judgment and common sense in taking this tour as it is in an urban area,” which is obvious code communicating that there are likely to be African Americans around. I think this message is an example of what you are talking about, and while they may wish to promote the music in some way, they can’t seem to do so without also warning people about the hazards of being a fan of jazz.
GG There is that, and also the crime component. I remember going down to Louis Armstrong Park a couple of times and one of the first things people tell you is don’t go there because it is so dangerous. It’s not that bad now, or at least it wasn’t a couple of years ago — the last time I was there, in 2004.
JJM I think you get that in many cities in the South. I once traveled through Memphis in the late 1970’s, and couldn’t find anyplace to hear music in the downtown area on a Monday night. The only place I could even find open was the fire station. My buddy and I asked a fireman where we could hear music downtown and was told not to go there because only “niggers” were downtown this time of night, and that no clubs were open. He sent us to a Ramada Inn in the suburbs, where a white guy in a paisley shirt played Billy Joel tunes on an organ. This was clearly an example of whites “protecting” other whites from black culture.
GG They punish the city, and the country. In the case of New Orleans, they punish the history of American music. New Orleans is famous more for jazz than anything else, and there isn’t much jazz there! They have a great archive at Tulane, but no museum, no theater, no civic awareness.
JJM Can you talk a little about what made the climate so ripe for jazz in New Orleans compared to that of, for instance, Chicago?
GG At that time, most of the black musicians were in the South. The Great Migration did not make Chicago a destination until 1911 or 1912, and it didn’t really become home to a large number of southern blacks until after 1915.
New Orleans was particularly rich for music because it has always been a Caribbean city in so many ways, for good and evil. For example, it was intimately involved with the Caribbean slave trade, which was especially brutal, involving huge casualties and turnover, which means a constant renewal of the African influence. New Orleans had a different relationship to its slaves than the rest of the country. The Protestants tried to get their slaves to learn hymns and Biblical teachings, and of course slaves found a mirror of their own situation in Exodus. But they did not allow slaves to perform African styles of music in public and, a generation or two after the slave trade was made illegal, the direct African influence withered away. In other words, a policy of westernization was enforced.
New Orleans was a Catholic city, and while they treated their slaves horribly, they were a lot more tolerant culturally than the Protestants. The Caribbean slave culture continued long after it became illegal to import slaves into the United States, and many of those who were not worked to death made their way to New Orleans, where they retained cultural and religious aspects of African life. They brought their gods, beliefs, and folklore, foods, community traditions, dances, and music, arriving well into the 19th century.
An example of the tolerance found in New Orleans was the famous Congo Square, where many free blacks and slaves would get together on Sunday afternoons and perform music and dances, some of which, if you read contemporary accounts from the 1830’s, sound quite modern. If slaves got together to publicly perform African dances in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia, they would have been broken up quick, but it was allowed in Congo Square once a week. That would continue until the 1840’s, when new slaves were no longer coming in. As the older slaves passed on, their traditions were assimilated or forgotten. But the fact that they were presented for as long as they were, nearly into mid-century, meant that certain musical practices were going to be soaked up combined with all the other practices.
The Caribbean influence is also evident in the habaneros and tangos and a variety of different kinds of rhythms that seeped into New Orleans. Ned Sublette’s wonderful book, Cuba and Its Music, is very good on that. Then you have the fact that, until the Civil War, there was a distinction between Creoles of Color and “black blacks,” as they were called. Some Creoles of Color were actually slave owners, and some blacks were also allowed to own slaves; by the 1850’s and 1860’s, free blacks owned a tremendous amount of property and were allowed to advance, to a certain degree, in society. That all ended after the Civil War. Reconstruction brought revenge in the form of Jim Crow laws, which disenfranchised all the Creoles of Color. This was important in the development of jazz because many Creoles studied music in the tradition of the French academy. They were educated artisans with family traditions and good jobs, but the “one drop of black blood” forced them into a reluctant social alliance with the uptown black community.
JJM Which meant they were now facing the same discrimination as the “black blacks.”
GG Yes, they were forced to socialize with blacks, sit in the back of the bus, and compete for the same kinds of jobs. So the combination of musically literate Creoles of Color and the improvising “black black” musicians was one of the essential mergers in the creation of jazz. The black musicians were playing blues, swinging harder, and mostly improvising. Many could read music, but that was not their primary goal or interest.
As a result, a guy like Manuel Perez, who was by all accounts a brilliant Creole trumpet player, came along at the same time as Buddy Bolden, who was a brilliant improviser and bandleader. They represented two approaches, and history firmly landed on the side of Bolden, but they did learn from each other. Jelly Roll Morton — a Creole of Color who was abandoned by his family because he wanted to hang out with the “black blacks” in Storyville, where he got a job playing piano — is the most famous early example of a musician who soaked up both sides of the equation. He particularly admired both Bolden and Perez. When you listen to Morton’s Red Hot Peppers recordings, from 1926, you hear the twin influences. He was a fanatic about writing everything down — he even notated bass parts. So a lot of the music is very carefully written, yet there are always choruses or episodes for improvisation. In the Library of Congress recordings, Morton gives examples of jazz musicians adapting traditional melodies, like the 19th century music box theme that became part of “Tiger Rag,” playing it first as a polite dance and then as a stomp.
JJM You mentioned earlier that opera had a presence in New Orleans at this time. Did opera have an influence on jazz?
GG It did, of course. It would have had to, because of its prominence in the musical diet of the city. People didn’t approach music with prejudices; they soaked up as much as they could and made it their own. Also, opera melodies often had the currency of popular tunes — the arias of Verdi, Mascagni, Puccini, Donizetti didn’t exist only for wealthy subscribers. They were in the air. At least one opera each by Donizetti and Rossini made its New World debut in New Orleans, at a time when New York and Chicago were still struggling to erect opera houses. At the turn of the century, you could walk from the Jackson Market north toward the Basin and into Storyville and hear all kinds of music on the way: ragtime, chamber music, opera, blues singers, barbershop quartets. Armstrong started out with a barbershop group — a few friends who sang on the street for pennies. A man might sing a famous aria on the street for pennies, just as a blues singer would. Many people think that the first time white citizen ever heard anything remotely like jazz was when a nickel museum hired black musicians to play on its balcony as a way of luring customers. The music was viciously attacked and mocked by The Mascot, an extremely racist New Orleans paper, in 1890 or 1891, and the description of the music, combined with a drawing of the band that conspicuously lacks music stands, makes it sound as if the music was a precursor of jazz, even though it was a good decade before Buddy Bolden.
JJM Did any of the Creole musicians write opera?
GG I have never heard that. The only operas I know of written by an American from that period are the two that Scott Joplin of St. Louis wrote, Treemonisha and A Guest of Honor, though only Treemonisha has survived.
JJM So many different styles of popular music are derived from rebellion. How big a role did rebellion have on the birth of jazz in New Orleans?
GG Huge, because so much of early black music was a way of signifying from black to black, and to say things about “massa” that you couldn’t say out loud. Years ago, when I was researching the subject, I was amazed to discover that “Jimmy Cracked Corn and I Don’t Care” is a celebration of massa’s death. A lot of the early jazz musicians parodied certain aspects of white society, but ultimately that was a secondary issue. The primary one was to play a music your audience wanted to hear. Music is a business and a means of communicating. Parody will only take you so far and no farther. Everybody who heard and who talks about Buddy Bolden’s music describes how sexual it was, how loud it was, how slow he could play, and how people loved to dance to it. When Armstrong was in New Orleans, he was associated primarily with blues, because that is what he played to entertain the whores in the saloons. Early jazz musicians were finding their own culture in a place and at a time when they were basically told they didn’t have a culture.
The Bolden Band in 1905
Bolden is standing, second from left
Buddy Bolden was a very famous man in his day, yet because Storyville was segregated, few whites beyond the police and club owners knew about him. The mansions were for white customers, and they knew about Bolden because everybody talked about him. His career was over ten years before Storyville ended, so 1905 to 1907 were the big years for Bolden. He was greatly admired by the uptown New Orleans blacks because he was the best anybody had ever heard and because he was different. His was apparently the first band to bear the leader’s name. Before he came along and for a long time after, bands had ensemble names, like The Olympia Band, The Eagles Band, or, much later, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Bolden was the first guy to pin his name to a band, suggesting the individualism that would become the heart of jazz.
JJM How did the first wave of New Orleans musicians — among them Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and Clarence Williams — differ from the second wave of King Oliver, Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton?
GG The first guys were inventing the music and the profession of musician. They played every kind of a job, so they knew different kinds of music. They had to play one way if they were playing for a dance in a pavilion, another way if they were playing in a late night saloon for dancers, and in still different ways if they were playing at an afternoon picnic or on an advertising wagon or in a funeral march. They were very accomplished musicians, and in order to make a living — which few did as most had day jobs — they had to be versatile. The outstanding players became famous, locally, and then, in some instances, nationally, though only for a short time. Even Oliver and Morton enjoyed only brief moments in the sun. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was even more comet-like — a fad today, gone tomorrow. Bechet had a long career, but most of it was abroad. Armstrong was really the first New Orleans musician to have a huge impact in the 1920’s, and extend it for the rest of his life. In that sense, I suppose you could argue that he didn’t just invent modern jazz, but also the modern jazz musician. Before him, the second wave — Oliver, Morton, and so on — brought more sophistication.
One of the ways a musician could earn a pretty decent living was to play on the Streckfus Steamer Lines’ excursions, which is what Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr, and many others did. Musicians couldn’t play on the riverboats if they were only improvising or only playing blues. They had to be able to read scores as well. Armstrong had to study reading with Fate Marable and the horn player in the band, Davey Jones, who Marable assigned to help Armstrong with his reading. I think the diverse diet of material — Armstrong recalled that the theme they always opened with was “In the Land of Beginning Again,” an old song that Bing Crosby sings in The Bells of St. Mary’s — inclined him to a more generous view of tunes from Tin Pan Alley and elsewhere.
But perhaps the central distinction between the first and second wave is not what they played but the fact that the second group made records. With Buddy Bolden, there are many first-hand reports from people who worked with him or heard him, and they are consistent enough that you can get a sense of what he played. Yet there is a big difference between speculating about a musician and hearing him. King Oliver’s recordings — even though they may not be entirely representative of what he played live — bring us directly into the picture. It is the difference between recollections of great theatrical performances and movies that live on forever, sometimes to the embarrassment of the performers.
JJM Who was the first New Orleans musician to have success spreading his music to other parts of the country?
GG Lawrence Gushee has made a pretty compelling case for Freddie Keppard and the Original Creole Orchestra. He was supposedly the first asked to record, and for whatever reason declined.
JJM It has been said that he was afraid someone would steal his licks if he recorded
GG That was one of those stories you hear that don’t make a lot of sense. I think that he probably asked for too much money, or didn’t like the cut of someone’s jib. But his Original Creole band traveled to California, so they spread the music around.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band, on the other hand, popularized the word “jazz,” which was largely unknown; they didn’t even use it in New Orleans — they adapted a form of it in Chicago. They spelled it “jass” — vandals crossed out the “j” on their posters, turning the name into what at that time qualified as an obsenity, so they changed the spelling from “jass” to “jazz.” They were huge in Chicago and even bigger in New York, where they recorded. When they first recorded for Columbia, the executives said that it was noise and refused to put it out. So, Victor recorded them and made millions, which prompted Columbia to put out the earlier recording. The ODJB’s “Livery Stable Blues” is said to have sold over a million copies, but even so, jazz didn’t become a going concern as a stable part of the recording industry until the 1920’s, when King Oliver, Morton, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Wolverines, Clarence Williams, blues singers, and others recorded — culminating in 1925 with the introduction of the Hot Five, a band that existed exclusively to make records.
Another guy who was very important in bringing jazz to the world was Sidney Bechet. He went to Europe in 1919 with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopators, where he was reviewed by Enrst Ansermet — the first positive jazz review by an important figure in classical music. This was a benchmark in the history of jazz appreciation!
Oliver went to California and failed miserably, coming back to Chicago with his tail between his legs, but then when he went into Lincoln Gardens with his new band, he was a sensation, especially when he brought Armstrong in. It’s interesting, I think, to note that Armstrong was the only one of those guys born in the 20th century; the others were born in the 1890’s or 1880’s, and, as I said earlier, he is the only one whose career blossoms after the 1920’s. Morton was big in the 1920’s but forgotten at the time of his death. Oliver lost his chops and disappeared to a Georgia fruit stand. Keppard died young, and Bechet moved to France, where he became a national celebrity. Armstrong was unstoppable, especially after he made it clear that there isn’t any difference between playing an old quadrille like “Tiger Rag” and a Tin Pan Alley tune like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Because it isn’t about the tune, but rather what you do to the tune. It is about who you are and what you bring. You know how I feel about Armstrong, but I don’t think it is possible to overstate his importance — the single most influential musical figure of the 20th century. Sorry, Igor.
JJMYou can’t underestimate how giant his personality was.
GG That’s right, and you can’t underestimate the importance of that personality, because that personality disarmed racists, it disarmed the gatekeepers who said that only whites could work on this radio station or at that movie studio. Armstrong broke down doors because nobody could say no to him.
JJM While neither of us will live long enough to know this for sure, his personality is so great that his stature is likely to be larger one hundred years from now than it is today.
GG I have no doubt about that, and in some ways it will likely be more controversial because the more people contemplate him, the more mythology he will accrue. But myths are unnecessary. In my small book on Armstrong, I made a comparison with Shakespeare — as time goes by, people increasingly doubt that Shakespeare was Shakespeare because how could somebody who didn’t have a proper education write those plays? And, here is Armstrong, who invented American music, the product of a waif’s home.
JJM What became of New Orleans music after Armstrong left for Chicago?
GG The gifted musicians wanted to leave for Chicago as well. After Armstrong went there, Red Allen — perhaps the last of the early New Orleans trumpet kings — went north. Red Allen is one of my favorite musicians — the records he made in 1929 with J.C. Higginbotham have lost nothing to time. He just played brilliantly up until the day he died, but during most of the 1930’s, when he should have become a prominent artist, he played in Armstrong’s big band. While he did get a chance to blow occasionally in concert, he is never heard on the records, which were designed as Armstrong concerti. The orchestra plays, Armstrong plays, there may be a clarinet solo, a vocal, and then the big trumpet climax.
So Red Allen never really got the attention he merited. But then who led Armstrong’s orchestra? It was Luis Russell, a Panamanian by birth who moved to New Orleans after winning a sweepstakes. He established a career there, but made his reputation in the North, leading his own band, and serving as Louis’s music director for, I think, eleven years. The guitarist Lonnie Johnson is another musician who had a successful career in New Orleans, but became nationally famous after he left and made very influential records with Armstrong, Ellington, and Eddie Lang.
Many musicians didn’t want to leave home, and others didn’t have enough talent to leave, so they stayed in New Orleans and honed the tradition, freezing the music in a version of Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. They would occasionally adopt a popular song, so they built their own repertoire, but remained insulated. And while their music is sometimes wonderful, much of it sounds touristy, rote, and predictable. I greatly enjoy George Lewis — who became improbably popular in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, recording for virtually every label — including Blue Note and Verve — but you really have to dig through his records because so many of them are so repetitive. He made a short ten-inch album for Southland in 1954 that is just awesome. They screwed up the CD, but the sound on the original LP is electrifying –stark and simple, played with great feeling. That’s the first recording I ever heard of “Darkness on the Delta.”
Lewis wanted to be more au courant than he was, and when his generation died, it was replaced by white musicians who grew up imitating them and by black musicians who combined the New Orleans polyphonic attack with rhythm and blues rhythms. Some of the music froze in a kind of Dixieland wax museum, complete with straw hat and sleeve garter, as compared to the original innovators, who were usually dressed to the nines — like hustlers, gamblers, sharp-looking guys. Somehow a culture of John Stetson hats and tailored threads was transformed into a culture of beer and peanuts and garters and vests, playing the same goddamn tunes every night. When it is done well that kind of music can still be electrifying. I heard a combination British-Scandinavian band in Denmark last summer that knocked me out. But more often, it has become a predictable exercise, sometimes played by weekend musicians — Woody Allen jazz.
JJM I am amazed I am even a jazz fan, because among the first records I heard were the ones by Al Hirt and Pete Fountain that were lying around the house, with the cheesy photos of white guys in straw hats and goatees, who basically looked like barbershop quartets wielding trombones and clarinets. In retrospect, at a time of the British Invasion, Motown and Rap Brown, how the hell would anyone have liked this kind of stuff? It had to have contributed to the square image people of our generation had toward jazz.
GG I agree. Pete Fountain was one of the first guys I heard, and I liked the Dixieland jazz side of it, which I associated with bands like George Lewis’s, but I have Pete Fountain records where he doesn’t improvise a note. It has the veneer of jazz, without the reality, the guts, the joy, the invention. And he could play, too, when he wanted.
JJM I am going to read names of a handful of celebrated New Orleans musicians — excluding Armstrong because that would take hours — and ask you to make some brief comments about them. You have already spoken some about Buddy Bolden, but let’s start with him.
GG For most of the 20th century, Buddy Bolden was shrouded in legends, most of them with no basis in fact. It was said that he owned a barbershop, or that he edited a daily newspaper, and all kinds of nonsense. One writer — ironically, it may have been William Russell, a generous and important scholar, whose posthumous Oh, Mister Jelly is expensive but a very important book — misheard something, put it into print, and then a lot of lazy historians picked up on it and it became “The Buddy Bolden Story.”
Bolden was really brought back to us by another scholar, named Don Marquis, whom I met in the early 1970’s. He wrote an indispensable book called In Search of Buddy Bolden, which cut through the encrusted myths. He found out everything you could find out about Bolden — where and how he lived, when he started playing, what tunes he played. Russell’s Oh, Mister Jelly, a collection of transcribed interviews and other materials relating to Morton, published by a company in Denmark, is about seven hundred oversize pages in length, and indexed, and if you look up Bolden, you will find a dozen or so old-timers talking about him, and when they describe his music and the way they remember it, the same words keep coming up — about volume, tempo, choice of tunes, the way women danced to him, how famous he was. When you read these accounts he becomes quite a vivid figure.
There have been two novels based on Bolden’s life, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which came out shortly after Marquis’ book, and which owes a lot to it, and a few years ago there was a detective novel called Chasing the Devil’s Tail, by David Fulmer, in which Bolden is a murder suspect in Storyville, in 1907. That book also incorporates Marquis’s research and despite a few whoppers, like having Armstrong returning from the waif’s home in 1907, gives a pretty compelling portrait of the era.
There is no question that Bolden is the first jazz star, and the first tragic figure. He went insane and was put into an asylum in 1907. He lived a long time after that — for 24 years — but nobody went to see him, nobody tried to interview him, and few people in the wider world of jazz had heard of him. He was forgotten, cast aside, not unlike D. W. Griffith, only without a concrete legacy — records or film clips or even reviews, to examine. When he died in 1931, jazz was a worldwide phenomenon and I doubt if Buddy Bolden even knew it. So, it is a terrible story, but Bolden is probably the first American musical idol who lived fast and died young — the predecessor of Bix Beiderbecke or James Dean or Charlie Parker or whoever. His success and popularity in New Orleans inspired many young musicians to play the music he played. He made improvisation legitimate in that era at that time, a very important artist.
JJM John Robichaux.
GG I don’t know very much about him other than he was a Creole who led a band that played the socials
JJM He may have been a rival to Bolden’s band?
GG He may have been. Manuel Perez was Bolden’s rival on trumpet, and he had a band too. Perez is a fascinating figure, who lived a long life, rarely if ever granting interviews — I wish someone would write a book about him. But I believe Robichaux was a part of that group of Creoles who looked down on blacks who couldn’t read music. The first band I ever heard live, in New Orleans in 1963, was Emmanuel Sayles’ Silverleaf Ragtimers with George Lewis, and the pianist was Joseph Robichaux. I don’t know if Joseph was related to John or not — it is not an uncommon name — but I can tell you that Joseph Robichaux was a delightful man. Talking to him was one of the unforgettable moments of my adolescence.
JJM Jelly Roll Morton.
GG Well, Morton is a genius, one of the titans in American music. Every time I go back to his records — and I have been listening to them all my life — I die and go to heaven all over again because they are just so unbelievably good. He had a great gift for melody and for form. “Doctor Jazz” is not only an early jazz staple, but an incarnation of the American spirit, the beginning of rock and roll, and a great yawp of independent expression.
He was a strange man, and an extremely proud yet superstitious one. He bragged in a way that put people off. You can hear this in the Library of Congress recordings. A lot of people get sick of the sound of his voice because of the “Me, me, me” — he puts himself at the center of everything. Well, he was at the center of a lot. Morton tried everything. He wrote trio music, piano music, he wrote for the Peppers — which was a six, seven, eight, nine piece band — and he wrote for big bands, and always within that New Orleans-cum-Creole style. He had a wonderful sense of melody. His piano pieces are among his best work, and even though he wasn’t encouraged to sing very much in the early years, he delivered several unforgettable vocals — “Doctor Jazz,” of course, in 1926, and then several blues and ballads a dozen years later, always with an effective Southern drawl. He put “Winin’ Boy Blues” and “Sweet Substitute” on the map, and sings dozens of pieces on the Library of Congress recordings.
He was such an extremely engaging performer, but apparently a difficult guy, and as he got older he simply didn’t know how to manipulate the show business world, because when I hear the Library of Congress recordings, I keep asking, “Why wasn’t this guy working? Why wasn’t he at Carnegie Hall? Why weren’t they building concerts around him?” A big reason is that a lot of people hated his guts. Ellington never took him seriously, and among critics, Leonard Feather never missed a chance to bop him over the head. And it probably didn’t help that Morton could do no wrong with the people who hated Armstrong, swing, and anything modern. So Morton became a football between these two groups.
JJM Nick LaRocca.
GG A thorny subject. LaRocca was an Italian who grew up in New Orleans during a time when there wasn’t as much segregation in the neighborhoods as there was on public transportation. Blacks and whites — Italians, Irish, Jews, French, Spanish — all lived in the same neighborhoods, and LaRocca heard jazz and put together an amusing vaudeville version of it. The band got the chance to record and became world famous in 1917, but they were very limited musicians. The two most talented were LaRocca on cornet and Larry Shields on clarinet, but after a while, they faded. They tried to have a reunion in the 1930’s but it didn’t go well, so they became bitter. LaRocca turned racist, and proceeded to make horrible statements about how whites invented jazz, and how they were there before the black guys, and so forth, scurrilous stuff — a cartoon cliché of the Southern bigot. Yet give credit where credit is due: His group was the first to record jazz, unless you count James Europe or Wilbur Sweatman, which would be a stretch. Because of his statement he was completely dismissed, and it became unfashionable to even acknowledge the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He was a second-rate musician, but he was there and he put together a very entertaining and popular band that helped to transfigure the era. Writing him out of history is a mistake.
The important thing about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is that it was a huge success. It made the word “jazz” recognizable all over the world, and opened the door for better bands that came along in its wake. The next important white band to emerge from New Orleans — New Orleans Rhythm Kings — was a far greater ensemble; many of their records are thoroughly listenable and rewarding today. Incidentally, NORK recorded in 1924 with Morton on piano. The public didn’t know it, but that was probably the first integrated jazz recording.
JJM “Papa” Jack Laine apparently led an integrated band
GG That’s right. Laine was born before any of them, and he lived after everybody. He was highly successful at putting together bands for social occasions, but except for the fact that a lot of musicians who passed through his band developed into jazz musicians, he was really outside of jazz. He didn’t tutor jazz musicians in the way some Creoles, like the Tio brothers, did. They prepared their students for careers in music. The same can be said about Manuel Perez, who tutored a lot of people who eventually became important figures in early jazz. But Laine provided work, and he seems to have been a well-liked and admired guy in his day, although he was very jealous of the fact that jazz supplanted ragtime as the music everybody talked about. He felt that the written music that they had played was unjustly ignored. Maybe he was right. There was a lot more there than we know, and not nearly enough documentation.
JJM Kid Ory.
GG An important figure in the New Orleans scene because he was the co-leader with King Oliver of the most popular band in New Orleans during the waning years of Storyville. When Oliver left for Chicago, he recommended to Ory that he hire Louis Armstrong. At first he may have been skeptical because Armstrong was only seventeen at the time, but people were already talking about him — he had a reputation and Ory hired him. By virtue of stepping into King Oliver’s shoes, Armstrong became very well known in New Orleans and he got a lot of work.
When Oliver summoned Armstrong to Chicago, Ory had already been to California, where, in 1921, he made a recording that is important mostly because he recorded before the Oliver guys did. When he came back to Chicago, Armstrong made him a crucial member of the Hot Five, so he became sort of a legendary figure — not as Armstrong’s boss, but as his sideman, and he was very good in that context. I like a lot of his solos because he played with great, gruff energy and good feeling, and he had certain melodic ideas that seem very au courant even today.
He managed to sustain a career as a lifelong traditionalist, and in the 1940’s, when he was broadcasting in California, he became a focus for the New Orleans revival. When Orson Welles talked about doing a jazz film, he spoke to Kid Ory — everyone was going to Kid Ory for interviews and he became influential with the young historians looking into the beginnings of New Orleans jazz. And because Walt Disney was a Dixieland jazz fan, when he opened Disneyland, he often hired Ory and Johnny St. Cyr. So they managed to have long careers outside of New Orleans, but they weren’t sophisticated enough to make the leap that Louis Armstrong did, nor do I think that they had any interest in doing so. Once you hear a trombonist like Jack Teagarden or Jimmy Harrison, Kid Ory is going to seem like a primitive, whereas Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie do not make Louis Armstrong sound like a primitive.
JJM Sidney Bechet.
GG Bechet is an extraordinary figure, a volatile personality who was constantly getting into trouble — fights, sexual assaults, gun battles. His passport was taken away from him in France at one point and he was exiled from the country, yet later became an adopted son. As an undergraduate in the late 1960’s, almost a decade after his death, I spent a month in Grenoble, and was amazed at how ubiquitous his music was, on every café jukebox. Later I went to Nice and was even more amazed to see a statue of him. Hell, I don’t think there was a single statue of any jazz musician, including Armstrong, in the United States.
He started out as a clarinetist, and he played with an authority that didn’t lend itself to the traditional New Orleans style, where trumpet plays the lead and clarinet and the trombone play support. Bechet wasn’t anybody’s supporter. Instead, he played clarinet as though it were a cornet, and when he needed more volume to make his way in the ensemble, he switched to the soprano saxophone, which he mastered in a matter of months, eventually becoming its one great master. Johnny Hodges, who was greatly influenced by Bechet, was a beautiful soprano player but gave it up after the 1940’s, and until Steve Lacy came along — and then Coltrane to popularize the instrument — Bechet dominated the soprano saxophone for forty years. He played every kind of tune. He was the first to make a version of “I Got Rhythm” without quoting the melody, and I think he was also the first to do a complete overdub record, “Sheik of Araby,” on which he plays every instrument. This was before the invention of tapes so he was doing this on transcription discs, where he overdubbed one track after the other, playing the drums, then the saxophones. He also made the trio recordings with Earl Hines that still sound pretty modern. Great player.
He was always associated with the New Orleans style, but he went far beyond that. One of his great recordings from the 1950’s is the quartet album he made with Martial Solal, a young, up-and-coming and very modern star of jazz in Paris. He was the cutting edge, yet he and Bechet really get along beautifully on that record and they both compel interest rhythmically, melodically, and in every way. They did an outstanding “All the Things You Are.”
Another thing about Bechet is that he dictated a remarkable autobiography that a number of people helped put together called Treat it Gentle, a very poetic and evocative book — especially the opening chapter about his grandfather Omar. He also talks about a lot of the things he remembers seeing in New Orleans that bring clarity to other memoirs. For one example, late in his life Armstrong claimed that he was playing the cornet long before he went to the waif’s home, and Bechet said that he remembered seeing him around town with a cornet. So although Bechet’s book came out long before those papers of Armstrong’s were discovered, they support each other. He had an excellent memory, and, volatile though he was, he was very generous in his reminiscences. That is an important and highly readable book.
JJM It is one of the better jazz autobiographies
GG Yes, great book. It has my favorite piece of advice regarding criticism: “You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It’s the same with music.” Although the best jazz autobiography is still Armstrong’s, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. I just reread it two weeks ago, although this time I did a sentence-by-sentence comparison of the original typescript with the published book. In almost every instance the typescript is better, but it also proves that the book is ninety-plus percent what Armstrong wrote. Although he does create a couple of composite characters, and the timeline is somewhat confusing because his memory goes in and out, it is a trustworthy account with a tremendous sense of feeling for the era and its people. The big mystery for me concerns two characters he writes about at length — Ponce and Segretti. I’ve been able to find no independent corroboration that they existed, so I don’t know if he changed their names or what. One of the worst of jazz crimes is that most of the material he wrote about Chicago was burned by Joe Glaser.
JJM Is there a compilation of recordings of New Orleans music that you could recommend?
GG There was a very interesting one that Columbia put out in the 1960’s called The Odyssey of New Orleans, which was one of three volumes, each with three discs — The Odyssey of New Orleans, The Odyssey of Chicago, and The Odyssey of Harlem. They went out of print real fast, and none have been out on CD. They focused mostly on obscure sessions. Robert Parker produced a CD compilation of early New Orleans, and a few others have appeared on small labels, but I can’t think of a standout collection, which is sort of surprising, but then Sony hasn’t even bothered to release its King Oliver recordings — an instance of criminal neglect. There were a few fascinating New Orleans sets on Folkways, including a two-volume box that had some remarkable obscurities. I have recently received several anthologies designed to raise money for Katrina victims, but while they have a lot of famous names they suggest little in the way or historical or critical discrimination. On one of them, Armstrong is represented by “What a Wonderful World.”
There were interesting recordings made in the 1920s. The Odyssey of New Orleans set, for example, devoted a full side to a guy nobody has heard of named Sam Morgan, but they are important recordings because they indicate the way musicians played before Oliver and those guys came to Chicago. It also has Fate Marable’s record of “Frankie and Johnny,” which is intriguing because it is entirely written except for the trumpet breaks, and is probably not unlike a lot of music Armstrong played when he was in Marable’s band.
JJM In 1987, Congress passed Resolution 57, which designated jazz as a “rare and valuable national American treasure,” “to which,” the U.S. Senate added, “we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.” In light of all the other governmental needs at this time, do you have faith that any resources will be devoted to ensuring the success of this resolution?
GG That jazz will be preserved in New Orleans? No faith whatsoever. Maybe someone will be able to divert some funds toward opening a small club or producing a concert, but beyond that, nothing will happen. What they have to do is look to Nashville or Cleveland’s rock and roll museum or EMP in Seattle as templates. They have to build a real honest-to-god auditorium with broadcasting facilities so music performed there is heard on national radio, and a museum with a library and archive and hall of fame. That way, jazz and New Orleans will become a magnet for people all over the South and, by extension, the country, to come and spend their vacations in New Orleans, “The City of Jazz.” Jeez, we have two rock and roll museums, but we don’t have one for jazz? The only jazz museum I am aware of now is in Kansas City, and while it is nice, it is a tiny place with no national impact. Because it is in the black area of town, the Chamber of Commerce didn’t bother putting it on its tourist route so even Midwesterners don’t know it exists. Not to have an equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Experience Music Project in just fucking painful.
JJM How will Katrina affect the future of jazz?
GG Too early to say. I don’t see much of an impact. I have very mixed feelings about the funeral marches that took place following the hurricane. They were using jazz as something historic, as if it were a dead thing, and I am not impressed with that. I am not impressed that a jazz marching band is put together as a means of pointing out the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s all crocodile tears. You want to do something for jazz? Somebody has to come forward with the money or the ability to raise the money, and you have to do something a lot bigger than anybody is doing now. While Jazz at Lincoln Center is beautiful, they have a hall of fame about the size of a walk-in closet, basically a wall with names on it. The music that they present is limited by the tastes of the people running it — which is their prerogative, but that doesn’t make it a national jazz hall, and that’s what we need. Did you know they had a jazz walk of fame on 52nd Street? This was relatively recent, in the 1970’s or early 1980’s, I think. I can understand that people lost interest, so they stopped adding to the plaques. But why not allow the ones already embedded in cement stay there? They dug them up and junked them.
I don’t understand why the Experience Music Project is so rockcentric. I mean, why do we keep drawing this artificial line in the sand? When I was there they were doing a terrific blues and r&b thing and half the people presented in the display were jazz figures, though I suspect that visitors to the museum didn’t necessarily know that. These were musicians like Joe Turner and boogie woogie players who straddled both jazz and r&b. Rock and roll and jazz have a lot in common. I mean, every time Eric Clapton improvises a blues chorus, what the hell is he doing? You can hear it as a different approach — not jazz per se — but that’s a question of style. He is still improvising twelve-bar choruses on the same harmonies and structure as Louis and Bird and Miles and Sonny and on and on. It’s not really an idiomatic issue.
JJM And it is not a racial issue because most of the big figures of r&b and rock and roll were either black or influenced by black musicians.
GG It is not at all racial, just ignorant. That is all it is. Jazz scares the shit out of people. In the 1960s, it was possible to listen to records and read books and feel that you understood the history of jazz because there were only forty years of it on records. Now there is twice as much and it is ten times more intricate. People have a hard enough time trying to figure out Miles and Monk and Ornette — Morton is like the other side of the moon –and when they do examine an earlier period they pick up a couple of figures to learn about, a little Armstrong, a little Ellington. But they will never hear Red Allen or Chu Berry or even Roy Eldridge, because we no longer have a jazz culture. We are more likely to learn about jazz in school, which turns a pleasurable, exciting pursuit into homework. It’s one thing to put on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and wonder, “Hey, who is the clarinetist?” You look at the CD and see it’s a guy named Johnny Dodds. It’s another thing to listen to it in fear of a quiz for which you have to memorize the names of the players. I’m not saying anything can be done about this; what doesn’t end up in the classroom is often thrown out altogether. But when jazz becomes an obligation instead of pure pleasure, it’s lost its magic. The most pleasurable of cities, New Orleans, ought to be resurrected as a gateway to jazz.
“The story of jazz should be in all the schools, so the children would know where their music comes from. They should give money so that people could go out West and study and record cowboys and Western folklore. The kids in the schools today think their country has nothing.
“You remember that movie, NEW ORLEANS, that had Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday? Well, them people took pictures of every segment of New Orleans. They made their pictures as authentic as they could get them, but they didn’t put any of it in the movie, any of the authentic stuff, because they wanted the movie commercial. They showed the leading man posing for fifteen minutes, fixing his tie, while they should have been showing the people, the real thing.”
– Danny Barker
This conversation took place on October 31, 2005
Quotations from musicians are from Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It, by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro. Used with the permission of Nat Hentoff