Friday, March 22, 2013

Didn't He Dabble

I must admit, I do like to dabble. Something catches my imagination and then I investigate far enough to get enough of a working knowledge of a topic to have a reasonable conversation with actual aficionados -- not hold my own - but to follow along. And New Orleans music history is my current passion. It's an easy one to get consumed in because, while it's got a long history -- you can trace lines of stylistic evolution from the late 19th century right thru to today -- and pretty diverse, encompassing early jazz, modern jazz, R&B, blues, rock 'n' roll, jam band, brass band, hip hop, etc -- it's a strangely congruent story. You can track lyric tropes and catch phrases that go back 100 years - for instance, Louis Armstrong reports being attacked by a pimp in the Battlefield (neighborhood North of the Central Business District) named "Cheeky Blakk," a name currently utilized by seminal female "Bounce" (a local hip hop sub-genre) luminary (just saw her spit a lil at SxSW and I can appreciate why she looms large in the field). Or take the case of one Danny Barker who'd played with Jellyroll Morton, one of the founding fathers of jazz, and later in life worked with the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band from whence emerged several of the Marsalis brothers as well as most of the players who would constitute the brass band revival of the 80's - members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth, Soul Rebels etc; so here you have a direct lineage that goes back 100 years! And these are just two examples. It's a Gordion knot of epic proportions that's fascinating to unravel bit by bit via books, recordings, magazine articles.

Lotta folks have spent a lot of years doing this in depth to great effect and, as i said, I'm just dabbling. But recently I can across three artifacts that made a lot of great connections: Danny

Barker's two books "Buddy Bolden And The Last days of Storyville" and "MY Life In Jazz" and the "Breaking Out of New Orleans 1922-1929" CD box set. Barker grew up in the French Quarter and the Marigny in the early 20th century and while he was too young to actively participate in the emergence of "hot jazz" he did witness its national heyday, was old enough to hear some of the legendary players or at least rub up against musicians who'd known them. In addition, his grandfather, Isidore Barbarin, was a member of the Onward Brass Band, one of the top outfits in New Orleans at the time, which was later taken over by Oscar Celestin and renamed the Tuxedo Brass Band...and a Young Tuxedo Brass Band continues to gig to this very day, the very earliest recordings of them dating back 70 years. He paints a wonderfully vivid picture of life in New Orleans amongst the working classes - rough and tumble social clubs, regular street parades, dropping by grandma's and having her whip up a pan of fresh biscuits at the drop of a hat...and music permeating everything, everywhere.

You read Barker's books, or Louis Armstrong's "Satchmo: My Life In New Orleaans," Al Rose's "Storyville, New Orleans" and now the liner notes to Sony's wonderful 4CD Preservation Hall retrospective and the same names keep popping up - Freddie Keppard, Papa Celestin, Kid Ory, Fate Marable... who were the pre-eminent musicians and band leaders that inspired and helped train more widely known players like Armstrong, King Oliver... You go looking for the music...and there's NOT a lot, and much of what's out there is of - reputedly dubious provenance; tracks that have been repackaged multiple times in myriad ways, misleadingly labelled, sometimes including recordings that the featured musician may not even appear on. It's very frustrating, very tantalizing.

"Breaking Out of New Orleans 1922-1929" CD box set compiles 4 CDs' worth of this crucial material - Keppard with his Jazz Cardinals as well as with outfits led by others, Marable, Celestin leading multiple outfits, the earliest recordings of the great trombonist and band leader Kid Ory, etc.

This is a JSP release so -- INEXPENSIVE. Probably about 20 dollars (I got my set as an Xmas present - thanks Sis!)

As per the impact of the music -- well, "Hot jazz" tends to sound initially hokey to 21st century neophyte ears - Jazz developed into more polished, then more cerebral and abstract forms for decades and then slipstreams of the music mutated into R&B, then its sub-genre "rock 'n' roll" (a simple description of a certain sensual activity involving two people - get close to someone ya love and try one action and then the next), and so on. But even a rock-bred dummy can learn to appreciate what these folks were putting down - near telepathic group improvisation that was still danceable, hummable pop. More problematic - to a degree - is that some of these players, Keppard for instance, was already past his physical prime and was performing with a somewhat degraded embouchure (it's said)...nothing much to be done about that. The recording industry, in those days, largely revolved around the relatively scarce facilities, some of them technically classed as electronics laboratories that'd been set up in places like Chicago, Camden, NJ, New York. New Orleans musicians - by and large - didn't have access to recording studios until they'd relocated to these other towns. Moreover, there was a standing tradition not to publish your music or make recordings lest other musicians be able to imitate your repertoire and playing style and better compete with you for live work -- which is where the money was in those days.

ALL THAT BEING SAID - I'm finding this an invaluable rsource that brings a lot of the stories and references I've come across in my reading to life. In addition, there's repertoire and stylistic traditions presented here, recorded in the 1920's that STILL appear on some of my favorite NOLA releases from recent times.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Whole Lotta Bunk

FIRST OFF - I HEREBY DECLARE THAT I'M ONLY THE MOST CALLOW DABBLER IN JAZZ HISTORY. This account could only be of value to other wet-behind-the-ears neophytes...

This passed Christmas, my son Severin bought me "Buddy Bolden & The Last Days of Storyville" and my niece Anna Rose got me "My Life In Jazz," both titles by Danny Barker. Barker was an accomplished guitar/banjo players and played in top of the line jazz ensembles including Cab Calloway's in the 1930's. He was one of the first jazz musicians to start actively chronicling jazz history, especially early jazz history -- a pursuit he undertook because of his dissatisfaction with how non-player music journalists portrayed the both contemporary jazz and its development. Both books are a great read, colorful and insightful and with a lot of valuable insider information on the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans. A significant amount of his reportage can't be documented or is disputed by academics addressing the same material. It seems entirely possible that a certain amount of his account is myth -- either that he'd collected and passed along without further inquiry or had a hand in contriving. But myth is NOT a lie per se -- it's a vehicle for conveying useful information, that's goes beyond naked facts and figures.

The figure that stands out the most in the "Buddy Bolden" book, is of course Bolden. And the academics take issue with just about all the details Barker provides on Bolden, his day job, the narrative arc of his mental health problems that ended his career and eventually landed him in an institution -- EVEN the quality of his playing and showmanship. Which begs the question? So how did Bolden inspire such a pervasive and enduring myth if he was an indifferent player and hammy performer? The great majority of New Orleans musicians from that era have utterly vanished from the historical record and faded, even from popular memory? There must have been SOMETHING happening to have the profound impact that Bolden had on American music history.

One of the tragedies of Bolden's career was that he never recorded a single note (there're rumors...but nothing's ever surfaced). This was not unusual at the time when musicians made their money from live performance and having the most powerful, accomplished and unique playing style and compositions were their stock in trade. So, few registered their copyrights or published their material or recorded -- fearing that'd enable others to more readily copy their playing and songs and have a better shot at competing for live work. One of the more interesting sections of Barker's book is his account of the early career of one Bunk Johnson. Barker claims that he was Bolden's understudy, often playing with Bolden's main band, taking over for him when Bolden - who'd often double or triple book gigs for himself on a given night -- would depart for the next gig. Johnson, reportedly, prided himself on replicating Bolden's style exactly. And also copying his sartorial style, penchant for womanizing etc. And while Bolden left no recordings behind, Johnson in fact produced a significant amount. At the point where aficionados of New Orleans style "Hot Jazz" were on a holy mission to uncover, preserve and perpetuate that style in the '40's as the main body of jazz evolved into more cerebral and abstract forms, Johnson wound up being rediscovered, based on a tip from Louis Armstrong. As any cursory research will show, there's plenty of dispute over Johnson's artistic worth, the authenticity of the claims about his association with Buddy and I leave that to the more academically inclined to delve into. But the fact remains that it is documented that Johnson did play with New Orleans jazz heavyweights like Sidney Bechet. He was the person Armstrong referred researchers to as an authority on the origins of jazz in New Orleans and it has been documented that he was recruited to play with the line-up formed by Bolden's band members after Bolden had to give up performing. Based on all this it DID appear that it was possible that Bunk's music did preserve some elements of Buddy's style - and frankly, if it's only a fraction that's STILL more than we'd have otherwise.

Lately I have started making use of Spotify. It's not quite the miracle that some claim - try finding the work of James "Sugarboy" Crawford - there's maybe 5 songs - which Amazon lists a couple (very pricey) full length releses - BUT it can be useful to check out titles before purchase. There's actually a good amount of Bunk Johnson recordings available -- remember, he was rediscovered as part of a moment to preserve and document "Hot Jazz." I opted to check out "Bunk and The New Orleans Revival 1942- 1947," a 2 CD set with a whopping 43 songs on it - a compilation from 12 different recording sessions. A nice overview. And...I was utterly enthralled. Overall,the playing is by turns soulful, sexy, sad and rambunctiously swinging typifying the allure of New Orleans music throughout its history. The repertoire touches all the main bases of traditional jazz, the reworkings of sacred songs like "Down By The Riverside," early classics like Jellyroll Morton's "Milneburg Joys," brass band parade numbers and a good amount of the "slow drag" blues that'd be the occasion for low down "belly-rubbing" dance late on a Saturday night. The sonic ambience, in most cases, is lively and slightly echoey - honestly sounds like this is being performed on a sidewalk on Burgundy Street in the French Quarter, or in an inner courtyard overhung with lush vegetation. YES I'M OVER-ROMANTICIZING - but this IS one of those recordings that can transport you to a different time and locale within minutes.

So... I dunno if Bunk Johnson played alongside Buddy Bolden, or just studied him from the audience, or just heard accounts of his style from other musicians and did his best to fake something akin to it. Just sounds GOOD TO ME.