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.

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