Friday, December 30, 2011

The Heroes—Barney Bigard

“I used to get mad with him in the band because he would only take one chorus. I used to love to hear him play. That’s the only trouble we had with him, except for those soft-shell crabs: Barney is just crazy about soft-shell crabs.” 
Earl “Fatha” Hines

I have more jazz heroism to share, folks. I concur with “Fatha” Hines above; I love to listen to Barney Bigard play his clarinet. To me, he vastly expanded what it means to play clarinet in a traditional jazz setting. Whenever one of his records is on in my house it makes me think, “I should try that sometime!” That’s not to say trying it is as easy as thinking it. You’re not going to duplicate his unique sound and flow of ideas. But it is as if you can feel new brain cells being created just listening to him. Here’s what Duke Ellington had to say:
“He had that woody tone which I love on the instrument. He was invaluable for putting the filigree work into an arrangement, and sometimes it could remind you of all that delicate wrought iron you see in his hometown.”  

In case that wasn’t enough of a clue, his hometown was New Orleans. Albany Leon Bigard was born into a family of “Creoles of color” on March 3rd, 1906. Emanuella, his mother, died in childbirth. His father, Alexander, soon remarried, leaving young Albany in the care of his grandmother. Eugenia was a French Creole who spoke very little English. She began calling him something that sounded like “Bonnie” at an early age and soon that transformed into “Barney.” In his autobiography, the clarinetist expressed relief that he didn’t go through life being called Albany.

He spent his childhood at 1726 N. Villere Street where his uncle Ulysses ran a small cigar factory out back. Another uncle, Emile, was a professional violinist. Barney said, “My earliest recollection of the world outside the home were cigars and music.” Uncle Ulysses hired young Barney around the age of twelve to make cigars. But he couldn’t stand the working conditions and quit by the age of fourteen to pursue the other uncle’s profession. His first instrument was an Eb clarinet. He and others his age would form “kid bands” to play house parties for a whopping ten cents each per night. He also spoke of playing parades all day for 75 cents. But he was a Creole musician. Any Creole musician worth his salt would pursue training along the lines of the European classical tradition. Contemporary clarinetist Evan Christopher, in the Jazz Archivist from 2002, wrote, “This training insured technical proficiency and the ability to read music, skills needed for playing at more formal society functions; but when situations arose to play music that relied increasingly on the skill of faking, they were able to flex.” Working as a photo engraver allowed him to pay for lessons from Lorenzo Tio, Jr., to whom many of the greatest clarinetists of all time attribute the foundation of their skills. 

His first truly professional job was with the Amos White band. They played out at an entertainment area called Spanish Fort, which included a casino, dancing pavilions and a resort hotel. They played for jitney dances, where you pay for every dance with girls hired for the hoofing. He said that the bands would be constantly playing, and each song would be short—sometimes only a chorus or two—in order to maximize the profit of the dance. It was immensely popular, packed every night. Unfortunately, this popularity drew the ire of the white dance bands at Spanish Fort, who contrived of an evening to have firebombs burn down the pavilion where the jitney dance was held. 

This abrupt change led to employment on Canal Street at Tom Anderson’s. Canal Street used to form one of the borders of Storyville, an area of about twenty square blocks in New Orleans where, for a time, the laws of the city confined the activities of prostitution. Tom Anderson, considered the “mayor” of Storyville, and in possession of considerable power throughout the whole city, ran one of the most prominent establishments of that racy, dangerous neighborhood. By the time Barney Bigard began working for Anderson, the Navy had eliminated the legal designation of Storyville in an attempt to protect the morals of their sailors. I can’t write that with a straight face. But Tom Anderson’s was still a destination for sportier types. The band was named, unimaginatively, Tom Anderson’s Band. Bigard played tenor sax with a few fellow New Orleanians who themselves would go on to achieve some jazz fame. Clarinetist Albert Nicholas (who played alto sax for this job), pianist Luis Russell and drummer Paul Barbarin. Here is a picture of the band at Tom Anderson's before Bigard joined them. 

Picture from The Storyville District: New Orleans website

The great King Oliver called Bigard up to Chicago during Christmastime 1924. He would not return to New Orleans for many years, and never again to live. In a reprisal of losing work to pernicious fire, when Bigard arrived up north, the club where the King Oliver Band drove the dancers to a frenzy, the Royal Gardens, was soon consumed by flame. His is not a story, however, of a clarinetist/arsonist. I mean, why burn down the place that’ll give you a gig? It took awhile for Oliver to find another job for the band. In the meantime, Bigard shared his residence with Albert Nicholas, who had also moved up north. They both went out and found whatever pickup band work they could, splitting the night’s take from whoever got a job. In the spring of 1926, the King Oliver Band went into The Plantation. It was not to last the year. Fire followed Bigard to the Plantation, too; it was blown up by mobsters in late 1926. 

Some unwise business decisions on the part of King Oliver began to make matters difficult for the band. Because of this, for the first time of what became a pattern, Bigard decided to quit a band when life on the road became too wearisome. He left Oliver and spent the summer season of 1927 up in Milwaukee, playing tenor and soprano saxophones with a twelve-piece reading band, Charlie Elgar’s Orchestra. They moved dancers around the ballroom at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the city three nights per week, and made one-nighters to different cities including Madison and Racine two nights per week. He said, “It’s funny all the studying I had done to master the clarinet, yet I hadn’t really played it so much since I left New Orleans.” He hadn’t forgotten it though. He would often go to Chicago on his nights off to hear Jimmie Noone, thus continuing his clarinet education. “I stole a lot of his licks,” he said.

Luis Russel, his old band mate from Tom Anderson’s, called him to New York in the fall of 1927. Paul Barbarin was in the band already, so it was a fun reunion for the three. They played the Nest Club, where they would launch themselves into after hours overtime which would more often than not earn them more money in tips than they took home in their salary envelopes. He spoke of not getting home sometimes until noon or later. Then Bigard’s life changed forever. Wellman Braud, bassist for Duke Ellington, heard him early one week at the Nest Club. He offered Bigard a job in Duke’s band, which was just about to go into the Cotton Club. “I started that Friday, and it ended fourteen years later.” This was December of 1927. 

Bigard had some adjustments to make. He spoke of the “weird chords” Duke would use in his arrangements. Duke was revolutionizing the way jazz was being arranged, often flipping things upside down, having the clarinet play trombone lines and vice versa. This was part of what created the distinct sound of the Ellington Orchestra. Duke would also write music that featured the strengths of his individual players. And Bigard was an integral part of that sound all the way through to the beginning of World War II. Listen to him from the early part of his association with the Duke, on a recording from May 28th, 1929. “Saturday Night Function.”

Aside from producing incredible music, the Ellington “family,” just like any family, included many characters. Bigard described a band of men some of whom were equally skilled at gambling and drinking. The band, apparently, also had a deep love of playing pranks. To name a few: placing cayenne pepper on a mouthpiece; yelling “Fire!” after tying the shoelaces of a hangover victim recovering in the green room; changing an instrument’s valves around before a performance; dropping stink bombs behind featured soloists as they stood in front of the band; and strategically placing itching powder in a musician’s suit, driving him off the stage in the middle of a song. The music, fun and the relative comforts of traveling around in two private Pullman railroad cars ameliorated much of the stressors of any personality clashes and of living out of a suitcase, what Bigard called “the rigors of the never-ending road.” 

When the war started, however, the private Pullmans were taken away for the war effort. This, and other diminishing accommodations eventually made those “rigors” untenable for Bigard. He had met the woman who would become his second wife in Los Angeles, and when the band was swinging around to California again, he put in his notice. He played his last show with Duke at the Trianon Ballroom in Los Angeles in June of 1942. 

He and Dottie settled in L.A. and for the next five years he primarily worked in town. Stints leading his own bands, one of which included a young Charles Mingus on bass, as well as putting in time with other bands. When he worked for Freddie Slack, Bigard once asked for more money. Freddie didn’t acknowledge that request, but shortly afterward bought Barney a new suit. “He would never give me a raise, but he would buy anything for me to keep me happy.” He worked in the Kid Ory band for the Orson Wells Mercury Theater Broadcasts. He and Ory would spend some of their time off catching his beloved crawfish. 

In 1947 came the second life-changer for the clarinetist. He was hired to play in the movie “New Orleans” with Louis Armstrong. To make a long story short, the small band in the movie was a new direction for Armstrong. It wasn’t long before a band of All Stars with Louis was playing concerts around the country and the world. The repertoire was New Orleans and other jazz classics, and the program eventually developed into fairly constant sets. Always they began with “Back Home Again In Indiana,” for instance. Though the band’s lineup would change many times through the years, Bigard considered the classic All Star band to include trombonist Jack Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw, pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, drummer Sid Catlett and vocalist Velma Middleton. Listen to this live recording of one of my favorite tunes, “Mahogany Hall Stomp”:

Bigard considered Louis, along with Duke, to be one of the two true musical geniuses he ever knew. The title of his autobiography reflects that: With Louis and the Duke. He chose this title despite playing with so many other bands, including leading his own. He loved playing with Armstrong. But once again, “the rigors of the road” grew to be too much. In 1952 he put in his notice. A year later, feeling well rested, he answered the call from Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, and hit the road again. In 1955, he gave his second notice to Armstrong: “I went back to resting good, eating good, all the little things in life that seem impossible when you are out on the road. I didn’t know what I was going to do from then on and frankly, I really didn’t care. I just wanted to spend two nights in the same bed for a change.”

He went with Dottie to her aunt’s avocado farm for six months to pick avocados and catch crawfish. For the next five years he stayed around L.A. playing in his and other’s bands. In 1960, however, he answered Louis Armstrong’s call again. He met with trumpet man and asked, “What are you going to open up with, Pops?” Armstrong said, naturally, “Back Home Again In Indiana.” You can almost see Bigard’s head shake when he wrote in his autobiography, “Five years and it’s still ‘Indiana.’” This time it lasted just a year before he decided to call it quits for the last time: “I wanted to do a little composing…and laze around catching crawfish and catching up on all manner of things.” His favorite parts of that last year with Armstrong included a tour in Africa, and a reunion with Duke Ellington when the Duke and the All Stars recorded together. The remaining two decades of his life included mostly working in California, traveling occasionally for jazz festivals, and the big 70th birthday bash for Armstrong. He died on June 27th, 1980. 

I feel an interesting sort of slight tickle of internal conflict about including Barney Bigard on my heroes list. As you know from my previous writing, George Lewis holds a huge place in my pantheon of clarinetists. If I had to make rankings, in fact, Lewis would come in higher than Bigard. But Bigard disdained musicians like George Lewis and the men with whom he played for their untrained approach, their lack of technique. He didn’t consider them to have contributed in any great way to jazz music. I asked my mentor Charlie DeVore about this. Charlie basically boiled it down to one word. Creole. For Bigard and the others of his proud Creole heritage, musical greatness, at least among New Orleanians, was solely in the Creole’s province. Bigard obviously felt that Louis Armstrong, a non-Creole New Orleanian, rose above his lower beginnings, but it was rare for him to give other “back-o-town” players high regard. Bigard regard. If this were an earlier time, perhaps I would have to decide on the camp for which I would enter the brawl. Hence my vague internal twisting. But one of the advantages of being a 21st Century Clarinetist is that the emotions of such a fight have largely died down. Well, speaking for myself anyway. I don’t have to protect George Lewis for his lack of training, nor do I have to defend Barney Bigard for his pride. Bigard was right to be proud. Out of thousands and thousands of jazz musicians, his will always be one of the most recognizable sounds ever created. And he will always take his place in my clarinet pantheon; Ellington over one shoulder, Armstrong over the other (don’t ask me which one’s the Devil!), looking down at a plate full of crawfish.

Source Material:

With Louis and the Duke by Barney Bigard, Edited by Barry Martyn
Pops by Terry Teachout
Licorice Stick Gumbo: The New Orleans Clarinet Style by Evan Christopher from The Jazz Archivist

Monday, November 28, 2011

Requestor vs. Musician

The Request. You’re on the bandstand and a napkin heads your way, slightly torn by the pen used to write down the title of a tune. A napkin being walked to the bandstand can stir up a few emotions in a musician. Most of those emotions can be boiled down to a certain wariness. “Will I know the tune?” the musician wonders. Or, “Will I want to play it?” I fall more into the first category. I really don’t think I’ve paid enough dues yet to earn the right to disdain too many requests, so I’m more likely to hope my band knows what the listener wants to hear. And, subsequently, feel proud when every once in awhile we come through. A few years ago, the Southside Aces were playing a wedding reception at the St. Paul Hotel. A man, approximately twenty-three years of age, approached me and told a story of how his girlfriend, just moved here from New Orleans, was brought to tears by the band. I offered the obligatory, “I’d cry too, if I moved here from New Orleans and heard us.” He insisted it was because we made her homesick. Deciding to ignore the potential for more self-deprecation, I thanked him. He then pressed a twenty into my palm. “Do you think you guys could play “The Pearls” by Jelly Roll Morton? It’s one of her favorites.” 

After they woke me from the dead faint I suffered from hearing that a twenty-three year old included “The Pearls” amongst her favorite tunes, I looked at my co-leader, Erik, with a bit of trepidation. It’s a difficult tune, and at the time the band was barely conscious of it, as I had just thrown it into our book. I asked Erik “Do you think we can play ‘The Pearls’?” At first he winced, knowing what might happen if we tried. Then I showed him the twenty. “Yeah! We can play it!” he said with newfound confidence. We brought our transplanted New Orleanian fan to fresh tears with our rendition. Whatever rough spots may or may not have occurred, the young man thanked me as if we had serenaded his girlfriend beneath her window on a moonlit night.

There exists an enormous spectrum of behavior, however, on both sides of the relationship between the Requestor and the Musician. My “Pearls” story is my positive reinforcement for welcoming all requests. But for a musician with decades in the trenches, enough can sometimes be enough. Consider the following famous story. The way I heard it, trumpet man Wild Bill Davison, when confronted with a loving fan shouting “Play Maple Leaf Rag!” purportedly shouted back, “Get your own fucking band!” While I, and most of my colleagues, wouldn’t recommend that as a method of responding to requests, there has not been one musician to whom I’ve told that story who hasn’t expressed knowing admiration for Wild Bill’s billingsgate. His words speak to moments we’ve all experienced. Like I said, I haven’t yet played any of my songs 3,843 times over the course of a long career of handling requests. I think, at a certain point, a musician deserves to occasionally turn one down. Or at least attach provisos to fulfilling them. The famous sign in Preservation Hall for instance:

If you can't read the sign in the middle of our fuzzy picture, it says: "Traditional Request-$2.00, Others-$5.00, The Saints-$10.00" I’ve seen seasoned jazz veterans handle requests as if it’s the beginning of a tense negotiation. Unfathomable calendars: “You know, it’s only been six years since the last time I played that one. I need at least a decade.” The bait and switch: “Bill Bailey”? We don’t really play that one. But we’ll play this other one I think you’re going to love!” Or maybe the band employs a more passive, underhanded route, “accidentally” running out of time before they can fulfill the request. There’s a great musician joke about this. You ask the crowd, “Does anyone have any requests?” Without pausing a single second to wait for an answer, you emphatically say, “Too late!”

Please don’t let me scare you, you who reside in the Requestor Camp, into deciding never to ask for another song again. Let me reiterate, I want to talk to you about the songs you want to hear. Even if the band doesn’t know it, sometimes we end up putting it in the repertoire. Which reminds me of another story, this one regarding New Orleans trumpeter Kid Thomas. At a Saturday dance, he would get requests for songs he didn’t know. If the customer could sing or hum it with any sort of accuracy, Thomas’ trombone player would pick up the melody and the rest of the band would join in. On Monday, Thomas would purchase the sheet music, and the band would be playing the published version of the song by the next week. I’m not promising that kind of instant response, but I’m open to the conversation. 

Should the next time you make a request and encounter resistance, I urge you to pause before cursing a musician’s highfalutin artistic standards. I have seen the dark side of the Requestor as well. One time it wasn’t even about a tune. The very drunken sister of the bride made a beeline for me at the end of the night. No, it wasn’t what you’re thinking. She came to a stop and stood there swiveling in place like she was a drink, stirring herself. She looked up into my face and yelled, “Let me play yer killernet!” (She actually pronounced clarinet, “killernet,” I kid not. I have a witness). I calmly informed her that it was already put away. Exactly like Elaine from Seinfeld, she expressed her disbelief by hitting/pushing me in the chest with both her open palms while expostulating, “Get out!” At least that request was amusing. A more recent story was not, although it has led to this fine lesson.

The Southside Aces play for dancers a lot. There are those dancers who can and want to fly around the floor all night. There are those on the beginner’s side, who need very 
moderate tempos. And there are those dancers who won’t go out on the floor unless it’s a slow dance. Usually, all those dancers are in the same crowd. This was a usual night. 

We began the night like we always do, toward the moderate side for the beginner dancers. We match the tempos of the practice songs we hear during the swing lesson taught just before we play. In this way, the theory goes, the beginner dancers will neither be a danger to themselves or to others. To give a hint of things to come for the more experienced hoofers, however, we gradually build up the tempos over a few songs. On this particular night, I looked out on the dance floor to see that many were still figuring it out, with a little laughing stumble here, a little arrhythmic spin there. But after four moderately paced tunes it was time to rev it up. Just as I was about to stomp off a speedier one, I observed a dancer walking up to the stand. I recognized the body language of someone with a request, I thought, so I waited to see what we could do for her. I was unprepared for what happened next. With nary a how-do-you do she barked, “You need to play faster tempos!”

My jaw hung open a little as both my eyebrows reached for my hairline. Before I could form a response, she turned and strode off. This set the band on edge. This was no way to begin a relationship. Let’s say you’re on a first date and you snap at the unsuspecting person across the table, “You need to talk more about where you grew up!” Check, please! But we shook it off and played. After that one we played an even faster one, a long and burning “Diga Diga Doo.” At this point we felt it was time for our first slow dance of the night. What we in the industry call a “belly-rubber.” “Time to polish your belt buckles.” We turned in a pretty, three minutes worth of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sweet Substitute.” 

Just as I turned to the band to say, “Good work, fellas,” Our new friend’s face reappeared at the edge of the stage. “You need to play faster! I can’t dance that slow!” I was stunned again, but this time not into speechlessness. I demonstrated my own ability to bark: “You need to LEARN to slow dance! If you can’t do it, it’s not OUR fault!” And the band didn’t let it go there, either. A few songs into the second set, Erik said on mic, “During break someone requested a SLOW ONE, so we’re going to play “Smoke Rings” for you.” Then, later still, he raised the price of our CDs “tonight only” just to be contrary. 

In retrospect, the Aces certainly could have comported ourselves with a bit more grace. Of course, if we had it wouldn’t have been quite as funny. I fully understand that a dancer or listener may chance upon four or five songs in a row that might not fully satisfy their needs. Hence the urge of the Request. Imagine, though, how differently the above scenario could have played out. I wouldn’t have been able to solve her problem with slow dances. You don’t need to be romantically involved to have fun dancing a slow one and showing some real beauty out there. All she had to do was walk up to me and ask, “Can you play ‘San,’ or something really fast like that?” If she named a song we didn’t know, we could have still had a conversation about feel and tempo, and I know we would have come through for her. This is true for all of you. One of the best ways to get what you want is if you’ve been in front of us before, and you really liked a certain tune, take it upon yourself to find out what it is and ask us to play it again. Call me day or night! Be it via a quick chat, scribbled-upon napkins and coasters, or discreet twenty-dollar bills, ask for that tune! We will do our best to play something within spitting distance of the bull’s-eye and, as a bonus, with a minimum of artistic grimaces.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The "Shouldknows" vs. "New Orleans Bump"

Lookie here. Let me tell you about one of my problems. Don’t worry, just one. I don’t want to put a strain on our friendship. My problem is not really the worst thing that could happen to a person, though it will be one that roosts with me the rest of my life. A First World Problem, I guess. Maybe I should stop describing the quality of my problem and finally take you into my confidence:

There are too many songs I want to learn.

Please…please…stop crying. Really, I’ll be all right. Here’s what happens to me when I get to thinking. With no exaggeration, there are two to three thousand songs worth a jazz musician’s attention, and that’s even just sticking to early jazz and swing. You might whittle that down to a list that’s merely filled with Warhorses, Chestnuts, songs so old they have whiskers on them; you know, the ones you’re “supposed” to have in your repertoire. “Hindustan,” for instance. Even that list reaches into the hundreds. I’m going to call these the Shouldknows. Because I think it has a nice rhythm. The Shouldknows, however, bring about bandstand exchanges such as this:

Smartypants: “Do you know_______________?”
Heroic Clarinetist Unafraid To Admit His Ignorance: “No, I haven’t learned that one yet.”
Smartypants: “Really? You should know that one.”

There exists not too many more irritating sounds than the sound of that “Really?” It sometimes makes me want to say, “Really? You should know what it feels like to have a clarinet poked in your eye.” One difficulty with Shouldknows is that there can never be a universal list. I would bet that if you compared the repertoires of any two jazz musicians, there would be at least fifty songs that don’t overlap. Not to mention this fairly common scenario: the more songs a musician stacks up, the more the Shouldknows list grows. I admit to feeling a certain responsibility to making sure I know songs like “Hindustan,” but right about the time I get all disciplined, I hear a record that makes me wander off Chestnuts Path. Just take the title tunes of the Southside Aces last two albums, if you want to know what I mean.  Bucktown Bounce and A Big Fine Thing. If there did exist a universal list of Shouldknows, neither of those tunes would be on it. But we Aces just couldn’t resist. 

There are hundreds, thousands of songs that come flying by your ears, worming their way into your noggin, and bugging you until you just have to play them. But assuming we all only have one lifetime to get around to this business, some picking and choosing must be entered into. Let me give you an example of how this can be an overwhelming prospect. I love a lot of Duke Ellington’s music. But the man spent some fifty years writing songs! He has over a thousand of them to his credit! Granted, not every one of them falls into my need-to-play-it bin. I could skip at least seventeen of them and survive. But even if you chopped half of his body of work away, you could spend a good portion of your life ignoring Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and the hundreds of other equal and lesser folk of jazz writing. All so that you could have enough time to absorb all those compositions of that great Washingtonian. You might also, for instance, miss out on Jelly Roll Morton.

Jelly Roll has been occupying my time as of late. This Thursday night, the Southside Aces will be featuring his music at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34. I’ve been listening to his records, playing his music and reading about all his jazz boasting. Jelly Roll immersion? Bakery jokes and more blue material come to mind, but I’ll leave it alone. Anyway, should you decide to plant yourself in front of us, the Aces are prepared to give you Jelly Roll what for. One thing you’ll hear is the debut, in our repertoire, of an evocatively titled piece, “New Orleans Bump,” recorded by Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra in July of 1929. I remember about eight years ago when I held the 33 and a 1/3 in my hands and I saw that title. It was the fourth track of side four of a three-record set. On account of my intrigue (what is a New Orleans bump?!) I played it first. That title drew me in, and the recording had me completely sold by the end of the fourth bar, the sound of Harry Prather’s swaggering brass bass making me go, “Oh!!” like I’d just been gut-punched in the soul. In the good way. Thus began a not unusual process I have of letting a tune rattle around in my hat rack for a while. The song was thrown on my ever-growing, I-will-play-that-song-in-my-lifetime-so-help-me pile. That pile is like the human population. Tunes eventually come off the pile, just as people eventually die, but both continue to get bigger and bigger. After a long gestation allowed “New Orleans Bump” to come to term, I arranged it last month. Listen to Jelly Roll's band!

Here’s the deal, though. “New Orleans Bump” is not in the top ten hits of Jelly Roll Morton. Probably not even in the top twenty. If I were a perhaps more responsible bandleader, I would have ushered the Aces into Jelly’s repertoire via those more popular tunes. It certainly would be part of a more solid jazz education for my band mates and me. But, as usual, I spend half of my time ignoring the Shouldknows, and this is, for better or worse, what we have to show for it. From a certain perspective you could definitely say it’s a weakness. I mean, I agree! A lot of these tunes so labeled Shouldknows we, well, should know! But think about this. It’s the year 2011 in South Minneapolis, and you get to hear a live band play “New Orleans Bump.” There’s nothing weak about that! I’m beside myself with anticipation. On Thursday night, however, should you decide to plant yourself next to me, you may overhear a conversation that goes roughly like this:

Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Hey, are you guys going to play “Sidewalk Blues?”
Heroic Bandleader Unafraid To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “No, we don’t play that one yet.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Well, you’ll for sure play “Wolverine Blues,” or what Jelly preferred to call “The Wolverines.” 
Heroic Bandleader Continuing, Patiently, To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “Nope. Not that one either.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Really? You guys should know that one.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Brew Review

Last Saturday the Southside Aces provided our inestimable talents on a job for which I had truly built up great anticipation. The 11th Annual Autumn Brew Review. Over eighty brewers provided samples of their craft under tents in the back yard of the Grain Belt Brewery building off of 13th and Marshall, in good ol’ Nordeast Minneapolis. 

Last year we played a set or two from a stage on the grounds situated about forty feet from the nearest tap. This pretty much only attracted a few people who needed to sit down in a chair, chairs being a rare commodity. They might listen for a couple of songs, and then the siren call of the suds would draw them back into the fray. There was no reason to expect anything else. In fact, I might be suspicious of the priorities of persons who would choose to comport themselves as concertgoers at a beer festival. Sure, find out if that’s really a sousaphone you thought you heard as you quaffed your third different Oktoberfest. Sure, avail yourself to the Port-o-potties lined up next to the stage. But don’t let me catch you listening to more than three songs in a row! Not when there’s an “imperial stout aged to perfection in bourbon barrels” within throwing distance. I’d have to frown and shake my head at you.

Wiser for their experience, the organizers hired us this year to harass the imbibers at close range, walking amongst them between the rows of tents. We played for the last half of the 10-2 morning session and all of the 3-7 afternoon session. Jazz musicians roaming free for seven hours at a Jamboree of Brewmasters. Like a pack of dogs set loose in a fire hydrant factory. This may be an unfortunate analogy, but at least you get the sense of our excitement. 

Dave Michael, card-carrying Ace, couldn’t make the Heyday of Hops so I hired Chuck DeVore to bang his drum some. I hired him because he’s a good drummer, but also because I know he likes and—this is important—can hold his beer. It seemed like a prerequisite for the day. He was talking about arriving early to be sure he found parking and was ready to play on time, “You know, like a professional,” he said. “Well,” I replied, “we’ll at least start the day as professionals.” I was predicting an exciting 6:00 set given the band’s daylong propinquity to all that free beer. Chuck reminded me, “We’ll still be professionals; we’ll just be drunk!” I had briefly forgotten that professionalism in Jazz is not necessarily predicated on sobriety.

To be accurate, the festival attracts connoisseurs as well as inebriates. If connoisseur was a one and inebriate a ten, I’d probably be a three. If you’re asking me, there were too many quality, interesting brews there to simply go on a spree. I do like my beer. But I also like being able to play my clarinet in tune and at a faster rate than four notes per minute. Too much beer can throw up roadblocks between my brain and my fingers, so I tend to be judicious about alcohol when I’m playing. For instance, at one point our trumpeter, Andy, and I sampled the creations of Glewwes Castle Brewery, who was providing root beer, raspberry ginger ale, cream soda and orange soda. Very tasty indeed, and for me a nice break. Andy enjoyed his sample as well, but concluded; “Bringing root beer to this festival is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.” 

Judiciousness didn’t enter into the strategies of many folk that day, a benefit to us since it was proven in both sessions that the more people consumed, the more likely they were to buy a CD. Erik capitalized on this by pulling out his supreme hawking skills. Congenially barking at the crowd, making sure they knew just who we were, where we played, and just how much they couldn’t do without our record. To be fair to us, I thought we were sounding pretty good. Crowd-pleasers included when we worked up a pretty great version of “Iko, Iko” on the spot, and when we played “Do Whatcha Wanna,” and dropped the theme to the television show, Treme, in the middle. So you couldn’t call it a con, exactly. But I can’t say we weren’t helped by the people being in their cups.

We took on the part of the Nordeast Pied Pipers at the end of the morning session, second-lining the happy partakers off of the Grain Belt grounds up to Marshall Avenue. The last half of the afternoon session was even wilder. We’d be hemmed in on all sides, people dancing and shouting. One young gentleman kept slithering around and obscenely ringing a small cowbell. You don’t have to use your imagination too hard to know what I mean. People were drawn to Erik’s sousaphone like jalopies to the magnet on a junkyard crane. Three young men and their new companion, a life-size cardboard cutout of Samuel Adams, had their pictures taken with the band as Erik started up “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” During “Jambalaya On The Bayou,” I leaned in to Robert—playing his banjo that day—and said, “Take the next solo!” Thus set in motion a conspiracy to get myself another sample of Spoetzl Brewery’s Shiner Black, a delicious black lager. A first for me, procuring beer during a song, but I am blameless, as Spoetzl’s tent was right behind the band!

At seven bells, an attempt was made to second-line the crowd out of the afternoon session, but the band found itself on 13th Avenue with not one person following! But soon enough, the realization that the taps had been turned off was all that was needed to ease the beery throng back into the real world. I ended up the day with a mellow glow of happiness that jazz, beer and sunshine can give a man. I also had the glow of a slight case of sunburn and dehydration, but this isn't a medical blog, so we'll skip it. I walked up to Marshall Avenue to await my ride. I sat on the Southside Aces CD suitcase, finally resting my feet. People walked by yelling, “Clarinet dude!” and giving me high fives. People yelled the same out of car windows. But before my head could become too enlarged by my stardom, a woman leaned out the passenger window of a car waiting at the red light. “Are you the tuba player?” she shouted. I tried to imagine how she thought I was hiding a tuba on my person, smiled and informed her, “No, I’m the clarinetist!” She whooped and screamed, “We love the tuba!” I busted out laughing. Her friend, the driver, must have said something about her obliviousness to the etiquette of that moment, because I saw her head turn toward the drivers side for a second, then back to me, “We love the clarinet, too!” She didn’t seem quite as convinced, but it was a spirited, if late, offering. 

The Southside Aces already have dreams of next year's Barley Pop Gala. What do you think about a couple of women in beer wench costumes selling our CDs and handing out schedules? Do you think my tax man will let me write off two beer wench costumes?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Between Chops and Ears

It’s been awhile since I last blessed you with my ramblings and pontifications. I expect your anticipation must be at it’s keenest, for sure. I occupied my last month with a not-so-minor obsession with Sidney Bechet. I was asked to provide a presentation on the great jazzman for the OLLI Cats. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has a special group that grew out of a jazz history class, and has been meeting regularly for several years now to, among other jazz activities, listen to folk like me orate. I was extra pleased to be able to put my love of jazz history to work.

I’m not going to give you the whole Sidney spiel. It would encompass a lot more information than I believe blog etiquette allows. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of Sidney that I find fascinating, and which also made me examine my own playing and music philosophy closely. It was his competitive nature, always brewing up excellence or acrimony, or both, often in equal parts. 

But first, there may be those of you who are saying, “Sidney who?” Let me tell you how you may have crossed paths with his music recently, other than in front of one of my bands. If you took yourself to see Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Bechet’s recording of his own composition, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” was what you heard during the entire opening sequence of shots of modern Paris. Sidney knew a lot about Paris from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, where he spent a good portion of his life off and on. He began life in New Orleans, a clarinetist who was so determined, and worked so hard to be the best from those earliest beginnings, that by 1911, at the age of 14, he was already considered a phenomenon. And not one of those, “Isn’t that cute how the kid can play his horn?” kind of phenomenon. His dedication to his craft made him a professional musician even before he became a teenager. He certainly was a great clarinetist, and he would play it throughout his career. The instrument on which he gained the most fame, however, was the soprano saxophone. He began playing one in 1920, influencing saxophonists then and now. Let’s hear that soprano in on that old tune, "China Boy," from quartet recordings with cornetist Muggsy Spanier. The Bechet/Spanier Big Four:

Many people say he was an equal to Louis Armstrong in his musical prowess. By the early 1920s the two of them were so far ahead of other musicians in terms of their facility for improvisation, that they forever changed the roll of the soloist in a band. We are fortunate to have these two jazz giants on record together. Several sides were recorded in the mid-1920s, and a reunion album in May of 1940. This finally meanders me around to the point of this piece. The competition. John Chilton wrote an excellent biography called Sidney Bechet, the Wizard of Jazz. In it he describes the meetings of Louis and Sidney: “Whenever Armstrong and Bechet met, each man knew instinctively that he was facing his closest rival in the jazz hierarchy. In those days they always greeted each other effusively but they made no effort to meet socially. They might share an animated conversation about the merits of New Orleans food, but such talk never took place around a meal table. No one ever recalled seeing them out on the town together.”

Both men were competitive, but Sidney took it to some eye-popping levels. And not just in his music life, but in EVERY aspect of his life.
On Cooking
Sidney’s friends said that if he had ever decided to abandon music as a career, he could have been a chef. Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt: “He liked to cook different kinds of Gumbo, Creole Beef Gumbo, Chicken Gumbo Spare Ribs Creole Style. Sidney Bechet didn’t like to hear me say that John Marrero or Simon Marrero, or any other New Orleans people could cook good Creole food. He wanted to be rated the best Creole Food cook!”

On Women
1928 in Paris, Sidney and another musician got in a gunfight over what one witness described as an argument over a chord progression. Other witnesses suggested, however, that the chord progression dispute was just the last straw for Sidney, who didn’t appreciate the other musician’s good looks and smooth ways with the fairer sex. Clarinetist Claude Luter, with whom Sidney worked throughout the fifties, told this story: “He loved to find the girls, but if anyone in the band found a girl that Sidney liked the look of, he would show his displeasure by cutting out all of that musician’s solos, often for nights on end, sometimes for a whole week.”

On Dogs (yes, I said dogs)
The summer of 1926, Reed-player Garvin Bushell: “At 5 a.m. in Berlin there came a knock on my door at the hotel. I asked who it was, the reply was, ‘Sidney, open up!’ With all of that talking my Great Dane, Caesar, began to roar then another dog began barking out in the hall. Sidney had brought his Doberman to challenge my Great Dane to a fight. I thought it best not to let Sidney and his dog in; he left making all sorts of threats to me and my dog if ever we met again, so I made it my business to stay out of his way while he was in Berlin.”

How does all of that affect my musical philosophy? It doesn’t. I’ve never had a need to best another man in the kitchen, or to worry about the size and strength of my dog over another man’s dog, or to punish a man for liking a woman to whom I took a fancy. And, so far, I haven’t pulled a gun out on one of the Southside Aces over a chord progression. Where I’ve learned something these past few months is through Sidney's main expression of that competitive urge, his music.

That scoundrel I described above managed to be an extraordinarily poetic scoundrel with his descriptions of jazz and the jazz life. His autobiography, Treat It Gentle, read like an epic poem. “New Orleans, that was a place where the music was natural as the air. The people were ready for it like it was sun and rain. A musicianer, when he played in New Orleans, was home; and the music, when he played it, would go right to where he sent it. The people there were waiting for it, they were wanting it. That music, it was like where you lived. It was like waking up in the morning and eating, it was that regular in your life. It was natural to the way you lived and the way you died.”

But I beautifully digress. I was about to explore the musical side of his competitive urges. I took that side road, however, to show you something of the depth and warmth of his love of the music. He was no mere ice-cold gunslinger, as the stories below may seem to suggest. Here's another example: “When you’re really playing ragtime, you’re feeling it out, you’re playing to the other parts, you’re waiting to understand what the other man’s doing, and then you’re going with his feeling, adding what you have of your feeling.” That was a man professing his love of the ensemble playing in traditional jazz. Right? It's a wonderful description. I would agree with him. To me, it’s the highest point of this art. Solos give me satisfaction, but in the middle of great ensemble play is where I soar. Perhaps the point could be made that if I possessed the skills of a Louis or Sidney, it might be that I would take more of a shine to soloing. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Almost all of my hair-raising thrills in music have come as a result of the whole band swaggering around, chasing each other, each man leaving space and filling space at the exact right moments, with the occasional collision only adding to the excitement. I know that Sidney knew that feeling; he describes it more than once. And he even said words disdaining the practice of “cutting contests,” where two or more musicians go after one another in musical one-upmanship. So how does it come to be that Chilton can tell this story about Sidney's early days in New Orleans? 

“Bechet and his friend, Emile Barnes, used to operate together in seeking out any challengers; Barnes called these musical contests ‘cutting hay.’ Barnes and Bechet went to dances with their clarinets hidden in their back pockets. Barnes usually sat in with the band first and proceeded to cut his opponent with a display of superior skills, but if the home clarinetist proved difficult, he would then have to face the overwhelming power of Bechet’s playing.”

Or the time somewhere around 1924 that Coleman Hawkins made statements to the effect that New Orleans musicians didn’t know how to play jazz. Sidney sent him a note naming the time and place; it was a duel! Duke Ellington said it was a duel that went on all night. According to bassist Wellman Braud: “Bechet blowing like a hurricane embarrassed the Hawk. He played and continued to play as Hawkins packed his horn, and as he walked out angrily Bechet followed him outside and woke up the neighborhood; it was six o’clock in the morning.”

Or in the mid-1930s when Sidney played with the Noble Sissle orchestra. Pianist Charlie Lewis: “Bechet was not sociable, he often argued with other musicians because he thought they were stealing one of his choruses.”

Stories the likes of those are scattered liberally throughout his career. Yet I believe in the last years of his life, when he said those words about ensemble playing, he fully meant them. The man possessed an uncanny ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths inside himself at the same time. I would bet that he loved wholeheartedly to play ensemble. He just was going to make sure that everyone within earshot knew who the best player was in that ensemble. Sidney did not suffer any cognitive dissonance with this. You either kept up with him or you didn’t, usually the latter. But even if a musician couldn’t quite run with his musical company, that musician’s level of play might rise just for trying. If you did keep up with him, some stunning music could be produced. Let’s go back to that May, 1940 session with Louis Armstrong, when Sidney picked up his clarinet again on “Perdido Street Blues.” This recording is one of my absolute favorites. Listen to Sidney swoop and growl, and Louis build a fantastic blues over the riffing front line! 

My lesson in all of this has been simple. Play hard, listen hard. I have to be careful that my innate Midwestern politeness, such a fine thing in other arenas, isn’t a deterrent to good jazz. It can be a dangerous thing for a musician’s development to sublimate everything to the ensemble. You won’t get in anyone’s way, sure, but you’ll also be forgetting to contribute. On the other hand Sidney, on an occasion or six, musically stomped all over another man or a whole group. This I also wish to avoid (and maybe I have a ways to go before I need to worry about that particular pitfall). Where’s the middle? Somewhere between Chops and Ears. Somewhere between “Listen to that clarinetist!” and “Listen to that band!” I say go after it! Don’t “save” your best playing for a solo. Whether you’re keeping up or lifting up, the band’s going to sound better. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The D-word

Have you ever found yourself in public proclaiming your love of the jazz, and your proclamation draws the question, “What kind of jazz?” Or, similarly, you’re extolling the virtues of the Southside Aces—as many are wont to do—and your acquaintance asks, “What kind of music do they play?” Have you ever used the word “Dixieland” to describe what goes on?

As with most attempts to categorize jazz, “Dixieland” is the touching off point for a never-ending argument that can often make normal folk uneasy around the Jazz Kooks engaged in the debate. Most of the musicians I know who’ve put one or both feet into this music of New Orleans consider the word a pejorative. When someone asks me to tell him or her just what I do, I never use the D-word. I will start by saying, “New Orleans jazz,” or “1920s and 30s jazz.” If a blank stare is my response, I might list the instruments, “You know, with a trumpet, trombone and clarinet?” I consider these words to be evocative. If that fails, however, to evoke, I pull out the two most powerful words in the jazz lexicon: “Louis Armstrong.” That’s usually as far as I will take it. 

Now ask me why the word rankles me so. Tonight while I pondered that, I found a thread online of people having a good old-fashioned back-and-forth on the subject. One writer stepped into the fray to theorize that Europeans say “New Orleans,” or “Traditional,” and that it’s only Americans who say, “Dixieland.” Another posits that when white people appropriated black people’s jazz, the various permutations fell under the label. The funniest of the bunch discussed an alternate: “I would favor the term “Traditional Jazz” had it not been usurped and demeaned by the banjo chug, funny hat, clarinetitised disease that festered under the shortened form of that name.” This last comment devolved the thread into a fight between attackers and defenders of the banjo. Wow! “Clarinetitised?” I’m glad to be informed that my clarinet could be an instrument of disease. From now on I will take precautions. Perhaps regular inoculations of Jimmie Noone.

I have to be honest. It may be said that I am a tithing member of the Jazz Kooks congregation. I can be just as passionate about the Dixieland question, and sound equally bonkers. As the above example demonstrates, however, any universality on the subject will likely never be achieved. The only possible resolution that can happen will be within the confines of your own experience or sensibilities. For me there is an image—straw boaters, striped vests, armbands, etc.—that accompanies music played at tempos silly fast with a lot of jangly pizzazz. These things do not describe me; therefore I do not play Dixieland. 

I’m trying not to look you in the eye, you with the wise-ass grin, because you are thinking, “Hmm. Same repertoire. Same instrumentation. Aren’t you just one straw boater—a mere accessory—away from Dixieland?” You’ll have to trust me; I am, unequivocally, not. It’s at this moment, however, when I set up camp on the other side of Jazz Kook Lake. I won’t castigate you for use of the word. Recently, I was interviewed for a segment on KUOM, Radio K. My interviewer dropped the D-word a couple of times throughout the segment. And it’s not infrequent that people look to me to clarify what jazz I play by asking if it’s Dixieland. By now I am resigned to the very real fact that that one word, more than any other, much more speedily directs a person toward a nearby neighborhood of where I want them to be., after all, has a Bestsellers In Dixieland Jazz section which lists everything from The Firehouse Five and Pete Fountain 

all the way up to Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. That being said, I still won’t use it myself. By my reckoning, it would be like if you asked me to drop you off at Murray’s and I pulled up in front of McDonald’s. But go ahead yourself and sling it around willy-nilly. Especially now that you know it makes me wince just a little on the inside and take deep, peaceful breaths. If it’s important to me in the moment, and on occasion it still is, I will dispense unasked-for lessons in Jazz P.C. But it’s pretty rare these days that I can be bothered to do that. What's the point? I have several other ways I can proselytize from the First Book of the Jazz Kook, some of which might even be interesting. In regards to that radio segment there were much more important things to talk about than my distaste for the word. Frankly, that’s usually the case. Take, for instance, this night from last winter at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse: 

Bennett’s can boast of a horseshoe-shaped bar. One night on break Chuck DeVore, drummer for the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, and I sat there refreshing ourselves with the beverage of the barley grain. The guys on the other side of the horseshoe, well into the process of testing the strength of their livers, yelled variations of, “You guys rocked!” We accepted this with aplomb, as if to say, “Well, naturally.” “What do YOU play?” one of them yelled at me. I brought the word “clarinet” into the conversation, to which our interviewer blinked, unable to relate. He interrupted the sound of crickets and shifted his attention to Chuck: “What do YOU play?” As soon as Chuck replied, “Drums,” our new pals erupted. Multiplying shouts of, “Yeah!!” and “More cowbell!” tumbled our way, as if Chuck saying, “Drums,” was the echo that caused an avalanche. One of the guys had enough wherewithal to locate the word “Dixieland” from among his beer-shrunken vocabulary, and informed us with the seriousness of a professor that the cowbell was essential to the genre. Chuck congenially replied, “Yep. Dixieland without cowbell is like crackers without cheese.” This was just odd enough to distract our new friends from further conversation. But I still felt something important wasn’t being addressed. “What if you have crackers with herring?” I asked Chuck. Thoughtfully he shrugged, “Well, then you don’t need a cowbell.”

When that man called what we do at Bennett’s “Dixieland,” we could have alerted him to his oh-so-egregious violation of jazz etiquette. But we didn't ruin the scene. It was a hell of lot more fun and funny to roll with it. I’ll repeat, though, that you won’t hear it fall out of my mouth anytime soon. Like calling the Ritz a flophouse. Dom Perignon a grape fizz. Chief Justice Roberts an ambulance chaser. Perhaps I am being a bit la-di-da? I recently heard a story of a nationally known jazz musician who will not allow any advertising of his concerts to contain the D-word. La-di-da or not, I say, “Amen, brother!” But I also might suggest that none of us lose any friendships over semantics.