Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Heroes—Jimmie Noone

Desert island clarinetist. You know what I mean. Your luxury cruise ship capsizes and you wash ashore missing a shoe and the left sleeve of your tux. As you stand up, the cut-crystal lowball that the ocean had been unable to separate from your grasp slips to the sand. “Obviously,” you say to yourself, “this desert island is inconveniently uncharted.” You pick up your glass and explore your surroundings. Soon you come across an abandoned hut and step inside. Filling the shelves of one wall are sixty-three bottles of Blanton’s bourbon. The shelves of the wall opposite, just past the table prominently displaying an indestructible-looking 78 player, are burdened with three copies of every record Jimmie Noone ever made. You pour yourself a glass, spin “I Know That You Know,” and settle into the bamboo-constructed chaise lounge. Desert island clarinetist. I know there exists another desert island with the recordings of George Lewis, the first clarinet hero about whom I wrote, but today I would wish to land upon Jimmie Noone’s. It’s his birthday.

"I Know That You Know"

He was born on April 23rd, 1895, hailing from bayou country south of New Orleans; a place called Cut Off, Louisiana. He learned to play guitar in Cut Off, but didn’t start to play clarinet until around the time his family moved to New Orleans in 1910. Within a few years he began playing professionally, first subbing for Sidney Bechet in Freddie Keppard’s band. He worked with many bands and musicians in New Orleans, including Kid Ory and Buddy Petit, the latter with whom he formed the Young Olympia Band. He traveled north to Chicago in 1917 along with King Oliver to play in the Original Creole Orchestra. Bassist Bill Smith led this band, also called the Original Creole Jazz Band, at the Royal Gardens. In 1920, Jimmie began a six-year stint playing clarinet and alto with Doc Cooke’s Orchestra. It was during this time that he began to lead his own small groups. In 1935 he moved to New York City, flirting briefly with running his own club along with bassist Wellman Braud. Except for  that New York foray, he spent most of his time playing and recording in Chicago until 1943, when he then moved to Los Angeles. Back with Kid Ory, he was even featured a few times on a radio program hosted by Orson Welles. His work with Kid Ory would bookend his career, as he died of a heart attack just a few days short of his 49th birthday, on April 19th, 1944. 

Though he was a New Orleans clarinetist, it was his time spent playing and recording in Chicago that so profoundly influenced future generations of clarinetists, and musicians in general. In the spring of 1926, while Louis Armstrong played with Earl Hines across the street at the Sunset Café, and King Oliver played next door at the Plantation, Jimmie led a band at an upstairs place called the Nest. Here is how Eddie Condon described it in his book We Called It Music:

“There [the musicians] listened to Jimmie Noone do things with a clarinet which no one had considered even probable…after one o’clock the clarinet would be pointed down at Teschmaker, who sat smack up against the bandstand, staring up at Jimmie. Benny Goodman was there often, too, and the nonclarinet playing Noone fans—Freeman, MacPartland, Lannigan, Tough, Wettling, Spanier, Mezzrow, and myself. We were the Nest’s best customers. 
One night, Arthur Kitti, flautist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, brought Maurice Ravel to hear Jimmie improvise endless choruses of “Four Or Five Times.” “Impossible!” Ravel muttered. Then he tried to write down some of the runs Jimmie was playing, but he quickly gave it up. After that he just sat back like the rest of us, listening and staring up at the gold keys.”

Another version of that story has Ravel eventually successful in transcribing the runs he heard and bringing them back home to Paris, where his orchestral clarinetist was unable to play them.

Jimmie was extremely well trained at his instrument. Lessons from the renowned clarinetist Lorenzo Tio, Jr. during his early life in New Orleans, and from the German classical clarinetist and teacher, Franz Schoeppe, in Chicago (later a teacher of Benny Goodman) provided him with the foundation on which he built his astounding talent. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of his sound I’ve ever read comes from his obituary written by Vincent McHugh and published in the Jazz Record in 1944:

“That mellow, round, easy warm New Orleans tone, given a slight whiskey-sour edge by the long Chicago influence. The whippoorwill wail, and the whippoorwill double-stopping that was like a trademark. The glide up or down to a note and the deft mixture of melodic phrases with agile runs. The almost classical sense of form that could hang a chorus in the air and give it it’s own light shape and balance. All the wonderful, unshowy elegance and finesse of the thing. Some of it pleased you because it was so perfectly in the New Orleans clarinet tradition, but all of it was Jimmie.”

For me, I listen to recordings of Noone like the above “I Know That You Know” and look at my hands wondering why I’m using two-by-fours to play the clarinet. A night a while back, upon resuming my seat following a solo, my dear mentor, Charlie DeVore, said to me, “That was great, Tony! You sounded like Jimmie Noone!” I was abashed. I came back quickly with, “More like Jimmie Eleven O’Clock.” Self-deprecation aside, I glowed on the inside. How could I not be pleased? Charlie’s one of the best judges of this music. But that moment on that night was like a .258-hitting second baseman on the diamond for his gold glove skills suddenly knocking a game-winning home run out of the park. For those of you not baseball conversant, you may infer that the moment was rare. 

Oh, but I don’t despair. I just continue to work at my craft. I continue to aspire to achieving those moments. In the meantime, I’m going to have a ton of fun playing that old clarinet. And tonight? I’m going to pour myself a glass, spin “I Know That You Know” and, gratefully, settle into an evening of my civilized apartment life.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cry At The Birth, Rejoice At The Death—or—Laughter And Reverence, Together Again

Yesterday, a few Southside Aces were present to musically help send a recently deceased man, beloved by family and friends, into the hereafter. We played a few songs that lean more toward the contemplative side of the repertoire as preludes, and let loose a little at the end of the funeral to help the people walk outside with a little more spring in their step. New Orleans jazz is no stranger to funerals at the bottom of the Great Mississip’. As the saying goes, “Cry at the birth, rejoice at the death.” For most of you reading this, perhaps it seems perfectly natural to think of the rollicking nature of much of this music as being appropriate at such a somber affair. To be sure, people who would say, “That’s the way I want to go”, surround me in my life. It comes with my carved out little territory. I think it’s safe to assume, however, that generally in my Minnesota, a New Orleans jazz band is not the first thought people have when planning the celebration of their own or a loved one’s demise. This is not a complaint. I just want you to feel a bit of the swell of surprise and gratitude I feel when I get a call like this. Erik Jacobson, playing tuba on the job (for those of you paying attention, that’s right. I said “tuba.” It seems he misplaced his sousaphone. How does a man go about misplacing a sousaphone?), said it best. “Think about how intimate it is to come into a room full of grieving strangers and share our music. How amazing that we were with this man at the very end like that. What an honor.” An honor indeed. 

It is remarkable how the context of the music and the intention of the musicians can change how a song is played and how it’s heard. There is certainly an imbued reverence in the observation of the life and death of a person. Some of the same music at a club, swing dance, or even burlesque show, however, takes on whole new meanings. A lot more of the humor inherent in these tunes can come out. But as we all know, humor and even irreverence at a funeral or memorial will rear its beautiful head too, whether or not a jazz musician is around. In the story that follows, jazz musicians were around. I didn’t change the names, because there are no innocents to protect.

A call out of the blue a couple years ago (we still don’t know how the man found out about us) led the Aces to a funeral and luncheon up in a northern suburb. Besides me, we had Erik on sousaphone, Robert on guitar, and Zack on trumpet. The four of us sat down about to start playing prelude music out near the entrance of the church as a greeting to arrivals. Our mystery man walked up and the first thing he said after hellos and handshakes was, “I want this to be a surprise for people.” This made the band arch an eyebrow or two. We were unanimously of the opinion that a person should never spring a jazz band unsuspectingly on a group of mourners. When the man walked away Zack said, “Well, guys, this might be a short one.” 

We fortunately received a minimum of puzzled or hostile looks, and avoided any unpleasant altercations. Eventually we led a processional into the sanctuary, played during the service, and then moved to the social hall of the church to provide music for the luncheon. In this situation, musicians move from a more reverent treatment of the music to that rollicking nature of which I spoke earlier. People asked us about the music, “Do you play for occasions other than funerals?” I envisioned The Undertaker Jazz Band.

Our benefactor, grateful and emotional, approached to thank us. He apologized for the program listing us as “Southside Acres.” No wonder people thought we specialized in funerals. Erik said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The man handed me our payment and walked away before he started new tears. Zack was sitting, shaking his head. “I’m such an idiot. I was this close to saying ‘Congratulations!’” When the same sanctuaries and reception halls are used for both weddings and funerals, and you’re a discombobulated musician playing at the ungodly hour of 10:00 a.m., it’s easy to see how such a mistake could be made. I’m glad his filters went up in time, though. Otherwise it would have been like an uncomfortable scene from “Southside Acres,” the funeral jazz band sitcom. In real life it’s sometimes better if the line between laughter and reverence remains uncrossed.