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

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