An Englishman’s Adventure in New Orleans

When I was about to set off for New Orleans on the first ever venture by the Ken Colyer Trust in the early nineties, one of my football friends said, rather ungraciously, “You’ll be disappointed!” This thoughtless statement totally misconstrued my many overpowering reasons for visiting New Orleans, the jazz Holy Grail, with its earthy foundation of the availability of musical instruments, especially those of a military nature left high and dry and for sale in second hand shops after being abandoned following the disbanding of regiments post the US/Mexican War and the raw but undoubtedly talented and welcoming ex-soldiery wishing to take them up.

My answer to my friend, that I did not expect to meet Louis, King Oliver, Bunk, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr, Slow-drag, Kid Ory, et al, walking the streets and that I would be perfectly happy to commune with their ghosts, was enough to put him gently in his place. Not expecting the impossible would have certainly helped slake my earthly needs and thus, at the end of a thrilling and adventurous tour, all accomplished within the bounds of New Orleans, with not a single trace of disappointment, when I was about to take home a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of unmatchable wonder and, in the process, set right some of the ignorance generated by my youthful methodological mistakes and beliefs, I was happily fully satisfied.

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An example of my own youthful mythical misunderstandings would have been that players used washboards instead of drums because they could not afford the latter. It was not until I saw a photograph of Jimmy Bertrand surrounded by drums and cymbals in a “Big Band” and heard, on tracks of the Chicago Bands of, for instance, the Cobb brothers, the sudden appearance of a xylophone solo revealing that the so-called “untrained” beaters of washboards were really fully trained percussionists and were only deploying washboards because they were space saving instruments when the “gig” was at a “Rent Party” in a small apartment where the host was living and raising money to pay his rent.

On the morning of our departure back home to Blighty, I’d already packed my scanty clothes and souvenirs well before 0700 hrs, had breakfasted amply before 0800 hrs, and was satisfied that my mind was already packed but with happy thoughts. However, at 0900 when all the other tourers were still milling around rudder-less in our hotel, I crept out to have a solitary silent weep and my braving the morning breeze was rewarded directly as I left the hotel when I heard my first music of the day gently drifting towards me on a heavenly light zephyr. However, the sound was coming from an earthbound piano, not an ethereal harp, playing a beautiful Ragtime tune, wafting me along towards its source. I came across the instrument after five minutes, being wheeled by a gentleman with his instrument carefully and securely attached to a sturdily built but well-balanced trolley. Thankfully I also passed my next test when I recognized “Heliotrope Bouquet” a joint composition by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin which was on one side of the very first 78 rpm record I’d bought from Doug Dobell from a small cardboard box of jazz records at one end of the counter in his and his father Alfred’s second hand book shop in Charring Cross Road in 1950.

In those days of the early fifties, the sign over Dobell’s and many other shop-front windows in Charring Cross Road would have been similar, until a steep rise in rents caused a number of those peripatetic owners to exodus during the following twenty years to Ross on Wye. However, for the time being that area of Charring Cross Road between Trafalgar Square in the south, Tottenham Court Road in the north and bounded west and east by Soho and Covent Garden, was destined to become our Jazz Mecca or, as we were soon to dub it, the “French Quarter of London,” celebrating the cluster of jazz record shops which were to gather for comfort there. In the meantime the signs over these book shops would have originally read something similar to the following: A&D DOBELL ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, testified by my having been able to purchase George Bernard Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant” on one of my first visits there.

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Inside the shop, Doug and his father Alfred would have been behind the counter and, in 1952, they would have been mostly dispensing second hand books, with Doug’s second string specialism catered for by his being able to sell very few records from a cardboard box at the far end of the counter. The change of emphasis from books to vinyl was to be so gradual from the metaphoric day before yesterday to yesterday that it might even have been a perfect example of meandering metamorphosis for the next five years, aided in its slothful pace of change by the UK Musicians Union’s short sighted protectionist attitude towards visiting jazz musicians from the US. This had meant that even such an eminent Standard Bearer as Sidney Bechet had been forced to skulk into the UK by the back door from Paris to play one or two secret gigs.

When I came across the Ragtime Pianist, he was about to move on. However, I asked for a request and we quickly set about discussing what my choice should be. I thought that I’d like to celebrate Tony Parenti’s Ragtimers’ recordings which also featured in my vinyl collection. Added to this was the fact that I’d had the pleasure of hearing one of Parenti’s original side-men, Danny Barker, playing his guitar in a band on a New Orleans’ street in the current Jazz Festival only days before.

Consequently, the pianist and I were unanimous in agreeing that my choice ought to fall on “Swipesy Cake-Walk” by Scott Joplin. However, before my painful pangs could be assuaged, the pianist and I argued over the cost of his performance. In the end, after he’d had his arm bent up behind his back by me, against his first feelings, he accepted my forceful premise that the remainder of my “green-backs,” about thirty dollars, was definitely not too much to pay for being able to have such dulcet tones accompanying me on my journey home, to seed my happy memories. Accordingly, my wallet was duly emptied!

After enjoying my “Ragtime Refreshing Shower” I walked on, waving to the mobile musician as I was about to turn the next corner, with a suitably bouncy stride. When I gathered my wits, I realized that I would soon be passing the end of St. Philip Street where one of my heroes, George Lewis, had lived. Here, with my mind at yet another metaphoric crossroad, I immediately found myself struggling to pluck up the courage to knock at the front door of George’s former abode where my “nothing ventured, nothing gained” attitude was about to reap a bountiful and sustainably healthy harvest.

When the owner/occupier heard whence and how I came to be on his doorstep, he welcomed me with open arms and totally unforced politeness, insisting that I must take photos and started a commentary to match his proud tour: “The kitchen is where the trios were recorded, but, because Bunk Johnson’s Brass Band was sometimes as large as a ten-piece outfit, with Red Clarke sousaphone, Isadore Barbarin alto horn, Adolph Alexnder tenor horn, Kid Shots Madison second trumpet, and Lawrence Marrero, Bunk’s usual banjoist, on bass drum added to George Lewis who, for the brass band, played an E flat military clarinet, Jim Robinson, trombone, and Baby Dodds, drummer of Bunk’s current band, on snare, they had to play in the yard at the rear.”

Ragtime Fest

Clarinetist George Lewis, photographed by Stanley Kubrick in 1950. (via Wikipedia)

Most of those on the tour who could still admit to “fact finding” or ascertaining the accuracy of their forty years’ of attempting to verify information obtained with extreme difficulty at some distance in time and place, or even ascertain that their scant knowledge would “hold water” as a reason for going west over the seas, were absolutely in awe of the magic of the occasion. This would provide the background to the rather tatty tapestry of knowledge that I, for one, had accrued already and would certainly rank highly among my memories, along with examples of the continuing preservation of the New Orleans musicians’ somewhat precarious way of life.

Even what might be described as something which, after a hundred years, could still be derogatorily termed as “existence,” by those ignorant of circumstance, could still be exemplified when one would be at a gig one night and able to hear the core of the same band the next night with it being led on trumpet by the drummer from its previous night’s gig. The facts of life were unchanged since the beginning of the twentieth century: most musicians other than those at the very top of the tree would have had to be multi-instrumentalists in order to make a living.

Starting from the very moment of our arrival in the luggage hall at New Orleans’ Airport, the perspicacious organizers of the tour had been able to surprise us and even leave our pilot flabbergasted by having Harold Dejan’s rousing Olympia Marching Band meet us with “Over in the Gloryland.” The pilot’s appreciation rang out as the last chord of our musical welcome died away, “Well I’ve never been met by a Marching Band before!” and, even though that flagship Sam Morgan Number had soon morphed into “Just a Little While to Stay Here” to remind us to get a shift on if we were to encompass all we had to squeeze in during our brief stay, we now knew we’d taken a great leap, as if crossing the River Jordan, not the Mississippi!

Strangely the Olympia band was to feature later in a mid-tour international event which seemed especially made to measure, in order to appease my alter-ego who has a liking for so-called Classical Music, but that was pure coincidence! The international mid-visit surprise event was later revealed as the celebration of the centenary of the occasion when Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, had sung from the balcony of a building overlooking a beautiful grassed and tenderly manicured field.

Our trusty group of tourers were going to have the honor of forming the core of the “Second Line” proudly marching behind the Olympia Band from the French Quarter in N.O. to the scene of The Swedish Nightingale’s former triumph. Along the way we added local residents to our followers to make a nice crowd and when we got to our destination we found that the building in front of which we’d be observing the Ceremony was only about thirty yards to our right. There, eagerly waiting for us to join them was also the other half of our band which would make a total of thirty musicians in the combined band.

In order for our part of the band to join those waiting players, we had to make a sweeping clockwise circuit but, on entering the grassed site, we were close enough for our waiting comrades to hear what our contingent of the whole band was playing and to join us in perfect unison to double the sound made. However, as we were marching away from both the waiting players and spectators, we were quite quickly beginning to get out of sync.

By the time our direction of march was veering to the right, at apex of our circular march, past twelve o’clock, arcing directly in front of the building whence the Swedish Nightingale would have been singing from the balcony, we found that the two halves of bands, now over one hundred metres apart, were performing a totally new version of Charles Ives’ “Three Places in New England.” In that composition, Ives simulates the listener hearing different tunes from three different bands playing in three separate parks and producing a cacophonous mixture—the musical metaphoric equivalent of a ball of wool somewhat tangled after several cats have fought over it. As our part of the band continued to march to towards those waiting for them the composition gradually untangled to become gelled in one piece again, thank goodness, and the glorious, celebratory spectacle we were privileged to enjoy became, deservedly, the very pinnacle of the entire tour!

The morning of our departure back to so-called modern Britain, encompassing travelling a century in the time it took to fly the Atlantic Ocean, I’d had plenty of time to refresh myself and muse over the glorious memories I was taking back home in my head as a result of my gentle wander round the French Quarter and to come down to earth. However, there was still one untidy melee to overcome.

When I finally went back into the hotel foyer in N.O. and announced that I’d taken photos in George Lewis’s house, I was overwhelmed with requests for copies of them. By the time we were airborne I had at least a dozen firm orders which I was happy to fulfill. I made the point, however, that I would willingly let all those on my list have their photographic “memoirs” only after the completion of one more important task on arriving home.

I would first send the owner of George Lewis’s house both the sets of recordings which he had not had before, with grateful thanks for his plenteous and sensitive hospitality which had been a fine example of the generosity of the individual dwellers in New Orleans, to back up that of the bounteous musical gifts of the City itself.

David Stanners is a life-long jazz fan living in the UK.

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