Bissonnette learned drums from Sammy Penn and was honored by the opportunities he had to associate with jazz legends, particularly Big Jim Robinson. He led The Easy Riders Jazz Band, bringing Sammy Rimmington from England to assist on reeds. All told he worked with New Orleans style artists whose careers span more than 100 years of jazz history and several continents. After reviving his label in the 1990’s he released an additional 130 albums. He turned his focus to archiving the British Jazz scene on a series of Best Of The Brits albums before eventually selling the catalog to UpBeat Records on condition that the music remain available.
In the 90’s he also revived his playing career, touring with “Tuba Fats” Lacen in Big Bill’s International Jazz Band and recording prolifically. In 1992 he published a book about his early experiences entitled The Jazz Crusade: The Inside Story of the Great New Orleans Jazz Revival of the 1960’s. In the book, he explained the fierceness of his mission to record the early jazz performers still playing in the sixties by saying, “If you think Punch Miller is really dead, I suggest you put on the recording we made that night at McGoon’s. Does that sound like a dead man to you? As his music lives, so does he.”
What Follows is a message from Bissonnette’s son, who offers the way in which his father would prefer to be celebrated at his passing:
Big Bill Bissonnette passed away this morning (June 26), quietly and comfortably. He will be missed by family, friends and fans around the world. He lived his life trying to spread the music he loved, both through his own playing and the recordings that he made of others.
As his final days were upon him he was very introspective, looking back on what he had helped create throughout his life. He was adamant that it was the music that mattered, and he was sure that somewhere there were young musicians hearing New Orleans style jazz and being inspired by it to do their own thing, just like he was inspired by his own idols and mentors: Sammy Penn on drums and Big Jim Robinson on trombone.
His preference was to be cremated without ceremony and those wishes will be honored. In lieu of flowers or cards, I’m sure he would have liked nothing more than for people to remember him by sharing a link to one of his recordings, whatever your personal favorite may have been. He lives on through those recordings and the joy that they bring others.
Many years ago, when facing a life-threatening surgery, he expressed to me that he wasn’t worried about the outcome. He believed that there were only two ways it could go. He would either wake up to see me again, or he would wake up to see Big Jim Robinson. He came back to us that day and made many more recordings, many more friends and many more memories over the years, for which we are all very thankful.
Today he has gone to be with Big Jim and the others he had always wanted to see again.
He selected this song to share with everyone on this day:
The following review of The Jazz Crusade: The Inside Story of the Great New Orleans Jazz Revival of the 1960’s was first published in our predecessor paper, The West Coast Rag, in October 1992. We include it for added insight into Big Bill Bissonnette’s early life:
In the 1960s, the major labels were giving up on Dixieland jazz. The field was changing to its present status, wherein Dixieland recordings are produced by artists and dedicated fans who, though they don’t want to lose money, are more interested in preserving their favorite music than in earning a worthwhile return on their time and investment.
One of the pioneering independent Dixieland LP labels was Jazz Crusade, releasing about two dozen albums during the sixties, mostly uptown style New Orleans jazz played by the Easy Riders Jazz Band (a Connecticut-based group of young white musicians) augmented by guest appearances by veteran black New Orleanians. Jazz Crusade, now owned by George H. Buck, originated as the personal project of trombonist/drummer Big Bill Bissonnette.
Its major contribution to Dixieland was its emphasis on recording the two most important uptown jazzmen to emerge during the sixties, trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine and alto saxophonist Cap’n John Handy. Bissonnette, whose fanatical devotion to his music would put a mad scientist to shame, unhesitatingly sacrificed at least two marriages and much of his finances to his fevered desire to do just one more session, one more tour, with Thomas, Handy, Punch Miller, Sammy Penn, Jim Robinson and other now-revered names from Preservation Hall’s heyday. In order to get the excellent Sammy Rimington as his clarinetist (a move that obviously would be short-lived because the ERJB didn’t get enough work to support a full-time professional), Bissonnette, knowing the change would break up the current Riders’ personnel, apparently agreed to take Rimington into his home and cover Rimington’s living expenses. His only regret, he now tells us in this colorful recounting of his relationship with the musicians involved, is that he didn’t make even more records.
Those of us who knew early on that we had to be Dixielanders come what may, and that we would be forever perceived by normal people as weirdos marching, as they say, to a different drummer, can easily relate to Bissonnette’s obsession. Even better, he is a good storyteller, giving us via brief anecdotes a feeling that we now know personally, just a little, the likes of crusty, crafty banjoist Creole George Guesnon; jovial Penn; take-charge showman Thomas; easygoing Robinson and the others. A high point, at which few readers will remain unaffected, is Bissonnette’s heartwarming story of “The Reception Brass Band.”
If, as I did, you collected the Jazz Crusades as they appeared and learned to enjoy – despite the sometimes booming acoustics and uneven abilities of the various side-men in the different combos- the unique and stirring jazz of the New Orleans players Bissonnette admires, you will find his book irresistible. Even if you didn’t, most of you will either recognize, or better understand, the difficulties of running a Dixieland band and producing recordings, as Bissonnette leads you through tales of unscrupulous concert sponsors, snowstorms on concert dates, union disputes, and the type of infighting and factionalism among Dixieland musicians and Dixieland clubs that, to this day, cripples the Dixieland community in trying to exert whatever small economic force it has.
This volume not only is chock-full of reproductions of flyers and newspaper articles regarding the events described but also comes, in the Deluxe Edition, with a 72 minute CD containing fifteen tracks from Bissonnette’s sessions, including six previously unreleased performances. I can’t see why anyone interested enough to buy the book wouldn’t want to hear on the CD a sampler of Bissonnette’s “Great New Orleans Jazz Revival.” – Tex Wyndham
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