A Young Jazz Fan in the French Quarter
Ask anyone what street comes to mind when they think of Dixieland jazz and the response, usually, would be Bourbon Street. I made it my residence for several weeks 65 years ago. Upon my graduation from high school in Buchanan, Michigan, I’d saved up some money from a part-time job to go there. My folks were going as far as Ft. Knox, where my brother Clarence was stationed so I hitched a ride there with them. An overnight ride from Louisville brought me to New Orleans where a New Orleans jazz deejay, originally from Niles, Michigan, had agreed to put me up for the night. I was finally chasing my dream. New Orleans’ French Quarter held a special magic for me. As an avid trad jazz fan, especially the early jazz of New Orleans, I wanted to study it up close and try to improve my playing it. I was young, a bit foolish and thrilled to finally be there.
Part of my infatuation with New Orleans jazz existed because I had listened to live jazz from the Crescent City on several Sunday evenings throughout my senior year in Buchanan. Also, Ms. Weaver’s BHS Spanish class had spent several days in June of 1952 traveling to the Mexico City region and New Orleans was one of the overnight stops on the way back home. (Yes, I helped plan the itinerary.) A few of us headed straight for Bourbon Street to hear some great jazz.
Now that I had made it, I could take a long listen to players at the Paddock Lounge where musicians who had played in Storyville, better known as the Red Light District which, conveniently, had been very near the Navy Yard.
Founded by the city of New Orleans late in the 19th century, it took the city 20 years to realize the problems there weren’t worth keeping it open and legal. Most of the musicians were out of work but took hard-labor jobs in the port area. Now, I could get “the word” about traditional New Orleans jazz from the people who originated it.
Fortunately, I managed to find a rental apartment above the Mardi Gras Lounge in the 300 block of Bourbon for $40 dollars a month. I discovered the first night that I could be serenaded by George Lewis’ great band on the stage located directly below my room. And to top it off, two of the best bands on the street were purposely double-booked at the Famous Door, next door to the Mardi Gras Lounge. The Dukes of Dixieland and George Girard’s Basin Street Six were, by far, the two most popular bands at that time. George played a fine trumpet and he had a lot of help from folks like a young Pete Fountain.
The Hot Six traded sets with the Dukes of Dixieland, a band I’d heard for the first time when the band won an “amateur hour” program award for best performance. Both bands were relatively new, and really hot bands. The sets at the Door began in the early evening and usually lasted beyond six hours with each band usually doing three sets. Needless to say, with Papa Celestin’s Storyville band at the Paddock, George Lewis’s band at the Mardi Gras Lounge, and the Hot Six and the Dukes next door at the Famous Door, I had all the jazz I could handle. I was very aware of the other fine happenings on the street, including a lot of burlesque, but I rarely headed that way. I was in town for jazz.
My first venture, though, took me to the Paddock where I wanted to talk, especially, with Jim Robinson, Papa Celestin’s trombonist. I was entranced with Jim’s gut-bucket approach to New Orleans trad jazz. After the first set, I found the guys in the back room, taking their break. Jim responded to my inquiry about taking lessons with a simple, “I can’t read music; I just play it.” Several of the guys in the band were, like Jim, very pleased to be working again. Jim said he would give me some tips and they were very helpful. He told me he had kept his lip over the years, often playing in parades and churches. Getting the gut bucket sound was natural for him but difficult for him to explain to me how he did it. He added that I should know the melody and play with it or around it but don’t leave it….good advice.
Both the bands at the Famous Door were filled with enthusiasm about their music. I spent many hours enjoying some excellent players. Pete Fountain’s mastery of the clarinet appeared almost effortless. The Assunto brothers, Frank on trumpet and Freddie on trombone, were the highlight of the Dukes. Freddie’s then girlfriend, Betty Owens, handled most of the singing with her former country style coming alive with the Dixieland tunes. I probably spent half of my time at the Door and the place usually was crowded most of the time, even in the early morning hours. More than once, I was lulled to sleep with jazz coming through my apartment’s only window from either the Door or the Mardi Gras downstairs. And I would often awaken in late morning hearing either the Dukes or the Basin Street Six going over some new tunes. I wondered if they ever slept.
In early September when I turned 18, I made my required trip to sign up for the draft. (I still have the card in my billfold, mainly because it has the date and New Orleans on it.) Over the past several weeks, I was satisfied that I’d met my initial goal: to learn more about trad jazz, especially the early New Orleans jazz. Unfortunately, I had also learned to enjoy drinking the hard stuff…far too much of it. The Assuntos, including Papa Jac, referred to me as “the kid.” I felt that I had some good friends with the Assunto family. I soon discovered how true that was.
Around the second week of September, as I started to enter the Famous Door, Frank took me aside and asked me to join him over a cup of coffee at a little eatery a few doors down. Once there he wasted little time in making it clear folks were concerned about my drinking. He began telling me of others he had known who were young jazz lovers who simply drank themselves to death. He reinforced it with a couple of pictures of his “departed” friends. I knew then that his concern was real especially when he asked if I could afford another train trip home. So, horn case and bag in hand, the next morning I boarded the Chicago-bound train. I’ve been back a couple of times since but it had changed a lot.
The story, fortunately, has a happy ending. Six years later, the Dukes were touring across the country and I read that they were appearing at a Paw Paw, Michigan, dance hall on Saturday night. It was the fall of 1959, after a few years in the Army and now in my senior year at Ball State, I realized that I had to be there to let Frank know that I considered him as the guy who saved my life. In addition, it would be my second big date with Jean: we had attended the Playboy Jazz Fest in Chicago a few weeks earlier. (Jean’s seen and heard a lot of jazz over our last 59 years of married life.) With our friends, the Boyers, we headed off to Paw Paw the following Saturday.
Needless to say, it was a thrill to walk into the Crystal Palace and then get a chance to once again hear the Dukes. A little later, as I walked up to the stage, someone recognized “the kid” and all three Assuntos (Papa Jac was on banjo and/or trombone) came to the front of the stage. I had some cash in my hand (with a little bonus) that I still owed Frank. I don’t recall what Frank said to me but I’m sure it was something like, “So you made it!”
And, yes, I had made it because one man took a few minutes aside to help “the kid” leave the heavy drinking behind.
When Frank dedicated a slow tune for us, it was a special moment that still means so much. Sadly, a few years later at an early age, Freddie passed, and a few years after that Frank joined him. I’m very pleased that I had my chance to tell Frank that night at the Crystal Palace….“Thank you so much, Frank!”
See also by Van D. Young: The Jazz Bugs
Ed Note: I found this video of what would have been right beneath Van’s window in 1953. It is also only 30 feet from where your editor was cooking in 2005.