Charlie Halloran is a hard working trombonist central to the post-Katrina traditional jazz revival in New Orleans. He’s a long time member of the Shotgun Jazz Band and appears on scores of albums with other groups. In recent years his focus as a leader has turned to the music of the Caribbean and he has a weekly 9th Ward gig with his Tropicales band. His last several albums, including a Christmas release, have featured calypsos, beguines, and other styles which he sees as interwoven with the spirit of New Orleans music.
If you spend any amount of time in new Orleans you realize the locals are as proud of their place in early R&B and Rock ’n’ Roll history as their place in early jazz. Any Mardi Gras compilation will have a disproportionate number of recordings from the ’50s. The ’50s were also a high point for bringing calypso and other music of the islands and South America to the world, and of course a high point for jazz revival music in the public consciousness. Halloran has found a unique way to explore that musical moment from the “northernmost city in the Caribbean,” on his fifth album, The Alcoa Sessions.
The Alcoa Steamship Co. ran cruises out of New Orleans from 1949-1959. This album imagines a working New Orleans band playing on those cruises and drawing from the popular music of their home city as well as destinations including Trinidad, Venezuela, and Guadeloupe. The album includes traditional jazz, R&B, beguines, waltzes, calypsos, and more, with a jazz band as the basis, envisioning local musicians joining them at ports of call and played in an order that implies the cruise itinerary.
The band on board would of course be excellent, and Halloran has ensembled the contemporary equivalent. The heart of the group is Charlie Halloran (trombone), Tomas Majcherski (tenor sax), Jonathan Doyle (tenor sax, clarinet), and Mike Davis (trumpet), joined throughout by guitarists Don Vappie, John Rodli, and John Maestas, bassists Tyler Thomson and Pete Olinciw, drummers Joe Lastie, Doug Garrison, and Chris Davis, pianists Larry Sieberth and David Boeddinghaus, and percussionist Cesar Bacaro. Charlie takes a vocal and more are provided by Dédé St. Prix (of Martinique), Drew Gonsalves, and Don Vappie.
I sent Charlie Halloran a few questions for back ground and I think you’ll enjoy his answers as written:
As an established New Orleans jazz musician how did you end up so involved in Caribbean music?
Charlie Halloran: I grew up listening to New Orleans music and rocksteady, ska, and reggae music from Jamaica—I always particularly loved the Skatalites, a mostly instrumental band who backed a number of singers in Jamaica during the 1960s and featured two wonderful trombonists. They also worked regularly as a dance band in Jamaica—hotels, bars, clubs etc. The group still plays and sounds great.
After moving to New Orleans, I joined the Panorama Jazz Band who play a number of beguines and mazurkas from the French Caribbean. While their repertoire mostly pulls from 1920s and ’30s records, I soon found some albums of beguine ensembles from the 1950s and 1960s which really caught my ear. As does American music from the same era.
Around the same time I started finding records from Trinidad—both calypso recordings, and dance band recordings. It immediately struck me, the similarities between 1950s and 1960s dance music from Trinidad, the French Caribbean, Jamaica, and New Orleans. Not the Latin music as much from the DR, Puerto Rico, Cuba—which I of course love as well, but there is a very strong thread that runs through New Orleans jazz and R&B, calypso, ska, mento, and beguine. For instance, Louis Armstrong from New Orleans, playing “Kokomo”—an R&B song, where he uses “Sly Mongoose” (a Trinidadian calypso) as the intro. Or his “High Society Calypso” from the movie. Or Dave Bartholomew, who often drifted into Caribbean styles—“Shrimp and Gumbo.” Sidney Bechet recorded an album of Haitian music. There are countless ska and reggae versions of New Orleans songs…I figured if I’m going to be playing New Orleans dance music from that era, it makes sense to also be playing dance music from the rest of the Caribbean. It also fits the tradition for New Orleans musicians to be drifting towards some ports further south.
How did you learn what would be played on those cruises? Did you find setlists or bands to use as reference points?
I wasn’t able to find setlists, and frankly, I’ve not been able to 100% confirm that there even was a New Orleans based band on board the Alcoa steamers. But through interviewing Doc Hawley (original captain of the Steamboat Natchez and riverboat worker since 1953), we decided it would have been an anomaly for there not to have been a band on board. Wendell Brunious has told me about his father moving to NYC on a cruise boat from New Orleans where he worked in the band. I have a friend who met his wife on a Florida to Germany passenger ship in the late 1950s, dancing to the live band. It wasn’t even a pleasure cruise, just a mode of transportation. And a student whose mother worked on a Caribbean cruise from New Orleans in the 1950s and remembers a band. Knowing New Orleans, and knowing the cultural significance music holds here and in the Caribbean, especially in that time period, I think it’s a safe bet there was live music on board the Alcoa Steamers.
Now that said, I went looking for dance band repertoire from the different islands and New Orleans. “When I Was A Little Child” and “I Used To Love You” were performed by Paul Barbarin and John Brunious—both musicians working in New Orleans and NYC who were known to perform in New Orleans dance halls. “Everybody’s Wailing” is a Huey Piano Smith number, an early R&B performer in New Orleans playing in night clubs and touring around the south. “Alma Llanera” and “Margarita Rosa” are pulled from two separate dance and hotel bands from Trinidad, each of whom backed calypso singers during carnival. “Twins” comes from Dave Bartholomew’s band, while “Feeling Good” was recorded by Fats Domino’s band, being led by tenor man Herb Hardesty. “Moune A Ou” and “Me Granny” were suggested by the singers from Martinique and Trinidad respectively and “Goodnight” was written by Pat Castagne, composer of calypsos and Trinidad’s national anthem.
Are there specific tracks that have interesting stories behind them, either in how you found them or their origins?
“Margarita Rosa” and “Alma Llanera” are the deepest cuts on the album. A few years ago, a friend in Alaska who spends a month or two a year in Trinidad and collects all kinds of calypso and steel pan recordings, sheet music, writings, etc. sent me a dropbox folder of over five hours of mostly out of print recordings from 1950s Trinidad.
“Alma Llanera” is originally a joropo and sort of the “unofficial national anthem” of Venezuela. Our version is based on the recording by Johnny Gomez, a bandleader and saxophonist from Trinidad who backed calypsonians during carnival, but spent much of the year performing in hotels in Trinidad. Very much a dance band, their repertoire ranges from American jazz and rock and roll numbers, through popular calypsos of the day, and even some hints of Latin music. Remember, Venezuela is only eight miles by boat from Trinidad, so listeners in Port Of Spain certainly would know this song from Venezuela. Johnny Gomez’s band was active into the early 1960s.
“Margarita Rosa” comes from the Fitz Vaughan Bryan Orchestra, another dance band from 1950s Trinidad. I have not found as many recordings of them backing up singers, but I have found a number of advertisements for their performances at nightclubs, restaurants and hotels in Trinidad. Based on the recordings I have, it seems they covered more stylistic ground than some of their contemporaries, drifting into bossa nova, merengue, son, and rumba, as heard on Margarita Rosa. They even recorded some Chet Atkins numbers. There was very much a pipeline of American music traveling south to the Caribbean, and Caribbean music traveling north to New Orleans and NYC. That is the sweet spot where I’m trying to land my band. Somewhere halfway between both!
And for what it’s worth, Alcoa even briefly served as a record label, releasing recordings of calypso, steel pan, beguine, and merengue, available by mail order and on board the ships.
♫ ♫ ♫ ♫
The album is danceable, hip, fun, and of course full of those Caribbean rhythms, but it is much more than tropical vacation mood music. All these styles celebrated the full diversity of life during a high point of optimism across the Western hemisphere. As an imagined historical document this album digs deep with fantastic playing, improvisations and interactions to bring joy to any jazz fan. The band is top notch and seems to thrill in the variety of rhythms they get to work with. The Alcoa Sessions is fit to please a crowd around the pool or for a deeper listen from your deck chair. You can order the CD, with fittingly fun notes and artwork, from the Artist Share label.