Set forth below is the forty-third “Texas Shout” column. It first appeared in the September 1993 issue of The West Coast Rag, now known as The Syncopated Times.
There were three styles of Dixieland played in New Orleans in the early days of jazz. In “Texas Shout” for September and October 1992, I discussed the style played by the white Crescent Citians, which embodies more or less legitimate technique, is ensemble-oriented, and has no significant blues content. The other two styles were played by Black musicians and are known as the “downtown” and “uptown” styles of New Orleans Dixieland.
The downtown style, the subject of today’s column, was a relatively schooled and sophisticated music. The downtown Blacks included the Creoles, individuals of mixed African and European descent, who occupied a somewhat higher place on New Orleans’ social ladder than more pure-blooded Blacks. As a result, the downtown Blacks got more exposure to “legitimate” music (such as grand opera), both in terms of musical training and cultural background.
The jazz that they developed, not surprisingly, is a blend that draws strongly from both these “legitimate” influences and the rougher, strongly blues-based, visceral music of the uptown Blacks with whom the downtowners regularly interacted. Downtown New Orleans style is ensemble-oriented, usually calls for a reasonably demanding degree of technical skill, often involves multi-strain compositions executed with noticeable precision, and incorporates a significant blues content.
Just about all of the jazz sides waxed during the 1920s by Black musicians from New Orleans are in the downtown style. These include the 78s of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five/Seven, Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.
There are very few vintage-period recordings of uptown style. The uptown musicians were not as frequently called by their downtown colleagues to come to cities like Chicago and New York, which were the major recording centers. Not placing as high a value as the downtowners on a “legitimate” approach to technique, the uptowners were sometimes misunderstood and mistakenly believed to be inferior performers vs. the downtowners.
Recording equipment in the twenties was nowhere near as compact and portable as it is today. Undertaking a field trip to New Orleans to make records was a logistical effort for a major label housed in Gotham or the Windy City.
Moreover, times being what they were, on the occasions when such field trips did take place, the recording executives arrived in the deep South to discover little interest there in getting Black musicians on record. Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra (15 sides), Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band (8), Louis DuMaine’s Jazzola Eight (4), the Jones and Collins Astoria Hot Eight (4) and Fate Marable’s Society Syncopators (2), plus some alternate takes and vocal backups, pretty much sum up the Black jazz recorded in N.O. in the 1920s, vs. the dozens of platters in the north by Oliver, Armstrong, the Dodds brothers, Morton, Noone, Bechet, Williams, Ory, et al.
Among the seven styles of Dixieland, one could make a persuasive argument that downtown New Orleans is the most perfectly balanced. For example, it has more blues than white New Orleans and West Coast revival, but not as much as Uptown New Orleans. It presents soloists with sufficient technique to execute very intricate conceptions, but it does not emphasize soloing as much as Chicago style. It pays attention to cleanly executed routines on tricky material, but not to the degree that hot dance does.
In making the argument about the balancing of elements in downtown New Orleans, I am most emphatically not saying that downtown New Orleans is a superior art form to any of the other six styles. In my view, each of the seven Dixieland styles has its own objectives and standards; each of those seven, when rendered by creative artists who understand these objectives and standards, has an equal claim to the attention of the discerning Dixielander.
I make the statement about the balancing of elements in downtown New Orleans because, for me, it explains why that style is the only one that nearly always receives favorable comment from the critical community. Even critics who normally do not listen to Dixieland and who are quick to condemn, for example, the relatively heavy rhythm of West Coast revival or the “illegitimate” intonation of uptown New Orleans seldom have a bad word for the downtowners.
Downtown New Orleans, you see, offers a significant proportion of something for everyone. If you like virtuoso soloing, you have Armstrong, Noone, Bechet, and Morton; crisp, cohesive ensembles – Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, the Blue Five and the Red Hot Peppers; advanced compositional structure – Morton again and Lillian Hardin (who was not from New Orleans, but played downtown style); etc.
Thus, when the downtown recordings are reissued, the critic probably focuses on those portions which appeal to his/her special interest and responds positively to them. Whether I’m right or not in this hypothesis, whenever the sides appear by the Apex Club Orchestra, the New Orleans Wanderers/Bootblacks, and the other downtown units mentioned above, they are greeted warmly, are not accused of being dated, and usually wind up at the top of annual critics’ polls.
Given the nearly universal acclaim for downtown New Orleans, I can’t help remarking on the fact that, of the seven Dixieland styles, downtown New Orleans is the one that has most completely vanished from the current domestic Dixieland scene and very nearly from the face of the earth. You can find plenty of individual players who are consciously influenced by certain downtown jazzmen. Nearly every sizeable Dixieland festival will include a pianist whose debt to Jelly is clear, a sopranoist reworking Bechet, many post-Armstrong lead horns, etc. However, you will look in vain for a band that, as a team, deliberately tries to work within the boundaries of downtown New Orleans.
To be sure, you will hear Morton, Oliver and the others acknowledged from the bandstand in every set. Lots of bands pick their repertoires and routines from the famous downtown 78s. However, today’s bands will almost always perform those tunes and routines in the West Coast revival, uptown New Orleans or British trad styles of Dixieland.
The last combo I remember seeing in person that chose to be a downtown style Dixieland band was pianist Bob Greene’s Red Hot Peppers re-creation about twenty years ago. In fact, my copy of the septet’s RCA Victor album, “The World Of Jelly Roll Morton,” one of the last U.S. Dixieland records to be released on a major label, bears a 1974 copyright.
Europe recognized jazz as a new and valuable art form before the United States establishment did. Possibly for that reason, the situation is not quite as bleak overseas as it is stateside.
The LPs of Copenhagen’s Peruna Jazzmen do a most creditable job of evoking King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. The Swedish Jazz Kings recorded two albums for Stomp Off using the approach of Clarence Williams’ combos. (Further, the SJK’s cornetist, Bent Persson, is probably the closest thing you’ll hear these days to the way Louis sounded in the twenties.) British trumpeter Rod Mason has led (and may still) a quintet modeled after the Hot Five.
In 1992, acting as Festival Jazz Education Coordinator for the Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee, I wrote and M.C.’d a special show entitled “A Cavalcade Of Dixieland Styles.” The idea was to present, choosing from the various bands at Sacto that year, as many of the seven Dixieland styles as possible, linking them with an explanatory narrative that outlined each style’s origin and its musical objectives. I hoped that, by hearing the different styles side by side, the audience might enhance its ability to appreciate the diversity that the Dixieland idiom has to offer an open-minded listener.
Unfortunately, one of the styles that had to be omitted from that show was downtown New Orleans. Looking over the festival’s lineup of some 100 bands from all over the world, I was unable to identify a single one that I felt would play sufficiently pure downtown style to be used for demonstration purposes in the “Cavalcade.”
Thus, I cannot end this column by recommending to festivalgoers a way to experience this very highly regarded brand of Dixieland in person. If you are a newcomer to the festival scene, you probably have heard many bandleaders praising the combos mentioned in this column when tunes are announced. Nevertheless, you probably haven’t had a chance to grasp the tremendous appeal of the brand of jazz being discussed, even though you’ve heard lots of versions of titles that were written or recorded by Oliver, Morton, Armstrong and the others.
Do yourself a favor. Seek out a specialty store (or check the record bar at the festival) and look for some of the recent chronological reissues by the vintage period downtown artists. These days the record companies can often get the entire recorded output of one of these immortal combos on just one or two CDs with, I am told, remarkable clarity of the twenties’ sound quality (I’ve long since acquired all of this material on LP, so I’m not personally familiar with the CD versions).
Once you’ve heard the Creole Jazz Band soar into the out chorus of “New Orleans Stomp,” or the Red Hot Peppers romp through the finale of “Georgia Swing,” you won’t forget the experience. And if enough of us do that, perhaps we’ll even create sufficient demand to bring live downtown New Orleans back to the domestic festival and club scene. What a great day that would be!
The full run of “Texas Shout” has been collected into a lavishly illustrated trade paperback entitled Texas Shout: How Dixieland Jazz Works. This book is available @ $20.00 plus $2.95 shipping from Tex Wyndham, On request, Tex will autograph the book and add a personalized note (be sure to tell him to whom the note should be addressed).
Tex Wyndham’s 3 CD Guide to Dixieland with music and commentary is available for $20 plus $2.95 shipping. The separate CD, A History of Ragtime: Tex Wyndham Live At Santa Rosa, is available for $13.00 plus $2.00 shipping. On request, Tex will autograph the inner sleeve and add a personalized note (be sure to tell him to whom the note should be addressed).
Send payment to Tex Wyndham, P.O. Box 831, Mendenhall, PA 19357, Phone (610) 388-6330.