1961 was a productive year for me. In January and September, I made two trips out of New York for Riverside Records, both of which remain remarkably fresh in my memory as I look back on my career. My aim was to capture before it was too late, performances by veteran jazz and blues artists who were still active. In this, the first of two posts, I reminisce about New Orleans, where Audio engineer Dave Jones and I made 12 albums in one week.
The recording trek was not something I had proposed, but it was right in line with my own goals—I had already produced sessions by Lonnie Johnson and Elmer Snowden, so this was a perfect continuation. I think Bill Grauer came up with the idea when Herb Friedwald, an attorney with a jazz passion and father-to-be of Will, offered to sell Riverside recent tapes by Kid Thomas and Peter Bocage. A hopeless romantic, Bill saw his label carrying on the field recording practices of old. Of course, Orrin Keepnews was less enthused and I don't think he was happy about me doing the a&r, but Bill called the shots. Besides, Orrin's studio schedule for that week included sessions by Cannonball and others whose names surely attracted more attention than an obscure bunch of New Orleans old-timers. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Orrin, but he always gave me the impression that I was stepping on his turf, and I think he proved me right a couple of months after New Orleans, when he intruded on my Ida Cox sessions.
So, on a wintry Friday night in January, as thousands of celebrants flocked to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and even more were left snowbound and with unusable tickets, Dave Jones and I boarded his old van and headed into a New York snowstorm, going south. Given the weather conditions, this was not something reasonable people would do and I must confess to having been a somewhat reluctant passenger. However, about a month earlier, two large passenger planes, a United Airlines jet and a TWA Constellation, had a mid-air collision, strewing wreckage and bodies upon Brooklyn and Staten Island. That crash was still generating headlines when, on the eve of our departure, a Mexican DC-8 crashed into Rockaway Beach Boulevard and burst into flames. Flying was not an attractive option.
I haven’t seen Dave Jones in many years, but I hope he is still around and doing well. No stranger to the music that brought us together for this trip, Dave had recorded Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings and a George Lewis group in Ohio during the mid-Fifties, and sold or leased the tapes to Riverside. When it turned out that we could not do studio sessions in New Orleans, Bill Grauer thought Dave would be just the right man for the project, and he was so right.
There were no seat belts back then, but we sure could have used them as Dave raced down the icy roads, afraid to slow down lest that might send us into a skid. We did not skid, nor did we stop for more than a quick cup of coffee, refueling, and to take two steps into Florida on Sunday morning, when we found ourselves within walking distance of its northern border. We had by then left the snowstorm behind, but even the “Sunshine State” had frost on the ground that winter.
We arrived in New Orleans that afternoon and headed straight for a rented apartment that awaited us in the French Quarter. It had the look of a Tennessee Williams set, complete with a courtyard from which well-worn wooden steps led to a well-worn balcony and a very lived-in residence. Stella wasn’t there for us to yell at, but, all the same, we saw her standing at the top of the steps. Herb Friedwald was our New Orleans contact, the man who found the picturesque apartment and the perfect recording location, a hall owned by the Societé des Jeunes Amis. He also alerted the jazz community to the project and set up the most remarkable audition on the day of our arrival. Although he really did a great job of laying the groundwork for the project, I vaguely recall his attitude towards me growing a bit frosty, if not hostile, after I returned to the New York office. I think he believed that Bill should have hired him for the project rather than assign it to me. If so, I can understand how he felt and admire even more the graciousness with which he veiled his disappointment. As I recall, Herb did not attend any of the sessions, which I thought was odd, at the time, but I later surmised a reason.
|Kid Thomas posing for my camera 1/61|
When we arrived in New Orleans, I had not yet decided how many sessions we would do and I carried in my pocket only a tentative list of the artists I wanted to record. Bill Grauer, who all but slept with Paramount 78s under his pillow, was very excited about this project but, typically, stayed out of it and generously left it up to me to decide its scope. It didn’t take me long to see that traditional jazz—although slightly bruised by time—still thrived in the old city. It soon became clear to me that I wouldn’t have to scrounge to find active veterans. I knew that some of them were no longer playing on any regularly basis, and that had thus let their union membership run out, so I had the good sense to call the American Federation of Musicians before leaving New York and request special dispensation to record anybody, regardless of membership status. Henry Zaccardi, the Federation's second in command understood my concern and the importance of preserving this music, so the rules were suspended. As it turned out, the recordings generated sufficient interest in some of the artists to warrant their catching up on their dues.
Having checked out that incredible apartment, we headed for North Robertson Street and dropped Dave's equipment off at the Jeunes Amis hall. Then we followed Herb to a former furniture store on Royal Street, where the powerhouse sound of Kid Thomas’ Algiers Stompers greeted us, full blast.
I immediately added Thomas to my to-do list of artists and, as one group after another gave me goosebumps, that list grew and it became clear that we would be doing several albums. Technical imperfections? Sure, but if the music is honest and from the heart, I'll take the occasional missed note any day over the unemotional stuff Wynton dishes out with flawless technique. No clinker can mar a sound so spirited—I was blown away by everything I heard that afternoon and evening, ready to equate New Orleans with that mythical cul-de-sac some call “heaven.”
|Societé Des Jeunes Amis hall entrance|
The hall's acoustical sound was exactly what I wanted to recapture: the same kind of ambience that lent such character to Bill Russell’s 1940’s American Music recordings from San Jacinto Hall. This was also the sound I had sought to emulate in a suburban Copenhagen ballroom seven years earlier, when Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan played into my B&O tape machine.
I scheduled the first two New Orlean sessions for Tuesday, January 24, so Dave spent a good part of the previous day in the hall, wiring up the equipment.
|Engineer Dave Jones setting up his equipment.|
|Dave Jones' "control room." and floor model|
Ampex decks. He used the same equipment
to record Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard.
|Dick Allen of the Tulane Jazz Archive.|
Having the old recordings gave Dave Jones a great idea. With the band in position and the microphones live, Dave played Morgan's Bogalusa Strut from speakers he had placed behind them. Instruments in hand, Jim and the band listened as the thin, dated sound of the 33 year old recording echoed in the old hall. George Guesnon picked up some chords on his banjo, Jim's had déjà vu written all over his face when that glimmer of recognition lit up his eyes and he raised the trombone to his lips. Slowly, he brought those slides of old into the present and, one by one, the pieces of a puzzle were assembled. I won't even try to describe in words the feeling that came over me when the entire band suddenly burst into full bloom and drowned out the old recording. It was a one-time-only experience, but Dave had captured it all in stereo.
Robinson, Cagnolatti, Cottrell and Guesnon enjoy a playback.
When we heard the playback, we agreed that this wonderful transition had to be included on the album. Sad to say, it wasn't. Columbia Records would not grant us permission to reproduce even that snippet of their Morgan recording, and my close association with that label was a few years in the future. I bet that tape is collecting dust in the Concord vault.
I will eventually get to some of the other wonderful musicians who gave this series life, the Humphrey brothers, Willie and Percy, Billie and Dede Pierce, Kid Thomas, Peter Bocage, who was not very complimentary in his recollections of Buddy Bolden, Sweet Emma Barrett, who jingled her bells and ended up in Glamour magazine. I will also be posting about Bill Russell, the man who really brought us the New Orleans revival of the 1940s, a truly eccentric and interesting man. In 1961, Bill had a little record shop in New Orleans, where he also repaired violins and filed down bumpy LPs. He deserves his own post, so expect that.
One of the bass players, McNeal Breaux, a cousin of Wellman Braud, Duke's bassist, owned a restaurant and invited Dave and me to have dinner there, but we had to enter through the back door, because of our color—by law, we were not allowed to be there at all. One night, I offered to give Homer Eugene a ride home, but when he saw that I was calling a cab, he told me that riding with me would be against the law—a black woman could take a cab with a white baby, but that's as far as that went. Incredible. On a phone call to the office, I told Bill Grauer how cooperative Louis Cottrell and the union people had been. "Take them out to dinner," Bill said. He was as naïve as I had been a couple of days before. I ended up having food and drinks brought in by a caterer, which was much better, anyway.
I could go on about this trip, but let me just say that it was a short but extraordinary chapter of my life. Dave and I didn't have time to enjoy the city, except for a couple of breakfast trips to the docks and a visit with Sidney Bechet's brother.
When I returned to New York, I immediately got busy compiling the albums and editing the tapes. I was doing that when Nesuhi Ertegun gave me a call and asked if I would allow him to hear some of the music. I was delighted, but not surprised that he showed that much interest in traditional New Orleans jazz. He came over and stayed for a few hours, totally immersed in the sounds. Not long thereafter, Neshui sent someone to New Orleans to record more of it, but, of course, for his Atlantic label. That delighted me, too, and I was especially glad that Atlantic included marching bands, which was something I should have done. Apropos parades, the great Alphonse Picou passed away four days after I left the city, so I missed one of the grandest of all funeral parades. Picou was a powerful influence on jazz inits early stages, a man who played with the greatest and was himself on that level. He is probably best known for having created what long since has become the standard High Society clarinet solo. Cottrell told me that Picou had a horse and buggy that transported him to his gigs. He often had too much to drink, but it was not a problem, because they just had to lift him into his buggy—the horse knew the way home.
As for my own ride home, I decided to fly.
I will soon be posting my account of the follow-up trip that yielded the Chicago: The Living Legends series. It was a very different experience, I had left the label so I was doing this project freelance and more for love than money. Riverside was beginning to feel the pinch that soon brought this great label down. Sometime it doesn't pay to do things on the cheap and this was one of those times, as—I am sorry to say—the resulting albums painfully prove. Once again, I met wonderful people and heard great music, but—as far as the recordings are concerned—the New Orleans experience was heaven to Chicago's hell. I'll tell you all about it.
Finally, I have at last figured out how to get some sound into this blog, other than borrowed ones (like the excerpts from my Bill Evans show, which others had posted on YouTube). I wanted to include a sample of the New Orleans recordings, so here is Jim Robinson's Jeunes Amis Blues. I had to throw together a video and upload it to YouTube in order to embed it here. There must be an easier way to post audio. However, this seems to work well so expect to hear (and see) more here, as it were.
Remember, clicking on the images above will enlarge them. Clicking once on the image below will start the show, but clicking again will bring you to YouTube—and then you're on your own.