Interview: Bruce Raeburn
Interview with Bruce Raeburn, Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, conducted by Ned Sublette.
NED SUBLETTE: What do y’all do?
BRUCE RAEBURN: It began in 1958 with Ford Foundation funding to do an oral history fieldwork project, and so we ended up with an informant pool of about 660 individuals. We got the clarinetist George Lewis and his mama, Alice Zeno, who was born in the late 1860s. So it’s a collective memory that goes well back before the emergence of jazz, but tells us a lot about the sort of continuum of plain-folk New Orleans music-making, in the streets and elsewhere, that has fueled every kind of music that comes out of New Orleans.
NS: And what are the activities today of the Hogan?
BR: We serve a research population which includes professional scholars, jazz fans, students, documentary filmmakers, lots of different people interested in New Orleans jazz. Our collection development focuses on New Orleans music primarily. It began as the Archive of New Orleans Jazz and was renamed in 1974 after William Ransom Hogan, who was the chairman of the department of history, who wrote the grant that got the Ford Foundation money. And of course, around the oral history, which is the core of the collection, we have recorded sound materials running from cylinders to CDs, got lots of film – that’s especially good material – sheet music, photography, vertical files, the normal bibliographical material [of] books and journals…So pretty much anything a scholar would want, or an amateur would want, in terms of trying to find out about the history of New Orleans music; we’ve got that material.
NS: And furniture.
BR: Yeah, we’ve got some old cylinder players, and other phonographs. We’ve got a nice little chassis Edison player from the 1920s that still sounds good, and occasionally we also collect instruments, so we’ve got Ray Bauduc’s drum set, and we’ve got Polo Barnes’s clarinets, and, of course, the whole Albert system approach that was an anachronism but very popular among New Orleans Creole clarinet players. This is something that scholars occasionally need to look at, they need to be able to manipulate the instrument to realize why an Albert system is different from the Boehm, for example.
NS: Our program today is titled “The Prehistory of New Orleans Music.” Perhaps you’d like to speak first to that general theme in terms of the music and the oral history examples we’ve selected.
BR: Well, there’s probably different ways to approach the concept of the prehistory of New Orleans music, because one wonders if, first of all, there could ever be such a thing. One gets the feeling that the first people who arrived here started making music almost immediately. But New Orleans is often perceived as a kind of cultural backwater, particularly from the retroactive view of jazz as art music, which tends to focus on Chicago, New York , and then the West Coast. So it’s often overlooked that this is the place that had music as part of lifestyle well before the emergence of jazz; and so, when we talk about this prehistory of New Orleans music, we’re really talking about what existed before the documentation occurred, and that’s where the oral histories are so important, because that’s the primary material we have to work with.
NS: It seems like, first of all, there are two questions I’m hoping we can answer. One is to get some kind of sense of what New Orleans music was like before there was recording, and also, what wasn’t recorded once we were already in the recording era? I didn’t realize until fairly recently how little recording was done in New Orleans , even in the ‘20s, in the so-called Jazz Age.
BR: One of the blind spots in jazz studies has been New Orleans in the 1920s, because there’s a relative dearth of recordings made here compared to what’s happening in Chicago and New York . However, what the recordings that were made here between 1924 and 1929 have to tell us is extremely important, which is that there was still a kind of local musical context that existed, that retained regionally distinctive properties that made New Orleans musicians, who stayed-in the 1920s- in their home town, a little different from compatriots who went to Chicago and New York and became famous and did the big time. A lot of the jazz critics from the 1930s and ‘40s were wont to offer the opinion that all the good musicians left New Orleans by the early 1920s, and only the dregs were left. And yet, when we listen to the recordings that were made in New Orleans in the 1920s there’s a wonderful variegation, there’s a lot of experimentation, there’s change. Bands like Celestin’s go from 8 to 14 pieces and start using arrangers to regulate the section work, responding to what they’re hearing on the radio, because they don’t travel that much. But it’s a dynamic situation that’s extremely exciting. Previous New Orleans music before the recordings in 1917, recordings made in 1891, which we unfortunately don’t have, lots of possibly apocryphal stories about cylinders by Buddy Bolden or Norman Brownlee made on Dictaphones, we don’t have. But they’re referred to in the oral histories, so these things existed. The song lists of the 1891 recordings by Louis “Bebe” Vasnier and George Paoletti are very interesting. One of the advertisements for the Louisiana Phonograph Company says, “These products are popular with white and black audiences and they’re a good cure for the blues.” So that kind of polychromatic New Orleans musical reality that we’re all so interested in is certainly present from the first documentation of New Orleans music on cylinders in 1891. That of course is something we could probably read back into the 18th century.
NS: At what point is it appropriate to start using the J-word?
BR: There’s a lot of debate about whether Bolden should even be considered jazz, or proto-jazz, or how we should define jazz. Within jazz studies, there’s even a movement now to basically say, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band is not really jazz, that jazz doesn’t become itself, one might say, until Louis Armstrong starts making art music in 1928 with things like “West End Blues.” That’s certainly debatable. As a historian what I do is go back to when does the word pop up, and who’s using it, and what do they mean by it? Taking that approach, the word “jazz” exists in New Orleans in 1917, but not with reference to a New Orleans style of music. That appears to have happened in 1915 with Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland in Chicago, when they were playing at Lamb’s Café, and some show business people came in and said, “Give us the old jazz!” And by that, they meant, give us the hot stuff. These are people who played in New Orleans earlier, and they knew what they wanted to hear, and they knew that the Brown band could deliver it, which apparently they did. So in other words a term that we can document in 1913 on the West Coast, in San Francisco, migrates to Chicago right about the same time that New Orleans-style music is migrating to Chicago in 1915, and there’s a collision. So the term ‘jazz’ and New Orleans style sort of get conjoined. But the first product saying New Orleans music is jazz isn’t until February of 1917, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – which, again, is often written off as ragtime rather than jazz…So this is quicksand, when you’re talking about dealing with that term.
NS: I know that the historiography of jazz has been a big concern of yours, so could you talk about your book?
BR: It’s called New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Basically, it’s an attempt to grapple with the conceptualization of jazz, the definition and the control that definition gave to writers and record collectors and enthusiasts who in the mid-1930s began seeing New Orleans music as a discrete variant that was a little different from what they were calling hot jazz at the time, which included New Orleans people like Armstrong and Morton, but also Ellington and various other artists who were not from New Orleans. So what that book attempts to do is straighten out how the terminology evolved and how the idea that there’s a special connection – the emergence of jazz occurs in New Orleans as a kind of result of an environmental set of circumstances that are different from other parts of the South, or North America — and how that idea got written into the historiography and also into jazz criticism. And then the fallout, the legacy – because ultimately, New Orleans jazz, as a style and as a kind of historical moment, was pushed to the periphery by the end of the 1940s, where the idea that jazz is art and that the self-directed artist in the form of modern jazz players and bebop are really what we’re talking about with jazz, and that this primitive folk music that evolved into an art form is something that’s already been covered. The reason I wrote the book was to take on that complacency and to try to reopen the idea that New Orleans music is a continuum that includes all sorts of different styles, and that it needs to be looked at on its terms.
NS: Okay, it’s 1905, Buddy Bolden is playing, the word “jazz” is – no one’s heard it, at least as referring to music – what kind of musical environment is Buddy Bolden playing in? Who is Buddy Bolden, and what other kinds of music are going on around him?
BR: Well, Bolden’s a symbolic history. In his oral history, Johnny St. Cyr, for example, said, “Ah, well, Bolden’s all right, but the Golden Rule Orchestra – that was a really hot band, that was hotter than Bolden.” What Bolden represented to a lot of Creole musicians particularly was the impact of changing fashion and changing taste in the market, and Bolden obviously is pulling on the blues and there’s a school of thought that basically says, well, we know he’s a blues player, we’re just not sure if he’s a jazz guy or not. Even Don Marquis in his book – the subtitle to that book, Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, that was not his idea. So it’s an open question whether Bolden was playing jazz or proto-jazz, but we do know that he was playing for the low end of the market, that he was playing for black and Creole people, for the pimps and the prostitutes, for the working-class blue-collar population that lived in Central City, Lower French Quarter, the Tremé area – the good-time people. And that he was performing a music that was exciting and sexualized, and of course living a lifestyle that had the same adjectives applied to it. So what we’re looking at with Bolden is the desire of young people for something that goes with the way they want to live. Instead of doing waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas, which Bolden also performed – before midnight – the young people, the night people, that Danny Barker talks about, that want to go to six a.m., they want slow drags and shags and belly rubs, those are the dances they do. And so Bolden heard what they had to say, and he supplied that demand. And of course what happened was, any trained musician who wanted to keep working had to follow in his wake as the market shifted in that direction.
NS: So now we move forward and of course, Bolden, if he recorded, we don’t have the recordings. He died unheard by posterity. We know he played loud. But meanwhile, there’s all kinds of other musics going on, and we start to be able to tune into this when we start to get recordings of New Orleans music. There aren’t many recordings of New Orleans music from early in the day, but what do we have to go on here that we’re gonna hear today?
BR: We’ve tried to select a kind of cross-section of New Orleans music made in the 1920s and how that leads into the future in some way, so we’re going to listen to Sam Morgan’s recording of “Sing On,” which is a spiritual and originally something they would not have played in live performance with a dance beat, but the A & R man for Columbia more or less insisted that they had to do it that way when they recorded it. And “Sing On” enters the repertoire as the piece of hot dance music from that point on. And of course, it also makes its way into the street, so later on we’re going to see how the Eureka Brass Band, when they’re first documented in 1951, handles that title. “Sing On” becomes a second-line song in their hands. But you know, the connection is that people react to the music. They dance. New Orleans early jazz, New Orleans music in general, is music that is intended to have a visceral response, which means you got to shake it and break it and get down into that music. In the streets and the dancehall, on a riverboat, on a train, wherever you might be, you’re going to dance to that music.
NS: And this is a song that – when we have this recording by the Eureka Brass Band from 1951, this is the first recording of a New Orleans brass band? Do I have this right?
BR: Bill Russell recorded Bunk Johnson’s brass band in 1945, but it was a simulacrum. Basically, what he did was get together with Bunk and say, ‘let’s put something together in the studio that sounds like the brass bands you remember from the early part of the century,’ and so they recruited all the musicians he’d been working with already and recording with from 1942 on, and they went into the studio and Bunk said, ‘no saxophones.’ Well, unfortunately, in the 1940s, the bands that were working the territory at the time pretty much all included saxophones. What Bill had originally intended was to document the New Orleans brass bands of the 1940s and Bunk Johnson talked him out of it. Rudi Blesh later came on with something, another project that was very much like that, where he brought some guys into the studio to try to do anachronistic musical styles. So even though brass band recordings were made in the mid-1940s, a functioning New Orleans brass band that was working the market, a contemporaneous brass band, was not recorded until 1951 by a couple of Harvard students who were playing hookey and came down to New Orleans, sort of blew off school, decided that they wanted to document New Orleans music instead: Alden Ashforth and David Wyckoff. And those Eureka recordings put us in touch with something that was going on for the better part of the 20th century at least.
NS: And what was the regular market that the Eureka Brass Band worked?
BR: Well, up until Preservation Hall in 1961, they’re playing for the needs of the communities of Tremé, Central City, Seventh Ward, they’re playing for benevolent associations, they’re playing for church dedications, they’re playing for social aid and pleasure clubs – in other words, they’re providing music in the street for things that go with the lifestyle of the New Orleans population, and again, this sort of lower and working people of New Orleans, who will take over the street with a second line and enjoy themselves that way, because that’s how the cope with some of the perennial problems they had to deal with – racism, poverty, crime, lack of opportunity. In New Orleans, you learn to live on the cheap, but you live well when you have these kind of cultural activities, and so what Preservation Hall ultimately did was bring tourists into this market, but prior to 1961, New Orleans brass bands played for New Orleans people and that was pretty much it.
NS: I want to follow up on this idea of the saxophone in New Orleans music. As far as we know, the saxophone starts to come in in a significant way in 1884, with the arrival of the Mexican Band. Is that right?
BR: Yeah. And if there’s something before that, we just haven’t found it yet, but certainly Encarnación Payen’s Mexican Military Band that came in for the World’s Cotton and Industrial Exposition (1884-85) in New Orleans brought in a number of saxophonists, and some of them stayed. There was a guy, Florencio Ramos, for example, who ended up playing with the Fishbein-William Syncopators, which gives you a little insight into the ethnic diversity of New Orleans jazz bands. Emile “Stale Bread” Lacombe was in that band, along with Charlie Fishbein the violinist, [and] Buzzy Williams, a ragtime piano player, an itinerant piano player from Birmingham who stayed in New Orleans . So saxophones are present in some of the most popular New Orleans bands throughout the 1920s. Sam Morgan’s band has them. Earl Fouché was an amazing saxophonist, as well as Andrew Morgan. They’re a little different – one’s Creole, one’s African American – but they worked together very well in Sam Morgan’s jazz band. And the Jones-Collins Astoria Hot 8 – same thing, they’re using saxophonists too. So the idea that Bunk Johnson implanted in Bill Russell’s mind, which is that you don’t put saxophones in the band because it spoils the traditional New Orleans front line of cornet or trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, is dead wrong! New Orleans guys liked to have that ax available and they knew what to do with it.
NS: I see we have these actualities here, these oral histories – Jim Robinson talking about what happened in Plaquemines Parish, and Isaiah Morgan. Do you have anything to say about these in the context of what we’re talking about?
BR: Well, Sam Morgan’s jazz band is often looked upon by hot record collectors, jazz critics, et cetera, as one polarity of New Orleans music in the 1920s – the hot side of the equation, you might say. But if we start looking into the background of that band, there’s really a very interesting story there. Three Morgan brothers – Ike and Sam and Andrew – all came from Bertrandville, which is on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, south of the city of New Orleans, very near the Belair plantation. On the west bank of the Mississippi River, Deer Range plantation was the home of Nathan Robinson, who became known as Jim Robinson, and his nephew, Sidney Brown, who’s also known as Jim Little. Robinson’s a trombonist, but he started out as a guitar player in Deer Range, and the bass player [was] Sidney Brown. These were all refugees from the hurricane of 1915, who came to New Orleans looking for work — in the case of Deer Range, because the plantation was wiped off the map by a crevasse in the Mississippi River, with the storm surge from that hurricane of 1915. They combined with New Orleans musicians from Tremé, Central City, and the Seventh Ward, and created arguably one of the most interesting New Orleans jazz bands of the 1920s. They recorded for Columbia in 1927. There’s a lot of debate about where that band fits into the continuum. People like Gunther Schuller have talked about them as an anachronism representing an old style, and in a way, because these were country musicians that created this band to some extent, that’s partially true. Max Harrison and Lawrence Gushee have taken a very different point of view and say, no, they’re kind of forward-looking, and the revival bands of the 1930s and ‘40s that we associate with Bunk Johnson and George Lewis are really very much like Sam Morgan’s jazz band. So in a way, this band’s a bit of an anomaly, but that’s what makes it so interesting.
NS: At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, we have Armand Piron . . .
BR: Armand Piron is a Creole violinist who comes from an illustrious musical family. His forebearers were organizers of the Lyre Music Society in the 1880s, they were involved with the first American Federation of Musicians black local, Local 242, which was really a Creole local, in 1902, and he’s someone who has significant training in Eurocentric music, but like so many other people, he has to conform to the changes in the market that Bolden symbolizes, and so he puts together a jazz band in the late ‘teens, and is among the earliest New Orleans bandleaders to record, originally in New York in 1923. Piron is often characterized as the leader of a society band. I think Rudi Blesh said they had no jazz connection whatsoever. But in his advertisements, he put the band forward as “one of the foremost jazz bands in the nation,” and what’s interesting to do is to take the oral history and compare it to the recordings. If you judge the Piron band strictly by the recordings they made in 1923 and ’24, they are kind of polite and are a society band. They were a big hit with debutante parties and whatnot for rich people in New Orleans, but if you go into the oral histories with some of the band members like Charlie Bocage and his brother Pete, what you find is, when they play in Tremé, they’re playing blues for black audiences. And so this was a band that didn’t record its get-down music, but in the field, when it was hired to do a gig, they were playing a lot of low-down blues, and they knew what to do with that material. Their chief improviser was a clarinetist named Lorenzo Tío, Jr., who everybody agreed was a master musician – an educator, but he was also a master improviser. So what you hear on the recordings, in other words, doesn’t tell the whole story of what this band was actually doing in the 1920s.
NS: Who were the Bocage brothers?
BR: The Bocage brothers were from Algiers, Louisiana, which is across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter in what’s called the West Bank – in other words, due south of the French Quarter. Their father was a boat builder and repairman. They are Creoles of mixed heritage, European and African heritage, and the dad had only enough money to get musical instruction for one of his sons. So the eldest son, Peter, was taught how to read music and became a “musicianer,” as Sidney Bechet would say – in other words, someone who was fully literate, could do theory, could do some arranging – but his brothers were also musicians. Pete was a violinist who became a cornet player with Piron, and his brother Charlie didn’t get that kind of musical training and was basically what would be called a “faker,” but he had an excellent ear. And he becomes the banjo player in Piron’s band, and also a vocalist. He had perfect pitch. So you’ve got two brothers working in the same band with different skill levels, coming out of the same family, but the economic circumstances of the dad dictated who would get the training and who didn’t. The fact is, it’s that merging of different skill levels that makes a band like Piron’s so interesting, because most New Orleans bands in this period and earlier, had at least one player who was fully musically literate, at least one faker who could not read “a note as big as a house,” as Peter Bocage said of Bolden, but could play hot, could play in an exciting way. And then you had “spellers,” who were people who could look at sheet music and get an idea of the chord progression, and then take off on that. Jim Robinson of the Morgan Band was a speller.
NS: Moving ahead, we have Jones and Collins Astoria Hot 8. Why are they in our show today, what’s their story for us?
BR: Lee Collins was a very interesting cornet and trumpet player. He ended up in Chicago, but while he was in New Orleans, he was very busy. Not many people know he’s one of the people who taught Louis Prima how to play trumpet. The Jones and Collins Astoria Hot 8 basically worked at a hotel on South Rampart Streetcalled the Astoria. When Louis Armstrong returned to New Orleans in 1931 to get out of Chicago fast, one step ahead of the mob, and did his gig at Suburban Gardens, he was staying at the Astoria. This in a way is one of the bookends of New Orleans jazz recordings of the 1920s, because it’s made in November 1929, it’s really the last recording made in this period. And so it’s symptomatic of the change that occurred over the course of the decade. But also interesting is the presence of a clarinetist named Sidney Arodin, best known perhaps as the composer of “Lazy River” with Hoagy Carmichael, but also a white clarinetist from Westwego, on the West Bank, who had worked surreptitiously with Lee Collins on Decatur Street throughout the 1920s – in other words, a racially mixed band playing in a segregated city below the radar. And apparently Lee Collins, who was the leader and the person in charge of this recording session, did not have as much faith in their clarinet player, whom they called Wiggles, as he would have liked. So he recruited Arodin, whom he knew well, to come in and do the session, which was held at the Italian Hall on Esplanade Avenue, which was basically a site of the preservation of Sicilian heritage in New Orleans, in which a racially mixed recording session took place with Jones and Collins Astoria Hot 8, with Sidney Arodin on clarinet. Like the Jelly Roll Morton recording session from July 1923 with New Orleans Rhythm Kings in Richmond, Indiana, which was a Klan state at the time, there were certain risks involved in having a racially mixed recording session. However, one of the things that we learn from this session is that these musicians were willing to take the risks in order to play with the people they wanted to play with, and for them, they all spoke the same musical language. So Sid Arodin, even though he was white in segregated New Orleans, could hook up with Jones and Collins Astoria Hot 8 and sound good, the same way that Morton could with New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. And one of the messages that I take from this is that there was a common musical language, loosely referred to as jazz or ragtime, that New Orleans musicians in general shared over the course of the 1920s, whether you were Creole, African American, White, Sicilian, Jewish, whatever – you spoke the same musical language if you came from New Orleans.
NS: Moving along, we have the Tuxedo Jazz Band . . .
BR: Well, this is another one of these didactic tales of the band that sort of starts out on the bottom of society and rises like jazz into the consciousness of the “better sort” of people, the people who lived in the Garden District, or on St. Charles Avenue in mansions, the social elite. In the period between 1915 and 1925, jazz rose from being bawdy music associated with black lifestyle to being the preferred music of rich white kids, young women who wanted to come out and at their debutante party have a jazz band because that’s what was fashionable. They would hound their parents until the parents said yes. The story of the Tuxedo Jazz Band — originally the affiliation, where the name Tuxedo came from, was the Tuxedo Dance Hall in Storyville, a semi-notorious red-light district that existed between 1897 and 1917; and on Franklin Street, you didn’t have brothels, you had dance halls. Before the kids who ended up in the brothels could screw up the courage to make that one-block walk, they usually did a little drinking and dancing first, and that’s what Franklin Street was all about. Storyville was about selling sex, but it was also about selling liquor. The Tuxedo Jazz Band, as it came to be known, was co-led by the trombonist William “Bébé” Ridgley and the cornetist Oscar Celestin. Ridgley fell in with a swell from uptown society named Sim Black, who hired the band to perform for his Boy Scout troop outings north of Lake Pontchartrain. And eventually what that led to was gigs in the homes of all of these socially prominent families. And what Sim Black suggested was, ‘Well, you call yourselves the Tuxedo, how ‘bout you actually start wearing tuxedos? Let’s see about getting you those kind of threads, and I’ll bet you could start pulling in some more money.’ Based on Ridgley’s oral history, we know that they were making about a dollar-fifty a night plus tips in the Tuxedo Dance Hall in 1915. By 1925 all the sidemen are making twenty-five dollars a night, which is considerably above what would have been the standard union wage at the time. And so the sort of social acceptance of jazz is through the appearance of the musicians and their conduct, because Ridgley talks about no drinking, no swearing, no spitting on the bandstand when you’re playing for rich white folks, and wearing your tuxedo. You want to keep it clean on all levels, and play well. On the other hand, there’s a falling-out in 1925 between Ridgley and Celestin for leadership of the band. Celestin starts booking the band surreptitiously behind Ridgley’s back, and so they end up with two Tuxedo Jazz Bands. This is why one becomes known as the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, Celestin’s. They both hire women on piano. In other words, wearing tuxedos did a lot to upgrade the visibility, the respectability, the legitimacy of these jazz bands, which had associations with vice and poverty, but the inclusion of women as piano players did a lot, too. Particularly a young lady from Bay St. Louis named Jeanette Salvant, who was very well trained on piano. She could read, but she could also improvise, and she was recruited for the band after 1925 and became a longtime member, eventually marrying the banjo player, Narvin Kimball. And so Jeanette’s story also tells us something different about how the idea that jazz could be respectable and acceptable to the white middle class occurs. The introduction of women who by no stretch of the imagination could be labeled a prostitute or vice-ridden in any way really dressed up these bands along with the tuxedos. So what we see with the Tuxedo Jazz Band is how black music from the bottom of society migrated in the market to become palatable to the entire market, including rich white people.
NS: And the other band also had a female piano player.
BR: Ridgly recruited a woman named Emma Barrett, who later on became a star at Preservation Hall — Sweet Emma, she was known as the Bell Girl. She always wore a Girl Scout beanie, that became one of her signatures. She didn’t trust banks, so she kept all the money she made in a sack which she kept with her at all times, and she adorned her ankles with some bells, so that she provided a little rhythm when she was playing solo piano. But she replaced a man. Manuel Manetta had been the pianist with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, and was on their first recordings, and then later on, the women take over. And of course, part of why I want to tell this story is because women are a part of the jazz story as well, and we can talk about Sweet Emma, or Jeanette Salvant Kimball, or someone like Lil Hardin, who is one of the first women to actually lead a recording session – not in New Orleans, but in Chicago. Because of the way she played piano – “like a man,” like Jelly Roll Morton, some people thought she brought a certain power with her when she entered a band situation, and because of her musical training at Fisk University – she was from Memphis – she was highly sought after by A & R men like Tommy Rockwell. In the New Orleans Wanderers session, which she does in 1926, she’s telling the New Orleans musicians what to do. So we simply want to introduce the idea that women are very much a part of this story too.
NS: We have a clip of her being interviewed by Bill Russell, where she tells the story of that session, right?
BR: Absolutely! And Bill has to stay out of her way, because Lil had a reputation as being quite powerful, quite strong. To some extent her husband, Louis Armstrong, recoiled because she got so involved in his career, but most jazz scholars who look at it say she did him some good. At a time when he needed a little direction, she provided it. She was probably the linchpin that brought him into Fletcher Henderson, got him out of the Creole Jazz Band where he was the number two guy, and got him into the big time in New York with Fletcher, and then got him back to Chicago and set him up with Okeh to do the Hot Fives, which are arguably the beginning of jazz’s migration into art music status.
NS: She tells a story about Armstrong and Freddie Keppard. Now Freddie Keppard, there’s a story about him passing up the chance to be the first jazz musician to record.
BR: Lawrence Gushee’s Pioneers of Jazz is probably the best source to look into the Victor Talking Machine company’s offer to the original Creole Orchestra to record. They would have been the first New Orleans band to record something like jazz, and I think Gushee makes a convincing argument that they were playing something like jazz, even though we don’t have a document to listen to. Keppard seems to have been reluctant for two reasons – one, he didn’t want anyone stealing his style. Technology and the kind of home-grown New Orleans approach to business and playing music, there was a lot of conflict there – cognitive dissonance, you might say. Most New Orleans guys just saw a recording session as a gig. They didn’t realize this is something that could generate revenue for them mechanically down the line, and Keppard’s concern that if he made a record, his style would be documented, and anyone could steal it, and then anyone who did steal it would get hired instead of him. So that was one reason, but Danny Barker in some of his oral history also suggests that there was another, maybe even more valid, reason, and that is that black musicians were being offered less money to do that work than their white counterparts were. And so I think that was probably also a reason why he passed up the opportunity.
NS: . . . I’m thinking about the Mardi Gras Indians, who predate jazz. What do we know about the early Mardi Gras Indians?
BR: Well, one of the reasons that the New Orleans environment can be claimed as exceptional or special, I think, is the existence of Congo Square, which is only a regulatory period of something that was a continuum that lasted much longer, and of course you’ve been very much into this with your own work. But probably from the 1720s on, African-based music and dance in ringshouts is occurring in New Orleans , and the city attempted to regulate it between 1817 and about 1856, and then of course it just filters back into the neighborhood. So if we want a contemporary example of that spirit tide, that thread, that takes New Orleans music all the way back to the west coast of Africa, Mardi Gras Indians are one of the best examples of that. They are a reification of something you can also find in the Gulf, Caribbean, Central America – not just the music they make, but the way they present themselves, what the rituals are about, the feathers, the beadwork, the ritual dancing and confrontation. This is very African, and the message we get from that is that whereas African culture – at least, the policy was to expunge it from the rest of the South because of the fear of slave rebellion, in New Orleans they attempted to regulate it instead, because they saw it as a social and cultural inevitability, which in retrospect it certainly proved to be. So when we look at the Mardi Gras Indian heritage, it’s connected to that wellspring from which jazz emerges, but it’s – you know, all New Orleans musical genres really are kind of porously related to each other, so categorizing them as jazz, or blues, or rhythm and blues, or to take Professor Longhair and put him on the right, take Jelly Roll Morton and put him on the left, does a disservice to the continuum, because the fact is, they’re all a part of the same basic musical thrust. And Mardi Gras Indians are one of the best examples we still have to refer to. And the resiliency of these tribes, which are about overcoming adversity and celebrating a spirit of resistance to oppression, whatever kind of oppression you might imagine, that’s still alive and well in the population of New Orleans. And you know, it’s fitting that if we talk about the sort of prehistory of jazz, if we’re gonna have an endpoint of that discussion, it has to take us back to the streets.
NS: I have one more question to ask you, and it’s about a particular interest of mine, of course, the “Spanish tinge.” First I’d like you to tell us a little bit – who were the Tíos? Who was the Tío family? What was their importance in New Orleans music?
BR: The Tíos were an immigrant family in the early 19th century, in the antebellum period. Thomas Tío is the first musician we know about, and basically these are immigrants from the Iberian peninsula who find wives from the Saint-Domingue diaspora and so African and European heritage comingling, but with a Hispanic Creole tinge, you might say. Luigi Gabici, an Italian concertmaster, was the teacher of Thomas Tío, who was a clarinetist. He ultimately flees, because in the 1850s, a lot of Creoles under American political domination found it was becoming increasingly difficult, so the Tío family goes to Central America, to the Veracruz-Tampico area, as part of the Eureka experiment, a kind of communal experiment. And after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the family returns. So they’re always perceived as Mexican, but in fact it’s a Hispanic family, resident in New Orleans, who leaves and then returns. But they did return more or less simultaneously with the Mexican Band that we previously talked about, so again, they’ve always been referred to as Mexican. But they became educators as well as performers. Papa Louis Tío, Lorenzo Tío Sr., Lorenzo Tío Jr., Louie Tío, who is Lorenzo Tío Jr,’s brother, he’s a guitarist. Lorenzo Tío Jr. of course is a clarinetist who taught people like Barney Bigard, Albert Nicholas, Jimmie Noone, Darnell Howard – pretty much the entire Creole school of New Orleans clarinet playing can be traced back to Tío, there are very few exceptions. The Tío family were important, not only as performers in crucial stages of the development of New Orleans music, before jazz and during jazz, but as educators as well. They really did train a lot of people. And this is a very good example of how you get these musical dynasties operating – not committed to any one genre, but committed to making music no matter what’s going on with the market.
NS: Jelly Roll Morton of course in his famous interview talks about the “Spanish tinge,” and specifically cites “New Orleans Blues” as an example, but there are any number of his tunes that might also suffice, and there are other tunes in the repertoire.
BR: If you go to the streets, to the second lines, and you hear brass band drummers, they’re going to be playing clave-based, cinquillo, tresillo. You go to the Mardi Gras Indians, you’re gonna be hearing similar rhythmic patterns. In the recorded work of New Orleans jazz artists from the 1920s on, you’re gonna hear habanera clave, some similar patterns, although prior to 1926 they tend to be kind of subtle because you’re not getting the full benefit of the drum set being recorded because of acoustical recording technology having some limits. But this has been ever-present in New Orleans music, and of course a lot of people go, ah, well, it’s the arrival of the Mexican Band that brings these Cuban rhythms by way of Mexico. But in the 1880s, even before the arrival of Payen’s band, we see people like C. Maduell, we see Cuban composers being published in New Orleans sheet music. The danza-danzón craze of the late 1880s and the 1890s, Junius Hart’s series, all that is present and really tells us that there is an abiding relationship between Central America, Cuba, and New Orleans as part of the Gulf world that is existing throughout the entire 19th century, and it influences all aspects of New Orleans music. Stories of the Onward Brass Band going with the Ninth Immunes to Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish American War. It’s very compelling, and people want to know, what transpired, and what kind of musical exchange? Well, we don’t know. But that would have been just a little lagniappe, because that connection was already well established from the beginning of the 19th century.
NS: And speaking of Spanish tinge, the word lagniappe itself . . .
BR: Yeah! And Creole! And, you know, it’s like, people like to think of New Orleans culture as francophone and French, but you cannot subtract the impact of Hispanic and Latino elements in New Orleans culture in its formative stages and all through. This is an important oversight, I think, that needs to be addressed. A lot of times, for example, we talk about “Spanish tinge” as a kind of abstraction that we can go to musicologically, but let’s not forget about people like Martin Abraham (also known as Chink Martin), or the Santiago brothers, or all the numerous Latino and Hispanic players who made the New Orleans jazz idiom. In other words, they brought some ethnic baggage into it, but they also made New Orleans vernacular culture, and someone like Manuel Perez, for example, an educator and a performer, he’s a jazz guy. Like the Bocages, he has to migrate into it when the market shifts, but when we talk about the Spanish tinge, or the Latin tinge, we want to think about those musical, rhythmic elements, but we also want to respect the Latino / Hispanic musicians who were also engaged in creating a new form of music in New Orleans, the jazz form. Luis Russell, for example, from (although it was when he was born). He becomes extremely influential in representing what New Orleans swing-era music is all about. So there are lots of ways of interpreting what the implications of the Latin tinge are.
NS: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we sign off?
BR: I just want to encourage everybody to continue to follow what’s going on with New Orleans music, because we’ve been talking about the history, been talking about the 1920s. It certainly didn’t end there. And, you know, we want people to respect the ’20s because it’s been a blind spot, but we also want people to buy into what’s happening today in New Orleans music. Whatever storm you’re talking about, whether it’s 1915 or 1965 or Katrina in 2005, nothing has been able to disrupt the continuity of New Orleans culture and New Orleans music, as a music made by everyday people to live right in this environment, and you know, I’ve always felt that if only three people had come back after Hurricane Katrina, two of ‘em would have been musicians, and one of ‘em would have been a photographer.
NS: Bruce Raeburn, thank you very much for being a guest on Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep today.
BR: Thanks, Ned.