NOLA studio and sound nerd help launch rock and roll era

Behind every great recording and concert, there’s a sound nerd making sure you hear what you’re supposed to hear.  In the case of Cosimo Matassa, what people heard was the beginnings of rock and roll.

Starting with “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, through “The Fat Man,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Tutti Fruti, “Rockin’ Pneumonia,”  “I Hear You Knockin,” and great many more, Matassa ensured the fidelity and sound quality of these early R&B and rock and roll hits.

Cosimo's recording career started out with using primitive equipment located in the back of an appliance and music shop.
Cosimo’s recording career started out with using primitive equipment located in the back of an appliance and music shop.

In 1945 at the tender age of 19, Cosimo opened an appliance store with a partner in New Orleans, hoping to take advantage of the pent up demand for home conveniences and the many new households that were forming after the war. The store also sold records.

His partner suggested they make recordings for their customers. Cosimo, being the more technical of the two, took on the task of getting that business going.  As a former Tulane chemistry major, he was your classic nerd.  But having spent a few years working with his Dad’s jukebox business, repairing the equipment and swapping out 78 rpm records, he was a nerd with an ear for music.

The J&M Music Shop was at the right place at the right time on the corner of Dumaine and Rampart, sitting between the French Quarter and the Fauberg Treme’ neighborhood – a center of African-American and Creole culture and home to many New Orleans musicians.

After World War II, people were ready to have fun.  And the music, particularly from a new generation of black New Orleans musicians raised on jazz, swing and big band music, was ready to make the party happen.

Fats Domino (left) and Dave Bartholomew generated a mountain of hits, all recorded from studios run by Cosimo Matassa.
Fats Domino (left) and Dave Bartholomew generated a mountain of hits, all recorded from studios run by Cosimo Matassa.

The studio’s success started with Roy Brown, who had just returned to New Orleans with his Gospel-trained voice and was performing at the famous Dew Drop Inn. It was in the back of the J&M in 1947 that Brown recorded the jump blues song, Good Rockin’ Tonight, a hit that can arguably be considered one of the first Rock and Roll songs.  Just ask Elvis.

Things really took off when horn player and band leader Dave Bartholomew started using the studio for his work as a musician, arranger and talent scout for Imperial Records. Through Bartholomew, early R&B greats like Smiley Lewis, Frankie Ford and Tommy Ridgley would record at the studio. But the star who solidifies the studio’s listing as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame landmark is Antoine “Fats” Domino.  Through a good chunk of the 50’s, Domino, with able assistance from Bartholomew and Matassa, released a series of R&B hits, finally crossing over into the pop charts with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955.  All of the Fats’ recordings as well as hundreds of other R&B and early rock and roll gems were recorded in that little studio.

Cosimo Matassa tat his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

By 1956, Matassa was no longer selling appliances and had moved his studio to larger digs on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. Like many successful studios, Matassa’s operation benefitted from a talented group of studio musicians, usually organized by Bartholomew but also by the emerging talent, Allen Toussaint. These musicians included Earl Palmer on drums, Alvin “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen on sax, Frank Fields on bass, Huey Smith on piano and a large rotating cast of others.  The studio sound was so synonymous with success that labels, like Ace, Atlantic, Chess, Savoy, RCA Victor, Imperial and Specialty would send their artists to New Orleans to capture the magic.

Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Long Tall Sally and others at J&M studio.
Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Long Tall Sally and others at J&M studio.

One of the more legendary stories is how Richard Penniman found his mojo at the Dew Drop Inn during a recording break, which led to his breakout hit, Tutti Frutti backed up by the J&M musicians and recorded by Matassa. It’s almost wearying to list the musicians that recorded there, but I’ll add Mac Rebennak (before he became known as Dr. John), Art and Aaron Neville, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey to this amazing list.

Cosimo Matassa died in September (2014) at 88.  He was generous with his time, so it’s easy to find interviews of him, including one of my favorites.  He modestly takes little credit for the sounds he recorded. But he maintains that the limitations of the early technology were a benefit, requiring musicians to play a song all together from beginning to end, just like a live performance.  His job, he would say, was to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Obviously, there was more to it than that because all the musicians who worked with him loved this unassuming nerdy son of Sicilian immigrants. His elegance was in his simplicity.  He took care of the technical part, creating an environment where craftsmanship and creativity could merge.

Cosimo Matassa at the controls in Sea-Saint Studios, a studio founded by Allen Toussaint who began his career at J&M Studio. Photo by The Times-Picayune.

“To have a job where you can listen to music all day.  Great way to make a living.  Lot of great New Orleans musicians made me look good.”

Needless to say, I’ll be hammering my collection of Matassa recordings on my next show this Monday, 10 a.m. to noon, KAOS, 89.3 FM. Streaming at www.kaosradio.org.

Going down to St. James Infirmary has been a long trip

“I went down to St. James Infirmary.”

Now that’s an oft taken journey given that song has been a jazz and blues standard since its first recording roughly 90 years ago. One website boasts 121 recorded versions and I’d wager the list is not comprehensive.

St. James Infirmary is a standard particularly for Dixieland jazz bands like the one lead by Sammy Duncan who played in Atlanta regularly when I was a teenager.

As a folk song, St. James Infirmary’s history goes back before the dawn of recording studios. But my history with it started as a teenager when my Dad would take me to see Sammy Duncan, a trumpeter in Atlanta whose band played St. James. It stands as the first song I ever successfully requested at a live music show.

For those unfamiliar, the song is about a man who, upon seeing his dead lover, contemplates his own mortality, including planning his own funeral and making sure he’s buried with a $20 gold piece on his watch chain. A heady story for a hormonal teenager with a coin collection.

The song is often associated with New Orleans perhaps because Louis Armstrong was one of the first to record it (December 1928) and because its often played by New Orleans musicians. However, there is no proven connection to New Orleans where there has never been a St. James Infirmary. In fact, its not clear where St. James Infirmary or Old Joe’s Bar (where the song finds the narrator of the story) are located.

Louis Armstrong may have been the first to record the song as “St. James Infirmary,” but it was earlier recorded as “Gambler’s Blues”

Music lovers and researchers are clearly fascinated by St. James. You’ll find a lot of information on the topic on the web, including two blogs. I’d recommend Robert Harwood’s site which supports his book “I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.”

The short story is the song is believed to have descended from an 18th Century Irish song “The Unfortunate Rake,” about a dying man who laments his life choices, including an affair where he acquired a venereal disease. It’s a cautionary tale of wasted youth– a theme carried out in songs and stories throughout the world.  And according to Harwood, it is not the basis for St. James Infirmary–even though its the explanation you’ll find on Wikipedia.

For Harwood, the song is clearly a product of the “folk” tradition or more accurately, the minstrel tradition that was active at the time. His smoking gun is called “Gambler’s Blues,” first recorded in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra (cool name) and also printed in Carl Sandburg’s “American Songbag” from 1927. This song is very similar to the Armstrong version recorded a year later.

Robert Harwood’s book “I went down to St. James Infirmary” and his blog dive deeply into song’s lineage and comes up with probably as much ambiguity as answers.

One of the more fascinating mysteries of the song is how the singer transitions from witnessing his dead lover to contemplating his own funeral. The phrase from the Armstrong version is:  “Let her go, let her go, God bless her, wherever she may be. She can look this wide world all over, but she’ll never find a sweet man like me.”

The egotistical phrase was enough to garner a wonderful rant from Sarah Vowell who coincidentally seemed to have connected to the song at about the same age as I did. “The narrator of this song is curiously so stuck up that he feels sorry for his loved one, not because she won’t be doing any more breathing, but because she just lost the grace of his presence. It’s so petty. And so human.

The phrase is not in Gambler’s Blues. According to Harwood, you have to dig back further to a 1909 songbook to find a nearly identical phrase.  “She’s Gone, Let Her Go” is sung by a jilted lover which makes the snide comment a bit more appropriate.  Afterall, its okay to be bitter when your true love just stomped on your heart, right?

So St. James, like many other songs with folk origins, is a cut-and-paste mashup, notes journalist Rob Walker, author of Letters from New Orleans and who describes himself as a St.James obsessive. “Instead of trying to reconcile two disparate piece of cultural material, somebody decided to simply juxtapose them, and let a new meaning, however unsettling or strange or ambiguous, to emerge.”

Though it was opportunistically copywritten by Irving Mills, under the pseudonym Joe Primrose, the song really belongs to musicians and music lovers and should continue to evolve and change–as the many recordings since have demonstrated.  I like the fact the song can be interpreted so many different ways.  I’ll be playing a few those on my next show.

To get you warmed up, here’s James Booker’s version and a New Orleans created and inspired animation using an upbeat remix of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band version. Lots of inside jokes in the animation, including James Booker (with the star patch on his eye) and Morgus and his crew consoling the bereaved lover at Charity (instead of St. James) Hospital.

Music fans must tolerate occasional misfires

Like players preparing for the big game, Bob and I were ready to boogie to Rebirth Brass Band last night.  Even though we long ago qualified for our AARP memberships, we decided to pass on the 7 p.m. show and go for the late show at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, even if it meant driving back to Olympia in the wee hours of the morning.

We had made a point to take naps in the afternoon and I had a taken the rare step of drinking a cup of caffeinated coffee.  What we hadn’t counted on was an early winter storm in Bend Oregon where the band had played the night before.

As we stared dumbfounded at the notice on the door saying the show was cancelled, we couldn’t help but wonder why we bothered.  Sometimes misfires happen. Some times you have to put up with long lines and waits, uncomfortable seats and too much cold or heat or other types of discomfort.  But we do it because live music is worth it.

So last night was a bit of a bust. We ended up catching a few numbers by a jazz duo with the radio unfriendly name of Suffering Fuckhead at the Sea Monster in Wallingford. They were okay but it wasn’t what we were looking for and we ended up getting home right at midnight, about two or three hours sooner than expected.

So since I’m a bit ragged from spending long hours enjoying the Olympia Film Festival and a bit bummed about last night’s letdown, I’m going to finish this week’s blog with a few photos and one video of when the effort was worth it.  And Monday’s Gumbo YaYa show will include an hour of danceable brass band music. . .because I deserve it.

Glen David Andrews singing at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley as part of the "Treme Tour" a couple years back.
Glen David Andrews singing at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley as part of the “Treme Tour” a couple years back.
Original Rebirth Brass Band member Kermit Ruffins joined Rebirth at the Jazz Fest a few years back.
Original Rebirth Brass Band member Kermit Ruffins joined Rebirth at the Jazz Fest a few years back.
Olympia brass band, Artesian Rumble Arkestra, regularly plays Honkfest which is now timed with the Fremont Festival.
Olympia brass band, Artesian Rumble Arkestra, regularly plays Honkfest which is now timed with the Fremont Festival.
This concert was easy to enjoy cause it was held in Olympia at the historic Capitol Theater. More shows there would be great.
This Mudhoney concert was easy to enjoy cause it was held in Olympia at the historic Capitol Theater. More shows there would be great.

The video below is a short excerpt of Rebirth playing at their home base, Maple Leaf Bar, a couple years back. Sorry for the poor video and sound quality but you get the idea.

Tipitina’s keeps the legacy alive while contributing to the future

Professor Longhair may have memorialized the corner of Rampart and Dumaine in “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” but his memory and spirit live on at a different street corner, Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, in a music venue that bears the name of another of his classics, “Tipitina.”

A bust of Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd) sculpted by Coco Robicheaux stands guard at the entrance of the New Orleans music venue that bears the name of his song Tipitina. – Photo by Alex Brandon / Times-Picayune archive

Rampart and Dumaine is the original location of J&M Studios, run by Cosimo Matassa. The location is recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a landmark site and it’s a laundromat – with mixed but generally positive Internet reviews.

Tipitina’s, on the other hand, is a great example of how cool stuff can happen out of love for music and doing the right thing. Just as Preservation Hall is dedicated to keeping New Orleans jazz alive, Tipitina’s was conceived with the notion of honoring the city’s early R&B and Rock ‘n Roll legacy.

When the venue opened in 1977, it’s goal was to provide a public performance space for aging and almost forgotten R&B and Blues artists like Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd), Jessie Hill, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and others. Tips was born from an act of love by a group of investors who collectively and affectionately became known as the “fabulous fo’teen.”

Neville Brothers in front of the Longhair mural at Tipitina’s. Photo by Leon Morris from the WWOZ website.  WWOZ’s early years were spent located above Tip’s in the beer storage room.

The venue also provided a platform for other local musicians, such as the Radiators, Little Queenie and the Percolators, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Continental Drifters and the Neville Brothers.

Tipitina’s in those earlier years was quite a bit different than it is today.  Music author Jay Mazza described a summer show this way:  “Sometimes it was so humid in the place that the clouds of smoke seemed to be seeded with water.  The smoke hung low in the room. Both bands and patrons alike were soaked to the bone within minutes. A trick learned early on was to bring extra shirts for changing between sets. . . Still everyone loved the place . . there always has been an amazing vibe associated with Tipitina’s.”

While the venue provided many great musical moments in the late 70s and early 80s, it struggled financially and eventually shuttered for about a year and a half. When it reopened in 1986, a major renovation made it far more attractive for musicians and their patrons. The warehouse-like building was opened up, creating a balcony level with higher ceilings, better circulation, improved bathrooms, and air conditioning.

Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina's the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.
Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina’s the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.

This is a nice example of how some key changes could make an Olympia venue more attractive.

Tipitina’s also kicked up their bookings, continuing to stage local artists but adding national and international acts to the mix, building a worldwide reputation.

To get an idea of the artists who have performed at Tipitina’s, check out its index of musicians, some of whom are honored with additional recognition on the sidewalk outside: the New Orleans Walk of Fame.

Tipitina’s honors New Orleans musical legacy inside and outside with its Walk of Fame.

Another cool feature of Tipitina’s is its Foundation. It’s not every place where you can rock out to amazing music, with the understanding that profits go to support the very music scene you’re enjoying.  The Foundation purchases instruments for Louisiana schools, provides ongoing youth music workshops, offers an after school jazz and digital recording program under the artistic direction of Donald Harrison, Jr. and provides a a statewide network of workforce development and job skills training centers for musicians, filmmakers and other media professionals.

Jazz artist Donald Harrison, Jr. heads up the Tipitina’s internship program.

And you never know what you’ll find at Tips. An Olympia friend told me about how she and her partner on a NOLA visit wandered into the uptown bar on a late Sunday afternoon, ordered a beer and found themselves drawn into a Cajun Fais Do Do.

So next trip to NOLA, put Tips on your list. Until then, you can catch many of the musicians who perform there on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon on your community radio station, KAOS.

Brass Bands Make You Move Your Body

Sorry if you missed my interview of Rebirth Brass Band founder and sousaphone player Phil Frazier on the November 3 Gumbo YaYa show. Rebirth comes out to the Northwest next week, playing in Seattle on November 13 and Portland on November 14. Also, WWOZ is doing its pledge drive this week.  Here’s why its important to support community radio.

Live music has the potential to freeze time for me–particularly cool new music. Keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be unique to anyone else. Just to me.

So when I stumbled into the Jazz Tent at my first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest in 2006, I was oblivious that brass bands had undergone a major makeover. I was a couple decades behind the times. Having grown up around Dixieland jazz and watching brass bands at Mardis Gras in the 60’s, I wasn’t expecting the addition of funk, rock and R&B that the New Orleans Nightcrawlers were throwing at me from the stage. The music was unexpected, danceable and down right entertaining.  I can pretty much trace my radio show and this blog to that moment in the jazz tent.

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Many New Orleans brass bands blend tradition with newer styles to keep the music fresh and unique.

Returning home with their live album hot in my hand, I started learning more about this music which seems to have one toe in tradition and the rest of its toes in hip hop, bepop, funk, and rock.

When I got back to New Orleans later in the year, I made a point to catch Rebirth Brass Band at their home base, the Maple Leaf — which for this brass band band fan is the equivalent of a devout Catholic getting to meet the Pope in the Vatican.

I wish I could tell you first hand how this music has transformed over the years. But I wasn’t there. I can tell you that an important part of it was keeping the brass band tradition alive. Mentors like Danny Barker who formed the Fairview Baptist Marching Band were key. From that youth band, a new generation of musicians, schooled in the tradition, but open to other styles, rose up the ranks.

What do I like about this music? Just about everything.

Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown New Orleans every Tuesday night except when the band tours..
Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown New Orleans every Tuesday night except when the band tours..

But I’ll use Rebirth’s “What Goes Around Comes Around” from their grammy-winning CD as an example.  Vincent Broussard on tenor sax applies a simple but catchy melody. Then the drummers kick in, keeping a beat but also playing around the beat in a totally engaging way. Founding band member Phil Frazier enters with the bass line on sousaphone while the other horns add depth. Broussard then takes the melody to new territory on another solo before the harmonizing horns kick in with a full breath rendition of the original melody, and I feel it right in my chest, a total uplift. There’s a give and take between the sax and the horns with the trumpet and trombone doing their own solo turns before a sort of controlled chaos breaks loose. At around the 4:20 mark, with about minute left, the band members begin to sing or sort of chant: “What goes around comes around in its time. We’re going to dance around, smoke a bong and get on down.”

Okay, so its party music. Music that definitely works best performed live, with a favorite libation nearby and some room to boogie. In fact, brass bands are designed to move, to march in parades, lead second lines and get people dancing wherever they are.

A couple of years ago, while waiting in line to eat lunch at Casamento’s, I got into a discussion with the guy ahead of me about The Soul Rebels who had just put out “Unlock Your Mind” that year. He was quite insistent that the only way to hear a New Orleans brass band is at their home base, which for the Rebels is Les Bon Temps Roule on Thursday nights. Given that the guy talking was David Simon, creator of Treme who has filmed a number of brass bands including the Rebels in action, I took it as sound advice.  And its true. While I’ve always enjoyed catching Rebirth wherever I can (the band plays the Tractor in Ballard on November 13), I’ve had the best times with them at the Maple Leaf.

Baby Boyz at Jazz Fest. No longer the province of  old men, brass bands provide a path for young musicians to gain professional experience
Baby Boyz at Jazz Fest. No longer the province of old men, brass bands provide a path for young musicians to gain professional experience

Here’s some simple tips for catching a brass band in New Orleans. Do what Simon says, catch them on their home turf if possible. Or catch them leading a second line parade (schedule). If you catch them at a club, be ready to stay up late cause if you’re lucky, the show will start by 11 p.m. Be prepared for a crowd and know that many bars still allow indoor smoking. Finally, if you’re worried about your ears, bring some ear plugs. You’ll still be able to hear them well.

You can also hear them well on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon on KAOS, 89.3 FM Olympia