Here’s a glimpse into New Orleans country music scene

Two June CD releases are burnishing the city’s country music reputation and you’ll hear tracks from both in today’s show. Start it rolling and then learn more about Shawn Williams and Gal Holiday.

shawn williamsShawn Williams’ second album Motel Livin’ is a gripping compendium of lyrical songs that leave me a bit unnerved but fully entertained.  Her voice haunts and I’m going to enjoy digging deeper into this new release.  I play “Best of Me” and later “Buried Alive.”

More upbeat and more battle worn is Gal Holiday and her Honky Tonk Revue with the new release Lost & Found. Almost a decade before The Deslondes formed, Gal Holiday (aka Vanessa Niemann) broke ground on the new wave of country in New Orleans. And true to her band’s name, you can dance to her music. I play “Found Myself Instead” and “Desert Disco.”

While Luke Winslow-King’s music has been difficult to describe, I’ve never thought of it as country until his latest release Blue Mesa. You can listen to his “After the Rain” and decide for yourself.

To keep the roots vibe rolling, I follow these sets up with The Big Dixie Swingers with “I Haven’t Got a Pot,” Eric Lindell with a live version of “Bayou Country” and The Radiators doing “Straight Eight.”  Also, an encore performance of Albanie Falletta who charmed the smart attendees of her concert at Traditions Cafe in Olympia Sunday night.

Jazz sets follow and if you’re patient enough I finish with Dash Rip Rock’s “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot” in honor of the State of Oklahoma adopting a medical cannabis initiative this week.

Oh and I almost forgot, while digging through the KAOS studio’s vinyl vault I found Danny Barker’s 1988 release Save the Bones  and I played his version of “St. James Infirmary.” Struck by his riffing on the traditional lyrics description of his funeral, I thought about Fred Johnson’s  description of how Danny Barker’s traditional funeral came about that I recorded in October of 2017 in his office in New Orleans.  You’ll get to hear the story as well on this show.

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Danny Barker saved and challenged traditional NOLA jazz

This week’s show is about how one musician and his funeral managed to reinvigorate brass band music in New Orleans, encouraging musicians to both challenge and preserve the tradition.

Danny Barker was a little young when the first generation of New Orleans jazz musicians  started performing. Born in 1909 to a family of musicians, he grew up listening to Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and the other greats.

And like they did, he moved away from New Orleans to seek his fame and fortune as a musician. Playing primarily guitar and banjo but also other instruments, Barker went to New York and then later California playing with a wide range of musicians, including Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon, and Charlie Parker.

dannyHe partnered with his wife Blue Lu Barker and penned songs like “Don’t You Feel My Leg” and they toured and traveled the world.  But when it was time to slow down, they moved back to New Orleans where he took a post as a museum curator, He also continued to perform, often at the Palm Court Cafe immortalized by his classic “Palm Court Strut.”

But it was in fulfilling a request by his pastor and later his very own funeral that would contribute to the city’s ability to keep the jazz tradition alive.

I’ve already written about his role in reinvigorating the New Orleans brass band scene and you will hear a little bit about that and the related  music in today’s show.  But if you keep listening to the show, you will also hear how Danny Barker’s funeral helped set in motion an organization that takes great pride in the New Orleans community’s African and jazz heritage.

bmolToday’s show includes excerpts of an interview with Fred Johnson, co-founder of the Black Men of Labor telling the story about how Danny Barker’s disdain for how jazz funerals were being conducted cause him and musician Gregg Stafford to organize a proper jazz funeral for their hero.  And then how that experience then led them to create the social aid and pleasure club Black Men of Labor.

I hope you enjoy the show.

New Orleans blues a mix of mystery and minstrel

If you’re a sucker for a good mystery like I am, then you might appreciate the story of Kid Stormy Weather. That is, what little of the story we know. (Here’s the podcast of my radio show that goes with this story or click the player below.)

We know that Edmond Joseph, recorded two songs on October 17, 1935 with Vocalion records, apparently at a mobile recording unit in Jackson Mississippi.  Those two songs are the only tangible evidence of Kid Stormy Weather’s musical career. The rest is more legend than record.

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Professor Longhair apparently cited Kid Stormy Weather as an influence on his piano style

Professor Longhair apparently cited the barrelhouse pianist as an influence. Henry Roeland Boyd was 17 years old in 1935, just the right impressionable age to be sneaking into the South Rampart honky-tonks that Kid Stormy Weather allegedly inhabited. But we just don’t know where the “Kid” came from, when he died or how he became an influence on the unique, fluid piano style of Professor Longhair.

In the two sides he recorded, “Short Hair Blues” and “Bread and Water Blues,” his quick hands are on display but its also apparent that the recording unit only captured a taste of his talent. Unless there is an oral history out there not available on the Internet,  Edmond “Kid Stormy Weather” Joseph’s story may very well be lost to history.

We know more about other New Orleans blues artists though. Two that I’ll be focusing on with this week’s show (along with Kid Stormy Weather) are performers who performed early in their careers in minstrel shows.

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Lizzie Miles

While Lizzie Miles, born Elizabeth Mary Landreaux, didn’t think of herself as a blues singer, her early recordings were most definitely in that genre. Born in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans in 1895, she initially worked with jazz pioneers King Oliver, Kid Ory and Bunk Johnson before they had migrated to Chicago. She then toured with minstrel shows through the south eventually performing in Chicago, and Europe and recording with Jelly Roll Morton in New York. And like many New Orleans musicians, she found her way home near the end of her life, dying in 1963. I’ll be playing “I Hate a Man Like You” on this week’s show.

Creole George Guesnon played banjo and guitar and was prolific song writer. .  He got his first big break playing with Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra. The next year, he replaced Danny Barker in Willie Pajaud’s orchestra. He performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and found his way to New York, recording with Decca and living briefly with Jelly Roll Morton. He served with the Merchant Marines during World War II and then returned to New Orleans performing with Kid Thomas and showing up regularly at the new performance space at the time, Preservation Hall. He died in 1968 and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. I’ll be playing his “Graveyard Love Blues” on this week’s show. Hope you can join me.

New Orleans jazz funerals mediate the relationship between the living and the dead

The New Orleans jazz funeral embodies a rich heritage that serves as another reminder of the significance of brass band music and its ability to draw people together in a collective experience. (Podcast of the show that goes with post.)

As I prepare for my All Souls Day show this Monday, I’m naturally drawn to thinking about this tradition. While I’ve never had the occasion to witness a jazz funeral, my sense is my life is richer by its very existence.

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Danny Barker on guitar performing with his wife Lu.

I’ve told the story about Danny Barker and how he taught the brass band tradition to a new generation of musicians who would later found and inspire a renaissance in New Orleans music with brass bands like the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, Soul Rebels and Hot 8.  A deeper story is how Danny Barker’s death created a resolve to preserve jazz traditions, ensuring a creative tension between the old and new that lives on today.

By the end of his life, Barker had become unhappy with the conduct of some of the younger brass bands. With a musical career that dated back to playing on the streets of New Orleans in the 1920s, Barker felt the jazz funeral in particular had strayed from its origins with improperly dressed musicians, inappropriately timed songs and undignified behavior. He had made it clear to his wife that he did not want a jazz funeral.

Gregg Stafford understood his former mentor’s concerns and as an experienced trumpeter and band leader, he believed he could ensure that Barker’s jazz funeral could be done right. With the help of Fred Johnson, who had been a spy boy with the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and the blessing of Barker’s family, he set out to do it.

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Olympia Brass Band with Grand Marshall performing at Adolphe Alexander Jr. funeral – Photo from Hogan Jazz Archive.

On March 17, 1993,  the members of the band assembled three blocks from St. Raymond’s Catholic Church on Paris Avenue. Every band member was dressed in black shoes, an ironed white shirt, black tie, black coat and matching cap. As they approached the church playing “Just a Little While to Stay Here,” Stafford knew that the minister and congregation in the church could hear them approach.

The band lined up outside the church waiting for Barker to be taken out with a Grand Marshall in the lead, stepping proudly and precisely to the beat.  The band played “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” As called for by tradition, the band played dirges all the way to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. Fred Johnson and other members of the Tambourine and Fan marching club walked deliberately behind the hearse, creating the right tone and atmosphere.  No buck jumping was seen at this stage in the funeral

Once the body was interred, the band left the cemetery with the drummer switching from the somber tom tom to the snappier snare drum.  And then the livelier part of the parade began.

Matt Skakeeny, author of Roll with It – Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans describes the relevance of brass bands and funerals in this way:

The music organizes the collective suffering of those at the funeral and the collective pleasure that they anticipate in the shift to up-tempo music.  .  . The instruments of the brass band do not only communicate with the dead; they mediate the relationship between the living and the dead. (Page 167)

bmol_article2The response to this return to tradition was felt so strongly by Gregg Stafford and Fred Johnson that they formed the social and activist club Black Men of Labor to “pay tribute to the contributions of African American men in the work place while promoting and preserving Traditional Jazz Music.”

Please join me Monday (the recording is here) where I’ll feature traditional music from jazz funerals on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.

I pulled the description of the Barker funeral from an interview of Gregg Stafford and Fred Johnson contained in the book Talk that Music Talk- Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Way.   Thank you Becky for the loan of this amazing book.

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

Focus on Tradition and Youth Ignites a Musical Rebirth

It’s not every retirement that results in a musical revitalization. But that’s what happened when veteran jazz performers Danny and Blue Lu Barker returned to New Orleans in 1965.

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Louise “Blue Lu” and Danny Barker were life partners who performed together as an act. One of their most famous numbers was Don’t You Feel My Leg

I suspect they sought a slower pace after 35 years of performing with Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and a long list of other jazz notables. But retirement for Danny Barker didn’t mean doing nothing.

Danny went to work as an assistant curator for the New Orleans Jazz Museum– gone now but the collection resides in the Old U.S. Mint building.  He also continued his reputation for performing and writing bawdy songs like the one that made him and Blue Lu famous, Don’t You Feel My Leg.

Danny continued to perform with his guitar and banjo regularly around town, even maintaining a weekly spot with the band at the Palm Court Jazz Café until near his death in 1994.   (The gig inspired his song Palm Court Strut. See it performed at Seattle’s Fremont Solstice Parade.)

But it was volunteer work organizing a youth band for his 7th Ward neighborhood church at the request of his pastor that would leave a lasting impact on New Orleans music.

When Barker began recruiting young musicians for the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band in 1970, brass bands were the province of old men. There was some concern whether the tradition would get carried forward. Fortunately, there were plenty of young musicians developing through the public school’s music system. All they needed was some guidance.

Leroy Jones, who lived only an Archie Manning pass away from the church, was one of the first to get recruited. Danny found the future member of the New Orleans Jazz Hall of Fame practicing in his parent’s garage. Years later, Jones described his initial impressions of Barker this way to Offbeat Magazine:

“We didn’t really know who Danny was in terms of his status. I just thought he was a cool guy. He wore a nice hat and these slick, creased pants and Stacy Adams shoes. He had a cool, hip walk. He was the epitome of coolness. These guys today have nothing on Danny Barker.” (Hear Leroy Jones describe his meeting with Barker on this WWOZ podcast.)

The list of band members that Barker assembled makes it clear he had eye for talent because it reads like a “whose who” of New Orleans musicians: Wynton Marsalis, Gregg Stafford, Herlin Riley, Michael White, Lucien Barbarin, Kirk Joseph, Alton “Big Al” Carson,  and Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, among others.

The Fairview Band played for about four years before Barker had to quit the project because of concerns raised by the local music union. But the band continued, evolving into the Hurricane Brass Band and then Tornado Brass Band–names suggestive of the power produced by these young lungs.

use of union issues, Danny Barker had to stop leading the church band which was renamed Hurricane Brass Band. Here the young band members are marching on St. Denis toward the church.

Three of the band members, Gregory Davis, Kirk Joseph, and Kevin Harris, would form the the Dirty Dozen Brass Band which captured the attention of music lovers all over the world by blending traditional brass sounds with funk, bepop and R&B.  The band was a major inspiration for the founding members of the Rebirth Brass Band and other brass bands that followed. Without Danny Barker’s efforts with Fairview, the brass band scene in New Orleans would not be as robust as it is today.

Also, many of the Fairview band members such as Jones, Stafford and White, would carry on the tradition of New Orleans jazz, helping to sustain and grow the city’s reputation as the birthplace of jazz.

In reading the many articles about the Fairview Brass Band and Barker’s influence (a good example), I’m struck by how a string musician could affect so dramatically brass band music. He did it by teaching these young players the history and tradition of jazz. particularly New Orleans jazz. He demonstrated the importance of showing up on time, dressing appropriately and being prepared to perform–what workforce professionals now call the “soft skills.” In short, he taught kids who had musical talent how to be professional musicians.

You’ll hear some of Danny’s proteges in this week’s edition of Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  See you on the radio.