Nothing like putting up a new calendar to feel the passage of time. Was 2018 a good year? What about 2019? Welcome to my musical reflection of this new year (first show of 2019) with amazing music from New Orleans. You can play it now while you finish reading
No matter how good my life is, it all seems hollow with our growing unhoused population, a gridlock country and a world that requires solutions built from collaboration rather than conflict. These thoughts guided my selections of songs.
Earl King kicks off the show with his “Make a Better World” followed by Lee Dorsey singing “Why Wait Until Tomorrow.” Later, Colin Lake performs his original song “The World Alive” followed by Tom Hambone’s “Faith” from his NOLA Sessions’ recording
The Radiators exhort us to “Never Let Your Fire Go Out” aided by The Neville Brothers “Wake Up” and Galactic’s “Action Speaks Louder than Words.”
“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” written and sung by Allen Toussaint with help from Elvis Costello seemed to fit right in at this point, along with “Street Symphony” by the Subdudes and an encore by Toussaint with “We’re All Connected.”
Carlo Ditto and Louie Ludwig songs take on complacency when it comes to war and Irma Thomas and James Booker close it off with “River is Waiting” and “Amen” respectively.
In between the above are appropriate songs by Dr. John, Helen Gillet, Paul Sanchez, the Iguanas, John Mooney, Mem Shannon, Marcia Ball and Ever More Nest.
I wish you a happy and fulfilling year. Stay engaged!
One of my more popular entries was about the Galactic tour of 2015 when it played Bellingham, Seattle and Portland. Interestingly, the funk band is playing Seattle and Portland about the same time in February of 2016.
The 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina inspired a couple of entries, including this one that chronicled the activities of some of New Orleans better known musicians. This entry also has links to my two radio shows honoring that anniversary with music and excerpts from Spike Lee’s documentary.
And I finished off the year, as I did last year, with a short catalog of the 2015 New Orleans music releases featured on my show. Part 1.Part 2.
I hope you enjoyed the music and the little bit of information I learn and share. I know I do. Subscribe if you’d like to follow what I learn in 2016. Happy New Year.
If not for one solo recording and a fortuitous film that captured his brilliance and his legacy, Isidore “Tuts” Washington might have easily have been lost to future audiences. But his contribution to New Orleans music will not be forgotten
Born in 1907, Washington was old enough to follow the early jazz masters perform on the streets of his hometown. Mostly self-taught on the piano, he would whistle the brass band tunes he would hear until he could work them out on the keyboard.
At an early age, he excelled in the boogie woogie, improvisational style of piano common in the New Orleans clubs called barrelhouse. He played with a number of New Orleans bands throughout the 1920’s and 3o’s, including backing up a singer whose missing front teeth got him dubbed “Smiling” Lewis.
In the late 30’s while playing in these clubs, Washington nurtured a young pianist named Roy. He even painted a charcoal mustache on his face to help him get into clubs under age so he could perform with him. Years later, Roy, otherwise known as Professor Longhair, would talk fondly of his mentor’s clean playing style and the long stretch of his fingers on the keyboards.
After the war, when the now “Smiley” Lewis began to record, first with DeLuxe Records and then with Imperial Records, Washington found himself at the vanguard of Rhythm & Blues, playing piano on songs like “Turn On Your Volume,” “Tee-Nah-Nah,” and “Gumbo Blues.” But recordings would be a rare experience for Washington who would not return to the studio again until he was deep into his 70’s.
Washington left the city and was gone for most of the J&M Studio R&B heyday. When he returned to New Orleans, he played jazz with Papa Celestin and the Clyde Kerr Orchestra and held down regular gigs at places like the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant–solidifying his reputation in the 60’s and 70’s as a New Orleans institution.
As mentioned above, he was a direct influence on Professor Longhair but also other New Orleans piano players, including James Booker and Allen Toussaint. This is evident when you watch this excerpt from Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. This film by Stevenson Palfi captures Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair near the end of their lives and Toussaint in his mid-40s.
The film features interviews and historical footage but the most exciting part of the film is the three masters playing pianos all lined up so the camera can catch them in the same shot. While the YouTube version is muddy, the film has been digitally restored.
If you don’t want to watch the whole film, skip to the end when the filmmaker shows the three playing a boogie woogie tune to its full length. The number (available on Longhair’s anthology) starts with Professor Longhair giving a little coaching, scatting a bit to describe how to avoid cutting in on his master, Tuts Washington.
Professor Longhair’s style has been described as a rhumba crossed with a blues shuffle.In an interview with Peter Stone Brown not long before he died in 1980, he said:
” I was around a lot of honky-tonk musicians, barrelhouse musicians, blues musicians, and bebop musicians, jazz musicians. I just got a little bit from everybody and used it with what my mother taught me. She played a lot of ragtime music. . . I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.”
Fess was there at the beginning of the New Orleans Rock and Roll era in New Orleans, cutting his first singles in the J&M Studio (Cosimo Matassa) in 1949. And in November 1953 with Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, and Edgar Blanchard backing him up, he recorded “Tipitina” for the first time.
“Girl you hear me calling you. Well you’re three times seven, baby. Knows what you want to do.”
Born in Bogalusa but raised in New Orleans, Professor Longhair never made the hit parade and never really experienced financial success. By the late 60’s, his career had folded and he was living in poverty. In 1970, Quint Davis and Alison Minor sought him out with the intention of getting him to perform at their fledgling music festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Who they found was a frail, weak man who didn’t seem capable of pounding out his trademark rhythms. But with the help of Davis and Minor, he recovered enough to perform at the second JazzFest in 1971 and demonstrate that, if anything, his playing had gotten better. His hometown and the world embraced him and his career flourished. Until his death in 1980, he recorded and performed, including at the nightclub created for the purpose of providing him and other aging R&B artists a place to play, named appropriately Tipitina’s.
If there is justice in the music world, James Booker would be better known for the genius and artistry of his piano playing. The fact that his music is still played 30 years after his untimely death in New Orleans offers some hope that justice may ultimately be served.
Classically trained but also taught by Tuts Washington and influenced by Professor Longhair, Booker came of age in the heyday of New Orleans R&B era when Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and Huey Smith were rocking the jukebox with singles recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
Booker got in on the act as a studio musician as well as fronting his own songs with “Doin’ the Hambone” and “Thinkin’ About my Baby.” His song “Gonzo” charted nationally and his playing style, sometimes described as a nest of spiders on the keyboards, was admired by many, including music lovers in Europe where he spent some time and built a following.
But while Booker was a versatile musician, capable of playing a wide range of styles, including working with Freddie King, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur, and Jerry Garcia, his star never quite rose to the level of his talent and genius. (Check out this sound recording of a rehearsal session with Booker and Garcia.)
It’s a sad but familiar story; he had his issues. Some, in retrospect, have pondered whether he suffered from a mental malady that in our current day might have been more successfully treated by means other than with heroin and alcohol.
He died way too young in the emergency room of Charity Hospital in 1983 at the age of 43.
Booker was able to bring elements of many musical genres together and his interpretations of familiar songs are unique and probably difficult to duplicate given his skill.
Booker’s “absolutely unique style is a polyglot mix of gospel, boogie-woogie, blues, R&B and jazz, all executed with a thrilling virtuosity,” wrote Tom McDermott who is himself an amazing pianist from New Orleans.
When I listen to Booker’s music, I hear shades of the “Spanish Tinge” made famous by Jelly Roll Morton. His hyperactive right hand razmatazz and left hand syncopation are reminiscent of Professor Longhair. And yet, his style builds on those masters rather than replicates. And he passed the tradition on by tutoring Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr.
As always, its best if you hear for yourself. I’ll be playing from a few of his solo recordings on Monday but if you have time, consider checking out his last recorded performance at the Maple Leaf. He had a regular gig at the Uptown New Orleans bar, often playing to sparse and disinterested audiences. The Booker you see in this video contrasts sharply with the more flamboyant Booker of earlier years. His teeth are fixed, he’s wearing a suit and not wearing his trademark patch with a star on it over his left eye. Here’s a video of that period in his life.
Helping to bring the world’s eye to Booker’s talent is a documentary called the Bayou Marahaja by New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber.
“Bayou Maharajah explores the life and music of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, the man Dr. John described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” A brilliant pianist, his eccentricities and showmanship belied a life of struggle, prejudice, and isolation. Illustrated with never-before-seen concert footage, rare personal photos and exclusive interviews, the film paints a portrait of this overlooked genius.”
As part of my ongoing education on New Orleans music, I’ve been reading about the use of the piano in New Orleans music. (Please note: I’m not a real musician but I operate a CD player at home)
While the piano wasn’t invented in New Orleans, several styles of piano playing are derived from the city’s musicians. So much so that “one can easily claim the piano as the prime choice of innovators in New Orleans music,” according to an article by Tom McDermott who innovates on the piano on a daily basis in New Orleans.
This versatile instrument combines melody and rhythm and makes it possible for every parlor or living room to become a concert hall.
As Jon Cleary, another fine keyboard purveyor of New Orleans music, said, the piano is “a hip little tool because it allows you to reproduce all the elements of what a band would do.”
What Jelly Roll Morton and others that followed did was translate the sounds of the New Orleans street bands to a piano, delivering their own interpretation to the customers of night clubs and sporting clubs and ultimately to a global audience.
The piano is so important to New Orleans music that a premiere annual event is Piano Night held around the time of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The host of this event, WWOZ, has created a compendium of videos that explore that New Orleans piano tradition.
Here’s Jon Cleary providing a quick run down of the various piano playing styles.
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.
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.
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.
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.