Tiger Rag

Being a bit busy last week I didn’t have time to celebrate Mardi Gras or, as it’s known here in Britain, Shrove Tuesday. I was fresh out of shroves last Tuesday anyway.

Last year at this time I blogged a bit about Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, the home of Jazz and that came to mind again when I found the following clip on Youtube. It’s from an experimental film made in the 1950s called Cinerama Holiday which involved shooting the film using three cameras and projecting the results onto a curved screen to make the viewer feel in the middle of the action. There was also an early attempt at surround sound. Interesting though this is as a bit of film history, the thing that caught my eye was the little bit of Jazz history it captures.

Jazz began with the  marching bands that performed in New Orleans but then largely moved into the bordellos of Storyville, the biggest (legal) red light district in the history of the United States. When Storyville was closed down in 1917 most professional jazz musicians lost their only source of regular income. However, a few years later, in 1919, the United States Senate proposed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol for human consumption and ushered in the era of Prohibition. This turned Chicago into a bootlegger’s paradise and jazz musicians flocked there to perform in the numerous speakeasies. That’s why the great New Orleans Jazz records of the 1920s were all made in Chicago and it also caused the music to evolve in new directions.

However, not all Jazz musicians left New Orleans. Many stayed there and kept the music going in authentic style. One of the characters who did so was the legendary Oscar “Papa” Celestin who led various bands through the 20s and 30s, including one called The Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra. Everything was an orchestra in those days, come to think of it. These bands kept going through the depression but never really achieved great commercial success until the traditional Jazz revival of the 1950s.

It must have been strange for Papa Celestin to have become a celebrity in his old age – he was born way back in 1884 – but that’s what happened in 1955 when he appeared in this film. I never knew that he’d appeared on the big screen and it’s great to see him in the flesh, even if the Cinerama format doesn’t lend itself to Youtube particularly well. He turns out to have been quite a showman and is clearly having a lot of fun in the “hold that tiger” chorus. I would love to have seen these guys play live. I bet they were a blast!

The tune they’re playing is another New Orleans flag-waver called Tiger Rag. This was first recorded in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and its composition is credited to Nick Larocca and Larry Shields who played with that band. There is a considerable argument about who actually wrote it, and the first section is definitely taken from a dance called the quadrille that was popular in New Orleans around the turn of the century, but it’s too ancient now to matter much anyway.

You can find countless renditions of Tiger Rag on record and on the net, but this is just a bit special. I hope you like it.

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