Bunk Johnson was born in New Orleans way back in 1879 and he made his name playing trumpet in the very early days of jazz, including – if his own account can be believed – a stint with the legendary Buddy Bolden. He was regarded by many, including Louis Armstrong no less, as one of the top trumpeters in New Orleans in the period between 1905 and 1915. Jazz had begun 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. Bunk Johnson did not join the mass exodus to Chicago and his career faded into obscurity, ending entirely in 1931 when he had his front teeth knocked out in a brawl and could no longer play the trumpet.
However, in 1942, Bunk Johnson was rediscovered as a very old man by some young jazz fans who travelled to New Orleans and recorded him playing with a band of local musicians in the basement of a house courtesy of a new set of dentures. Despite the poor sound quality of the recording, the resulting tracks proved incredibly popular, ushering in the New Orleans Revival that began in the United States and then propagated across to Europe after the war to the extent that many revivalist bands even sedulously acquired the “recorded-in-a-garage” sound. Bunk Johnson passed away in 1947 but George Lewis, who plays clarinet on this track, carried the flag for “authentic” New Orleans jazz for many years after that, visiting Europe on many occasions. My Dad played the drums with him a few times..
P.S. I’ve always felt particularly sorry for Walter Decou, who played piano on the famous Bunk Johnson records of 1942, because apparently he was pounding away like a good ‘un but you can barely hear a note from him on any of them!Follow @telescoper