Archive for Bunk Johnson

Lord, Let Me In The Lifeboat

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday I noticed a now-typical outburst of British mean-spirited xenophobia in that people are cancelling their donations to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on the grounds that it spends a massive 2% of its budget saving lives abroad rather than in the UK. Or at least claim to be cancelling donations. Judging by the kind of people commenting on Twitter I’d bet than none of them has ever donated anything to anyone in their entire crab-faced existence. The face of `Global Britain’ as represented by the Daily Mail gets more umpleasant by the day.

Anyway, as a regular donor to the RNLI I have this morning increased my contribution and will be wearing my RNLI pin badge in support of the brave men and women who regularly risk their lives to save those in distress at sea.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the RNLI also serves Ireland: there are 59 lifeboats based in 45 stations in the Republic as well as Northern Ireland.

Anyway, I don’t want to let all this get anyone down so I’m sharing this piece of music which sprang to mind. Lord Let Me In The Lifeboat was recorded in 1945 for the Blue Note label by a band led by Sidney Bechet and Bunk Johnson. The latter had just come out of retirement courtesy of Sidney Bechet’s brother Leonard, a dentist, who furnished trumpeter Johnson with a new set of false teeth to allow him to resume playing. Not a lot of people know that.

Understandably, Bunk Johnson’s chops were not in great shape on this session but Bechet’s certainly were! When I was a lad I used to spend a bit of time transcribing clarinet solos from old records, and I remember doing this one by Sidney Bechet. The notes in themselves are not hard to play, but few people could generate that heavy vibrato and rich tone!

UPDATE: Oh look! I found it. If you want to play along at home, here you are. It’s in B♭ Major, and comes with a best guess as to the chords:


Update: Great News

Midnight Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on November 15, 2016 by telescoper

It’s amazing what you can find on Youtube…

This extraordinary recording of a slow blues was made in 1944. It’s extraordinary for two reasons.

One is that it is far longer than most discs of the time, and was recorded at 33 1/3 rpm rather than the 78 rpm that was usual for the time. The reason why that is extraordinary is that the long-playing record wasn’t introduced until 1948 so this track had to wait about five years until it was released commercially. The sound quality is unusually good for the period and it’s great to hear the musicians stretch out in a way that wasn’t possible on a 78rpm record. Notice also that it’s not just a string of solos, there are duets and ensemble passages , all very characteristic of authentic New Orleans music.

The other extraordinary thing is the band: Bunk Johnson (tpt) Jim Robinson (tmb); George Lewis (clt); Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavegaeu (bss); Lawrence Marrero (bjo); and Warren “Baby” Dodds (dms). Most of these musicians who had grown up in New Orleans but had not joined the mass exodus of great musicians (including  Louis Armstrong) who left for Chicago when Storyville was closed down in 1917. Most of the jazzmen who stayed behind fell into obscurity compared to those who left. Bandleader on this occasion,   Bunk Johnson was a case in point. He was born way back in 1879 and played with some of the legends of early New Orleans Jazz, a connection with history which was enough to make him a sort of “patron saint” of the revivalist movement when he was rediscovered in the 1940s.

One musician who had moved to Chicago (with his brother, clarinettist Johnny Dodds) was Baby Dodds, the first really great Jazz drummer, who had played alongside his brother and Louis Armstrong in  King Oliver’s Band as well as on the glorious Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. His playing is barely audible on most of those old records, but he is heard to good effect on this track.

Anyway, I think it’s a superb performance, dripping with nostalgia for an era of music that would have been lost had it not been for these priceless recordings…




Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on April 4, 2016 by telescoper

For some reason today’s news made me think of this famous old record by Bunk Johnson.

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!