Archive for High Society

Little Bits of History

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , on January 28, 2009 by telescoper

I noticed this morning that I’ve passed a bit of a milestone on here. I’ve actually reached my 100th post. That probably means I’ve been spending way too much time blogging but, undaunted, here I go again.

Ages ago (or it seems like ages ago) I posted an item about Humphrey Lyttelton and during the course of it I mentioned that my Dad had played the drums with Humph some years ago. I did mention in that post that I would put up a picture as soon as I found it, which I have now done. Here it is, taken probably somewhere around 1990.


I’m not entirely sure of the venue. I always thought this session took place in the Corner House in Newcastle but on closer inspection it doesn’t really look like it in this photograph so I wouldn’t bet on my memory being right.  It’s not a great photograph, but that’s definitely my  Dad (Alan Coles) on the drums. I don’t know the other personnel, but you do get a  proper impression of how tall Humph was (he’s on trumpet, of course) .

Humph of course had his own band but many jazz venues (including the Corner House) preferred to invite soloists only to come and play with the house band. The main reason I think was that it was cheaper that way. And of course the local musicians loved it because they got to play with their heros. My Dad idolized Humphrey Lyttelton but when he finally got to play with him he was extremely nervous and didn’t particularly enjoy the evening.

Semi-professional bands like the Savoy Band shown here couldn’t afford fancy band uniforms or outfits so for some reason they all seem to settle on cheap red nylon shirts, as shown in the picture. I don’t know why because they’re not at all pleasant to wear if you’re going to be sweaty. But these shirts reminded me of a story that I’ve bored people with over many years. When I was  little (in the  70s) there was a similar band in Newcastle called the Phoenix Jazz Band. They also wore horrible red nylon shirts for gigs, except for their young bass player (a guy called Gordon) who refused to do so. This uppity young student teacher turned up for gigs in a black-and-yellow hooped jersey so he looked rather like a bumble-bee or a wasp. The rest of the band called him, rather sarcastically, Sting. He soon went on to other things but the name stuck.

My dad always claimed that Sting had played the double bass in our garage – when I lived in Benwell village. I don’t remember having seen him though, and I might well have been having my leg pulled. Actually it wasn’t a garage anyway, more of a big wooden shed where he kept his drums and lots of other junk.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this but I did for a while have dreams of becoming a Jazz musician myself. I wanted to be a saxophonist but my Dad persuaded me that I should learn to play the clarinet first and it would be easy then to switch to sax. I don’t think it was very good advice because they’re quite different instruments to play, but I rather think he had pushed the clarinet because he wanted me to play traditional Jazz rather than modern stuff.

I found that I had quite a good ear for music and a pretty good sense of rhythm so I mastered the rudiments fairly quickly but never got much further than that. I even got as far as sitting in with some bands, but never became a full-time member of one.

Sitting in with one of these traditional Jazz bands  is a very informal business. Usually the repertoire consists of standard tunes that everyone knows and there are no real arrangements as such. The trumpet usually plays the lead for a chorus or two, with impromptu clarinet and trombone alongside, then there’s a sequence of solos (usually a couple of choruses for each player, unless you really get into it and the leader shouts “take another!”), and then you play out to the end. Other than that you make it up as you go along.

But there is one notable exception to this, a number called High Society. This probably began as a Mardi Gras parade tune but later on came to be played as an up-tempo flag-waver. Almost every Jazz band, however, plays it the same way. It starts with a sort-of call to arms with drum rolls and a few phrases on the horns a bit like a fanfare before moving into tempo and it has quite a few scored passages that are played straight (i.e. without improvisation). When it breaks eventually into the solos there is an unwritten rule that the clarinet soloist plays a standard set-piece solo obbligato, at least for one chorus, after which it’s back to the more normal improvised solo.

I don’t know how this became such a strong tradition but you can check it out yourself. There are dozens of versions of High Society played by different Jazz bands and the clarinettist will always play the same basic notes. There’s a classic recording by Jelly Roll Morton on which there are two clarinettists (Albert Nicholas and Sidney Bechet) who both play the original licks, one after the other.

The story I heard was that this solo (as well as possibly the tune itself) was written by a man called Alphonse Picou who was born in 1878 and played with the first real Jazz band in New Orleans, which was led by the legendary figure of Buddy Bolden, the first great jazz trumpeter. Bolden died in 1931 but no recordings by him have ever come to light because he stopped playing before 1910 and spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions. It is said that Buddy Bolden’s band did make a cylinder recording, but this grail-like object has never been found.

High Society is such a well known tune and is such fun to play that it is very often part of after-hours Jam sessions at clubs like the Corner House where I did once actually play the  Alphonse Picou solo from memory (or at least some sort of approximation to it), having heard it so many times on different records.

Last weekend, when I was playing around on Youtube, I chanced upon a bit of film of New Orleans Jam Session from 1958. It was looking back down a very long tunnel into ancient history but you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw, sitting down next to the piano at the left, the great man himself, Alphonse Picou. I never thought there would be a film of him, thinking that he was, like Buddy Bolden, an almost mythical figure.  I later found elsewhere, a clip from the same session of him playing his own famous solo! However, he was 80 years old and very frail at the time and he doesn’t actually play it that  well so I’ll spare his posthumous blushes (he died in 1961) by picking a rather better number from the same session.

The tune I’ve picked to put on here is called Mamie’s Blues.  They play it with that lovely lazily lilting beat that’s so typical of authentic New Orleans Jazz but is actually so difficult to get right.  And if it  wasn’t enough to see Alphonse Picou, there are several other legendary names too: Paul Barbarin (drums), George Lewis (clarinet) and Jim Robinson (trombone) amonst others. The session happened 50 years ago at which point these were all very old men and they’re all long gone now.This clip, to me, is every bit as important a piece of history as, say, an original score by Mozart.

They may all look like they’ve seen better days, but they certainly still knew how to play!