Archive for New Orleans

Just a closer walk with thee

Posted in Music, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2012 by telescoper

I saw this clip a few days ago, and had it in mind to post it at an appropriate time. Unfortunately when I got home today I learned some news that makes today seem all too appropriate. A distinguished and respected colleague, Prof. Steve Rawlings, of Oxford University was found dead last night. This is shocking and desperately sad news. I have no idea what happened but apparently the Oxfordshire police have arrested a 49-year old man on suspicion of murder. No doubt more information will emerge in due course.

The connection between this sombre piece of news and the clip I  intended to post should become obvious when I tell you that it depicts a funeral. Indeed the music featured, the hymn or spiritual Just a Closer Walk with Thee, was the main music chosen for the service when my father died,  just over four years ago. It’s a lovely old traditional tune that often  plays a central role in New Orleans style funerals, as shown here, and is a melody that, for me, has a deep associattion with loss and bereavement.

The clip is taken from the US TV series Treme. I haven’t seen Treme -if it has been shown on UK TV I missed it – but it’s set in New Orleans in the aftermath of the near destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not knowing anything about the TV series I only watched the clip because of the music, but I was mightily impressed by the way the scene was photographed and how careful the producers had been in getting the details just right, because a funeral in New Orleans is unlike any other.

The sashes, parasols, and exaggerated, swaying slow march seen in the film are in some sense almost comical, but  they are also at the same time solemn and immensely dignified. Defiant, even. I don’t think it’s just because I am a jazz fan that I find this video so moving. Perhaps it’s really because, faced with the awesome finality of death, every action we take in life is comical anyway, just as every word is ultimately banal. However, if a farce is what  it’s going to be, let’s just make sure it’s done the way we like it – especially at the end.

One of the commenters on Youtube put it thus:

it aint my time yet .but when it is thats the way i wanna go home

Amen to that. I don’t think Steve Rawlings was a jazz fan, but this is the best way I can think of to pay my respects.

The Girls Go Crazy

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 26, 2010 by telescoper

It’s thoroughly wet and miserably cold – especially considering it’s meant to be summer – so I’ve been looking around for something to brighten up the evening and chanced upon this piece of traditional jazz which did the trick for me. This is the kind of New Orleans style jazz band my Dad used to play the drums for, and the tune is one I actually learned to play on the clarinet so I could sit in with them once or twice so it brought back quite a few nice memories hearing it just now. It’s based on an interesting 16-bar blues theme (in contrast to the usual 12-bar variety) that was ubiquitous in early jazz, appearing in a number of different tunes. In this particular manifestation it’s called The Girls Go Crazy (About the Way I Walk).

It’s neither a famous band nor a famous recording, but I bet everyone who was there that sunny day last year in San Francisco thoroughly enjoyed the occasion, especially the band!

Tiger Rag

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on February 22, 2010 by telescoper

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.

Fat Tuesday

Posted in Jazz with tags , on February 24, 2009 by telescoper

Today’s  the day we call in England  Shrove Tuesday. We’re apparently all supposed to get shriven by doing a pennance before Lent . Another name for the occasion is Pancake Day, although I’m not sure what sort of pennance it is to be forced to eat pancakes.

Further afield the name for this day is a bit more glamorous. Mardi Gras, which I translated for the title using my schoolboy French, doesn’t make me think of pancakes but of carnivals. And being brought up in a house surrounded by Jazz, it makes me think of New Orleans and the wonderful marching bands that played not just during the Mardi Gras parades but at  just about every occasion for which they could find an excuse, including funerals.

The Mardi Gras parades gave rise to many of the great tunes of New Orleans Jazz, many of them named after the streets through which the parade would travel, mainly in  the famous French Quarter. Basin Street, South Rampart Street, and Bourbon Street are among the names redolent with history for Jazz fans and musicians around the world. I also remember a record by Humphrey Lyttelton‘s 1950s band called Fat Tuesday.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras has on recent occasions sometimes got a bit out of hand, and you probably wouldn’t want to take kids into the French Quarter for fear they would see things they shouldn’t. Personally, though, I’d love the chance to savour the atmosphere and watch the parades.

The  clip I’ve chosen is of Bourbon Street Parade. The one and only time I went to New Orleans I felt a real thrill walking along this street, just because I’ve heard the tune so many times on old records.  I didn’t go in Mardi Gras time, however, but in the middle of summer. The heat was sweltering and the humidity almost unbearable, but the air was filled with music as well as moisture. It was impossible to sleep in the heat, so I stayed up moving from bar to bar, drinking and listening to music until I was completely exhausted.

The tune was written by the late Paul Barbarin, who died in 1969 during a street parade in New Orleans. What a way to go. He also plays on the clip I included here.

I picked this particular clip because it features a much underrated British musician, Sammy Rimmington (although the notes on Youtube have muddled it up; he plays saxophone on this, not clarinet). My dad once played with Sammy Rimmington and I remember the unqualified admiration with which he (my dad) spoke of his (Sammy’s) playing.

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!


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