Friday, November 20, 2015

Live On Your TV Set: Musical Gumbo From New Orleans!

Today, this correspondent officially tips a top hat worn by Sidney Bechet to the French Quarter and the great tradition of Louisiana music.

The passing of Allen Toussaint last week compelled Your Correspondent to think of the incredible 20th century music talent that preceded him.

As far as the great music of New Orleans goes, the party started at the end of the 19th century with bandleader Buddy Bolden, joined just a few years later by Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson and Buddie Petit.

These Crescent City luminaries would soon be followed by pianist and Mississippi riverboat bandleader Fate Marable, cornetist Joe "King" Oliver, Kid Ory, Clarence Williams and Jelly Roll Morton. When Buddy Bolden fell ill in 1907, trombonist Frankie Dusen kept Bolden's group together for a decade under the name The Eagle Band. The New Orleans sound would, in 1923, culminate in the momentous recording debut of Louis Armstrong with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Orchestra.

Here's Satchmo, still playing at a high level many decades later, with two versions of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: one with (from Reserve, LA - about 40 miles west of New Orleans) virtuoso clarinetist Edmond Hall and another featuring Kid Ory.

Satchmo had a favorite drummer who was a lifelong friend. Appearing on several Armstrong recordings, this New Orleans percussionist played brilliantly on Satchmo's Hot Fives and, along with fellow New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds, is very important in the development of multiple 20th century music genres - the great Zutty Singleton.

Baby Dodds, the brother of clarinetist Johnny Dodds, made his name on recordings with Oliver, Armstrong and Chicago clarinetist Jimmie Noone.

The innovative Dodds, playing with Noone, would be an enormous influence on a young Chicagoan who played the drums - Gene Krupa.

With Singleton and Dodds, another percussionist who drove those New Orleans bands as Papa Jo Jones powered Count Basie's "Super Chief" was the legendary Paul Barbarin.

In the pre-television era (as opposed to the Jurassic era), New Orleans music, beloved as it was, as a direct result of the color line in the pre-Sidney Poitier days, did not get its proper due in American movies. Even as late as 1946, when songstress Billie Holiday played a role in the movie New Orleans, she was cast as the maid. That's right, cast as the maid, not as a chanteuse, so while Billie sings. . . well, she sounds great, as usual, but it just doesn't look right with her forced to wear that maid outfit!

Fortunately, since Louis Armstrong also appears in the film as a bandleader, he and Billie get to play together, so in the following two numbers, if nowhere else in the movie, Miss Holiday looks just right.

It is quite stunning for those of us living in 2015, an era in which there are a gazillion TV channels, but, curiously, infinitely less choices readily available, to think that many decades ago, music and entertainment NOT entirely aimed at a very young demographic, including wide-ranging recording artists in diverse genres, as well as veteran stars from vaudeville and the movies - could actually be found on television.

That means programs one could watch in the comfort of your living room on a spiffy General Electric, Admiral or Philco TV set!

While it's true that there such Level 1 mass market pop sounds - Sing Along With Mitch and The Lawrence Welk Show for the oldsters, American Bandstand for the teens - on the air which were popular hits, at the same time, all kinds of music somehow, by hook or by crook, made it onto the airwaves. These included such New Orleans legends as George Lewis and Sidney Bechet.

Yes, once upon a time, dear readers, there was, remarkably, quite a bit of Louisiana music on what Ernie Kovacs called "the orthicon tube" in the 1950's and 1960's.

Of course, American jazz could be found on British and French TV (Henry "Red" Allen and Coleman Hawkins especially) in those days as well.

The 64 million dollar question remains, "why did most music disappear from television programming, banished in an era of 500+ channels?"

Well, one reason, to paraphrase Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire, who owns a mansion and a yacht, the primary reason musical genres - including infinitely less progressive ones than those represented by such 20th century modern recording artists as Igor Stravinsky, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, Anthony Braxton, Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley - have vanished without a trace from the airwaves would be "insufficient pwoffits".

That said, take heart, New Orleans music lovers. Even though finding most genres of music on any television network (including PBS) remains the equivalent of locating a pin deep in a haystack after drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels, there is the annual New Orleans Film Festival, which frequently includes documentaries spotlighting the music of Louisiana.

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