Lars Edegran : From Sweden to New Orleans

 

Lars Edegran, from Sweden, has resided in New Orleans since 1965. He is one of the mainstays of the music scene, as a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, record producer, and office manager of the Jazzology/ GHB Jazz Foundation, founded by George H. Buck, Jr. The interview took place in the Jazzology office, 61 French Market Place, New Orleans, on October 7, 2013.

Craig Morrison : I want to know how you got involved in music yourself. What did you hear at home ? What got you interested in music ?

Lars Edegran : I grew up in a family that played music. Our father played banjo and guitar and mandolin, not professional but he played. It was his hobby. He sent all the kids to piano lessons, my brother and my sister and me. I was the only who became professional musician. My brother played in bands. He was older than me, and they used to have rehearsals at our house, so I would hear jazz live as a young teenager. I started playing guitar and piano then. I took classical lessons for about three, four years, and then I gave that up, and I just started playing by ear.

CM : What kind of music did your dad play ?

LE : He played a variety. He played in dance bands in the ‘30s, and then at home he would play mandolin, “Tico Tico” or songs like that, popular songs.

CM : Where did he grow up ?

LE : In Stockholm, Sweden.

CM : Can you just throw in a birthdate here for me.

LE : Yeah, 5th of June, 1944. The day before D-Day [laughs].

CM : What caused you to want to move to New Orleans ?

LE : Well, I was playing in bands in Sweden. To go back a little bit further, I started playing in bands already in the late ’50s. In the early ‘60s I joined a band that played sort of New Orleans style jazz. It was quite successful, and we played a lot around. We were all still in school, so we played on the weekends basically, toured around.

Bob Koester in the Jazz Record Mart, Chicago

Then I left school and wasn’t really doing anything much. I was playing a little bit and, really, not doing anything. So I decided that I was going to travel. I was travelling around in Europe, and by coincidence in Paris I met a guy from Chicago. It was in the summer of ’63, I think. We were out busking in the streets, playing. This guy used to work for Bob Koester, who had Delmark Records in Chicago. He told me that Bob was in Europe at that time with the American Folk Blues Festival, touring Europe with various blues guys. He was there with Sleepy John Estes, and Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, who also became a friend of mine, was there with Lightnin’ Hopkins, on the same tour. On my way back to Sweden, I found out the itinerary of this concert tour and I went to one of the concerts. I don’t remember which town it was, but it was somewhere in Germany. I went backstage and met Bob and Chris and the artists, and I told Bob I was interested in coming to America ’cause I was a big blues fan and jazz fan. He said, “Well, you know, maybe I can help you ; we have lots of foreign guys working in our store.” He had a couple of English guys working there ; Pete Brown was one of them, who also had a little record company later. “You know, you can get a job working in my store.”

I went back to Sweden and then he sent me a letter. In those days, it was easier to immigrate than today. We didn’t have a Homeland Security breathing down your neck. It was much easier and also you had the old quota system that favoured European nations quite a bit in those days. This was in 1965. I had a letter from him that more or less would say that he would employ me and be my sponsor, responsible for me. I did some work, saved up some money, and bought a one-way ticket to New York via Iceland, Reykjavik and then New York. In New York I took the Greyhound bus to Chicago. This was in March 1965. I remember it really well because it was a big snow storm and I said, “My God, this is worse than Sweden. Why is it so cold ?”

I get to the store [Jazz Record Mart], which was on 7 West Grand [Avenue] at that time, a kind of sleazy area, a lot of winos hanging around, and there’s a big black guy sitting in the door, minding the store. That turned out to be Big Joe Williams. That was the first man I met in America. Bob was out doing an errand or something. Anyway, I worked for Bob there in the store. My main job was packing records, like we do now in this company, shipping out mail orders, 78s and stuff like that, and maybe minding the store a bit. But I didn’t stay very long in Chicago because I was underage to go out in the clubs : I was only 20. You had to be 21 in Chicago. So I couldn’t go out and hear any jazz. I couldn’t go to the downtown clubs, like Jazz Unlimited and those different clubs they had there. Franz Jackson was playing downtown. I met those guys but I didn’t get a chance to go and hear them. But I did go to all the blues clubs, ‘cause I was able to get into those. I went to all the blues clubs on the Southside. Howlin’ Wolf had his own club there, Buddy Guy was playing somewhere, J.B. Hutto, all kinds of people. I heard all those guys, which was a great experience. Then I decided to come down and visit New Orleans. I hitchhiked down, by the way ; that was quite an experience. It took a long time but I finally made it. I came down to New Orleans in August of that year, and I arrived just before this huge hurricane called Betsy, which was the biggest one before Katrina [2005].

I was staying in the French Quarter, which wasn’t really hit that bad but the rest of the city was hit pretty bad. New Orleans was such a different place from Chicago, especially in those days. The French Quarter was a lot more residential than it is now. There were neighborhood places. I very quickly met a lot of people here and got into the jazz scene very quickly. Very different from Chicago : everything was wide open here. I met a lot of musicians. I wasn’t able to support myself playing music right away, obviously, because I’m new in town. I was actually doing some labour work, after the hurricane, repairing roofs, painting houses work and stuff, not that I knew how to do that either, but everybody needed help, helpers, so I did some of that kind of work.

Then I got into playing, first in brass bands, playing clarinet. Eventually I started getting jobs playing guitar in dance halls. They still had a number of dance halls in New Orleans in the ‘60s. They kind of died at the end of the ‘60s. I worked at one uptown called Munster’s. Every Saturday night they had a band, and then eventually I got a regular job at a dance hall called Luthjens not so far from here, in the Bywater area. It was a very old, it’s been in many different locations and Billie and De De Pierce used to play there. It goes way back. I was the last band in there actually. I had a band in there in 1968, 1969 ; I think the place closed the following year. These were final remnants from the old segregation days, because these places, they were not integrated. In the old days they used to use black bands, but now in these later years, they used white bands, and blacks didn’t go there. I don’t know if they could go or not ; probably not. The civil rights laws had gone through, but these were like relics from the old days. So we played in there. I had an international band in there. It was two Swedes…

CM : Orange Kellin on clarinet ?

LE : Orange, yeah. And two Japanese : Yoshio and Keiko Toyama. And two Americans : a drummer and a trombone player. We played there for about two years, three nights a week. That was a real nice gig, and we learned a lot of songs. It was all requests, the whole night, a lot of waltzes and rumbas, and all kinds. That was real fun, learning experience. Around that same time I started playing with [the band of] Sharkey Bonano [1904-1972]. I got into that band through Harry Shields [1899-1971]. I had met Harry Shields somewhere, on a gig, and he said that Sharkey was looking for a piano player, especially someone that could double on guitar. ’Cause he used to play on the boats and they had no piano. I got that job, and I was in Sharkey’s last band too. He was a real fun guy, a little short Italian guy. Played great trumpet, and he was very popular in New Orleans, played a lot of private parties and things like that. Yeah, he was a great player.

CM : I have a CD of his that has two radio broadcasts from the late 1950s. The first one especially is exceptionally good.

LE : He recorded in the ’20s too. He had quite an amazing career. He was still playing really good, and he had another real old guy in the band, Emile Christian (1895-1973) was playing trombone with him, a real old-timer. That was a nice band, a nice experience too. So I played with the black brass band and the white dixieland band, and then around 1970, I started working on Bourbon Street. I got a job on Bourbon Street with Orange, at the Maison Bourbon, which is still there. We were the afternoon band ; we played from twelve to six. It was a long shift with just a four-piece band. That was really hard work. They don’t have six-hour jobs anymore. Nowadays, five is the maximum, and most other jobs are only three hours, actually. I worked on Bourbon Street a lot, right through the 1970s, from one club to another, six days a week, and sometimes played in the afternoon and played at night too. It was really a grueling kind of work, but you’re young, you know ? And we wanted to make some money. That was good. All the jobs in those days were union jobs, so there was decent pay, too, and paid into your pension fund. That’s disappeared : everything is non-union now, which is unfortunate. There’s not much jazz on Bourbon Street anymore. There was a lot of clubs in those days.

CM : You used the word dixieland and I know a lot of people don’t know or agree on what to call this music. Some books call it classic jazz, and others call it dixieland. Some say, “No, no, it should be called trad jazz, or traditional jazz.” “No, it should just be called New Orleans jazz.” What do you think is the most appropriate term for this kind of music ?

LE : I don’t know. Traditional jazz is probably the best term for it. There’s been a lot of talk about what is Chicago jazz, what’s New York jazz, West Coast jazz, all these different ones, and the definitions don’t really match up. A lot of the bands in New Orleans called their band a dixieland band. Kid Thomas [Kid Thomas Valentine, 1897-1987] used to call his band a dixieland band. They didn’t think much about it, one way or another, really.

CM : And you, your preference would be….

LE : I would call the music that we play mostly in New Orleans, I would say it’s New Orleans traditional jazz. If you just say New Orleans jazz, that would take in other things too, so you have to call it that. I know George Buck, who runs this company, had a very definite ideas of what he thought was Chicago jazz, which didn’t make much sense to me because most of the guys were actually in New York, the guys that he called Chicago players, like Wild Bill [Davison, cornet] and all those guys. [Guitarist] Eddie Condon was in New York ; I mean he started in Chicago but he ended up in New York, so you could just as well call it New York jazz. It didn’t make any sense. George Buck tried to make a difference between that and New Orleans jazz. It’s a tricky one because they blend too. You have a mixture, like we have our This is Jazz series [subtitled : The Historic Broadcasts] with Rudi Blesh, well, that’s half Chicago guys and half New Orleans guys : what do you call that ?

CM : Some people take real offense to the word dixieland.

LE : They do, yeah, because they think of the guys that dressed up in funny hats, which happened.

CM : They played in pizza parlours with straw hats, striped vests, arm bands, and suspenders.

LE : In the 1950s, that was a common thing. I don’t really think about it too much, one way or the other.

Craig Morrison at the Jazzology office the day of the interview.

CM : What do you think of this distinction that people make between uptown New Orleans, downtown New Orleans, and Creole New Orleans as a way of describing musicians and their backgrounds and playing styles ?

LE : That was probably a distinction at one time, but that’s a long time ago.

CM : Some people don’t quite fit in that categorization. Where are you going to put George Lewis ?

LE : Yeah, well, he was a country boy originally from Mandeville. Then he lived in the French Quarter so he was right in between uptown and downtown. Then he lived across the river.

CM : Or somebody like Lee Collins ? You can’t just base it on where a person lived.

LE : Not really. They were saying the downtown were the schooled musicians, and the uptowns weren’t, but that doesn’t really hold water, because [for example] the Humphrey family were schooled musicians, they lived uptown. So, no I don’t think you can really make that distinction. There was a little bit of that at one time, with the Creoles and the black musicians.

CM : You heard this kind of music before you moved to New Orleans.

LE : Oh, yeah !

CM : What changed in your thinking or your impressions of New Orleans music from when you heard it before to when you actually participated in it here ?

LE : My impression was : you don’t really know exactly how a band sounds from a record. When you come and hear it live, it sounds quite different. I remember first hearing the Kid Thomas band : when you listen to his record, he sounds ferocious, like he’s blasting the hell out of the trumpet, but he didn’t play loud. No, it was not that. It was an attack, but it wasn’t loud. Also, most of the bands I remember hearing in Preservation Hall in the ’60s, none of them played real loud. I got the false impression listening to records. They sounded like they were blasting away, but they were not loud, they didn’t play loud. They played much softer than the bands do today. That was interesting. Then, of course, playing with them you get the feel of the rhythm, which is so different from playing in European bands. The rhythm sections are so different.

CM : What’s the difference ?

LE : I don’t know how to explain it, really. It’s just a different rhythmic feel. Even today, too, the rhythm is different than it was 40 years ago. It’s changed. Of course, drummers play differently today, and bass players. Also they use amplifiers and so on. So it’s a different feel to the music. Of course, you still have a New Orleans feel, although it’s different from the old-timers.

CM : You got to play with a lot of those originators, so that must have changed your style.

LE : Yeah, it did, it did, especially playing with people like [drummers] Louis Barbarin, Cie Frazier and Sammy Penn. It affects your own playing.

CM : Could you describe what changed in your playing ?

LE : Well, you listen to the bass drum, pretty much, and your left hand becomes influenced by the way the bass drum is played. I think the one that influenced me the most was Louis Barbarin. I did three European tours with him, so I got to play with him a lot. Very, very interesting drum style. I think he was one of the greatest drummers out of New Orleans. You don’t hear as much about him as Paul Barbarin [also a drummer], cause Paul Barbarin had a great career, and Louis stayed in New Orleans, and he was a different personality from Paul.

CM : They were related.

LE : They’re brothers. Paul was the older brother.

CM : You knew Bill Russell. Can you talk to me about him ?

LE : I met Bill at Preservation Hall ’cause he lived next door to Preservation Hall. He used to be in there, and he used to sweep up the floor and sell records, stuff like that. He was good friends with Allan Jaffe, who owned Preservation Hall and I think Allan took care of Bill Russell. Yeah, he helped him. He probably had a free apartment or something, I don’t know, ’cause he had no income, really. Then I started actually playing music with Bill Russell, ‘cause he played violin.

CM : In your group ?

New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, in front of Preservation Hall. Bill Russell second from left, Lars Edegran at right. Photo by Dan Leyer.

LE : Yeah. I started the [New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra in the late ‘60s, and we started rehearsing at Preservation Hall. It all came about because I was briefly working up at Tulane [University] in the late ‘60s, in the Jazz Archive. I was filing away orchestrations and stuff like that, and I found out that they had a lot of ragtime orchestrations up there, from the John Robichaux Orchestra [Robichaux : 1866-1939]. They had thousands of them. All types of music, but a lot of it was ragtime-oriented stuff. I thought it’d be great to try and play some of these pieces, see what they sound like. I heard the ragtime recordings with Bunk Johnson and Mutt Carey and different people. Paul Crawford, a trombone player, was working up there too, so we started to get some guys together. We got Orange [Kellin] to play clarinet, me on piano, Paul on trombone, and who else did we have ? We had Andrew Anderson, an old trumpet player that played in the brass bands here, and we had Cie Frazier on the drums. Then first Allan Jaffe was playing tuba with us. When he got busy, we had to get a bass player instead. We were just rehearsing for fun in the beginning. Then we made a recording with this group, in Paul Crawford’s house, a really amateur kind of recording.

A friend of mine that had a record company decided to put it this LP out. We got some good feedback from that and we started getting a few little gigs around New Orleans. We played at the New Orleans Jazz Club and we played at, I think, the university, a couple of little jobs here and there. Then we got a job to play at the first jazz festival, in 1970. It was at the new Armstrong Park, Congo Square. One afternoon we were rehearsing in Preservation Hall and George Wein [founder of the Newport Jazz Festival] came in, and he was really impressed by the band. He’s never heard a band play that kind of music. This is before [the movie] The Sting, you know, it was totally unknown. He said, “Wow, this is amazing. I gotta bring you guys up to Newport.” So we went to the Newport Festival, 1971, and played there. There was a whole bunch of New Orleans guys that went up there, Billy and De De Pierce, Eureka Brass Band, and the Ragtime Orchestra. We got a lot of great reviews there. It was amazing, really ! So that started our career with the ragtime, where we started touring with the Ragtime Orchestra. Jaffe booked us around the States, and we started doing tours in Europe as well. I think, 1974 was the first tour in Europe, then we went several times to Europe. By that time, there was some replacement members in the band because Andrew Anderson, the trumpet player, he got sick, he couldn’t play anymore. That’s when we recruited Lionel Ferbos, who’s still alive today, 102 years old. He joined the band and he stayed with the band for a long time. We had some different bass players, different drummers, and so on.

CM : Did you play in Stockholm ?

LE : Yeah, we played in Stockholm, we played in Gothenburg.

CM : That must’ve been great !

LE : Yeah ! Oh yeah, it was really great. In fact, we played in a big dance hall there, which was really fun. We also played some dance music ; we added other tunes to the repertoire. It was great and we still play today actually, but we don’t play very often. We play mostly a few concerts every now and then. We used to play at the jazz festival every year. I think we’re the only band that’s been at the jazz festival every year since they started. Bill Russell was a big inspiration in that ; he had a lot of sheet music too. He was very interested in ragtime. He was a ragtime collector ; he collected piano music and he knew all the composers. He used to be our MC as well, because he was an expert on this music. That was a lot of fun. He played with us a long time, till he got sick, and then he passed away. We used to hang out at Bill Russell’s place too, and he had a lot of interesting interviews. I used to transcribe interviews for him.

CM : What was he like as a person ?

LE : He was very eccentric guy. He’d always stay up all night and sleep in the day, and he had very peculiar eating habits. He ate very strange food, not very healthy. He was a lifetime bachelor so he was very eccentric and stuck in his ways.

CM : Well, he started all this, right ?

LE : Yeah ! Of course he did American Music [record label] in the 1940s.

CM : He started that basically to make sure Bunk Johnson got released.

LE : Right, he was part of that. Him and a couple of other guys that got Bunk started. Then of course Bill Russell became, really, the biggest promoter of Bunk, ’cause he recorded him more than anybody else. Those are the recordings that this company then bought from Bill Russell. We have put all that stuff out. Actually, we still got a few Bunk sides to put out. We almost got to the end. There’ll be maybe one more CD.

CM : What do you think is the best recorded example of Bunk’s music ?

LE : There’s a lot of great stuff, it’s hard to say which one is the best. A lot of our stuff with him are very good, and the other sessions he did in New York are very good too.

CM : The last ones ?

LE : The one he did for Decca, and for Victor. Those are very good. The Decca side we had put out ; we got an agreement with them to put them out. Not the Victor side ; we don’t have those. Then he did another recording later that came out on Columbia. That’s right before he died, The Last Testament. That’s out on Bob Koester’s label, on Delmark.

CM : That’s very good.

LE : Yeah, it’s good ! It’s very different. There’s New York musicians, a different style. Some people like it, some people don’t. I think it’s good. Bunk is actually in top form there, he plays really well.

CM : One thing that doesn’t seem to show up that often is the piece that he did with Sidney Bechet.

LE : Oh yeah, on Blue Note. There’s only about four songs, I think.

CM : “Days Beyond Recall.” Beautiful !

LE : Yeah, those are very good I think it’s available on CD now.

CM : You’ve just put out a Best of George Lewis [The Best of George Lewis 1943-1964]. Tell me about George Lewis and about the process of putting out the CD.

LE : The Best of George Lewis came about from a suggestion from Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records. I always talk to him for advice, since he’s run a company almost as long as this one.

CM : Yes, I met him and interviewed him.

LE : I always ask him for advice. He said, “Well, you should do some Best Of [CDs].” He’s done it himself. Chris has put out a Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins, and different people like that. He think that’s a good selling point, that you can get maybe new listeners who [will] buy something like that. He suggested ‘Best of Bunk Johnson,’ ‘Best of Wild Bill’ ; you know, any artist that you have loads of CDs of. I decided start with George Lewis since we have over 50 CDs with him in our catalogue. So there’s a lot to pick from. We own more material from him than any other label. The only thing we’ll be missing on that was his period with Verve Records, which is not available unfortunately. It’s not available anywhere, as far as I know. Mosaic was supposed to put them out and they didn’t come to some kind of agreement for some reason, which is a shame because there is actually one session from Verve that’s never been available. But anyway, back to the Best Of, we had decided to go with George Lewis ; and I thought, “Well, I better get some input from people, because I don’t want to be the one to decide exactly.”

CM : To get all the blame.

LE : Yeah, get the blame. Well, you’ll get the blame anyway, but we haven’t gotten any blame. I sent e-mail to a bunch of people as they are real George Lewis fans, and musicians as well, people that play in that style, and of course people like Chris Strachwitz too. They all came up with favourites, favourite sessions. A lot of it was the same. There were a few that were different, and so it wasn’t that difficult in the end. There was real obvious sessions that had to be included, like his early trio side for Bill Russell, and also the Bunk sides, and the Kid Shots sides, which are some of the best, and “Burgundy Street Blues” of course. We had to pick a version ; we had so many versions of that one.

CM : The first one’s really famous.

LE : The first one is famous, but we didn’t use that one. We used the one from a concert here in New Orleans, in the Civil Auditorium, ’cause we thought that one was really exciting. It was a live concert and the band was cheering him on, and all this. It was really good. We used a couple of songs from that session. That one is not as common either, so we thought it’d be good to have that one out. We didn’t include too much from the ‘60s because his health was failing then, and he wasn’t as strong. We just included a few tracks from that, but most of it was from the ‘40s and ‘50s. We also found some very nice photographs to go with it, old photographs that had not been published before. It ended up being a double CD, because you couldn’t get it all on one. I thought it came out great.

CM : Is Bunk is going to have a Best of CD also ?

LE : Bunk will probably be one. I don’t know when we going to do that ; we have to decide whether to do a ‘Best of Bunk’ next or do the remaining titles of Bunk.

Two CDs of remaining titles came out since the interview.

CM : If you do the ‘Best of Bunk,’ then that’ll finance the remaining titles.

LE : [laughs] Well, nothing gets financed here actually. We don’t sell a lot. The record business is not very strong. We still keep going because we have mail order ; we have members of our record collectors club. We have about 8,000 or so of those. We send our newsletter to them and we get a fair amount of orders from that, and then we have a few distributors that sell. But, no, we don’t sell a lot. We sell enough to get by, and we are a non-profit company so we don’t have to make money. But we have to be self-sufficient, we can’t lose money, and that’s working, it’s working okay. A lot of that’s been helped also by doing licensing. We do quite a bit of licensing through movies, television shows, and other record companies as well. We have a few numbers in Boardwalk Empire and we had three songs in the Treme show [both are television series]. Those pay good money, so that’s been really good. So it’s been going okay.

CM : What’s your opinion of George Lewis as a musician or as a clarinet player ?

LE : Well, he was very influential, I have to say that. At one time he had more records out than even some of the biggest names in jazz. He really was extremely popular. I don’t know how popular he was in America because I wasn’t here at the time but he was very popular in Europe and very influential. He was very good band leader. He wasn’t very technically a good clarinet player ; he was quite limited actually. As a musician, he couldn’t read music and he didn’t have much of a harmonic sense. He was best at simple songs, very good at playing hymns or simple marches and things like that.

CM : But he was capable of doing “High Society” [a feature for dixieland clarinetists, derived by Alphonse Picou (1878-1961) from the piccolo part in an orchestration of this 1901 march composed by Porter Steele].

LE : Yeah, oh yeah ! He had enough technique that he could do that, especially in the earlier years. But he couldn’t hear certain chords. He’d often miss chords if the band decided to play a song that was a little more complicated. He would make a lot of mistakes.

CM : And he got criticized for playing sharp or out of tune, and some people say it’s because he was playing on a clarinet that wasn’t his clarinet.

LE : Well, I don’t know about that. He had a tendency to play out of tune in certain periods in his life, that’s true. On certain recording sessions, it was quite obvious, but not all the time. Most of the time he was all right, but there were certain recording sessions where he is very out of tune.

CM : Well, those ones aren’t on the Best Of obviously !

LE : No, they’re not on there. We actually don’t own those ! [laughs] Yeah, he had a tendency to play a little out of tune, that’s true. But that’s true of a lot of jazz musicians as well.

CM : Did you ever see the DVD of him in Japan ? I thought it was amazing, first of all, that it exists at all.

LE : There is an even better one than that that’s recently been unearthed. It’s from San Francisco in 1953. That’s on YouTube. That’s when the band was in absolute top form..

CM : Do you have any knowledge or any opinion of Dorothy Tait ?

Call Him George by Ann Fairbairn (Dorothy Tait), 1971 paperback edition.

LE : I never met her. I read the book a very long time ago, the one that she wrote about George Lewis [first published as Call Him George, credited to Jay Allison Stuart, in 1961 ; republished as Call Him George : A Biography of George Lewis, The Man, His Faith and His Music, credited to Ann Fairbairn, in 1969]. don’t even remember much of it, but I don’t think it was a particularly good book. She used a different name, I think.

CM : She did [Jay Allison Stuart and Ann Fairbairn were pseudonyms for Dorothy Tait].

LE : She was a manager. I know his other manager, the one before, Nick Gagliano. He’s still alive, in New Orleans. He managed the band in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s

CM : In Tom Bethell’s book [George Lewis : A Jazzman from New Orleans, 1997] he quotes Tait from an interview in the Tulane archives, and he’s got a bibliography of every book that’s ever come out that’s mentioned George Lewis. but Bethell never once quotes her from that book.

LE : I guess he probably didn’t like her book at all. Have you read her book ?

CM : That’s why I’m asking you. I have read both books, yeah. I got Dorothy Tait’s book it when I was about 19 years old. It was one of the things that made me more interested in New Orleans music. Recently, I was looking it up on the web and one reviewer called it a “one-eyed biography,” which means it’s only through her perspective…

LE : She probably didn’t know anything about jazz history.

CM : …which means she didn’t research ; she just said what she saw. But she does talk quite a bit about his early years, his family life, his grandmother, so she obviously got that from him. That stuff I found absolutely fascinating, but it’s more like, “This fan came up and spoke to him and that made him talk about this,” and it’s just from whatever she saw. But I was just surprised, to see how it is regarded now. For a young reader like me it was great, but whether it was accurate, that’s another story.

LE : A bit like the Mezz Mezzrow book [Really the Blues, 1946], which is also a good read, not necessarily true.

CM : But I was just so surprised that Tom Bethell quoted everybody else and never took anything from her. I think that maybe he didn’t like her.

LE : Could be. He probably met her.

George Lewis and Bunk Johnson, Stuyvesant Casino, New York, 1946. Photo by William P. Gottleib - Library of Congress, public domain.

CM : Yeah, he talks about meeting her and she had this kind of, ‘stay away from my George,’ attitude. What is your impression of Bunk Johnson as a musician ?

LE : Oh, I liked him a lot. I thought he was a great player.

CM : I do too.

LE : I like him a lot. He was criticized for playing out of tune too by some people. Or being limited or whatever. ‘Cause he had a drinking problem, he was a problem guy. The guys in the band didn’t like him, the George Lewis band, they didn’t get on with him. There was a lot of problems there.

CM : Was that maybe because of his racial prejudice ?

LE : No, not racial, musical.

CM : He was trained and they weren’t.

LE : Yeah, exactly. He didn’t like those guys, he called them “emergency musicians.” He didn’t think much of them, which was kind of odd because when they were recording Bunk first, in New Orleans, they asked him who to get, and when somebody was not available he suggested George Lewis.

CM : Then later he wasn’t too happy.

LE : Then later he complained. Actually the person that he didn’t like the most was Jim Robinson.

CM : The trombone player ?

LE : Yeah. Jim Robinson had a habit of, when he didn’t know a song real well, instead of playing the trombone part, he would play the melody, and Bunk hated that.

CM : That was his territory.

LE : ‘Cause he was the lead, yeah ! He got angry about Jim Robinson ; he’s supposed to be playing the trombone part. He asked Bill Russell not to use him and things like that. In fact, he booted him off one of the recording sessions, the one where they recorded “Dusty Rag.” I don’t know if you heard it, it came out on Jazz Information. They had several rehearsals with Jim Robinson, and in the end they booted him out of the session and they hired Albert Warner, who could read music but was a not very good jazz player. They’d actually been better off with Jim Robinson. Of course they only played a couple of ragtime songs, the rest of them were standard. But that’s the way Bunk was.

CM : That’s why he made that last record with those other guys. He thought they were up to his standard.

LE : And he played the ragtime stuff that he couldn’t do with George Lewis and those guys. Yeah, Bunk was a very special case, and Bill Russell went through a lot of headaches with him, recording him. He got drunk on sessions, didn’t show up, things like that.

CM : What do you think about the birth date controversy ? Was he born in 1879 or was he born in 1889 ? Do you have any opinion about that ?

LE : No, I haven’t really read up on that. I know this controversy, but I haven’t really studied it, so I don’t really know what position to take on that. I think somebody made a good case for it. The Tulane archives puts out a magazine called The Jazz Archivist, a very scholarly magazine. I think they addressed that at some point, looking at the photograph with Bunk in the early days.

CM : Oh, I have seen that.

LE : Yeah, you can kind of piece it together from that that he probably was not right about his age.

CM : Once I get in more deeply into learning and researching about this music—like I said, I’ve heard it all my life—but once you start digging, you find out almost nothing is as it seems. Right ? Bunk Johnson : maybe he was born then, maybe he wasn’t born then. Louis Armstrong : there’s a whole thing about his birthdate. You also hear the reason jazz spread north : “Oh, it’s because Storyville closed,” and then somebody comes along and says, “Actually it didn’t make much difference.”

LE : I don’t think that had much of an impact. Most of the performers were piano soloists.

CM : You hear the standard history, then you find out, “No, it’s really like this.” That’s why I was asking about the uptown and the downtown and the Creole. When you’re first getting into it, you go, “Oh, I get it. Then Storyville closed, the musicians went up the river…” Then you start to hear people say, “Jazz didn’t even start in New Orleans - it was big but it wasn’t the only place.” Every one of the little nuggets gets challenged.

LE : I think the main reason for that is that jazz books in general have been written by amateurs. They’re not historians, they don’t do real research. No, they write and they’re very opinionated, and they have fantasies about what the history is and the way they want it to be, instead of actually doing real research. Well, there’ve been some good books in recent times that have done a much better job.

CM : That took time, though.

LE : Like the book about the Creole band, for example, by Lawrence Gushee [Pioneers of Jazz : The Story of the Creole Band, 2010]. That’s a real well-researched book. He’s really done historical research instead of just listening to what somebody else says. A lot of the previous jazz books, they repeat stories that were in previous books, just over and over the same thing.

CM : What do you think is the romantic appeal ?

LE : Well, it is a big romantic appeal.

CM : But what is it ? What is it that people—I have my own theories—but I want to know what you think about it : people hear a jazz record and they go, “Oh, New Orleans, Storyville…” and it becomes a fantasy. What do you think is the fantasy, or what do you think is the appeal of the fantasy ?

LE : Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I know a lot of people have a romantic idea about how jazz started and the same thing about the blues too. That is not borne out by proper research. I don’t know what to think about it.

CM : There’s always this idea that ‘things were better before,’ right ? I found a quote from around 1830 that talked about ‘the young people of today, they’re throwing away our traditions.’ “It was better before” has always been around.

LE : One thing is common among just the average people, not necessarily jazz fans, I noticed playing at Preservation Hall. A lot of the times people would come up and they would say, they think that because you’re playing jazz, you know absolutely nothing about music. You never had a lesson in your life and it’s all just got a gift from God or something, that you can actually play : you just sat down one day and started playing. People say, “I bet you never had a lesson in your life” as a compliment. What kind of compliment is that ? One of the musicians actually got angry when they said that. You hear things like that. People have strange, very strange ideas. When I first came to New Orleans and I was playing at Preservation Hall, I would often be the only white guy in the band and the youngest one too. Now I’m quite often the oldest one. But I remember standing outside and somebody come up and said, “Oh, how did you get into this band ?” inferring, “You’re white…

CM : And from Stockholm and you didn’t grow up on the bayou.

LE : …and you’re young, what’re you doing in this band, you’re not supposed to be here.” There’s funny things that people say, but I just ignore all that.

CM : One of the things you always hear about this music is that it’s collective improvisation. That turns out to be a kind of a myth also.

LE : Well, no, it’s not a myth in a way. If you listen to those American Music records with Bunk and George Lewis and Jim Robinson, that’s what it is. There’s no arrangements there ; everybody is playing their own ideas and it somehow blends together because they know their parts. The trombone is playing his part ; the clarinet is playing his part ; and they don’t clash. That’s a very typical New Orleans thing, and you don’t hear that much from Chicago or New York bands. They have worked out parts that they play.

CM : In the early ‘80s, when I was studying in an ethnomusicology program in Toronto, our professor had us listen and transcribe “Dippermouth Blues” by King Oliver. He recorded it [in 1923] for one company and again three months later with the exactly the same musicians. We transcribed it. One of us did the clarinet part, another the trombone part, each instrument. I did the chord progression. The versions are almost identical !

LE : Same arrangement. Yeah, but that was a very well rehearsed band.

CM : The conclusion was, they probably created their parts though improvisation, until it worked ; and then they said now we’re going to play it that way.

LE : Then they play it the same way. Yeah, that’s absolutely true. That is also true with some of the New Orleans musicians like Jim Robinson. He played the same part on the same tune all the time, with very slight variations. He worked out the part back in the 1920s that he was still playing in the ‘60s.

CM : That might be true also for, at least to some extent, for George Lewis and Bunk Johnson. They rehearse it up and then they know what they’re going to do, and then it’s set.

LE : Yeah, Bunk tended to be a little more inventive. He would sometimes come up with a big surprise. George Lewis tended to stick to the same licks.

CM : In Bill Russell’s book, he talks about he was always trying to get the one version of “Careless Love” that he heard Bunk Johnson play live, but he was never able to get him to record that particular one.

LE : He never got a real great version of “Careless Love.”

CM : Sam Charters was bugging Bill Russell, saying—I think it was a joke between them—“the only song you know is ‘Careless Love,’ because you always ask for it.” Bill’s reply was, “I’m trying to get that… [one that got away].”

LE : There is a terrific version of “Careless Love” that was recorded in 1943, with George Lewis band, with Kid Howard. This was on the occasion when Bunk was not available ; he had gone to California or something. Bill wanted to record the band. Bill was here, he’d come all the way down here so he wanted to do something, and Bunk was gone. So he asked George Lewis for a trumpet player, and he suggested Kid Howard. Bill didn’t know much about Kid Howard. They did a fantastic version of “Careless Love.” They recorded it twice. The way they played it was supposedly the way Chris Kelly [1890-1929] played it, because that was Kid Howard’s inspiration as far as playing blues. The way they played it—Percy Humphrey played it the same way too, so obviously this was something that Chris Kelly set up—is that they play a blues first and then they go into “Careless Love.” Bill Russell recorded two versions of it. The first one, they played the blues so long [that] when they got to “Careless Love” the tape ran out. They only got a chorus or two and then it ran out. So he recorded it again, and he told them, “Don’t play the blues as long.” Then the blues part wasn’t as good, but they got the whole “Careless Love” part. I decided on this one [the George Lewis best of CD] to put them together. That was Tom Bethell’s suggestion. He said, “The blues part is so good on that, you gotta get that in there.” So I spliced them together. I didn’t tell anybody ; nobody knows that. It’s really a much better version of “Careless Love” than [any] Bunk Johnson one. It’s really excellent

CM : Did you know Sam Charters ?

LE : I met Sam in Sweden. We played there with the Ragtime Orchestra. His wife [Ann Charters] came and played the piano before we played. She plays ragtime piano. Then I met him again in London and we actually recorded for Sonet Records in London with the Ragtime Orchestra. We did two LPs, which were later released on Vanguard Records. That was produced by Sam Charters. He’s been to New Orleans to visit ; his son lives here in New Orleans. He comes to visit occasionally, so I met him once or twice when he was here but not much.

CM : He’s had an incredible career. What do you think is your most representative recording of yourself ?

LE : Of myself ? Well, that’s hard to say ‘cause I made so many records with so many different people. Some of my favourite records is some of the things I did with the Ragtime Orchestra. I like those because they are kind of unique ; nobody else had done the same thing. The band that we toured in Europe was very nice : the New Orleans Joymakers. That was in 1972. Orange and I got together and put together this all-star New Orleans band. We were offered a tour in Europe so we put it together, and we were able to get real good guys like Percy Humphrey, Louis Nelson, and Louis Barbarin, Chester Zardis. That was a great band. Then we went back two more years with that band, with slight change in personnel. A great experience. Those were really nice recordings.

CM : Then you have to do a ‘Best Of’ for yourself.

LE : Yeah ! [laughs] Recently I’ve done some recordings that are quite nice. I did one that I like with Uncle Lionel Batiste. Do you know him ?

CM : He’s just died ? Yeah, he was on the cover of one of the magazines recently.

LE : He was a unique guy and he was a bass drum player basically. He also sang. I’d heard him sing a little bit. But then I started working with him. I had a job with a strolling band at one of the riverwalk shopping malls. I played the banjo and we had a bass drum. He was working with us a little bit, and then every time we started a song, he started singing. I said, “Gee, wow, this guy’s got a big repertoire ; he knows all the songs.” I decided, “Well, I’m going to make a record with him because nobody knows that he knows all these songs.” The only things he recorded were something like “Closer Walk” [“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”] or basic songs that the brass bands do. We decided to do it a very chamber type of record. We used two guitars and a bass, and a couple of horns, clarinet players. It came out really nice. He does a variety of songs : old standards, gospel songs ; he even does a country song. It’s really cute, and the record has done really well here in New Orleans. It’s been very popular. A year or so later I decided to do a string band recording ‘cause I’ve been playing with a string band around town. We have a guy that plays violin and mandolin ; I play tenor guitar, resonator guitar ; then we have two other guitar players and a bass, and sometimes a clarinet. We play little gigs around town so I decided to do a recording with that. I had Uncle Lionel sing a few songs on that one too. That was his last recording actually. They often play it on the radio because one of the songs is “We’ll Meet Again.” They use it for a good-bye song on the radio here.

CM : The old Vera Lynn song.

LE : Vera Lynn, yeah. The old English one : “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” She was the one that sang it, that’s right. So he did a great job on that. That’s a nice recording too.

CM : Do you know who’s playing at Preservation Hall tonight ?

LE : No I don’t, I was there last night.

CM : Were you playing ? Oh damn, could’ve gone and seen you.

LE : I didn’t know you were here.


comments or questions ? email me

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006