Preservation Hall Jazz Band: The Best of the Early Years

Robert R. Calder

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The Best of the Early Years

Label: Preservation Hall Recordings
US Release Date: 2004-01-27
UK Release Date: Available as import

One of my favourite errors in a jazz context came in an obituary of Willie Humphrey, a New Orleans clarinetist very well featured on this CD. It was said that although Willie had now died at the age of 94, the Preservation Hall band would continue under the leadership of his "elder" (sic) brother, the trumpeter Percy.

Percy only looked older; he was actually only 92. Within a year or so, he followed Willie and his trombonist brother Earl (much earlier plucked from us untimely at barely 70) over into the Gloryland.

Fifty minutes isn't wonderful playing time for a reissue drawn from three or four hours of taped music -- and the visually sumptuous setting of this CD is also short on words and notes, so that a little puzzling's necessary to be quite clear exactly which of the four ensembles sampled plays on exactly which title. All the evidence is given, I think, though I still get a little confused about one or two tracks on which the successive old hands on string bass, Chester Zardis and Alcide Pavageau, were finally replaced by the late Alan Jaffe on tuba. Jaffe (who died a few years back at only 51) ran Preservation Hall as a place where some of the old men could get to play their music and visitors could actually turn up and hear them. This was perhaps more wholesome than the Celebrity (strip) Club gig the Texas tenorist Buddy Tate held down for years in New York with comparable musical intentions serving other unfashionable jazz styles. Buddy's memorial is a healthy discography, Alan Jaffe's is Preservation Hall.

Cie Frazier is drummer on each of the three bands which a new listener with only a fraction less information might confuse one with another. They were really two bands, one (1966) with the cornetist Dede Pierce and his pianist wife Billie, the other featuring the Humphrey brothers first (1964) with Sweet Emma Barrett on piano and -- in the trombone of Jim Robinson, plus the bass of Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau, and Emanuel Sayles on banjo -- a batch of survivors from the pioneering band of this sort of music, which dates in truth from around 1942. Of the later version of that band more below.

1942: I mean the music comes from around that date, when these musicians were the heart of the New Orleans-based band assembled to work with the no longer merely legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson. They were folk musicians, not terribly adaptable, but perfectly idiomatic, well up to certain requirements. Consistency in the long haul some couldn't manage. It had to be the right night, and it had to be the right session.

There was some notion that their trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line was the original New Orleans one. That really isn't true. Johnson was a transitional figure from an earlier less bluesy more ragtimey music, and regarded as a wild innovator with his more driving style. By the time the other guys in his post-1942 band and this band had really got going, in the 1920s, the pawnshops of New Orleans had presumably resounded to sighs of relief. A fair tonnage of brass had been purchased by local musicians after having been left there by army bandsmen demobbed from the Spanish-American war. The inadequate number of older New Orleans bands recorded in the 1920s, Sam Morgan, Oscar Celestin, Jones, and Collins -- all had saxophones. Morgan, for whom some of the men here worked, had several.

The émigré bands of King Oliver and Luis Russell in Chicago and New York likewise had saxophones, though Oliver could at times do without because of the quality of clarinet player he had (Johnny Dodds). The three-man front line lost in power and swing over the earlier bigger complement, and the rhythm sections became engines whose noise could be heard too loudly at the front.

It's inept to call either the 1920s New Orleans jazz or its post-1942 recasting "Dixieland". The Gulf of Mexico is continuous with the Caribbean. The largely Italian-American Original Dixieland Jazz Band coined the name and have successors in the generally lighter and jollier style latterly vulgarised as what might be called PTA Dixieland -- and still I am told played widely across the USA, by ensembles neither historically well-informed nor musically curious. Those I've heard are not all that interesting, and tied to routine superstition. If they tried to be less narrow, varying repertoire and performance routine, they might be called wrong? The same sort of thing happened to Scottish traditional music, and convinced locals as well as US tourists, though Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson could find a living tradition to oppose to the mass market variety. Alan Jaffe did his good best.

The ODJB's pastiche was rather paler than the white Chicago jazz which grew up around 1920s émigrés, and benefitted from friendship and even private jamming with older New Orleans men and Louis Armstrong. By the 1940s, fugitives from failing black big bands could play in public for money with these white men, which would have been a scandal less than twenty years earlier. "Dixieland" as a term hardly does justice to the full musical range of what Eddie Condon sustained, any more than "Zarzuela singer" covers Placido Domingo. He can do it, and the non-complacent side of Dixieland was important to the pianoless early groups of Gerry Mulligan: his baritone alternated between trombone and clarinet -- or Bud Freeman tenor saxophone -- and Bob Brookmeyer's valve trombone could manage both tailgate slur and burp, and cornet-clear articulation.

From sheer enthusiasm for the older music in its revived narrower version, the white Alan Jaffe and the trombonist Frank Demond were in the later version of the Preservation Hall band following the loss of the old bassists and the death of Jim Robinson. Wynton Marsalis is clear enough about the attitudes of his African American generation, before they recovered from a deep-seated hysterical delusion that old New Orleans jazz was a decaying precedent of sheer PTA Dixieland. 1920s New Orleans jazz did have potential as music, such Europeans as Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber appreciated. The former's saxophonist was indeed greeted at one gig by a banner reading "GO HOME DIRTY BOPPER", and there was a certain tension between these men and "purists" who had actually gone to play with New Orleans musicians in New Orleans.

The 1940s pattern imposed on this music was plainly influenced by a cult of something like primitivism. Bunk Johnson was a highly skilled musician who gradually approximated to primitivism as a result of exasperation at the shortcomings of his less skilled colleagues by transferring his virtuosity to the whisky bottle. I want to make clear just how rough some of the music here is, in part a result of what the music came to be expected to sound like.

It's a standard mixture catering to some tourist expectations, as where in the second Preservation Hall group selection we find Emma Barrett's successor on piano, "Sing" Miller, delivering a vocal performance of "Nelly Gray" stylistically contemporary pretty well with Woodrow Wilson's presidency. Narvin Kimball's banjo has an almost 1890s charm. One feature in common to performances by the Morgan band, and very much Bunk Johnson's, and especially the Pierces here, is a kind of ensemble playing characterised not by solos but by each man continually varying his part in what could be not far from statement of the theme. A standard example is the Pierces' "The Peanut Vendor".

The most secure and standout musician overall is Willie Humphrey, who moved north for a time in the 1930s and was a real pro, but who came back home probably because he was happier making a living there. He solos fluently and develops long continuous melodic lines, which is important. Regular riffs don't really belong. The phrases have to be in a continuity, however broken. Willie does this better than the rest, lifting performances he's on. His brother could be impressive, but overall in a very mixed discography lacked the professional's concentration. Jim Robinson was an expert musician in roles which never demanded that much technique.

His colleague with Bunk, the legendary technically circumscribed clarinetist George Lewis, led bands internationally until his death -- and spawned a host of would-be emulators, such as Acker Bilk. Not in consistent local employment with the band he toured, Lewis is with the Pierces here. His own earlier recordings with rhythm, rhythm sometimes including a trombonist, came out in an excellent cheap CD in Europe long ago. Emulated by better technicians who took him as authentic and definitive, his sound was curiously precarious and at times extraordinarily moving. This could also be said of Dede Pierce's cornet, itself best heard on a CD of duets with his pianist-singer wife. Emma Barrett's piano here, like her successor's and like Billie Pierce's here, is in mostly untamed dance-hall mode, and a shade too much on the sustain pedal for the three-man and with the years less powerful front line. Ms. Barrett is another classic case of a local fame extending concurrently with decline due to age and illness in her performing abilities. Of course musicians regularly playing this music tended not to have jobs demanding more of them, and technically more able performers were detained by those very jobs. Preservation was a good name for the project.

In comparison with other recordings available of this sort of material, valuably recorded by the old Riverside label and Atlantic forty years ago -- to say nothing of the 1940s American Music venture available exhaustively on GHB-Jazzology -- this souvenir of the old days at the old new place is no great standout. For anybody named above, the entries on the All Music Guide website are entirely reliable. Which is to say nothing of Harold Dejan's 1974 Olympia Brass Band, whose street music dances across a quarter of this CD. There is some incorporation of boogaloo too, which helps to round off the general document here. The four titles by the second Preservation Hall band here (1977) have not been available before; the music by the other bands is drawn from three CDs you can buy only at the venue (where I hope and assume this one will also sell) or through its website.

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