Monday, February 6, 2017

Some Reflections on New Orleans Jazz from Robert Monie

Over on the Clarinet BBoard there was a question recently concerning New Orleans Style, with a debate ensuing as to whether written arrangements would be appropriate for beginners. I vociferously objected, and tried to supply some quick reasons for opposing them. Those comments are there for anyone who cares to read them. After I'd bowed out of the debate, though, Bob Monie, a clarinetist from New Orleans, wrote what I felt to be one of the most moving and insightful understandings of New Orleans Jazz that I've encountered. It was so meaningful that I asked permission to reprint it here, which he has graciously given, and which can be read below:   

"I live around the corner from where the Colored Waif's Home once stood (today 800 Rosedale Dr.) where Louis Armstrong learned to play the cornet. That's just a few yards from the Holt Cemetery and Buddy Bolden Place, where Buddy Bolden is buried. I went to high school 2 blocks from Pete Fountain's high school (Warren Easton), where he was surrounded by classical players who tried to teach him solfeggio and sight reading, but he always preferred not to bother with it. At Fountain's funeral in St. Louis Cathedral, Larry Welk, Lawrence Welk's son, humorously recalled that his father hoped Pete would eventually just "pick up" the art of reading music so he could read the stuff the sax section was playing, but he never did. Pete was a fine jazz tenor sax player himself, but always by played ear. That was his choice and what came natural to him. It served his musical purposes and made him the most famous and sought after jazz clarinetist in the trad jazz/swing idiom for several decades. 
"Even with this background, immersed in New Orleans jazz, I find I know very little about it and always have to make an effort to keep up. A few weeks ago I took a bus tour with local historian John McCuster (author of the well-researched jazz history study, "Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz" University of Mississippi Press, 2012). McCuster took us to historical jazz sites that the New Orleans Preservation Center is trying to maintain and memorialize with appropriate research, plaques, and monuments. I saw Buddy Bolden's house and learned that clarinetist Larry Shields lived almost next door. Shields used to play clarinet on his front porch for Bolden to critique. But of course, under segregation laws, the two of them could not appear on the same stage as performers because they were black and white. We went to the vacant lot where Sydney Bechet's house once stood and learned that when Kid Ory passed there he heard some wailing clarinet coming from inside and introduced himself to the then bashful Bechet.  
"Born and raised in New Orleans, I still didn't know any of this. In the 60s, I preferred DeFranco, Tony Scott, and local avant guarde player Al Batiste as jazz clarinetists to the more traditional players, including Pete Fountain, that I had heard at home everywhere in the city since a babe. I went through several periods of rediscovering the New Orleans jazz style more than once. going back and forth between the classical styles of Harold Wright, Cahuzac, Mitchell Lurie, Karl Leister, Sabine Meyer, etc. and the jazz styles. Each time, the New Orleans tradition sounded (and sounds) different to me. It is anything but a museum piece to be reconstructed; it is a way of playing that, in players with a mind fresh and young enough to hear, is still creative, warm, and even unpredictable-- potentially more interesting that the nostalgic note-for-note re-creations of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw one hears every day. 
"Where to hear today's New Orleans jazz? One place, according to McCuster, the jazz tour guide, (and I concur) is on Frenchman street, at the back of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Step into the Spotted Cat Music Club at 627 Frenchman, for instance, and see if the Jazz Vipers, or the Cotton Mouth Kings, or the New Orleans Moonshiners, or Evan Christopher is playing. This is a kind of music that has survived the swing era, be-bop, hard bop, free jazz, rock, hip hop, heavy metal, new age, ticky-tacky, and more. It is based on honest feeling, sometimes even prayerful expression, grief, sadness, and joy, tragedy, and sorrow, the longings of the human heart, the feet laughing to a beat and the ear loving a good song.  
"Steve, visit Frenchman street and listen to New Orleans jazz today. Find out how they do it. Some of the young players there aren't even from the US but they've got the jazz spirit. Doesn't matter if it's written or paper or, in the famous bass clarinetist's words, heard as an "ear spasm"; it's a style you can learn. But you've got to be there when its happening to get it."
There is a lot to learn, and many implications to be followed in the paragraphs above, but particularly moving for me was a line towards the end: "It is based on honest feeling, sometimes even prayerful expression, grief, sadness, and joy, tragedy, and sorrow, the longings of the human heart, the feet laughing to a beat and the ear loving a good song." Thank you, Bob, for expressing this so well in words. I wanted it to be a permanent part of 'the record' here at The Jazz Clarinet.

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