Throughout his life Louis Armstrong said his birthday was the 4th of July, 1900. It seemed fitting, somehow, for America’s greatest jazz patriarch to share a birthday with his native country. Few questioned this date until many years after Armstrong’s death in 1971. Until Tad Jones came along.
Tad Jones was a New Orleans music historian, broadcaster, educator and co-founder of New Orleans’s beloved music venue, Tipitina’s. In 1988 he got a call from New York City. It was the prolific jazz writer Gary Giddens, who was working on a book about Armstrong and also directing an Armstrong documentary for PBS. Giddens and the show’s producer asked Jones if he would do some research for them.
“It was supposed to be the definitive book on Armstrong, but he didn’t have time to come here and do the work himself,” Jones told the Times-Piycaune in 1994. “One thing they were interested in was Louie’s birthday. They didn’t believe in Louie’s story that he was born on July 4 and I told them, ‘Yeah, I’ve never believed it myself and nobody else I know believes it.’ “
Discovering Horn of Plenty
Jones managed to track down an obscure Armstrong biography by a Frenchman named Robert Goffin. In it, Armstrong is quoted as saying “When I was born my grandmother took me to Sacred Heart Church to be baptized.”
Jones admitted much of the dialogue in Goffin’s book is “totally fictionalized” and “nobody took Goffin seriously.”
But still, Jones thought, it had to be worth going to the church for a look.
“I went in the rectory, told the lady I was looking for a baptismal certificate. She looks it up, pulls out a card that says Louis Armstrong, and asks if his mother was Mary Albert and his father William Armstrong? I said yes.
“She gives me a copy, I give her three bucks, and it has taken all of 15 minutes to find a record that’s been sitting for 88 years in the Sacred Heart rectory on South Lopez Street, that gives Louis Armstrong’s correct birthday as Aug. 4, 1901.”
Giddens’s “definitive” Armstrong biography was published later in 1988. Jones observed ruefully that one piece of its scholarship stood out for most of the reviewers:
“Oh, Gary Giddens found Louis Armstrong’s real birthday.”
Tad Jones wasn’t as upset by his lack of credit as he was by the fact that Armstrong’s life clearly needed more research. One thing he noticed was the name Catherine Walker, listed on the certificate as Armstrong’s baptismal sponsor. Who was she? Jones wanted to know.
After some more digging, it turned out Walker was Louis Armstrong’s great-grandmother. This started a quest for more information about Armstrong’s background, one that Jones was still pursuing when he died in 2007.
Staff writer, BILL GRADY. “MUSIC WRITER RELISHES ROOTS, RHYTHM OF N.O..” Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA), November 6, 1994: B1. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
This time of year here in New Orleans we look forward to Satchmo Summerfest — a seven-day celebration of all things Louis Armstrong. It’s the event’s 20th anniversary, and normally we’d be heading down to the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the old U.S. Mint for music, food and enlightening conversation.
The keyword is “normally.” Of course these aren’t normal times. So like everyone else, the good folks at French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (who put on the event) have gone virtual.
There’s still music, courtesy of our local jazz and heritage radio station, WWOZ, as well as concerts streaming live on-line. For a complete schedule, visit the Satchmo Summerfest web site.
And even if we can’t walk up to a food vendor and grab a luscious po-boy to munch on while wandering outside the Mint listening to great music, there’s still a food component to this year’s Satchmo Summerfest.
Of course, it’s on-line as well:
More great cooking demos are lined up on the French Quarter Festival’s YouTube channel. We’re getting hungry just thinking about it.
Which leaves us with only one question: Will Ricky Riccardi be giving one of his great Louis Armstrong presentations this year? And the answer is “yeah, man.” Check him out on Saturday, August 1st at 4:00 pm, Central. Ricky will be hipping us to “The Big Band Years of Armstrong.” And the following day it’s “Hang at Home with Louis.” Same time, same Satch channel.
But how many of us also know that Moore is passionate about teaching a new generation of drummers? He writes for drumming magazines, gives master classes and has dozens of instructional books and videos. In 2011 Moore’s Groove Alchemy topped the Modern Drummer Readers Poll for best Educational Book and Educational DVD.
We’ve been playing at Tipitina’s for a quarter of a century now. I started going there when I was 16 years old, literally 30 years ago. Tipitina’s is our favorite place in New Orleans, we’ve all been on record many times over the years saying that it’s one of our favorite venues to play in the whole world. In the last 20 years, Galactic’s played there for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, New Year’s Eve, Halloween and many other events on an annual basis. We’ve even been nicknamed ‘The House Band’ at Tipitina’s; our name is outside in the sidewalk in the Walk of Fame.
It’s the most iconic music venue in New Orleans. [Former owner Roland] Von Kurnatowski wanted to sell it to us because he knew we would carry on its legacy. He has owned it since 1997. That’s 20 years of history; we’re honored to know he trusted us to do it justice.
Stanton Moore in 2018
3. Stanton Moore uses double bass pedals
4. Stanton Moore plays around
To date Stanton Moore has appeared on ten albums with Galactic … but what about all his other gigs? Did you know he’s also recorded with his own band, Garage A Trois (my vote for best band name)? Or that he’s played with the likes of Joe Jackson, Walter Wolfman Washington, Eric Lindell, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty, Anders Osborne, Bonearama, Johnny Sansone and many others?
5. With You In Mind
In 2017 Stanton Moore turned an album project with his trio into a tribute to the late Allen Toussaint. Co-produced by David Torkanowsky, With You In Mind features a galaxy of New Orleans talent.
For now, Toussaint is New Orleans’ Great American Songbook and Beatles combined; let’s hope the cover trend continues, and as creatively as it’s done here.
Tom McDermott, OffBeat
This album is one of our favorites. Check it out on Stanton Moore’s website (scroll down on the home page). And don’t miss Wendell Pierce with a unique reading on “Southern Nights,” along with a fine Nicholas Payton solo.
Don’t have the time? No problem. We’ve got the TLDR version, right here.
First of all, Jones says she’s going a little stir-crazy these days. (Aren’t we all…) So, she’s streaming a live Facebook concert tomorrow (Sunday, June 27, 2020) at 12 noon, Central. Needless to say we’re eager to hear that.
She’ll be accompanied by percussionist Mike Dillon and according to the article she’ll “showcase songs from throughout her career, with an emphasis on her … 1979 debut.” Which is one of our favorite albums, not the least because it lets us use the word “eponymous.” As in Rickie Lee Jones’s eponymous album, featuring Dr. John on piano:
And now, after more than 40 years, Jones has recovered the rights to it. Which means she’ll be issuing a brand-new, remastered version later this year. Maybe even in vinyl (we hope).
Speaking of Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones recorded with the late Doctor on a number of unreleased tracks. She says “Mac sounded a little weak, but what a unique voice he had. I always loved him. The more you hear him, the more you recognize, ‘What an important American figure.’”
Oh, and did we mention there’s an autobiography in the works? There is; it’s apparently being edited and typeset as we speak. She says, “I hope it reads well. It’s kind of like Forrest Gump as told by Charles Dickens.” Should be published early next year.
And a new album is coming, too — a follow-up to Kicks, which came out in 2019.
Messrs. Riley, Powell and Marsalis have been gigging as the New Orleans Groovemasters (a/k/a Groove Masters) for about four years, as far as we can tell. Of course these days there’s not much gigging to be done … except on-line.
Tonight (June 24, 2020) at 7:00 PM CDT, the Groovemasters are streaming live on Facebook. Details below.
From time to time the Groovemasters lineup includes Roderick Paulin, sax, David Torkanowsky, piano and bassist Jason Weaver. When the pandemic finally burns itself out we can’t wait to see them all live.
Sometimes these blog posts just write themselves … thanks to Tarriona Tank Ball and a few of her friends. So here’s “What The World Needs Now” with a fresh update that couldn’t be timelier.
In January, Yahoo gave us the opportunity to call some of our artist friends in New Orleans to help us record ”What The World Needs Now” and it was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in a room full of artists. It was so New Orleans. The voices of the children, the poets, the different tones and textures of all the artists was truly transforming. I believe that everyone can testify how high the emotions ran this particular day. It’s my hope that people will become moved, active, and use love in their weaponry in fighting for what they believe is right.
Tarriona Tank Ball
The “friends” in question include: Alexis Marceaux, Alfred Banks, Anjelika Joseph, Daniel Abraham Jr., Danny Abel, David Shaw, Etienne Stoufflet, Franklin Davis II, Harmony Ball, Jonathan Johnson, Joshua Kagler, Maggie Koerner, PJ Morton, Rahim Glaspy, Samuel Crafts, Sasha Masakowski, Sha’condria Sibley, Sunni Patterson, Tia Henderson, Tracci Lee and Micah Johnson. So much talent in one room!
Speaking of rooms, a shout-out to our good friend Paul McDonald, who recorded the audio at Marigny Studios where we’ve spent many a pleasant day.
Until chimps get credit cards, you’re the ONLY primate who can help Music Inside Out on GiveNOLA Day, Tuesday, June 2. We’re the frog pictured above, of course, clinging for dear life. But the good thing about frogs is they’re a sign of environmental health. When we’re on the air, we’re lifting spirits everywhere.
Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins is a weekly, one-hour radio broadcast featuring the people of Louisiana who’ve devoted their lives to America’s music. Host Gwen Thompkins and her guests talk extensively about the fire and sweat of the creative process. In addition, these guests examine songs that have influenced Louisiana’s unusually varied musical landscape … music that reaches far beyond the state’s borders.
The standard-bearers of Louisiana music include national icons. The list includes Jelly Roll Morton to Big Freedia … Fats Domino to Tim McGraw … Jerry Lee Lewis to Clifton Chenier … Mahalia Jackson to Trombone Shorty. What makes their music so varied and satisfying is the influence of other cultures. It’s an ongoing dialogue with the rest of the United States and the world.
Each week, Music Inside Out showcases unexpected points of cultural connection. For example, Louis Armstrong loved Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana — and played an aria from that opera every day — just as contemporary Louisiana artists live with their ears wide open.
Gwen Thompkins is a veteran correspondent and editor for National Public Radio. She was East Africa Bureau Chief for National Public Radio, based in Nairobi, Kenya. She was also senior editor of NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.
Thompkins was born and raised in New Orleans. Early on she worked as a reporter and editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. in addition, she was a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University from 2010-2011.
Throughout her career, Thompkins has used music to shape her stories. She’s reported on secret wedding night dances in Sudan as well as musical testimonials to crimes against humanity in Northern Uganda, and East Africa’s fascination with Dolly Parton.
Her acclaimed NPR series on hurricane Katrina was rich with New Orleans music.
Thompkins remains a correspondent for NPR and files musical stories and essays from New Orleans. She says she’s never quite evolved from making mix tapes, playlists — and connections with a wide variety of artists. As a result, her interviews brim with humor, curiosity, and creativity.
Drummer and vibraphonist Jason Marsalis has a couple of virtual gigs we thought you should know about. Like many musicians these days, Marsalis is streaming live on Facebook.
Tonight at 6:00 pm EDT (5:00 pm Central), Jason Marsalis is going solo as part of Blue Note New York‘s At Home series. “I’m working on the presentation as we speak so I’ll try to deliver a top quality solo show from home. Looking forward to it.” If we know Marsalis, there’s sure to be a nice mix of old standards and new improvisations. We’re looking forward to it as well.
And just a few days later (Thursday, May 28, 7:00 pm CDT) you can hear the The 21st Century Trad Band: Benny Goodman Edition. According to Marsalis: “The group pays homage to the classic 1930’s Benny Goodman Quartet while bringing the music into the 21st century by covering music written after 1930.”
It’s “a fresh take on a classic ensemble … with Jason Marsalis on vibraphone, Joe Goldberg on clarinet, Kris Tokarski on piano, and Gerald T. Watkins on drums.” The show will be streaming on the Jason Marsalis Facebook page.
There’s so much live music streaming these days it’s hard to keep up. We looked ahead at the Blue Note schedule and saw a couple of New Orleans musicians represented: Nicholas Payton, also performing this Thursday, May 28; and Jon Cleary on May 30.
New Orleans radio station WWOZ is offering one way to keep tabs on all the virtual music performances by our homebound local musicians: the WWOZ On-Line Wire. This massive endeavor has one particularly handy feature: click on any performer’s name and go to the location of the livestream. Saves a great deal of searching on Google.
The musicians left Frenchmen Street right before St. Patrick’s Day. Ironically that’s when New Orleans began its lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Bars, restaurants and entertainment venues were closed. That included the dozen or so music clubs scattered along Frenchmen, located just downriver from the Quarter.
Doors and windows boarded up, this once vibrant arts and entertainment district became a plywood-paneled ghost town overnight. Deprived of their usual music venues, some musicians went on-line, playing virtual gigs on Facebook.
But while the entertainment part of Frenchmen Street fell silent, art continued to thrive. Muralist Josh Wingerter used the boarded-up windows as his canvas, creating quarantine-inspired artworks of familiar musicians and other pop figures. Several of them became Internet memes, including a portrait of Louis Armstrong with pandemic-appropriate PPE:
We weren’t able to photograph Wingerter’s art until after some other “artists” had tagged the empty spaces surrounding his images. Fortunately, these graffitists had mostly kept their spray cans away from his work.
For now it’s heartening to see these musicians still entertaining Frenchmen Street passers-by. With restrictions easing, some clubs and restaurants may soon re-open … making us wonder: what’s going to happen to all those artworks?
News of LittleRichard’s death at the age of 87 is especially sad news for us here in New Orleans. Although a Georgia native, Richard Penniman recorded many of his most famous hits right here at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording studio.
Songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Keep A Knockin” blew the lid off the Fifties, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Little Richard was one of the Hall’s first inductees in 1986.
Rock critic Dave Marsh wrote that Richard’s shouting and singing “paid tribute to the gospel women from whom he snitches at least as many licks as the Beatles ever stole from him.” In 1989 Marsh ranked “Tutti Frutti” number nine on his list of the 1001 greatest singles ever made.
Those early hits are classics to be sure, but for some reason we often return to a duet he did with country singer Tanya Tucker on an obscure MCA compilation from 1994, Rhythm, Country & Blues. Here’s a live performance of that song, Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else,” at the 1994 CMA Awards:
It’s also worth tracking down this album for its fine version of Allen Toussaint‘s “Southern Nights,” with the maestro himself on piano and vocals, and a buttery smooth Chet Atkins on guitar.
Oh, and did we mention Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood singing “I Fall To Pieces” on that same album? Check it!
It’s funny how Little Richard sent us free associating once again. But he did have that effect of taking us out of ourselves. Woooo!
Mark your calendar: New Orleans composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard will be coming to your home in just a few days. No need to clean up the place, however. Blanchard is hosting the award-winning New Orleans documentary, “Up From the Streets.” This “virtual cinema release” will begin streaming on May 14.
Here’s how it works: Tickets to watch the film are $12 each. They’re available from over 75 participating movie theaters in the U.S. Your ticket will be good for seven days, and you’ll have 72 hours to finish the film once you’ve started watching. A list of participating theaters (and virtual tickets) is available online.
The idea, of course, is to support your local independent movie theater while sheltering safely in place. But a portion of the proceeds also goes to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Music Relief Fund. This initiative supports Louisiana musicians who’ve lost income during the pandemic. So it’s a win-win-win.
“Up From the Streets” is both a history and celebration of the music of New Orleans. It premiered last October at the New Orleans Film Festival. The festival jury nominated it for best feature-length Louisiana documentary. Awards at other festivals in Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Houston followed.
Good news: Sweet Crude’s newest album just came out: Officiel/Artificiel.
And there’s even more good news: Sam Craft, Alexis Marceaux and Skyler Stroup of Sweet Crude have recovered from coronavirus. The group had just ended a tour through Alabama and Florida when the band members fell ill, according to NOLA.com.
To be honest, Officiel/Artificiel has been out since April 24, but we’ve been, shall we say, a bit distracted. Meanwhile Sweet Crude has been busy, giving interviews to Billboard, OffBeat Magazine and our friends at NPR, among others.
Unfortunately, all that activity doesn’t include touring to support the album. Like musicians everywhere, Sweet Crude has had to lean on streaming technology to get the word out. Here’s Alexis and Sam performing the title track of Officiel/Artificiel … unplugged.
As Sam Craft told NPR’s Ailsa Chang, “We understand that there’s a huge community of musicians in New Orleans who are needing to totally reinvent their business. But what we see is that the fact that we’re all in the same boat has led us to supporting each other, in the digital way that we can. We’re used to disasters happening down here — usually of the hurricane variety — but we know the value of reaching out to one another and helping each other is priceless.”
The suite includes “portraits” of Sidney Bechet, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, along with a lesser known New Orleans artist: Wellman Braud. Braud played upright bass and tuba with Ellington in the 1920s and 30s. Branford Marsalis credits Braud with being one of the first “walking bass” players. And if that’s not enough cred, he’s distantly related to the Marsalis family.
The album contains the final recordings of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who died halfway through its completion. The gently-swinging “Blues for New Orleans” features Hodges’ last recorded solo. (It’s rumored he would have played his rarely-heard soprano saxophone on “Portrait of Sydney Bechet.”)
Three weeks before his death Hodges, along with the rest of Ellington’s orchestra, gave “Blues for New Orleans” its JazzFest premiere on April 25th, 1970 at the Municipal Auditorium.
So, happy birthday Duke Ellington … and happy belated birthday to his New Orleans Suite.
Our program is dedicated to Michael Cogswell, who died April 20 at the age of 66. Cogswell was the founding Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.
The WBGO website has an excellent obituary detailing Cogswell’s career as jazz archivist and historian who undertook the job of turning Louis Armstrong’s New York home into a museum.
The LAHM Facebook page says that Cogswell transformed “a stack of 72 shipping cartons filled with Louis Armstrong’s vast personal collection of home-recorded tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia … into a monumental research archive, eventually holding eleven collections of Armstrong material.”
All that said, we have a Michael Cogswell memory of our own to share.
As part of its post-Katrina coverage in 2005, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast a collection of recorded messages offering words of encouragement and support to hurricane victims. The speakers included singer Bonnie Raitt, reporter Betsy Mullener, authors Fannie Flagg and Richard Ford … and Michael Cogswell:
At that time, Gwen was the senior editor of the program. “Michael Cogswell and I never met face to face, but in 2005 he was my first call when I came up with the idea to create this ribbon of salutations. He really came through. Only later did I hear that his brother lives not far from New Orleans, in Folsom, Louisiana. Cogswell’s message of support set the exact tone we wanted — calm, personal concern, sincerity and hope.”
It’s been a while since we checked in with our favorite electronic pop duo, Sylvan Esso, to see what they’ve been up to.
Turns out, a lot.
Last year they decided to set out on a limited run of tour dates as a ten-piece band, featuring eight musicians and friends. We were lucky enough to catch the opening concert of the With Tour at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and it was wonderful:
If you weren’t able to attend any of the live shows (or if you’d like to re-live them), you’re in luck! A full-length concert film premieres on YouTube this Thursday, April 23rd at 9pm Eastern.
Here’s Amelia and Nick with a preview:
“We knew that in order to put on the best show we possibly could in a few short weeks we had to truly lean on and trust the friends we had asked to become part of our band. The end result – as with so many communal efforts – was much greater than the sum of its parts, in ways we could have never dreamed of. The world has completely shifted in a few months – the idea of togetherness rings in a different way. It was such a special moment that now feels like a signpost of how things were and how they could be again.”
Sylvan Esso hopes that this spirit of togetherness will inspire people to have watch parties to check out the film while maintaining social distancing. They invite anyone interested to head over to their website to sign up. They promise to send “send all the (easy!) details to you on Wednesday.”
In December, 2019, the 85 year old jazz patriarch announced he was stepping away from his weekly commitment, calling it “exhausting.” But Marsalis still planned to appear at the club a couple times a month as a “special guest.”
Ellis Marsalis died on April 1st, 2020 and now Snug Harbor is honoring his memory with a virtual Friday night concert series, starting tonight at 8:00 pm, CDT.
The players include saxophonist Derek Douget, bassist Jason Stewart and trumpeter Ashlin Parker, along with percussionist Jason Marsalis. They’ll all be performing from their respective homes, streaming on the Snug Harbor Facebook page.
Here’s the band to explain:
If, like some of us, you missed the opportunity to hear Ellis Marsalis at Snug … now’s your chance to make up for it by helping some local musicians honor his memory. And don’t forget the virtual tip jar.
This week we’re reconnecting with New Orleans chanteuse Meschiya Lake after a seven year hiatus. Much has happened in that interim, to say the least. She’s a new mother. And she’s got a new album; a collaboration with Danish saxophonist Søren Siegumfeldt.
Of course, like all musicians in New Orleans and elsewhere, Meschiya Lake is idle due to the global pandemic.
So what’s she been listening to?
In my daily rotation learning on guitar is a song called, “Blackbird,” by an Irish artist named Lisa O’Neill, but also is “Dumb Blonde,” by Dolly Parton! Two complete ends of the spectrum. One is like, [sings] really beautiful and minor key and then there is Dolly talking about “you may think I’m a dumb blonde.”
Naturally we wanted to take a closer listen to these two songs. Here’s “Blackbird”:
And here’s the inimitable Dolly Parton, suffering through an intro by the forgettable Bobby Lord on his TV show in 1967:
Tough times call for time-tested music. Here are five albums we’ve listened to over and over again throughout the years — on vinyl, compact disc, streaming … some even on cassette!
We’re not saying these are the best in whatever musical category they happen to occupy. Nor do we claim each album’s the best offering from that particular artist. “Best” is not a debate we want to get into.
What each album offers is good company. A musical sanctuary for those who just need to make the rest of the world disappear for about 40 minutes or so.
1. Dr. John, Gumbo
Hard to believe this recording’s almost fifty years old! The songs on Gumbo are so different from the pop and jazz of the early 70s they might as well have landed from outer space. They had — and have — an infectious, driving, carefree yet wistful quality that’s a defining characteristic of New Orleans music. And co-produced by Harold Battiste, how could they not?
While Gumbo is available online and on CD it’s worth seeking out a vinyl copy (either the 1972 Atco original or the 1986 Alligator re-issue) in order to read Dr. John’s liner notes, strangely missing from the other formats.
They’re all here: “Blueberry Hill” … “I’m Walkin'” … “Blue Monday” … the songs you need to get you through these hard times. Bonus activity: put “Ain’t That A Shame” on repeat, pick up a saxophone and pretend you’re Herb Hardesty.
3. King Curtis & Champion Jack Dupree, Blues at Montreux
Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland on June 17, 1971, but it could’ve been a decade earlier at the Drop on LaSalle. Everybody’s having so much fun here. On “Junker’s Blues” Jack plays fast and loose with the 12-bar format, dropping a measure here and adding one there as the band struggles to keep up. “When it comes to bars,” he says, “the only ones I know about are those you drink in and those in prison cells. I don’t count bars, I play by feeling.”
4. Aaron Neville, My True Story
Produced by Don Was and Keith Richards, with Richards on guitar, this album of doo-wop standards may seem as far removed from New Orleans as you can get. But oh, that voice. That soul, that wellspring of controlled emotion. “These songs helped to mold me into who I am,” says Aaron Neville. “They’re all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years.”
I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.
Ernie K-Doe, 1979
We referenced this on a recent blog post featuring Paul Simon’s timely video, “American Tune Til Further Notice.” Now it’s time to play the record in its entirety. While you’re listening you may want to read an insightful revue by another virtuoso New Orleans pianist, Tom McDermott. A fitting testimonial to an astonishing career. Thanks, Mr. Toussaint, for helping us get though this period of isolation and loss with your unyielding optimism and matchless grace.
Ellis Marsalis, Jr. has died at the age of 85. His legacy as a performer, teacher and patriarch of one of the great musical families in jazz is immeasurable. Marsalis was a mentor to a Who’s Who of jazz luminaries: Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, Kent Jordan, Marlon Jordan, Victor Goines, and Jon Batiste. Four of his sons have become jazz notables in their own right: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.
It’s Paul Whiteman‘s birthday today, and this obscure fact sent us down a virtual rabbit hole of free association…
Once hailed as “The King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) had one of the most popular dance bands of the 1920s and 30s in this country. And it was big — at a time when most orchestras topped out at six to ten players, Whiteman’s sometimes boasted as many as 35, including strings. In 1922 he managed 28 bands on the East Coast, earning him over a million dollars. (Fifteen million today, adjusted for inflation.) Not bad for a viola player from Denver.
Rhapsody in Blue — which Whiteman commissioned — premiered at an afternoon concert on Tuesday, February 12, 1924 in New York City’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman called his concert “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Rhapsody was second to last on a long and tendentious program. According to Wikipedia, many important and influential musicians of the time were present, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, John Philip Sousa, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. Gershwin himself was the soloist.
In 1984 the late conductor Maurice Peress set out to recreate the entire concert in a recording with pianists Ivan Davis (Rhapsody soloist) and Dick Hyman. It’s a treat to hear the work in its original jazz band orchestration with banjo and saxophones. It’s also worth seeking out the physical CD for the excellent liner notes by Peress.
So many recordings of Rhapsody have been made over the years, but our favorite will always be the one featuring the pianist, celebrity and professional hypochondriac Oscar Levant. A music critic once asked him if Gershwin’s music would still be around in a hundred years. Levant famously replied, “If George is around, it will.”
Sadly, no videos seem to exist of Levant playing Rhapsody. But there is a memorable scene in “An American In Paris” featuring that other Gershwin masterpiece, Concerto in F … and a lot of Oscars:
About that “King of Jazz” title? Some critics have called Whiteman’s ornately orchestrated music “pseudo-jazz,” lacking the improvisational and emotional depth of true jazz. But in his autobiography, Duke Ellington declared, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”
Well, if the Duke said so, that’s all right with us.
An extraordinary thing happened the other day. An episode of Music Inside Out reached the program’s biggest audience ever on Facebook — more than 47,000 people, who clicked nearly 8,000 “Likes.” Talk about a kick in the head.
Part of what made the result so singular is that the episode we ran was dedicated to country music, which is not as popular in New Orleans as it is in other areas of the state, or the region.
We’d interviewed historian Bill C. Malone who wrote the book on country music back in 1968, updated it in 1985 and in 2018 issued a 50th anniversary edition. Country Music, USA has never been out of print and Malone, 85, has kept his ear to the airwaves all these years, finding new angles, artists and songs to talk about. His many subsequent books and articles explore the music as well as the working class people who created it and for whom it has always meant so much.
When the Ken Burns team went looking for an expert to guide them through the history of the music, they could do no better than Malone — and didn’t. He was the resident historian of the PBS Ken Burns: Country Music series and when he wasn’t on camera, the narrator Peter Coyote was repeating ideas that Malone had formulated originally in print so long ago.
The Singing Historian
What makes Malone compelling as a retired university professor, author and songcatcher, is that he sings. At Tulane University, where he spent 25 years in the classroom, he would bring his guitar to class and perform some of the most cherished songs in the country music canon — standards by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Carter Family and more.
But for a man who sang repeatedly to a captive audience of students, he was no ham. Before anyone would think to applaud, he’d be talking about the particulars of the songwriter, the performer, the listening audience, the radio station. He knew that hearing the song sung simply and in real time had the potential to move students emotionally, pique their interest and help them better understand why the music matters. During our interview he did something similar. Malone, singing a capella, conjured a song that his mother sang on their cotton farm in East Texas and I just about cried.
When the world from you withholds Of its silver and its gold And you’ve got to get along on meager fare Just remember in His word How He fed the little bird Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there Leave it there, Oh, leave it there Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there If you trust and never doubt He will surely bring you out Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.
Leave it There, written by Charles Tindley
“I didn’t learn until many years later that was written by an African-American composer named Charles Tindley who had a church in Philadelphia at the early years of the 20th century,” Malone said quickly. “And he wrote a lot of songs that moved beyond his church out in the hinterland and became the possession of white and black people. I think anyone who was poor and isolated and suffering could find release in that song.”
Can you imagine what his classes were like?
For that afternoon, I felt as if I were back at school, except this time I could ask more questions and there was no grade to worry over. Many of our local listeners must have felt that way also.
And yet, the most surprising thing about the listening audience that week, according to Facebook, is that the overwhelming majority of people who heard or showed interest in the program were in Kenya. East Africa has a long history of country music fandom. Radio stations across Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan spin country favorites every day on the radio, or people play the songs on their own devices. I wrote a story saying as much from Nairobi in 2007.
So it came as a pleasant surprise that all these years later, Kenyan listeners — many of them young — are still as eager to hear country music. As I recall, they were particularly enamored with Jimmie Rodgers, Jim Reeves, and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing separately or as a duo. On a six-hour drive from Northern Uganda to the capital city of Kampala, I remember hearing “A Coat of Many Colors” more than dozen times.
Back through the years I go wonderin’ once again Back to the seasons of my youth I recall a box of rags that someone gave us And how momma put the rags to use … — Coat of Many Colors, written by Dolly Parton
In Nairobi, the songs of Kenny Rogers, who died this month in Sandy Springs, Georgia, meant a great deal to radio listeners. No one there, or anywhere, could deny the power of his storytelling and he had just the right material: “The Gambler,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and, in particular, “Coward of the County,” in which the hero, a lifelong pacifist, fights the “Gatlin boys” who had raped his sweetheart.
Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him He wasn’t holding nothing back, he let ‘em have it all When Tommy left the barroom, not a Gatlin boy was standing He said, “This one’s for Becky,” as he watched the last one fall — Coward of the County, written by Roger Dale Bowling and Billy “Edd” Wheeler
Turn Your Radio On
Country music — and particularly the old songs — can keep you company like almost no other popular music. The stories are often unforgettable and they unfold like morality plays, continuing the oral traditions that originally grew out of rural communities across the United States. And, as Malone stresses in our interview, the music has always been the expression of black and white people from those communities and others. That’s why country music appeals to people in Africa and around the planet, including listeners of Music Inside Out.
On the last day that I saw my friends Nadine and Simon Blake, I played that part of the Malone interview in which he sings the hymn, “Leave It There.” It ended the dinner before we self-isolated against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Turns out, that song has a kind of universal power that may transcend religiosity. It expiates worried feelings and gives calm and hope in return. Dang, that Malone is good.
In the words of Dr. John, “Carol Kaye is a sweetheart and a kick-a– guitar player as well as a kick-a– bass player!”
You may not recognize the name but you’ve heard her on literally thousands of recordings, TV themes and movie scores. A member of L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew, Carol Kaye stood out in that group of virtuoso studio musicians as one of its very few women.
“Carol Kaye was born [Ed. note: March 24th, 1935] in Everett, Washington to musician parents, Clyde and Dot Smith, both professionals. She has played and taught guitar professionally since 1949, played bebop jazz guitar in dozens of nightclubs around Los Angeles … accidentally got into studio work late 1957 with the Sam Cooke recordings.
“In 1963 when a Fender bassist didn’t show up for a record date at Capitol Records, she picked up the Fender bass (as it was called then) and augmented her busy schedule playing bass and grew quickly to be the number one call with record companies, movie and TV people, commercials and industrial films.”
So Much Music
The list of Carol Kaye’s credits on electric bass is truly mind-boggling: The Beach Boys … Phil Spector … Quincy Jones … Frank Sinatra (and Nancy Sinatra) … Ray Charles … Sonny and Cher … Diana Ross and the Temptations … as well as New Orleans own Soul Queen, Irma Thomas. And Mahalia Jackson. By her count, over 10,000!
As Taj Mahal said to Carol when they both appeared at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, “Carol Kaye, you are the best!“
Here’s a 2013 interview with Carol Kaye by the Snapshots Music & Arts Foundation: