Way Down Yonder


On Music WAY DOWN YONDER BY BRUCE COOK N A. ^ ew Orleans is surely the least solemn of cities Having carefully nurtured its reputation for good-timing and high-living, it now seems to have...

...On Music WAY DOWN YONDER BY BRUCE COOK N A. ^ ew Orleans is surely the least solemn of cities Having carefully nurtured its reputation for good-timing and high-living, it now seems to have become the favorite playground for the polyester bourgeoisie of the New South And the folks who journey there get their money's worth, too It offers a charm and an atmosphere in the French Quarter that no other American city can match Its restaurants are excellent, a couple of them among the nation's best But for anyone who was brought up listening to jazz, a trip to New Orleans is always undertaken as a pilgrimage That, after all, is where it all began?or so I was assured by my father, as he would play those Louis Armstrong red-label Okeh's for me one atter another on oui Sears Silvertone phonograph Armstrong and King Olivei brought the music noilh, but its home has always remained—as the song says?way down yonder in New Oilcans " The liisl live music I cvei lieaid?except loi my dad's comet—was a |,V7 conceit given bv a New Oilcans pickup band that included Baby Dodds, the drummer on the Armstrong Hot Five recordings, a fine white clarinetist named Tony Parenti, and Lee Collins, the trumpeter on most of the old Jelly Roll Morton Hot Pepper sessions My father's idea was to have me hear the right, real thing, and not the various new, brash, noisy imitations being played then by bands big and little Surely I could hear the difference for myself Well sure But I liked some of the new stuff just the same Admittedly, Count Basie did not sound like Jelly Roll Morton, nor Dizzy Gillespie like Louis, yet my father always maintained, even cherished, a fairly narrow notion of what real jazz was, and he could barely stretch it to include Duke Ellington—certainly not the Duke of the '40s As lor me, the more I listened to jazz, the more I telt 1 did not have to make a choice between the true music oi New Orleans and Us mno\ati\e ol Ishoots Over the past lew veais, though, I've begun to change mv mind I le-ccntlv made mv lourth \tsit to the iazz inecca, and 1 icali/cd that cadi lime 1 ha\e come awa\ a little nioie disillusioned with the jazz scene there No doubt my visits began a decade too late But Parenti and the great George Lewis were still active around town 20 years ago (and I am assured thev sounded fine until death overtook them more or less in mid-chorus) Kid Shots Madison and Punch Miller were strong trumpet players to the end Even old Alcide Pavageau, the original "Slow Drag" on bass, could be heard—until his wife got religion and talked him out of playing Unfortunately, what is left on Bourbon Street is a musical vaudeville, and the famous Preservation Hall is a kind of antique gallery where an art that was once vital is now simply preserved A walk down Bourbon Street today reveals, first of all, a great milling crowd, since at night it is closed to auto traffic and pedestrians are free to roam at will The porno shops crowd the girlie shows and on nearly every corner there is a bar blaring a hyped-up supercharged version of the same music that Louis and Oliver used to play At least that's what it is intended to sound like The sorry fact is that listening to the current jazzmen run through their paces is like watching an actor play a basketball star All the moves may be perfect, but it is not the genuine article Certainly that is true of Al Hirt He has the biggest jazz club on Bourbon Street, and what with halftime appearances at New Orleans Saints football games and serenading the teeming crowds from his own special float in the Mardi Gras parade, he has actually convinced many that he has some standing as a New Orleans jazz musician In fact, he has none and deserves less Hirt is essentially a swing trumpeter with good range and a certain technical facility There is nothing ai all remarkable about him, except that he is a hometow n bo\ w ho made good in the great world and then had the sense to return home and lake lull advantage ot his success He appeals lour niglils a week, and the pot loi -niances 1 saw were so indilteient it is tan to sa\ lie is moie inicicsicd in business than in blowing the hoin Other clubs along Bourbon Street are scarcely better Trumpeter Johnny Horn at the Maison Bourbon provides the echo of an echo, with his ttlted-bell trumpet, he is offering not so much his conception of New Orleans jazz as his conception of Al Hirt playing it Horn, however, tries harder than his mentor So does Murphy Campo at Crazy Shirley's, across the street But his problem is that he tries too hard His group wins the Bourbon Street Blast award for loudness Wandering in and out of other such places—the Famous Door, the Blue Angel, Cabaret Toulouse—I could not help noticing how few black faces there were among the musicians A black drummer or piano player can sometimes be spotted, but seldom a front-line musician and never a leader in this city where blacks created jazz out of ragtime and blues To hear them play one must go to Preservation Hall, and that is hardly a thrilling experience Its grand name notwithstanding, the Hall is no more than a crude backroom Tourists have to line up outside for the privilege of squatting on the floor or sitting on a few rough benches to listen to a very short set Yet it is the quality of the music played there that is most depressing On my two visits I heard the Dede Pierce and Kid Thomas bands, and I was struck only by their geriatric mediocrity The harsh reality is that most of the performers are simply no longer strong enough to play well This is the case as well with the Olympia Brass Band, the peripatetic delegation Preservation Hall sends out to every official function in New Orleans The city has been making a strong effort to identify with the music it gave to the world Recently a so-called Jazz and Heritage Festival was staged to remind visitors and local citizens alike of the contribution to our culture It wasn't always that way, of course For years New Orleans—official New Orleans anyway—wanted nothing to do with jazz, it was embarrassed that the city's name was being linked by the rest of the nation to a variety of African music that was the product of honky-tonks and whorehouses Many of the jazzmen reciprocated these feelings After he had shaken the dust of the city from his shoes, for example, Louis Armstrong vowed never to set foot again m the Crescent City —although he did relent late in life and returned to accept a special tribute By that time a new generation was m charge, one which realized that jazz had become respectable and that the city could profit from being associated with it A publicity campaign has been in swing ever since, the only w ? T hat saved my trip from being a total disaster, musically, was the visit I paid to Le Club, situated in the huge Hyatt Regency, the hotel across from the new Superdome stadium Le Club has a contemporary jazz policy, and it has brought in a steady succession of the best—though not necessarily the most avant-garde—musicians and singers A consistently delightful quartet headed by tenor-saxophonist Zoot Sims and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was on the bill the night I attended Sims was terrific a little over a year ago at the Village Vanguard in New York, but not as good as he was that night at Le Club, he gets better and better every time I hear him Bucky Pizzarelli has been around music for years, yet he has only recently come into his own in a series of concerts with fellow-gui-tanst George Barnes His conservative chording style is perfectly suited to providing Zoot with the support usually offered by a piano Their set that evening featured the standards ("Limehouse Blues") and overlooked ballads ("In the Middle of a Kiss") that Zoot specializes in, plus several Pizzarelli solos in "Lush Life" and "Cherokee " While Sims occasionally switched to soprano sax, which he has lately been playing with great dexterity, it was his fluent, confident work on the big tenor that set things in motion up there on the stand When it comes to producing good, swinging, fundamentally sound jazz —and playing it with great personal feeling—he has no rival You can get a good idea of what I heard at Le Club from the album, Zoot Sims with Bucky Pizzarelli (Classic Jazz CJ 21) In fact, the two are even more impressive on the disc than they were live, for they recorded the whole set alone—that is, without benefit of bass or drums Pizzarelli does a remarkable job playing solos and keeping perfect rhythm for Zoot Sims is simply magnificent on such tunes as "Willow Weep for Me," "Watch What Happens," "What Is This Thing Called Love," and his usual highly melodic originals Thus, if the choice is between modern jazz and what passes today for the traditional, between Zoot Sims and Al Hirt, between what I heard at Le Club and down on Bourbon Street, I guess I must take a reluctant departure from the kind of music I listened to and enjoyed for so long There is no longer anything left of that rambunctious Dixieland that my father used to play It is dead or dying with the people who first created it...

Vol. 61 • June 1978 • No. 13

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