Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Maurice Durand and a Chance Encounter With Jazz History

Every time I visit New Orleans I find something remarkable, or at least interesting, just by wandering around.  On my visit last week, geocaching took me to a spot on Burgundy Street in the Bywater neighborhood in the Ninth Ward - a spot I didn't know exsisted.  It's a large arch, erected in in 1919 "by the people of this the Ninth Ward in honor of its citizens who were enlisted in combative service and in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the triumph of right over might in the Great World War."

The arch is pretty interesting and impressive in and of itself.  I found a website on the monument and its history here.  I don't know how tall it is, but I'm almost six feet tall, and the top of my head only made it one-fourth of the way or so up the four large brass plaques on the arch.  You can see two of the plaques in the picture to the left, the other two are on the other side of the arch.  They list the names of all the men from the Ninth Ward who served in World War I.  I was a little surprised, but shouldn't have been, to see that the names are divided by race; three of the plaques list the white soldiers who served, while one of the two on the back honors the "colored" men who served in the war.

As I was looking at the names of the African-American Ninth Warders who served, one name jumped out at me: that of Maurice Durand.  I knew that Durand was an early jazz and brass band trumpet player from New Orleans, and it seemed to me that he would have been about the right age to have served in the first World War.  But I wasn't sure whether or not this name represented the right Maurice Durand.  When I got home, a little research revealed that, yes, this was Maurice Durand, the musician.

An early-eighties interview with saxophonist and bandleader Harold Dejan placed Durand in the correct part of New Orleans:

Maurice Durand had his own little band too, so I played with him too. Durand lived on Deslonde Street in the 9th Ward and used to get all the jobs down St. Bernard Parish. During the day he worked at a broom factory. He played on all the weddings and St. Joseph day parties. Maurice used to play in the Alley Cabaret by the St. Bernard Market, that's on Claiborne and St. Bernard and in the back was the Alley Cabaret.

But did Durand serve in the military during WWI?  Yes, he did, as it turns out.  Discussing the famous Onward Brass Band and its members in his book Fallen Heroes: A History of New Orleans Brass Bands, Richard Knowles says that Durand played both clarinet and trumpet in the 816th Pioneer Regimental Brass Band, which spent time in both England and France during the war.

Durand, born just outside of New Orleans in 1893, was a student of the legendary Professor Jim Humphrey, who taught so many early jazzmen.  He had a youthful band with Willie Humphrey, the Professor's grandson, and later became something of a protégé of Manuel Perez, the famous cornetist.  Durand played with the Onward, Tuxedo, Imperial, and Terminal brass bands and played dance band jobs like the ones described by Harold Dejan above.  According to the brass band history website containing the quote from Dejan, Durand also gigged at the famous Pythian Temple Roof Garden uptown.

That same website states that Maurice Durand never recorded, and that's almost true.  Fed up with the meager pay, he retired from music in 1933 and moved to San Francisco in 1944 - he died there in 1961.  But jazz researcher Bill Russell tracked him down and recorded an interview with him in 1958.  During the interview, Russell persuaded him to play a little trumpet, and on the CD which accompanies the Fallen Heroes book, you can hear Maurice Durand play 16 measures of "I'm Confessin'."  His lip is obviously out of shape, but you can also tell that this is a man with a good command of the trumpet.  

I'm not sure how interesting all of this is to anyone else, but my chance encounter with a little bit of jazz history fascinated me.  I was glad to pay tribute to a jazz pioneer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

1928 Victor "Race" Record Sleeve

A couple of years ago I bought a box of 78 RPM records, mostly early country music from the late 1920s and early 1930s.  In the box was this 1928 record sleeve, which was intended for a Victor "race" record - that being the term used at the time for records aimed at an African-American audience.  I was struck by the sleeve when I saw it; not only is it a beautiful example of one-color graphic design, but, unusually for its time, it portrays black artists with a certain amount of dignity and respect.

Blues researcher Jeff Titon devoted an entire chapter of his book Early Downhome Blues to the differences in record companies' portrayals of early country music and early blues in their advertising.  Advertisements for early country records (or "old-time tunes") generally featured white rural Americans in peaceful, dignified settings - listening to the phonograph in the evening or dancing with their neighbors.  "Race" record advertisements, on the other hand, were often filled with cartoonish caricatures of black culture.  It was as if the record companies were so out of touch with black America that they didn't realize that they were offending the very people they were trying to sell records to.

This record sleeve is different, for the most part.  There is a hint of blackface in the depiction of comedians Jones and Jones in the lower right-hand corner of the front, and the clarinetist in the upper left-hand corner is a little over the top, but otherwise, the illustrations are sympathetic.  Each of the pictures corresponds to a Victor record listed on the back - and how amazing it would be to have original copies of all of these records!  Clockwise from the upper left, the pictures represent clarinetist Douglas Williams, Rev. F.W. McGhee, blues singer Luke Jordan, Jelly Roll Morton's band, Jones and Jones, Johnny Dodds' Washboard Band, The Memphis Jug Band, and the Pace Jubilee Singers.

I have about half of this music on CD, but none of these 78s.  I selected a Victor record from the same period to keep in this wonderful sleeve - "Get Low-Down Blues"/"Kansas City Breakdown:" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra.  I have quite a few early record sleeves, but this one is by far my favorite.

Monday, October 8, 2012


John Tchicai died yesterday.  The Danish saxophonist, most strongly associated with free jazz, avant-garde, or whatever you want to call the more adventurous side of jazz, was 76.  From the first time I heard Tchicai's music, some 35 years ago, I was transfixed - I had never heard anything like it.  The record was Archie Shepp in Europe, the Delmark label's U.S. issue of the album also known as The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 1.  Tchicai's contributions to the music of this important, but still underrated group stood apart from the improvisations of his fellow horn players, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp.  Shepp was loquacious and Cherry quirky, but both of them indulged their imaginations fully, resulting in solos which were rambling (in a positive sense), full-bodied, and many-noted.  Tchicai's alto saxophone improvisations, on the other hand, carried a mantle of reserve, of deliberation; they exhibited a sense of logical construction that was almost compositional.  Yet his playing somehow managed to combine this careful construction with as much adventurousness as Cherry's or Shepp's.  Amiri Baraka, then known as Leroi Jones, called Tchicai's early solos "metal poems."

And there was a freshness in Tchicai's playing; it was like nothing else in jazz.  Based on his early style, I would guess that he had listened fairly extensively to Lee Konitz and Ornette Coleman, but he didn't sound like either of them.  Early and late in his career, he sounded only like John Tchicai.

During his early stint in New York, from 1963 to 1966, Tchicai achievements were remarkable - as he put it later, "I managed to do a lot in a short time."  Besides his contributions to the New York Contemporary Five, he was alto a member of the very important New York Art Quartet, with trombonist Roswell Rudd as the other horn.  He played on Albert Ayler's New York Eye and Ear Control.  And a jam with John Coltrane led to Tchicai's appearance on Coltrane's groundbreaking Ascension album.

He returned to Europe in 1966 and expanded his instrumental arsenal; he never abandoned the alto sax, but added tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet.  He formed the genre-bending big band Cadentia Nova Danica and played and recorded with Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra (I particularly like "Very Hot/Autobahn Tchicai" from the album Even the Moon is Dancing) and various Cecil Taylor large ensembles.  In the 1990's, after he was awarded a lifetime grant from the Danish Ministry of Culture, he moved back to the U.S. - to California this time.  After many more albums and collaborations, he moved to the south of France, where he died in the hospital yesterday.

Over the years Tchicai's instrumental "voice" deepened and expanded in expressive range, while remaining recognizable and unique.  His discography is extensive, but my choices to pay tribute today were a very early album, Rufus, and a later one, Love is TouchingRufus is by four-fifths of the New York Contemporary Five (Don Cherry is missing); it's from 1963, and is a wonderful example of his early style.  Love is Touching was recorded in California over 30 years later with a very young backup band, the Archetypes.  Tchicai is generous with solo space (I wish he had featured himself more) and utilizes electronics effectively.

If you want to hear John Tchicai, any of the albums by the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet are recommended, as is Afrodisiaca by Candentia Nova Danica.  I certainly haven't heard Tchicai's complete recorded output, but my favorites include Timo's Message on Black Saint, Grandpa's Spells on Storyville, Life Overflowing with Charlie Kohlhase on Nada, and Witch's Scream by Tchicai, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille on TUM, as well as the ones I've already mentioned.

I never heard Tchicai in person, but I came close.  One my first visit Copenhagen, I missed him by one day.  I regretted that then and I regret it now.  So long, John Tchicai.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Legends of Jazz - Photos From an Album

About a month ago I found a cheap copy of a 1973 LP by the Legends of Jazz, a (mostly) New Orleans traditional jazz band put together by drummer/producer Barry Martyn. The band consisted of Andrew Blakeney on trumpet, Louis Nelson on trombone, Joe Darensbourg on clarinet, Alton Purnell on piano, Ed Garland on bass, and Martyn on drums. Martyn was in his thirties at the time; the other musicians were all in their seventies or eighties. All were from New Orleans except for Martyn, a Brit, and Andrew Blakeney, who was born in Quitman, Mississippi, even though he is usually associated with traditional New Orleans style jazz.

The album, on the Crescent Jazz label, was in great condition, on nice red vinyl. (I have since learned that some copies were also pressed on green vinyl.) However, the name of the group seemed to be something of an exaggeration - the Solid Journeymen of One Style of Jazz would be more accurate. (To be fair, Louis Nelson is one of my favorite New Orleans trombonists, and Ed Garland was indeed something of a jazz legend.) In any event, I didn't listen to the album right away, and only put it on the turntable for the first time a couple of days ago. As expected, it was enjoyable without being spectacular.

As I was listening and reading the liner notes on the back of the jacket, I realized that there was something still inside the record cover. I shook it, and much to my surprise, six photographs fell out. They were snapshots of the group in concert; obviously an unknown music lover attended a Legends of Jazz concert back in 1974, took some pictures, and bought the album as a souvenir (and had it signed by Nelson and Purnell).

The photographs were kind of washed out, but I scanned them, tweaked the color and contrast, and did some cropping to improve the layout of some. I thought they deserved to be seen, as presumably unpublished pictures of a group of jazzmen who, except for Barry Martyn, have all left us.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Deep Rivers

Sam Rivers was born in 1923; he died on the day after Christmas, 2011. The death of an 88-year old can't really be said to be shocking or unexpected, but Rivers' passing caught me be surprise; it sometimes seemed as if he would live forever, creating incredible music for all time.

Sam Rivers was a saxophonist (tenor and soprano), flutist, pianist and composer; he also recorded on bass clarinet and synthesizer (and as a vocalist) on occasion. Jazz is often considered a young man's game, but Rivers was a late bloomer, at least in terms of making a mark in the larger jazz world. Although he had put in stints with Herb Pomeroy's Boston big band and T-Bone Walker and had recorded a Tadd Dameron session for Blue Note (not released until many years later), he was over 40 years old and practically unknown when he joined Miles Davis's quintet for a tour of Japan in 1964.

Recordings from that tour reveal a mature, imaginative, and very individualistic musician. He knows the tunes, knows the changes, and knows how to improvise over them. But he already seems to be somewhere else; his phrasing and note choices push against the confines of the songs. Musically speaking, Rivers wanted to be elsewhere, and his association with the Davis group ended when the Japanese tour was over.

But the floodgates had been opened; by the end of the year, Rivers had recorded Blue Note sessions with Tony Williams and Larry Young, followed by Fuchsia Swing Song, his own first album. This seeming explosion of creativity marked the level of accomplishment that would last the rest of Rivers' life.

In 1970 he and his wife Beatrice opened Studio Rivbea in their Manhattan loft home. For most of the decade, audiences had the opportunity to walk through Rivers' living room to the performance space and hear some of the finest avant-garde jazz musicians in the world. Highlights from one week at Studio Rivbea were issued on five LPs - the Wildflower series on Douglas, reissued on CD as The New York Jazz Loft Sessions.

In 1991, he took a step in common with many Northern residents nearing 70 years of age - he moved to Florida. In Orlando, he found a large number of highly skilled musicians who were employed by Disney World, but were hungry to play some challenging, creative music. Rivers' name for his large ensembles was the RivBea Orchestra, and the Florida version of the big band was tight and impressive, even if some of the soloists could not match Rivers' own level of inspiration.

But for many listeners, Rivers was at his best in a trio setting, joining a bassist and drummer to play seamless sets of mostly-improvised music that flowed in and out of different keys and rhythms. His mid-70's trio, with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, was almost telepathic in the musicians' responses to each other. His Florida trio, with Doug Mathews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums, was also excellent. Mathews doubled on bass clarinet and Cole on tenor sax, so they sometimes produced surprising all-woodwind textures. Personally, I feel cheated that the only recorded evidence of a really magnificent trio, Rivers, bassist Richard Davis, and percussionist Warren Smith, is six minutes from a 1972 concert released on Rivers' Hues album.

I was lucky enough to hear Rivers perform three times. The first was at Tyrone's in Athens, Georgia, where he played a stunning duet performance with Dave Holland in 1979. He was back a week later with a quartet, but the Art Ensemble of Chicago had a concert a few blocks away the same night - what a choice to have to make! - and I went with the Art Ensemble. (As I write this, I'm listening to the two wonderful Rivers/Holland duo albums on the Improvising Artists label.)

I didn't hear Rivers in person again until 2002, when his trio with Mathews and Cole played in an old stone church with wonderful acoustics, just a few blocks from my house in Atlanta. About a year and a half later he drove up from Orlando (no limo or private jet - the jazz business ain't exactly big-time show biz) to play a concert with the Jason Moran Bandwagon trio at a concert hall south of Atlanta. One of the selections they played was Rivers' tune "Beatrice," from the Fuchsia Swing Song album; this is the only one of Rivers' compositions that has become something of a jazz standard.

And now I am left with not only the memories of some wonderful concerts, but with regret. I always meant to make the eight-hour drive to Orlando to hear the RivBea Orchestra perform, but somehow never got around to it. I was excited to have a chance to redeem myself this Spring - I was planning to meet a friend in Sarasota for some shows Rivers had scheduled in March. Now, of course, that won't happen.

Reading what I've written, I'm struck with what a shallow tribute this is. I've only scratched the surface; Sam Rivers deserves a book, not a little blog post. So long, Sam Rivers, and thanks for the endlessly creative music.