Saturday, January 20, 2018

Johnny Reininger - New Orleans Clarinet

I have such a large record collection that I occasionally get surprised by something I put on the turntable, even though it's a record that I have played before. A week or so ago I pulled an album called New Orleans Dixieland Express off the shelf. It's a collection of tracks by three traditional New Orleans bands, recorded and issued some time in the 1950s by Joe Mares' Southland label. (Southland started issuing 12" LPs in 1954, so around 1955 seems like a reasonable guess for the issue date of this one, catalog number 233.)

I was in the mood to hear some good New Orleans clarinet playing, and two of my favorite clarinetists are on this record. On the three tracks by trombonist Emile Christian's band, the very individual Raymond Burke is in the clarinet chair. Tony Almerico, a trumpeter who was very popular in New Orleans in the 1950s, gets four tracks; a young Pete Fountain is his clarinetist, and I've always loved Fountain's early, Irving Fazola-inspired work. That leaves three tracks led by guitarist Joe Capraro, and I remembered nothing about the clarinet playing on them, by one Johnny Reininger. Then I cued up the first track on side two....

It's a tune called "Blues from New Orleans," credited to Jess Stacy (presumably the renowned jazz pianist) and producer Joe Mares. And the clarinet playing knocked me out. After the short arranged introduction, Johnny Reininger plays two lovely blues choruses in the low and middle registers - with a beautiful, distinctive New Orleans sound. Then, after trumpet and piano solos, Reininger plays a searing high-register ensemble part that reminds me very much of Harry Shields, another of my favorite Crescent City clarinetists. The clarinet is also featured in the short coda, so we get another chance to enjoy Reininger's pretty sound.

Reininger doesn't solo on the next Capraro track, a "remake" of Lil Hardin Armstrong's "Sweet Loving Man" (recorded in 1923 by King Oliver), but his ensemble work is excellent. The final Capraro track, "Three Shades of Blues," is a guitar feature, without the wind instruments.

The excellent clarinet playing on "Blues from New Orleans" let me to wonder, "Who was Johnny Reininger, and what else did he record?" The answer to the second part of the question is, "Not much." Reininger apparently never recorded again after the Joe Capraro session, and was only in the studio once before that, as part of Ellis Stratakos' New Orleans dance band in 1929. (The fine cornet player Johnny Wiggs was also on that date.) Reininger played mostly alto sax in the Stratakos band, and there is a nice alto solo (basically a "hot" paraphrase of the melody) on "Weary River," but I have no way of knowing whether it's played by Reininger or Joe Loyacano, the other alto sax player on the date.

Johnny Reininger may be practically unknown to the jazz world at large, but he was well known to several generations of New Orleans nightclub patrons, dancers and radio listeners. Born in New Orleans in 1908, he lived an impressive 91 years, passing in 1999. After his stint with with Stratakos, he played with the Dawn Busters, who had a morning radio show on WWL. He then began a long career as a bandleader, with lengthy stints at L'Enfants Restaurant near City Park and the My-Oh-My, a pioneering drag club.

Reininger rehearsing for a WDSU television program with Pete Lauderman on piano, Johnny Senac on bass, and announcer Fritz Paul. This picture is probably from the 1950s.

Because of Reininger's obscurity outside of New Orleans, here is his entry in New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album by Al Rose and Edmond Souchon:

Reininger, Johnny (s, cl) b. N.O., Aug. 19, 1908. Popular dance-band leader, he was one of the Dawn Busters on New Orleans radio station WWL for many years. During the early thirties, he played with Ellis Stratakos at the Jung roof, and frequently with with Leon Prima. Had house band at L'Enfant's during the early fifties.

And here is obituary in the Times-Picayune, September 17, 1999:

Johnny Reininger was the band leader at the My-Oh-My Club on the Lakefront for more than 20 years.

Mr. Reininger -- remembered, according to jazz historian Jack Stewart, as one of the city's truly great clarinet players...

John "Johnny" Reininger, a popular mid-century dance-band leader, clarinet and alto saxophone player, died Tuesday of pneumonia at Memorial Medical Center. He was 91.

A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Mr. Reininger gained early prominence in the 1930s playing with the Ellis Stratakos band at the Jung Hotel Roof, a Canal Street establishment popular with Gov. Huey Long. Long would give the band members $20 each for playing "Every Man a King," his political slogan.

Mr. Reininger also played with the Dawnbusters Orchestra, whose morning show on WWL Radio was remembered by former band member Margie O'Dair as an "early 'Laugh In,'" with news, music and skits.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mr. Reininger fronted his own orchestra at Lenfant's Seafood Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge on Canal Boulevard. Tony Dalmado, who played trumpet in the band, recalled Mr. Reininger as one of the best musicians and arrangers he knew. "One night a customer at Lenfant's asked Johnny to play 'That's My Desire' by Frankie Lane, so we played our version. But the customer said he wanted it just like on the record, and during a 20- minute break Johnny writes an arrangement for the band straight out of his head, not using a piano. That takes talent."

Mr. Reininger also was the band leader at the My-Oh-My Club on the Lakefront for more than 20 years.

Mr. Reininger -- remembered, according to jazz historian Jack Stewart, as one of the city's truly great clarinet players -- was a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local No.174-496.

A master Mason, he was a member of George Washington Lodge No.065 for more than 50 years.

Johnny Reininger's playing on "Blues from New Orleans" was stunning to me the first time I really noticed it last week - possibly because he was such an unknown and surprising figure. On further spins of the record, I hear that, while it's solidly in the New Orleans clarinet tradition, it perhaps isn't as original or individual as I first thought. But it's excellent improvising, and makes me a little sad that Reininger didn't record more. Raise a glass to a fine New Orleans clarinetist and enjoy his best recorded moment by clicking below.

Blues from New Orleans

Joe Capraro - guitar
Johnny Reininger - clarinet
Mike Lala - trumpet
Bubby Castigliola - trombone
Mel Grant - piano
Bob Coquille - bass
Paul Edwards - drums

Recorded for Southland Records in New Orleans, c. 1955