TALKS ABOUT JELLY ROLL
PART II OF AN INTERVIEW
by WILLIAM RUSSELL
In the last issue New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas (1900-1973) told about his tours with Jelly Roll Morton and gave us vivid and detailed accounts of how Jelly made some of his great records. In this issue his experiences with Jelly are continued. Countless stories have been told about Jelly’s traffic stopping sessions in front of the Rhythm Club, headquarters for all Harlem musicians and theatrical folk. Here Jelly’s paens (paeans) of praise for the New Orleans and Jelly Roll style and his diatribes against the New York musicians attracted crowds that literally blocked the corner of 131st Street and 7th Avenue. Nicholas, with characteristic skill and humor describes such an occasion and tells how Jelly was subsequently tricked into playing for the crowd in the Rhythm Club. Then he takes us on a tour of 52nd Street with Jelly. We are also given a rare and fascinating glimpse into the famous Plantation Club on Chicago’s South Side with King Oliver on the stand and Jelly sitting in with particularly happy results. Finally, Nicholas talks about a few other New Orleans pioneers, Bunk, Perez, Manuel Manetta, and gives us an insight into the education and making of a musician during the golden age of New Orleans music.
When King Oliver opened at the Plantation in 1925 we had a band that swung. Joe had sent to New Orleans a few weeks before for Barney Bigard, Paul Barbarin, Luis Russell and me. He brought Kid Ory and Bud Scott in from California, and we had Darnell Howard, Bob Schoffner, and Bert Cobb, on tuba. The secret of Oliver’s band was rhythm and, no noise. The band played full but no blasting. Joe wanted to hear those feet on the floor; the feet of the dancers. He’d say, “When you don’t hear those feet you’re not playing music; you’re making noise.” And he was right. Joe was at the height of his career then, really something. That was before he had trouble with his teeth. The band was really together.
Now I’ll give you an incident about the rhythm. The band was there from 9:30 until three in the morning. At midnight we played for the revue, a show that had twelve girls and all kinds of acts. Joe wouldn’t play for the revue; he’d smoke his nickle (nickel) cigar some place around the corner. By eleven o’clock the joint was packed. When the people came we’d be playing and the hat check girl would move in rhythm to pick up your hat. When you get in the waiters met you at the tables swinging with their trays and asked, “What are you having?” It was Prohibition time and they didn’t sell liquor, only the set up and so on. You came with your own jug. When they put their trays down they’re swinging. Everything was in rhythm. Even Sam, the owner, he was a great big guy, weighed over 200 pounds. He was behind the cash register and when he hit that register — bam — you know it was rhythmic. The shoe shine boy, I mean the washroom attendant, who would brush you down, he was a jive king. When he’d take the whisk broom he’d brush you in rhythm and hit behind your pockets and jingle that change you know. It was all in rhythm. That was a happy joint, with everybody smiling. It was a happy place to work. I enjoyed playing with King Oliver’s band.
I remember the first couple of months the band opened up; Jelly came in a couple of times and the band wasn’t quite together yet. We wern’t (weren’t) like we should be should have been, but the band was improving every night. Every week we got a little closer and we had rehearsals twice a week. Luis Russell and others made little skeleton arrangements. We didn’t play no jam session — it was all together. We’d take a stock arrangement, an ordinary tune, and make it our own way.
I remember one Sunday night. We had been together four or five months and we were really blowing. Jelly came in, all sharp, and sat down in a corner while we were playing. Joe saw Jelly and we played a couple of his tunes — Milneburg Joys and something else. We got to bouncing and swinging and Jelly he came up and said, “Now, now you fellows are playing.” He didn’t ask Joe’s permission; he got up on the stand. He told Luis Russell, “Get up from there, you don’t know what you’re doin’.” He sat down at the piano and got to ridin’, and the band, with all respects as to how good it was, it sounded better, for this man had something.
One evening in the early fifties, when Barney Bigard was appearing at the Chicago Theater with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, he reminised back stage about the King Oliver Plantation engagement. He told the story of the bombing of the Plantation. (Was it the Capone mob, or perhaps the competition across 35th Street?) The bomb had been placed up among the decorations in the ceiling and exploded with a bang amid lots of smoke, dust and confusion but caused little damage to the personnel. According to Barney, Albert had boasted of his bravery under fire when he was a member of the Navy during World War I. As soon as the smoke and dust started to clear Barney leaned over to speak to Albert in the chair next to him. But Albert was nowhere in sight. Barney said Albert had evidently taken off so fast he was probably halfway home by that time. Perhaps someone (Was it Shakespeare or one of the prophets?) once quipped, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
In those days Jelly didn’t drink or smoke — no vices at all. He was strictly music. He was a man of more than talent; he was a genius. A lot of musicians didn’t appreciate him but were jealous. You know there’s a lot of jealously among our profession. They knew Jelly was great but they didn’t want to acknowledge it. And when Jelly passed away the same ones who had spoken against him said, “Do you know something? That man was great.” And I’d say, “Ah, now you know, now you’re talkin’ about him; he’s been great all the time.”
I remember one day on the corner — that was Seventh Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem. The Rhythm Club was two doors from the corner. It was summer time, around June. That’s when all the cats came out on the corner, when the weather’s warm, and you see guys you haven’t seen all winter at the Rhythm Club. This day the corner was infested with musicians coming out in the sun, a lot of them looking for gigs and jiving around. Jelly would meet the cats and say, “Hey, man where have you been?” And Red Allen would say, “Shucks, I been here all the time, where have you been?” Sometime before Jelly received a big royalty check and he was smart enough to turn in his old car on a new one which he kept in a garage right across the street from the Rhythm Club. This afternoon in June, I remember it was a beautiful day and we all were on the corner and here comes Jelly from across the street, all sharp. He was always dressed immaculately, had his big diamond ring out of pawn and had a diamond in his tooth you know. Oh yes, he had a diamond in his front tooth, and he was sharp. He wore beautiful hand tailored shirts and ten dollar neckties. Jelly came to the corner. “Man, look at Jelly, how sharp he is.” Jelly comes around the corner. Whata you say Jelly?” “Whata you say fellows, Hi.” And “Man you look awfully sharp today.” Jelly says, “Man I stay sharp.”
So the guys were all talking and Willie Smith, the Lion came around the corner, had his cane and a big cigar. The Lion then was doing entertaining work and playing solo piano at Pond’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street. An after hours joint, it opened up around one o’clock at night until four or five in the morning. All the people from downtown, and actors after the theaters close, the racketeers and what not came to Harlem and filled the joint up every night. Now, the Lion comes around the corner with his cigar, and the guys are trying to trick Jelly into playing for them, but he didn’t want to do no exhibitions. There was a big grand piano in the Rhythm Club and the guys would be in there playing all through the day. But Jelly would only sit down once in awhile. When you don’t ask him he’ll play. So they said, “Let’s try to get Jelly to play —Work on him, Lion.
So the Lion came with the cigar in his mouth and his cane, and said, “Gee whiz, my fingers are itchin’, just lead me to a piano.” The guys said, “What?” They looked at Jelly and they looked at the Lion. “Lead me to a piano, my fingers are itchin’, I’m rearin’ to go, I’m the Lion.” A cat says, “Jelly, you hear this cat crackin’ to you all about who he is, about leadin’ him to a piano?” Jelly says, “Man, let the kid go and practice. Let him go and practice man, he don’t know what he’s doin’.”
So the Lion went in and several cats followed and left Jelly on the corner with just a few. We could hear the Lion in the Rhythm Club — boomp-a-boomp-a-boom — playing solos and running all over the piano. So the guys say, “Let’s go in and hear the Lion man.” And a guy comes out and says, “The Lion is gone today, he’s playin’ all around the piano.” The Lion’s carrying on, and he looked up with his cigar to see if Jelly was coming. And Jelly came to the door and he looked in and then finally Jelly came in. The guys were saying, “Man, that Lion is gone.” “Go Lion.” “I’m in F. Now I’m in F sharp. Now I’m in C. I’m in A minor.” And Jelly was creeping up and creeping up behind. “Now I’m in B natural, a lot of musicians don’t know this one.” Finally Jelly came on the left side. He was watching the Lion striding. Jelly’s slick. These weren’t pop tunes. This was fast fingering called stride piano — the left hand. Finally Jelly said, “Get up from there, you don’t know what you’re doin’.” Bam! That’s what the Lion wanted, everybody fell out. Jelly said, “Now I’m in B natural.” That was the first time we heard Jelly striding, because he always played with an easy tempo — moderato. So Jelly said, “Now I’m in this, and I’m in that key.” This went on for about ten minutes and Jelly was really goin’, and everybody’d say, “I didn’t know Jelly could stride.” And Jelly said, “Man I invented all this kind of piano. Man I invented jazz.” The guys said, “Aw Jelly, come on man.” “What are you talking about; this is Jelly Roll Morton.” Someone said, “Well why arn’t (aren’t) you playing on 52nd Street?” “Me on 52nd Street? They can’t pay me.” And he never did play on 52nd Street.
So finally the guys in the games, playing blackjack — Jelly had broke up the games — they said, “That’s enough of this humbug and all this music. Turn on the radio and let the games continue.” So someone got up and flicked the radio on This was about four o’clock in the afternoon and when they flicked it on there was Tommy Dorsey at the New Yorker Hotel playing King Porter Stomp. Jelly shouted, “There, do you see what I’m talking about. That’s my tune. You see, I’m going to get some more money from that. You see, you can’t play nothin’ without me.” It was a coincidence that Dorsey was playing his tune when they turned the radio on. And the house came down. I mean it was timed perfectly. This man was something else. Jelly walked out of the Rhythm Club and went to the corner. “You see what I’m talking about; see I invented jazz. I told you.”
That afternoon when Jelly left the Rhythm Club all the guys came out when the session was over. Jelly said, “I’ll see you boys in a couple minutes so don’t go away.” Jelly went across the stret and in a few minutes he came out with his spankin’ brand new Lincoln, a long black Lincoln. He Hit the corner and put on the brakes. Whoa, and everybody was talking about the car and he said, “Now my New Orleans friends. Hey Red. Hey Nick. Come on, hop in men, I’m goin’ to Central Park so I can turn around.” The car was so long he had to go to the park to turn it around. And the cats on the corner said, “I’ll be damned.” You know that man was a character.
One night in the late ’30s I was with Jelly when he went on a jaunt to 52nd Street. That was when 52nd Street was jumpin’. At the Famous Door they had John Kirby’s great little band with Maxine Sullivan. Then across the street you had Jimmy Ryan’s, the Onyx Club, and jazz was all over the street, all the way to 5th Avenue. And Jelly came that night first to the White Rose, at 52nd and 6th Avenue, where all the musicians hung out during intermissions. That was the only reason he went to the White Rose. Jelly had a coke because he didn’t drink.
Jelly said, “Now I’m gonna see what these cats are layin’ down, what they’re talking about — the Street and all this humbug. Maybe we’ll see what they’re playin’.” And he heard some funny little bands that evening. “Uh huh,” he’d say. Then we went where John Kirby’s great little group was playing. Jelly sat at the bar. When he was listenin’ he’d say, “Uh huh, I see, uh huh, they got something.” The boss said, “Would you like something to drink Jelly?” “I’ll take a coke.” When the band came off for intermission Charlie Shavers, Billy Kyle, and all of them were smiling and Procope, who had worked with Jelly Roll in 1928 said, “I know you’re gonna play one with us.” When they went back on Jelly got on that piano, and with all due respect to Billy Kyle it was a different sound. Without any practice Jelly played all their scores, and the people said, “Who is that?” “Jelly Roll Morton.” “That’s him?” They finished the set and Jelly came off the stand. The boss of the place said, “Jelly, I’ve got an idea, maybe we could get together and alternate with the band and you.” Well Jelly said, “Man I don’t play no intermission.” (laughter) “I don’t play no intermission piano.” The boss said, “But I’m gonna pay you well.” “There ain’t that much money, I don’t play no intermission piano.” It was funny man, and everybody laughed. The man was doing a beautiful business and he kept on talking about how they could get together and alternate and talk some business. Jelly said, “Man I play for pleasure; I don’t care what I make, I’m Jelly Roll Morton. There ain’t that much money man. How much I owe you for that coke?” That was Jelly. “How much do I owe you?” Proud.
“Come on Nick, let’s go across the street and see what happens.” We went over to Jimmy Ryan’s. “Now they playing my music here. They playin’ my type of music.” Stuck his head in the door, like this, “But they ain’t got it yet. They ain’t got it yet, all this funny noise. They ain’t got it.” We went into Jimmy Ryan’s, at the bar where everybody knew him. “Jelly, what you say man?” “Come to hear what you cats are doin’,” “Well, your gonna play something before you leave.” So after awhile they got him on the stand and Jelly started playing, really playing. Beautiful.
Nicholas played with Bunk Johnson in New York in 1946 and 1947. He was asked his opinion of Bunk.
I’ve always respected Bunk. I heard Bunk all my life, ever since I was a child in New Orleans. You see we came up under this type of music. In his young days Bunk was a ratty trumpet player — we called ’em, you know. He played that old time style. He was blowin’ with the Superior Band at Perseverance Hall on Villere Street. I lived on Annette between Villere and Urquhart. So our backyard fence gate faced the side of the hall. Every Saturday and Sunday they had dances there, and on Mondays there were banquets by the societies. I used to sit on that fence ever since I was six or seven years old, listenin’ to Bunk whenever he played. He never blasted, he played full, and he had ideas. Louie’s got a lot of Bunk. Louie learned a lot from Bunk comin’ up. Now it’s too bad Bunk stopped playing and went to the country for twenty years. He was out of the picture and nobody knew where he was. I saw Bunk (in New Iberia, Sept. 1938) when I was traveling with Armstrong. This was before he came back and started playing again. Bunk looked like an old man to me, no teeth, and he seemed sort of depressed. He came to the dance and sat in back on the band stand. He was listening and smiling. The next year or so they had him to come back. Now he was a man who hadn’t played for years and had no teeth and this man picked up that trumpet and had such a clear tone and sound, and he was a musician. One night I was disappointed when I went to the Stuyvesant Casino and Bunk was asleep back of the piano; so I didn’t hear Bunk that night. But one night I heard Bunk at Jimmy Ryan’s and the younger musicians such as Lips Page would say, “Yeah man, listen to that old man, that cat’s playin!” He was in good form you see. I’m telling you, when he was in good form it was amazing, for a man to be out of music all those years, at his age, and play. Later (in Jan. l946) when George Lewis was getting his teeth fixed I took his place at the Stuyvesant Casino for several nights. They had a nice New Orleans band with Baby Dodds, Marerro, and others, and that man played — Bunk played. It was a nice few days playing with him. Then the next winter there was a big ball on Broadway one Saturday night. The place was sold out. Wilbur De Paris on trombone, Baby Dodds, Danny Barker, Pops Foster — we had a good line up.
We came in at nine o’clock and no Bunk. So we played without Bunk. But the people came to hear Bunk. He was a legend and the kids were idolizing Bunk like he was Jesus you know. They paid the rest of us no mind. Papa Mutt came in to hear Bunk. So we said, “Man, go get your horn.” But he didn’t want to play. He said he’d just come to town to make some records. At twelve o’clock we finally located Bunk, up in Harlem having a ball. They said he’d be down in a few minutes. OK, they brought Bunk down. Bunk came in the hall; man everybody was screaming and hollering, and clapping, like a big procession. Baby Dodds gave him a dirty look with some head shaking. Danny and Pops looked downhearted. Bunk came on the stand. He had frosted feet and trouble with his false teeth. “Whatcha doin’?” “I have to put powder in there to keep my teeth together.” Well anyhow, I was sitting by his side on the stand and I said, “What you goin’ to play, man?” He said, “We’ll do so and so.” He was really shakey the first few bars. But do you know something, with his experience he pulled himself together and by about the second number Bunk was playin’ and the place was happy.
Wooden Joe? It was remarkable what power and volume my Uncle Joe had when he was in his seventies. The trumpet, you know, is not like playing the violin, or guitar, or the piano. I was amazed when I caught him a couple of times in street parades. I couldn’t believe it. In the hot sun, walking through those rough streets, some not paved, and bustin’ those Cs at the end of the tune. I said to myself, “Look man, Hey!” He didn’t have all this technique, but he had a beautiful sound. You couldn’t get Uncle Joe to leave New Orleans. They had a lot of good musicians who would only stay in New Orleans. But they’re so happy and you know they’re hot headed, but full of talent.
Manuel Manetta was one of the greatest musicians of all times. He taught me a lot. You know he could play every instrument. I had the pleasure of playing with him when I came out of the Navy in 1919. I was just learning to read well. That job was at the Cadillac on Burgundy Street. We wern’t (weren’t) playing Dixieland. We were playing New Orleans style. Of course we knew all those tunes like Panama, High Society, and That’s A Plenty, but we had to play pop tunes because people requested them. We’d just get the lead or a piano sheet — no arrangement. Manuel would give us a skeleton part, like Jelly. “Albert, you play this.” Sometimes when a new tune was difficult I’d get stuck and say, “How do you do it?” Manuel knew clarinet, he knew trumpet, he could transpose at sight. This man was a great musician, and he’d say, “Now I tell you what. Next time you come to work a half hour ahead and we’ll run over this together.” I showed him I was anxious to learn and he taught me plenty, giving me this experience.
Manuel Perez was one of my idols. I worked with him in 1920, before I went to Tom Anderson’s. We played at Butchy Fernandez’s place on Iberville, near Burgundy — the Oasis. Beansy had a gambling place right next door. In the band were Perez, “Nenese” Trepagnier, drums, and Udel Wilson on piano. I learned so much from Manuel Perez and he encouraged me. He’d say, “That boy’s going to be something.” That was encouragement, and when I got stuck he showed me. So I had good teachers, which was all given to me — not bought. That’s a fact. We had no Conservatory, my lessons were given to me. That was New Orleans. So you see that’s the bringing up I had in New Orleans — something I’ll never forget. I don’t care what type of music they put up in front of me, I’ll never forget the background of New Orleans. It’s natural; it’s in my system; I’ll always have that New Orleans feeling in my mind.
In Egypt I even played in a symphony orchestra. That’s where I learned to play classics. There was an Italian who taught me, and I changed over to the Boehm system clarinet. That man taught me a lot. And there was another thing I found out. This man was 57 years old and I’d never heard a man play so much beautiful clarinet. I was in my twenties then and thinking that when you get to be forty you’re an old man — you ain’t going to be playing any more. I was brainwashed with that stupidity. But here I’m looking at a man in his fifties playing all this clarinet. I said, “I don’t know nothing.”
I’m in my seventieth year now. Had I been doing any other kind of work I’d be retired, and maybe I’d have been dead long ago. Because, what interest do you have in life when you’re not doing anything? You retire for about six months; you get bored, and you go. People ask if I’m retired. I say, “Well man, I’m old enough to retire but I’m going to play as long as I got breath in my body.” They ask me, “Don’t you get tired?” Tired of what? Well, I hear these young kids talking, “My chops are bad you know, I’m tired. I’ll be glad when the night’s over.” I say, “What! I’m happy. How in the hell you gonna feel tired. There ain’t time to feel tired.”
Bunk used to say the same thing, “How can anyone get tired playing music.”
I’m telling you the God’s truth, I’m not lying, I’m a happy man.
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The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated Spring, 1978, Vol. XXX, pages 3—10.
Special thanks to Don Marquis, Millie Gaddini and Sonny McGown.