Glimpses of the Past
By Roy J. Carew
Old timers in New Orleans will, I’m sure, remember the large double dwelling that stood considerably back from the street on the river side of St. Charles St., between Julia and St. Joseph Streets. It was of three stories with balconies extending entirely around the second and third floors. From the style of the architecture and the iron grille work, one could surmise that it was very old, probably dating far back into the ante bellum days. At the beginning of this century it was a boarding house. On my arrival in New Orleans in 1904, it became my first address. The landlady and boarders were a sociable and friendly lot. It was from this congenial vantage point that I fared forth and, little by little, became acquainted with New Orleans. The more I got to know the city, the more my liking for it grew. Although I have been away from it for many years, it still remains my prime favorite.
I was never at a loss to spend my free time in New Orleans. There was the great Mississippi River with its miles of docks and harbor full of water borne traffic, ocean liners and freighters, river boats and barges, excursion boats, tugs, etc. Occasionally a warship and always ferry boats plying between the banks. Externally an interesting panorama. There were the squares and the parks, Audubon and City, pleasant places to idle; there were the St. Charles-Tulane and the Canal-Esplanade Belt lines where, for a nickle, one could take a personal sight seeing trip that encircled a large section of the city; there were the lake resorts of West End and Milneburg, where one could relax, listen to some music, and enjoy the Lake Pontchartrain breezes; there were the historic streets and buildings of the French Quarter, where interesting fact and fiction were found side by side; there was the French Market, with its coffee stands and attractive and appetizing displays of food; and . . . there was music, uptown, downtown, from the river to the woods, — there was MUSIC.
I arrived in New Orleans from the Gulf Coast on the Sunday night before Labor Day, 1904, to take a job as factory bookkeeper in Gretna, across the river from Jackson Avenue. Monday morning I reported to the city office of the company, on an upper floor of the Hibernia Bank Building, to await the arrival of the plant superintendent, who would take me to my job. As I waited, there came a burst of music from outside. Everyone stepped over and looked out of the window to discover the Negro Labor Day parade marching down Carondelet Street. There were several bands in the parade, and they were playing real “stepping” music. I don’t know if I heard BUDDY BOLDEN’S BAND, but Buddy was still around in 1904, and I imagine that his outfit must have been there.
I worked in Gretna until sometime in 1906, and there was music there. Probably the crudest sounds I heard were the notes the ragman played on his tin fish horn. Jelly Roll Morton related that the New Orleans ragmen could play the blues on a 10¢ Xmas horn, and Joe E. Mares Sr., remembered that the old “bottle man” in the vicinity of Claiborne Street, blew several notes in a syncopated manner. Well, I can say the ragman in Gretna had the same accomplishment. The office boy at the plant used to sing bits of blues tunes, mostly crude and unfinished, and often spiced with ribaldry. Many of the bits he sang appeared later in published blues or Tin Pan Alley tunes, so they must have had some circulation. He used to sing “You may go, but this will bring you back,” and “Mama’s got a baby named Tee Nah Nah,” also “Oh your Pa don’t want no tea.” He had one bit that ran into elsewhere, — “Don’t worry Bill, papa ain’t mad with you.” This line appears at the beginning of the second verse of BABY SEALS’ BLUES, published in 1912, as “Honey babe pop’s ain’t mad with you.” Baby Seals evidently spent some time in New Orleans, because his song “You Got To SHAKE RATTLE AND ROLL,” was published in 1910 by L. Grunewald Co. I also found the line “Cause my honey baby, says yo’ papa ain’t mad with you” in R. Emmet Kennedy’s book MELLOWS, in his song HONEY BABY. In 1906 I attended a concert in Algiers, given by Mr. Kennedy, in which his niece sang HONEY BABY to his accompaniment. It was the first blues I ever heard. When I worked in Gretna, R. Emmet Kennedy was office man at the Chicasaw (Chickasaw) Cooperage Co., just across the way. He was a gifted musician, author and poet, a fine gentleman who deserves more than casual mention.
There was a fine natural piano player at the boarding house, one Emil Gonsales, who, after a hard day’s work as wharf clerk for the M. L. & T. R. R. and S. S. Co., would come home and play for us to sing and dance after dinner. In later years, when the Tudor Theatre opened on Canal Street, Emil played for the silent movies. The management added singers to the program, and as long as they sang popular songs, Emil accompanied them with ease. However, one week a singer of classical Italian songs was booked to appear. He showed up a couple of days before he was to open, and placing his music on the piano, said, “Let’s rehearse.” Emil, who was a slow reader, was nonplussed and had to think fast. “I have an appointment just now,” he said, picking up the songs, “But we can rehearse in the morning.” He hurried home to his wife, who was a good trained pianist, and she played the songs over for him a few times. The next morning the rehearsal was without a hitch.
Another good natural piano player I knew was Leonard Bayesdoffer, who was one of a group of players who were often to be found in the lounge of the Monteleone Hotel of a Sunday afternoon. Others were Harry Ferrer a fine ragtime player, Joe Verges (Don’t Leave Me Daddy), Irwin P. Leclere (Triangle Jazz Blues and Cookie) and several others. Leonard was a good example of the care free New Orleans musician. It is related that once, when the group were at the Monteleone, someone approached him and said “Leonard, friends of mine are giving a party tonight, and they want a piano player.” Leonard replied that he wasn’t interested. Being told that he would have to play only a couple of hours, he still wasn’t interested. “But Leonard,” he was told, “For only playing a couple of hours, you’ll get $3.00.” “Still not interested,” said Leonard, with finality, “I’ve got $3.00.” A short time later he seated himself at the lounge piano, and played all evening for nothing.
There were many composers in New Orleans, and their compositions comprised all categories, from ballads, popular songs and ragtime to classical numbers, even the classical numbers often reflected the spirit of the local scene; for example Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s LA BAMBOULA (1858), which carries the unmistakable beat of the old Congo Square, and W. T. Francis’ EL NOPAL, Danza Mexicana (1885), in which the main theme is expressed by a ragtime treble over a Spanish base. A list of high class New Orleans musicians and composers would be very long, indeed, and if there were added to that list the names of the natural players, I don’t doubt the total would be staggering. Music flourished in all parts, from Jefferson Parish to St. Bernard, and from the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain, I don’t believe any other city in the country could have been the birthplace of jazz music. Only New Orleans had all the ingredients. An ocean and river port and railroad center, the city had a thoroughly cosmopolitan population — a pleasure loving people with strong musical tendencies, with a climate that permitted outdoor activities practically the entire year. Social clubs flourished, picnics, parties and dances were frequent, and music was a large part at all festivities. Bands, combos and individual players were in demand, and all classes made contributions to the art, from the humble ragman with his tin horn to the accomplished musician in a society band or the French Opera House. There was an interchange of ideas, and the natural players listened and contrived, even with inferior instruments, to produce a characteristic music that eventually surprised the musical world. It had had to happen in the CITY THAT CARE FORGOT.
Just as jazz was destined to grow in New Orleans, it was destined to spread in the course of time. Two events have reminded me lately of this migration: ABC-Paramount’s ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ In Hi-Fi, by Don Fowler and his Dixieland group, and the recent release of the JELLY ROLL MORTON Library of Congress recordings on 12 LPs by Riverside. Fowler, a sincere student and lover of New Orleans music, has performed a remarkable feat in bringing 12 of the original ODJB numbers to life in Hi-Fi, note for note as they were originally recorded. The meticulously painstaking work of transcribing the numbers for five instruments must have been very difficult, and it is gratifying to see that it wasn’t wasted, for to my ears the records came off without a flaw, which is also a compliment to the skill of the performers. The records demonstrate the merit of the ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND, and are reminders of the quality of good jazz in New Orleans in 1916 and earlier.
Anyone who lived in New Orleans fifty years ago will have his memory quickened very pleasantly as he listens to the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings, and for those who were born more recently, the records will constitute a jazz tour of the city in the early days. These recordings are a monument to the genius of Ferdinand Joseph Morton. Just as jazz was destined to achieve merited acceptance and worldwide popularity, Jelly Roll was destined to be one of its leading exponents. He was intensely proud of New Orleans music, and of the part he had played in its development and progress, being equally proud of the other jazz pioneers. Of the music, he said, “Jazz comes from everything of the finest class music,” and of the musicians he said, “. . . these men set a pace for everyone (who) entered New Orleans. I have never known anyone to leave New Orleans victorious.” He had a thorough knowledge of New Orleans music, from the crude honky tonk bits to the polished classical forms. He knew all the pioneer jazzmen and was familiar with their abilities, and he had a remarkable memory that enabled him to recall items of jazz history at will, seemingly with no effort. If a ready example of some style of playing didn’t come to his mind, he could compose one off hand. When Alan Lomax invited Morton to make a few records for the Archives of the Library of Congress, he was tapping an almost inexhaustible reservoir of folk lore and jazz history. The opportunity, coming as it did, when Morton’s fortunes were at low ebb, served to bolster his ego, I believe, and he made many records that add to his reputation. Much of the music he recorded is about a half century old, but it is still vibrant and sparkling with freshness. As Morton said “Good music doesn’t grow old.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Second Line is indeed fortunate to have a contributor like Mr. Roy Carew. Known throughout the world as “Jelly Roll Morton’s Champion,” in contrast to the man who he befriended, Mr. Carew is probably the most humble, shy and retiring guy you ever met. In all probability he will be angry at this editor for even mentioning his name! Mr. Carew, whose name epitomizes “fair play,” made it his business to see to it that all of Jelly Roll’s tunes, compositions, and music were not only written, but also copyrighted. Also, he arranged for whatever royalties that might derive, to be passed on to Morton’s family. And he asks nothing in exchange!
Roy Carew knew New Orleans in its earliest days — the days when Storyville was in full swing. He has a remarkable memory, and expresses himself extremely well, as we can see by his accompanying article. We mentioned that Mr. Carew was retiring — but we did not mean to infer that he would slink away from a battle. On the contrary, when he believes he is right, or that his boy “Jelly” has been wronged, he is not one bit hesitant to rush into defense! We know, because he gave US a verbal blast not too long ago in the pages of “The Record Changer!” But we liked it!
We hope that this article by Roy Carew marks the start of a whole string of others. No matter what the subject, we know that it is bound to be interesting, historically true, and enlightening to all jazz fans.
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The above article was first published in The Second Line magazine, dated July—August 1958, Vol. 9, Nos. 7 & 8, pages 1—4.
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Special thanks to Don Marquis, Roger Richard and Daniel Meyer.