Jelly Roll Morton in New York
by Danny Barker
When I arrived in New York City, in 1930, my uncle Paul Barbarin and Henry “Red” Allen, my old friend, took me to the Rhythm Club which was known for its famous jam sessions and cutting contests.
The club was owned and operated by Bert Hall, a trombone player, politician and gambler who had left Chicago for New York. Bert introduced many reforms in Local 802 that were for the protection of its Negro members who, lots of times after working in clubs owned by racketeers, were doubtful of getting paid until the money was in their hands. (Before the coming of Bert there was The Bandbox, another club owned by a trumpet player named Major.)
The afternoon I walked into the Rhythm Club, the corner and street was crowded with musicians with their instruments and horns. I was introduced and shook hands with a lot of fellows on the outside. Then we entered the inside which was crowded. What I saw and heard, I will never forget. A wild cutting contest was in progress and sitting and standing around the piano were twenty or thirty musicians, all with their instruments out waiting for a signal to play choruses of Gershwin’s Liza.
It was a Monday afternoon and the musicians gathered at the club to get their pay for weekend jobs and to gossip and chew the fat. But this Monday the news had spread that the famous McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, from the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit were in town to record for Victor and start an eastern tour. At that time, the Cotton Pickers, Fletcher Henderson, and the Casa Loma orchestra were considered the best bands in the land.
This day, at the Rhythm Club, most of the famous leaders, stars and sidemen were there; the big names I’d heard and read about: Benny Carter, Don Redman, Horace Henderson, Fess Williams, Claude Hopkins, Sonny Greer, John Kirby, Johnny Hodges, Freddie Jenkins, Bobby Stark, Chick Webb, Big Green and Charlie Johnson.
Around the piano sat three banjo players: Bernard Addison, Ikie (Ikey) Robinson, and Teddy Bunn with his guitar.
Paul tells me, “See those three fellows, they are the best banjo players in New York City and that guy standing behind them is Seminole — you watch him.” Which I did.
After each of the banjo players played dozens of choruses, the crowd yelled, “Seminole! Cut them cats!”, and after much applause and persuasion Seminole, who was left-handed, reached for a banjo that was tuned to be played right-handed, and to my amazement he started wailing on the banjo playing it upside down; that is, playing everything backwards. I later learned that, being left-handed, Seminole did not bother to change the strings; he just taught himself.
After his solos the banjos were quiet — they just played rhythm. Then in rushed a comical little fat young fellow carrying some drums which he hurriedly set up. Paul said, “That’s Randolf, he plays with the Tramp Band — a vaudeville act.” Randolf played eccentric and trick novelty drums, he was very clever with all sorts of rhythm and clever beats. Then the crowd yelled for Chick Webb, who washed Randolf away.
Paul says, “Watch this.” Then it was a trumpet battle — Bobby Stark, Rex Stewart and Cuba Bennett. Cuba Bennett was the most highly respected trumpet player at that time in New York City. He is a cousin of Benny Carter, and the great band leader boasted with authority that he could play more beautiful and complex solos than anyone in the whole world. When he played, everybody in the street and on the sidewalks rushed in. He was terrific. I’ll never forget that, as I had never heard a trumpet like that. He was everything they claimed he was. While I was listening someone said, “That cat is only pressing on the second and third valve.” I never saw much of him after that, as he went to Camden, New Jersey to live. But anytime trumpet players were discussed, Cuba Bennett was spoken of with reverence. I must have heard this about a hundred times by different musicians who had passed through Camden, New Jersey on tours:
“We passed through Camden, so we stopped at that gin joint where Cuba hangs out at. He still plays great. He’s got a family and you couldn’t pull him out of Camden for a million dollars.”
At this session, John Kirby, who had just bought a new bass, was playing and like an amateur was searching for the positions on the fingerboard of the bass. I asked Paul who was that cat trying to play that bass.
Paul said, “That’s John Kirby. He’s the best tuba player in New York City. He works with Fletcher Henderson.” I was amazed at his playing because I had heard the greatest bass players: Chester Zardis, Al Morgan, Albert Glenny, Jimmy Johnson, Ransom Knolling, Simon Marrero and dozens of fine bass players in New Orleans.
The crowd called for Pops Foster. Kirby handed him the bass and then stood by with all the other bass tuba players and watched Pops with pop eyed interest as he slapped a dozen choruses on Liza.
In 1930 Pops Foster and Wellman Brand were the only two string bass players in New York City, other than a few Cuban and Puerto Rican bass players. The most renowned was Tizol, who is an uncle of Juan Tizol of Duke Ellington fame who wrote Caravan. The band leaders in New York City were finally convinced that the bass fiddle belonged and sounded better in the band than the tuba. So there was a mad change-over to the bass fiddle, and Pops Foster had hundreds of students and imitators.
I am watching the jam session with interest when Paul says, “Come over here and meet Jelly Roll and King Oliver.”
In the meantime, here’s that Seminole seating himself at the piano and playing “Liza” like as if he had written it, as the crowd screams their praise.
In the next few years I learned that Seminole was a wizard at playing the banjo, piano and xylophone. But, like Cuba Bennett, he went to Atlantic City, N. J. and became a legend of the past.
Paul leads me through the crowd to where King and Jelly are standing. I had noticed Fletcher Henderson was playing pool and seemed unconcerned about who was playing in the jam session, or who was there. And whenever I saw him at the Club he was always playing pool seriously, never saying anything to anyone, just watching his opponent’s shots and solemnly keeping score. All the other musicians watched the game and whispered comments because he was the world’s greatest band leader.
Paul tells King and Jelly, “Here’s my nephew, he just came from New Orleans.”
King Oliver says, “How you doing, Gizzard Mouf?” I laughed, and Jelly says, “How you Home Town?” I said, “Fine,” and from then on he always called me “Home Town.”
Jelly, who was a fine pool and billiard player, had been watching and commenting to Oliver on Fletcher’s pool shots. King could play a fair game also.
Jelly says (and he doesn’t whisper), “That Fletcher plays pool just like he plays piano — assbackwards. Just like a crawfish,” and Oliver laughs and laughs until he starts coughing.
The session goes on and on, and I notice that nothing, the ovations, comments, solos, or anybody or anything, moves Henderson in the least.
That evening I went with King Oliver to his rehearsal. He did not play much as he was having trouble with his teeth.
Jelly Roll spent most of the afternoon and evenings at the Rhythm Club and everytime I saw him he was lecturing to the musicians about organizing. Most of the name and star musicians paid him no attention because he was always preaching, in loud terms, that none of the famous New York bands had a beat. He would continuously warn me: “Home Town, don’t be simple and ignorant like these fools in the big country towns.” I would always listen seriously because most of the things he said made plenty of sense to me.
Jelly was constantly preaching that if he could get a band to rehearse his music and listen to him he could keep a band working. He would get one nighters out of town and would have to beg musicians to work with him.
Most of the time the musicians would arrive at the last moment, or send a substitute in their place. I learned later that they were angry with him because he was always boasting about how great New Orleans musicians were. At that time most working musicians were arrangement-conscious following the pattern of Henderson, Redman, Carter and Chick Webb. Jelly’s music was considered corny and dated. I played quite a few of these one-nighters with Jelly and on one of these dates I learned that Jelly could back up most of the things he boasted of.
The band met at the Rhythm Club and left from there in Jelly Roll’s two Lincoln cars about three in the afternoon to play in Hightstown, New Jersey, at a playground that booked all the famous bands at that time.
On the way we came upon a scene of much excitement. A farmer in a jalopy had driven off a country road right in the path of a speeding trailer truck. The big truck pushed the jalopy about a hundred feet, right into a diner. The diner was full of people who were having dinner. The impact turned the diner over and the hot coffee percolator scalded the waitresses and customers. Nobody was badly hurt but they were shocked and scared and screaming and yelling.
We pulled up and rushed out to help the victims who were frantic. Jelly yelled loudly and calmed the folks down. He took complete charge of the situation. Jelly crawled into the overturned diner and called the state police and hospitals. They sent help in a very short time. Then he consoled the farmer, who was jammed in his jalopy and couldn’t be pulled out. His jalopy was crushed like an accordion against the diner by the big trailer. The farmer was so scared he couldn’t talk and when the emergency wrecker finally pulled his jalopy free and opened the door and lifted him out. I noticed that he was barefooted. I remarked to Jelly that the farmer was barefooted. Jelly told me that happens in a wreck. The concussion and force cause a person’s nerves to constrict and their shoes jump off.
Jelly talked to all the officials at the scene and they thanked him for his calls and calmness in an emergency. We got back in the cars and drove off.
As we rode, Jelly spoke on and on of how white folks are scared to die. I rode in the car with Jelly and I can’t recall who it was, but it was either Tommy Benford or Ward Pinkett who kept on disagreeing with everything Jelly said, which was the usual procedure whenever he had an audience around the Rhythm Club.
We passed some men who were hunting in a field. They were shooting at some game that were flying overhead.
Jelly said, “Them bums can shoot. When I was with Wild West shows I could shoot with the best marksmen and sharpshooters in the world.”
Either Benford or Pinkett said, “Why don’t you stop all that bullshit?” and that argument went on and on.
When we arrived at Hightstown and drove into the entrance of the playground and got out of the cars, I noticed a shooting gallery. So I said to Jelly, “Say Jelly, there’s a shooting gallery.”
Jelly’s eyes lit up and he hollered, “Come here all you cockroaches! I’m going to give you a shooting exhibition!”
We all gathered around the shooting gallery and Jelly told the owner, “Rube, load up all of your guns!”; and the man did.
Jelly then shot all the targets down and did not miss any. The man set them up again and Jelly repeated his performance again.
Then he said, “Now cockroaches, can I shoot?” Everybody applauded. Jelly gave me the prizes, as the man shook his hand. Then he and Jelly talked about great marksmen of the past as his hecklers looked on with respect.
As he and I walked to the dancehall, I asked Jelly how did he know the man’s name was Rube.
Jelly said, “Home Town, on circuses, carnivals, medicine shows, all concession owners are called ‘Rube’ and when anybody connected with the show gets in trouble with someone or people from the town, he hollers, ‘Rube!’ and the show people rush to his defense and rescue. Show folks stick together.”
From then on I had a sympathetic respect for Jelly. I also noticed that his hecklers did not dispute him in a vicious way like the cats on the corners in New Orleans did.
As I look back on past scenes, situations, and the whys and reasons for many great musicians falling by the wayside, to be forgotten by the public, that first Rhythm Club visit comes to my mind. The musicians played spontaneous, creative solos under critical eyes in competition with the world’s finest jazz musicians, and many an unknown joined these sessions and earned an international reputation.
Then I think of Fletcher Henderson’s indifference to the activity there. He was the acknowledged King; his band was the greatest in the world. He knew it because he was being copied by everybody. His sidemen were the best and he paid the highest salaries. Every colored musician knew and read about his famous sidemen: Hawkins, Rex, Walter Johnson, Buster Bailey, Russell Smith, John Kirby, Jimmy Harrison, and those before these — Don Redman, Benny Carter, Big Green, Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier. Fletcher had hired and fired the greatest jazz names in America. . . . Then Jelly and Oliver watching his pool game.
It was a new era. They had become famous with bands which were smaller and which gave the sidemen freedom to express themselves. But the sound that Fletcher presented to the jazz scene was streamlined, big, powerful, and arranged especially to bring out the best in the instrumentalists of his band. The songs, scores and arrangements were copied and imitated by all the big jazz bands (exceptions were Guy Lombardo and Ted Lewis). And as time marched on Jelly and Oliver stood on the sidelines with their plans and music, as the fickle public hurriedly paraded by.
Ten years later, Fletcher Henderson, still cool and indifferent, stood on the sidelines as his fickle public hurriedly passed him by, rushing to hear Jimmie Lunceford and his youthful bunch of excellent soloists, novel arrangements, continuous music (intermission once a night). Lunceford gave his audience their full of beautiful music. His hand played; his sidemen did not wander off as was the problem of leaders in the past. He popped the whip. In the past the leaders had around them famous soloists and sidemen and gave them publicity and billing on marquees and posters. But Lunceford’s band was billed as the “Lunceford Special.” No name but his.
Then came the great musical revolution. The new generation rebelled against the old system of being buried in a section, and blowing tonal and rhythm patterns, while the so-called stars, pets and musicians — the friends of bookers, agents, jive critics and magazine writers got all the credit. Youth wanted to express themselves and they did — right back to the old system in New Orleans.
“You play your part and I play mine, so we’ll both express ourselves. You don’t tell me what you want and I don’t tell you. We will all variate on the theme.”
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The above article was published in The Jazz Review magazine, dated May 1959, Vol. 2, No. 4, pages 12—14.
Note: Founded by Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams and Hsio Wen Shih in New York in 1958, The Jazz Review was the premier journal of jazz in the United States. Short-lived as it was (1958-1961), it set an enduring standard for criticism.
Note: The article by Danny Barker forms the first part of Chapter 15 in Alyn Shipton’s fine book, “A Life In Jazz” by Danny Barker, edited by Alyn Shipton, published by Macmillan, London, 1986 and Oxford University Press, New York, 1986 (hardcover) and 1988 (paperback). The chapter is substantially longer and contains additional anecdotes about Jelly Roll Morton.