The Sound He Can’t Forget
By Harold C. Hopkins
Washington, D. C. : Part 1
When the late Jelly Roll Morton retreated into the anonymity of Washington’s Jungle Inn to lick the wounds laid upon him by the Great Depression, the rough sea change carved by the new sultans and sycophants of swing and the irony etched by the inevitability of time itself, one of the young white hunters who cornered the old diamond-toothed tiger in his adversity was a teen-ager named Beale Edwin Riddle.
To the aging inventor of rags, jazz and stomps the almost nightly homage paid by this young member of one of Baltimore’s oldest families was accepted with the customary charity he accorded to the all-too-few who didn’t laugh when he sat down to play. To the 19-year-old acolyte the visits were well worth the sniffs and scourges his unusual musical inclinations evoked from family and friends. To Mr. Riddle’s 18-year-old girlfriend Louise, who sometimes clung fearfully to his arm as they hurried through the rough neighborhood of Washington’s U Street, it was a kind of trial which tested her love and tempered it.
It would not be precisely correct to say that Beale Riddle gave up everything to follow the firefly he glimpsed when Jelly Roll Morton’s slender fingers fluttered over the keys as he counterpointed with the rich embroidery of the singer’s and storyteller’s art. But there some who pause betwixt love and duty and let sobersided discretion carry the field. Since 1938 and Jelly Roll Morton, Mr. Riddle has not been one of these; and at 46 and granfatherhood, the cascades of sound loosed in that dingy nightclub and the memory of the man who made them still provide the dominating leitmotif in Mr. Riddle’s life.
Whatever Jelly Roll Morton did to the truth to sell himself, he never undersold his hometown of New Orleans and the natives who helped him to create its unique product. And there is no evidence that he poormouthed the Delta City during those nights in the Jungle Inn in 1938. For that reason and others, and although Mr. Riddle has come to accept that the King is dead (and O, too many of the Princes!), New Orleans remains the kingdom and those jazzmen still left in the city are of the one true blood.
Let us, as one says, cut short the introduction and get to the story, which is and has been for 27 years about the strivings of Beale Riddle to recreate the sound of New Orleans music and in particular the sound of Morton’s Red Hot Peppers as they blew in full flower upon the jazz scene in 1927. It is not entirely that the struggle naught availeth, for there have been many Peppers-flavored jazz outfits whose emulative efforts ranged from mediocre to good. Not too long prior to this telling, Mr. Riddle had put together one such band in Washington that at times broke through into the latter class after an especially productive siege of the Biddle rehearsals, bullying, cajolery and other forms of intimidation. But the merely good has never been enough for the messianic gadfly that goads the spirit of Beale Riddle.
The most recent and possibly best opportunity for Mr. Riddle’s grand reincarnation came about one year ago when the manager of Washington’s Charles Hotel, after ten years of marginal operation, decided to terminate the services of its six-piece band, a good-natured group dedicated to giving the customers satisfaction, both in content and volume. If one felt like a ball, he could hear “At the Jazzband Ball” or “Balling the Jack,” with lots of brass and drums. If he felt blue he could hear “Black and Blue” or “Birth of the Blues,” with soulful solos all around. And if he felt contemplative he could call for the band’s only religious tune, for though the bassist was known to have a phobia against profaning sanctified music by playing it in a nightclub, it may be understandable that he failed to recognize “The Saints” as such.
It is suggestive of the remarkable vision[,] which seems to accompany Mr. Riddle’s peculiar obsession that he was able to see in this hodgepodge of hybridized and individual styles and persuasions something of the shimmering glory achieved by the Morton bands of the Twenties. Would the Charles Hotel, Mr. Riddle asked, let him take over direction of the music for a few weeks experiment before letting the band go? The Charles, after a decade of searching for a formula that might propel the band past the break-even point, was willing to try.
Mr. Riddle’s first act was to lock the doors of the Charles Hotel cocktail lounge one night weekly for rehearsals. His next was to insist that the band listen to some sounds most had never heard before: records of the Hot Peppers, Fives and Sevens; Oliver; Sam Morgan; Piron; NORK; and Noone. When the bandleader, an unreconstructed pianist given to Tatum-like bird calls and other sleight-of-key arpeggios, rebelled, Mr. Riddle looked up an assimilative pianist he had once heard and bottled him quickly in Ferdinand a la Menthe; he substituted a clarinetist committed (but not irrevocably) to Artie Shaw and dosed him with Dodds, Noone, Rappolo (Roppolo), Bigard, Simeon, Tio and Nicholas; he discovered a drummer who could do press rolls, rim, and shell without disturbing the plaster and who, of all things, liked to play “for the band,” as Baby used to say; he retained a more than adequate trombonist, added a compatible bassist, and somehow convinced the trumpet player that the sound came through much better when the notes were not so piercing.
After a few week of seclusion the band made its debut at an outdoor, multi-band concert where it knocked the others off the stand and carried a wave of enthusiastic followers into the Charles. It was, one might be safe in saying, the first time a Washington audience had ever heard “Bogalusa Strut” or “Mama’s Gone Goodbye,” and, bless us, not the last.
The Charles Hotel, which had doubled its cover charge and raised the price of drinks without frightening away its new-found clientele, echoed thrice weekly to such passing strangers as “Too Much Mustard,” “Apex Blues,” “Doctor Jazz” (with vocal), “King Porter,” and “Wolverine Blues.” The band observed Christmas by essaying “Canal Street Blues,” and was almost ready to take on “The Pearls.” The trombonist, in sooth, out Oryed the Kid of the Twenties on his “Creole Trombone” showpiece.
But even though the last-named performances left little for the listener to desire, its departure from the classical ensemble pattern that placed the New Orleans stamp on jazz from the beginning is symbolic of the conflict of reality and will in the world of Beale Riddle. It is this struggle between the average musician’s compulsion to express himself apart from others, instead of working within the ensemble passages such as those created by the Morton groups, that turned the normally mild-mannered Mr. Riddle into a martinet. The discipline that slipped whenever a weekly rehearsal was missed or the inevitable bottle passed to the wrong musician, set off warning flares from Mr. Riddle’s table. “Ensemble! Ensemble!” he would shout thickly and hoarsely into the sonic affront, his darkened visage sometimes drawing return glares from newcomers in the audience, who, unaware of the fine hand of Mr. Riddle in the sound produced, resented this ill-tempered heckler’s interruption of such a beautiful bray.
Mr. Riddle, when he was his gentle self (that is to say when the band was following those “little black dots” that so intrigued Morton biographer Alan Lomax) is so adept in the art of friendly persuasion that he is in demand by those sales organizations that specialize in the soft-sell approach. Although he is a salesman by trade, the definite advantages he offers as a specialist in his calling are somewhat modified by the irreverence he is unable to conceal for a product or service that does not help to gratify the senses or intellect. Among his likes are Bugatti cars (he doesn’t own one), haute cuisine, World War I model planes and, of course, jazz records. Dislikes: supermarkets, suburban living, politics, and small talk.
Beale and Louise Riddle moved their belongings from Baltimore to Washington’s DuPont Circle area about eleven years ago and it is not misrepresenting things to say that this particular neighborhood has not been quite the same since. DuPont Circle is an area of once-magnificent old town houses fallen into a kind of patina as the former inhabitants fly to the suburbs ahead of the wrecking ball and the new office and apartment buildings creeping up Connecticut Avenue from the downtown business district. It has been an area where artists, musicians, students and junior government clerks could find lodgings that are cheap and convenient.
(Part 2 will resume in next issue)
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The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated July—August, 1966, Vol. XVII, pages 91—93.
Special thanks to Don Marquis, Harold C. Hopkins and Millie Gaddini.
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Note: See also correspondence of Beale Riddle on the Baltimore Sessions Letters page, transcribed and annotated by Prof. Lawrence Gushee.