by Tim Harding
(This article was published in Jazzline magazine, Vol 20 No. 3, Spring 1987)
In June of this year, I was lucky enough to realise a life-long ambition to visit the birthplaces of jazz which I have read so much about: New Orleans, St Louis, Chicago and New York. The aim was also to make some business contacts for the Cotton Club Orchestra and to do some musical shopping.
First stop was colourful, hilly old San Francisco, where I must honestly say I heard the best band I have ever heard live – Don Neely’ s Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. This is a fully professional 12 year old 11-piece outfit playing very authentic jazz and hot dance music from the 1920s and 30s . They have improved dramatically since their recordings of the 1970s and are now playing more hot stomping black jazz tunes by bands like the Missourians, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. Don was interested to know about the Cotton Club Orchestra in Melbourne and readily agreed to swap arrangements with us.
Turk Murphy had just died so there wasn ‘t much jazz at Fisherman’s Wharf, but I did arrange to visit the Alcatraz abode of that well-known jazz sponsor, Al Capone.
Next to New Orleans, and the obligatory pilgrimage to that musical mecca , Preservation Hall. Heard either Kid Sheik or Kid Thomas’s band (forget which ) and the Olympia Brass Band – both very predictable. Unfortunately, the best jazz was to be found in the big city hotels like the New Orleans Hilton where the Placide Adams band and Banu Gibson’s New Orleans Hot Jazz Orchestra have regular gigs. Banu’s speciality is singing in 3-part harmony like the Boswell Sisters with trumpet and trombone. Dave Sager, her young trombone player, is an absolute knock-out and the best I have heard live in this style.
Paid a very worthwhile visit to the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University in the leafy Garden District. Here I met the curator , bass player Curt Jurde, who introduced me to the incredible collection of early sheet music there. Came away with photocopies of some 1923 King Oliver Creole Jazz Band charts and some by Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926 Red Hot Peppers (yes, those guys actually played from written arrangements!)
Banu Gibson was also the hit of the 23rd Annual Classic Jazz and Ragtime Festival on a Mississippi showboat in St Louis, which was reached after a fascinating train trip via Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. Other good bands included the Original Salty Dogs from Chicago, the Hot Frogs Jumpin’ Jazz Band from Los Angeles, the Hot Cotton Band from Memphis and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band from San Antonio. (All these bands have recorded on the Stomp Off label).
But the highlight of the trip, after a brief stopover in Chicago, was the home of my favourite music – New York. Its size, scale, diversity and culture is breathtaking. Heard Dizzy Gillespie, and Woody Allen’ s New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra at Michael’s Pub (on different nights) not far from my hotel on West 55th Street. Also heard Benny Carter (still playing well at 79), Ron Carter (no relation), and the 17-piece Mel Lewis Big Band at the Village Vanguard. The long-running Broadway show, 42nd Street, was an emotional, spectacular event, after having played the Times for a couple of years.
Visited Vince Giordano in Brooklyn, who heads a 10-piece 1920s band called Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. Vince has a collection of about 20,000 early arrangements and also agreed to swap them with the Cotton Club Orchestra. I bought about 20 charts from him and he agreed to select a bass saxophone for the Cotton Club (saw four bass saxophones in one shop on 48th Street). Also bought a very nice dentless brass-lacquered sousaphone, and the two instruments will soon be shipped out here together.
Toured Harlem one day with an African-American tour company (reputedly the only safe way to go there). Visited the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street, Duke Ellington’s 5-storey house in Washington Heights, and stood on the site of the former Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. Over lunch at a restaurant in Lenox Avenue, some African-American guys asked me why I was interested in Harlem. After explaining about black jazz and the Cotton Club, they asked me how many aborigines I had in the band!
My overall impression was that, whilst the quality of jazz was understandably superior in the USA, Melbourne has enough bands to qualify for the title of one of the jazz capitals of the world.