Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Fast-Passing Past

"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You"
I was reading about Joseph Oliver's last years of his life. He was still not old, in his fifties, but finished as a musician, the times having come along and bulldozed everything out of his reach, the old clubs in which he starred as the King of the New Orleans Cornet Players gone, the tours dried up, his players having left him, and King Joe Oliver soon found himself desperate. He'd taken over the title of King of the New Orleans Cornet Players from Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard--the book, Jazzmen, by Ramsey & Smith, has this whole wonderful chapter about King Oliver, the book was published in 1939 and the chapter was written in 1938, the year the King died in a mostly forgotten state and in utter poverty in Savannah, Georgia, too humble and polite to ask even his daughter for money enough to get back to New York City, his dream, though by then he had lost all of his teeth suddenly to pyorrhea--a cornet player without teeth isn't very successful--and then he developed a bad heart problem--he was a big man who was notorious for his eating habits--his usual main meal was 6 to 12 hamburgers at one sitting--he once on a challenge ate 12 full pies at one sitting--his dream though was to get back to NYC, where he thought, like all washed-up once-star musicians think, he could put together another band and start another come-back. All musicians who've experienced even the slightest bit of fame or cult heroism are constantly looking for their thing to come back around again to give them their second chances, second chances that most times never happen. King Oliver was a legend and still is among true jazz lovers and understanders--the King played a short horn, the cornet, like Buddy Bolden, like Freddie Keppard, and then King Oliver taught all he knew to a young New Orleans kid named Louis Armstrong. All along King Oliver knew Louis was gonna one day cut his ass. Louis was young and had more lung power than Joe did and could hit higher notes than the King though he hadn't put his thing together yet and then he followed the King up to Chicago where he became part of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, with greats like Honore Dutrey on trambone, Baby Dodds on drums (and blocks and bells and stick tricks), Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Louis on second cornet (at one time Louis also took up the long horn, the trumpet), Bill Johnson on string bass or banjo (they used banjos in recordings because the bells didn't pick up the bass slaps that well) or Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and Lil Hardin, the fantastic Lil Hardin, on piano, a young swinging pretty black girl from Memphis, Tennessee, who studied classical piano early in life and then briefly at Fisk University though she took to sneaking out of her house and going off into the wild side of Memphis and playing with the jazzbos, eventually being discovered by King Oliver who then paid her way to Chicago where she became the piano player in his band to become eventually an integral part of the "hot jazz" world, ending up after a failed first marriage marrying Louis Armstrong. King Oliver and Lil Hardin (a great reader of and composer of music) also came up with the idea of writing down King's blues lines and the tunes he'd written and starting a publishing company so that King's music could be copyrighted. Then King and Lil also got to writing down all the blues tunes and blues lines of other writers and players and publishing them for a slight fee.

Gradually, the King ended up in New York City at the tail end of the "hot jazz"/"Creole jazz"/"New Orleans jazz" phenomenon--his band of 11 pieces was really too big and clumsy to play the new line of fiesty compositions and fast swinging syncopated blues the smaller bands, like Louis's Hot Five, could handle with facile ease. Soon the King's long-lasting club dates began to vanish and one-nighters is all he could get and then even those got few and far between and due to a bunch of managerial problems and a last-chance tour of the Old South that fell through--how the King ended up in Savannah, Georgia stone broke--going on this final tour though most of his NYC band had abandoned him, including Louis who quit Papa Joe's band to go with a more lucrative band (Fletcher Henderson), ending up in New York City with ex-Papa Joe pianist (brilliant pianist, too) Luis Russell--these guys leaving Joe's band hurt the King badly--he didn't understand why they abandoned him--and his tour of the South ended in his being stranded down there in Savannah without a dime to his name, getting a job in a pool hall setting up tables and making just enough to try and pay his rent--and though he had gotten treatment for his heart trouble, he quit taking his once-a-week heart treatment because he couldn't afford the $3 it cost each week. And that's the butcher that finally cut King (Papa Joe) Oliver down. His daughter spent all of her savings to bring King back to New York City; then she gave up her plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, up in the far north end of the Bronx, and that's where King Oliver is buried--for years his grave was allowed to go unmarked.
King Joe Oliver & The King Oliver Creole Jazz Band: LR: Baby Dodds; Johnny Dodds; King Joe; Honore Dutrey; Louis Armstrong; Johnny St. Cyr (?); Lilly Hardin. It was the best jazz band in the world in 1923.

You called Joe King Joe and not Joe "King" because he was the KING in terms of New Orleans music, a royal title he earned by coming in and blowing Freddie Keppard away one night after Freddie had taken the crown from Buddy Bolden when Buddy went "off his conk." King Oliver was THE king of the New Orleans bandleaders but mainly he was the king of the world cornet players, which means he not only led the band but played the melody line over the intertwining configurations of Johnny Dodds's clarinet and Louis's second trumpet/cornet weaving in and out of King's lead line with Lil and Baby Dodds keeping the beat slammed down tight and Bill Johnson slappin' that big string bass 1-2-3-4--one beat at a time or Johnny St. Cyr strummin' hard and tight on his banjo. You can't tell how amazing this band was from their recordings--I mean the quality of recording then was in its infancy--King and Louis were such powerful blowers they had to stand 20 paces away from the recording bell--no mics in those days--you were positioned at places back from this big bell of a device depending on what you played and how loud you played, with the bass/banjo player and the piano closest to the bell, then the trambone, then the clarinet, then King and Louis even behind them 5 or so paces. When the band recorded at the Star Record Shop (Paramount record label) in Richmond, Indiana, in 1923, they almost destroyed the equipment on the first test run--they usually recorded 3 test recordings in those days, chosing the best of the three to be the master--and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band was the best band in the land at that time--working in Chicago, Illinois, at the Lincoln Gardens or the Dreamland or the Paradise Cafe.

I have always admired Lil Hardin. She was one bright, smart, chic, and sexy cookie, quiet talented both as a reader of music and a player of the piano--she'd developed pretty far into classical music at Fisk University in Nashville (she didn't stay long), but it was Jelly Roll Morton's playing, which she watched closely up close when he visited Memphis first and then later when she saw him in Chicago when she first got there to join the King's Creole Jazz Band--and she said she figured out why Jelly Roll was the leading pianist of the day--she said it was because she never saw any musician, especially a pianist, play as hard as Jelly Roll played--she said you could see the music coming out of his soul down through his arms and into his strong fingers as they found the right notes from that fountain of jazz creation that called himself Jelly Roll. And Lil Hardin fell head over heels for this "new" jazz and at that time, Lil ranked up there with Jelly Roll. I followed Lil's career after she retired to Chicago--living in Chicago up into the 70s (she was born in 1898)--and holy moly, Lil died the way any musician if he or she has to die would love to die, at her piano, in 1971, while televising a Louis Armstrong memorial show--Louis had died in 1971. Here's an excerpt from Lil's Wikipedia entry:

A visit by Jelly Roll Morton would profoundly affect Hardin's musical education. "He sat down," she wrote in her unpublished biography, "the piano rocked, the floor shivered, the people swayed while he attacked the keyboard with his long skinny fingers, beating out a double rhythm with his feet on the loud pedal. Oh, was I thrilled and amazed. He finally got up from the piano, grinned and looked at me as if to say, 'Let this be a lesson to you.' Well it was a lesson." When a small crowd urged Hardin to play something for Morton, she did. "I laid Witches Dance and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor on him."[4]

When Louis Armstrong died, in 1971, Hardin was deeply shaken by the loss. She traveled to New York for the funeral and rode in the family car. "I think Louis would have found a way getting back at me if I hadn't put Hardin in that car," his widow, Lucille, told Albertson. [8] Returning to Chicago, Hardin felt that work on her autobiography could now continue, but the following month, performing at a televised memorial concert for Louis, Hardin Armstrong collapsed at the piano. She died an hour later.
Lil Hardin in her heyday (top photo)--1920-21-22-23; and the later (bottom photo) Lil Hardin in the 1950s/60s--she had her own band in the early 1940s, ironically with Freddie Keppard on cornet/then she had an all-girl band for a while.

The womantrumpetplayer called Sociobiology "moronic" and got me to thinking about morons. Why'd the little moron go up on the roof? Because he heard the drinks were "on the house." Uggggh. It takes a pretty swift moron to come up with so moronic a "little moron" joke. The biggest moron besides Hill and Bill I saw this week was good ole Reverend Mike Huckabee explaining like a Cheshire cat why he made the statement about Obama falling off a chair thinking he'd been shot--or having a gun pointed at him--some such bullshit--some racial high-jinks Mike thought he was safe to crack, you know some "let's shoot Obama" jokes, since he was speaking in front of a bunch of NRA gun nuts. Charlton Heston, by the way, is still their official celebrity spokesman even though he's DEAD now--that's how backwards and primitive the NRA is. Hey, crackers, let's talk about pointin' a gun at Obama the N-worder's black ass--and watch that motherfucker run. Mike was on Tavis Smiley's show trying to explain all his racist bullshit away as a big mistake on his part--blah, blah, blah--the way they all have to apologize for being their real selves and not their made-up selves that we usually see on teevee.
LOOK OUT OBAMA, Mike Huckabee's got his male genitals out--why look, he's pointin' one at you! "Jest jokin', N-worder...er-ah, I mean Osama...er-ah, I mean O'mammy...er-ah, why can't I git that boy's name right."

My black girlfriend says all white people are racists--that we're born that way--sociobiology, I suppose, would back us whiteys up in our claim that we're the most serious race--the savior race--'cause we got the best genes, baby--and we're lily white, too, the same color as Jesus X. Christ when the Christians call him "The Lily of the Valley." According to my black girlfriend, Hillary is just as big a racist as Mike Huckabee--I mean, Hill spent her becoming-a-true-hillbilly time in Arkansas, one of the most backward and full-of-white-racists states in the Union; and I'm sure Mike and Billy Jeff told each other some N-worder jokes in their day--Mike's from Hope, Arkansas, too, just like White Trash, Trailer Trash Billy Jeff Clinton.

The Daily Growler hotshot political wits were cockily saying Hill was gonna bring the final decision down to the floor of the Convention where she had a chance of winning over Obama. She's still gonna try a coup--I know she is. I can feel it in my bones.

Speaking of morons, how about Bob Barr running as a Libertarian?

Congrats to Mr. Met and the Mets Ownership
For giving Willie Randolph a fair shake--saying he was their manager, under contract for two more years, and he was their manager for the rest of the season. And by golly that was really honorable of Fred Wilpon to back Willie up. Hey, it ain't Willie's fault that Omar has saddled him with some bum pitchers, like Pedro Martinez and El Duque and, hell, even big-purchase Santana is having trouble pitching in the National League--it's different, folks, even though it's still baseball. The Mets look lousy, yeah, losing a series to the Braves was horrible, but, hey, folks, it's the Florida Marlins in first place in that division, and the Mets, though under .500 same as the Yankees, they're only 4 back (I am sorry to say as of today, the Mets are now 6 1/2 games out of first; the Yankees also are 6 1/2 games out of first though they have a better percentage than the Mets)--they can easily catch up with the Marlins by winning 4 or 5 in a row--that is, if Willie can get the Mets pitchers to get reliable--something that Joe Girardi can tell Willie ain't possible.

Joe Torre's laughing his ass off at both of them, keeping the should-be hapless Dodgers way over .500 and only 3 1/2 games behind the seemingly invincible Arizona Diamondbacks.

for The Daily Growler


Language said...

Great post -- I never appreciated Lil Hardin till now. I'll have to go back and listen to her recordings. And of course you're right about the Mets and Willie, and laughin' Joe.

Marybeth said...

Sweet drug addict Chet Baker was jumped by a bunch of hoods, drug deal related, I think, and had 5 of his front top teeth knocked out. He said that everyone told him that it was impossible to play trumpet with a plate. But he said he was determined to figure out a way and after three years he got it down and returned to gigging. He has a little autobiography out there floating around "As Though I Had Wings". He's the only trumpeter I know of who managed a successful playing career without teeth. He's heroic just for that. A trumpeter without teeth is a heartbreak. (I love my teeth.)

Marybeth said...

About your "moron on the roof" joke:

First the moron part,

When I was about four years old I asked my mother what "adult humor" meant. She replied with an example: "Why'd the moron saw the toilet down the middle? Because his half-assed brother was coming for a visit." Which just helped to cement my childish belief that adults were utterly ridiculous.

Now for the roof part,

There was a man with an amazing talking dog who went to a talent scout with dollar bills in his eyes, saying "I have an amazing talking dog." "Yeah, yeah", said the talent scout. "Let's see this."

"What's on the top of a house?", said the dog owner.

"Roof," said the dog.

"And who was the greatest baseball player of all time?" said the dog owner.

"Roof," said the dog.

"OUT!" "OUT!" said the talent scout, pointing toward the door.

The poor dog and his owner plodded out, slank into the car, and drove off, the owner's depressed schnoz falling below the steering wheel. The empathic dog, looking over, and feeling that he'd somehow been a disappointment, said "Jeez, should I have said Di Maggio?"

Why does this joke remind me of you? Or, rather, why do you remind me of this joke? Well, wordy wolf that you are, you still must occasionally say "Woof." Sorry, I won't tell you any more bad jokes.

But as long as we're talking about the NY Yankees here, and we are talking about the NY Yankees, after all, the Babe and Jolting Joe were Yankees, I once played my trumpet on the field in Yankee Stadium. The Brooklyn College Symphonic Band played at the re-opening ceremony of Yankee Stadium after the 1974-75 renovation. I don't know who finagled our raggedy-assed incompetency into such a gig, but sure I'm glad they did. I remember a sense of incredible awe at being on the field, on the grass, where Don Larsen pitched his perfect game, the only one ever in a World Series, in the fifth game, in October 1956, one month before I was born. And where the Babe played, and Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle hit that home run out over center field in 1961, the longest home run, still, I believe, in the history of the game, and you can't believe how long that home run really was until you stand there in the outfield, on the grass, and that stadium seems bigger than the state of Nebraska, and, Oh how I wanted to play pro ball when I was a kid and if I'd been born a boy child I would have tried for that, like so many of the boys in my family did, and some of them got as far as the minor leagues but we haven't have a major leaguer come out of my family yet, and Shit man, to play my trumpet while standing on the grass on the fucking field in Yankee Stadium was the thrill of a life time and I can't believe those bastard are abandoning that field with all its miraculous history. Shit. I spent my summers paling around with my Dad when I was a little kid and all those names from my ancient childhood, like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, are like ancient mantras from another incarnation. "3 and 2", and "high and outside" were phrases I knew before I knew the meaning of them. And I used to wrap my little three year old hands around my father's cans of Rhinegold beer and take a frothy big swig of weird bitter tin can juice while listening to the game in the summer with him wrapped in his nimbus of blue cigarette smoke. And why have all my lovers been chain smoking beer guzzlers? "You smell great", I once said to the fiddle playing lover. "The fuck I do. I smell like a smoky bar." "Exactly. My favorite smell." And always the ball game on in the background. And one of my gardening clients had a tenant who had a dog named Seven. "Oh, how cute. You named your dog after Mickey Mantle." Blank stare. "He was the seventh dog in the litter. Who was Mickey Mantle?" Oh, oh . Ouch, ouch. Do you know that there are people walking upright on this planet who are over the age of 21 and who were raised in the US of A, who do not know who Mickey Mantle was? Good God. And if you haven't figured out by now, I love your baseball writing in the guise of marvelous marv the back biter. So keep going and know that I love you.