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'I Had to Make Music Like That, Too'

(This is the second in a two-part series.)

By Thomas A. Sancton

IN THE SPRING of 1942, two jazz collectors followed up a rumor that a survivor of the legendary Buddy Bolden jazz band was living and working as a day laborer in the rice fields of rural Louisiana. They drove all the way across the country hoping just to see him, to speak to him, to learn what New Orleans jazz had been before the turn of the century, before the first World War, before the "dixieland" musicians and the arrangers of the swing era had diluted and transformed its raw power and beauty almost beyond recognition.

He was Bunk Johnson, an old man who had spent a lifetime playing his cornet in the rural south in and around New Orleans. He had never recorded, but among the old timers in New Orleans, he was remembered with great respect. The collectors finally located Bunk in New Iberia, Louisiana. He was slight and dark with snow white hair, well into his sixties by then. Did he play anymore? No, haven't touched a horn in ten years. Did he have a horn? Nope. My horn got wrecked the night Evan Thomas was murdered on the bandstand in 1932, and I haven't played since then. Could he play again? No teeth. No horn.

They bought him some teeth and a cornet, and threw together a band of unknown black jazzmen from New Orelans. In the fall, the old men gathered in a piano warehouse to make some home recordings because the professional studios in the city refused to record Negroes. When the crude recording machine was warmed up, Bunk stomped off the first number, "Make Me a Pallet on the Flood," and the "revival" of traditional jazz began.

When the recordings were released, they trickled into the hands of American collectors, and then overseas, to England, Germany, Scandanavia. Suddenly, collectors realized something that they had never dared to believe: There were black men living in New Orleans who had created and could still play unadulterated traditional jazz.

It was almost as if some anthropologist who had spent a lifetime studying cave drawings suddenly encountered a surviving Neanderthal. These men were playing the music which had developed out of 200 years of enslavement, out of a thousand years of African culture, out of Civil War marches, creole melodies, ragtime, blues. It had all meshed on the back streets of New Orleans around the turn of the century, and blossomed in the grand houses of Storyville, the city's legendary red-light district.

Until the discovery of the Bunk Johnson band, most jazz collectors assumed that New Orleans jazz had died when the red-light district was closed in 1917. They assumed that all the jazz musicians were out of work and either went north to Chicago or New York, or gave up music entirely. Many great musicians did go north--King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong. The New Orleans music they took with them began its metamorphosis in the 20's and 30's, evolving into swing and big band dance music, and later into bop and progressive jazz. Most collectors in the 40's thought that the traditional black jazz of New Orleans remained only on a few early discs as a faded chapter in the history of American music.

But when Bunk's, band was recorded in 1942, people realized that there was another half to the story. Many musicians stayed in the city after 1917, and continued playing the same pure style of jazz that had developed around the turn of the century. When Storyville closed up, the music went on as it always had--on the streets of the black sections, in the back yards, in the little churches, at parades, picnics, dances, funerals. The culture which produced these men and their music didn't change very much in those 50 years or so, and the music was still very much alive on those back streets.

Bunk was a symbol of the perseverence of that music and the culture which had engendered it. His career stretched all the way back to the 1890's when he had played with the famous Buddy Bolden band. Bunk had been the idol and teacher of many great New Orleans trumpet men, including Louis Armstrong. "They was all crazy behind old man Bunk's playing" he said himself in 1942. He had worked in every joint in Storyville, and played countless parades and funerals throughout the city. And now in the 40's, ten years after his "retirement" from music, he was discovered and marveled at by listeners all over the world. He lived only a few years to enjoy his comeback, but the recordings he made as an old man were so exciting that they inspired a tremendous revival of interest in the pure New Orleans music that was still available.

BUNK'S clarinetist, George Lewis, was to become the focus of that revival. When Bunk died in 1949, George Lewis took over the leadership of the band. The Lewis band, all previously unknown New Orleans veterans, became internationally famous during the next decade, and George Lewis was halted as the greatest living exponent of New Orleans style clarinet playing.

After playing in oblivion for the first 30 years of his career, George Lewis became so popular in Europe that the arrival of his band was sufficient to touch off riots. There were maybe a hundred European jazz bands trying to copy the Lewis sound. Even young men in Italy, Australia, and Japan were crowding around their record players, religiously copying all the Lewis imports they could get their hands on.

English teenagers mobbed him, trying to touch him, to see his face, to hear his voice. He played before packed concert halls, mesmerizing huge audiences with the simple, lyrical beauty of his horn, receiving wildly enthusiastic ovations at the end of each number. What was the magic of this frail little black man from the back streets of New Orleans? What was there in his music that spoke its message to the hearts of these Englishmen, Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Japanese as it had spoken to his own people for almost 50 years?

Six years ago, I wandered into Preservation Hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans on a night when George Lewis was playing. I was knocked out by his music. I didn't know what it all meant then; I didn't really know who those old men were, what their lives had been like, or what made their music so great. I only knew that it was great, and that Lewis' clarinet was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.

I went back to the hall night after night. The Lewis band played there three nights a week at that time, and although they were all old men, I think they must have been playing close to their peaks.

THERE WERE OTHER great bands playing there, too. In 1961, someone had discovered that there was a whole city full of traditional jazzmen. Some were almost unknown; others had been forgotten, lost, or given up for dead. Some had never played for white audiences before. Some had led proud, full bands before the depression. Nearly all of them had played with the greats of New Orleans jazz in their youths--Armstrong, Edmund Hall, Johnny Dodds, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet. These were just fellow musicians to these old men. There were only a handful of active musicians when Preservation Hall opened its gates to French Quarter audiences. When it became successful, the few active professionals were joined by others who had put their instruments down long ago. Before long, they were all playing as if nothing had happened to their music or to their lives, though in some cases, it meant the return of white-haired old men to bands and friends they had left 30 years before. Some have since become internationally known: Billie and Dede Pierce, Sweet Emma the bell gal, the Kid Thomas band, and the Eureka Brass Band all rose from relative obscurity as a result of the Preservation Hall revival.

IT WAS SO EXCITING that I couldn't stand just to listen to it any longer. I had to do something more. I got the chance when someone gave me an old clarinet in 1963, and I went right to George Lewis with it.

"George," I said to him during a break one night, "I can't get any sound out of this clarinet. Will you take a look at it for me?" He looked up from his steaming cup of coffee and grinned.

"You gonna learn to play that horn?" he asked as he took it from me.

"I hope so."

"You play jazz now, hear? Don't you play no rock and roll." He put it together and blew one of his lyrical phrases. "Reed's too hard for a beginner. Get yourself a soft reed. You get a reed you can play, then you get on the streetcar and come by my house. I'll learn you a few little things to help you out." He did.

In those six years, I had learned the clarinet. I had gotten to sit in with some great bands at Preservation Hall, and had worked frequently with the Olympia Brass Band at parades and funerals. I had gotten to know and love these noore old men and had been through some unforgettable experiences with them.

I thought about all this as I sat by George's hospital bed last fall. He had just had a heart attack three days before that, but he seemed to be stronger now. His face looked healthy; it had a tautness and tone that I hadn't seen for a long time. When I first saw him at Preservation Hall, every muscle and vein in his face tensed and pulsed with his music.

He had been asleep, but woke up soon after I came in. He smiled his wonderful smile. His eyes were brilliant. "Hi, Tommy," he said. He showed that stoic indifference to death which he had lived by for most of his life. Possibly no other man who ever lived has been so close to death so many times.

He started telling me about his heart attack. "It was like a little pain in my chest. And then a great big pain like that," he clapped his hands suddenly, "and I was out." He smiled. "That would have been a good way to go, too. So fast." A nurse had given him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and a chest massage and saved his life.

ONLY A YEAR before this, I had gone with my father to visit him at his home and found him suffering from a severe asthma attack. His daughter came to the door in hysterics. We found him lying flat on his back in bed, wheezing and gasping for breath. He could only talk in spurts when the attack eased momentarily. My father grabbed the phone and called a hospital, and I was left alone in the room with George. He gasped for breath, stared at me. "You the one now, Tommy," he said suddenly. He thought he was dying. "I had a good life," he gasped, "I made history." He thought these words were to be among his last, probably. "It all come on me so fast," he said, "so fast." He couldn't breathe.

We couldn't wait for an ambulance, so we carried him out to our car and sped off for downtown New Orleans, across the river from his home. His daughter carried his 99 pounds in her arms like a little black doll. I thought he would die on the way to the hospital, he was gasping so.

When we finally got him into the emergency ward of Touro Infirmary, the doctor treated him very routinely, as if he didn't know just who it was he was saving (although he claimed to).

"You'll be playing again in a month," the doctor told him cheerfully.

"You think so?" George said. He managed a weak smile, but he knew it could go either way. He had been through it all so many times: the speeding rides to the hospital, the life-saving injections, the gasping, the confrontation with death. He was playing a month after that, but here he was in the hospital one year later facing death once more.

The phone on the beside table began to ring. George leaned over and picked it up himself. After awhile, he hung up and lay back in bed. "That was the news about the Patterson fight. He beat the hell out of that boy in Stockholm." Geore grinned.

"You have any money on it?" I asked.

"Yes, indeed, I had money on it." Joe Louis had been a hero of his younger days. Now it was the aging Patterson, struggling for a comeback, that he identified with. George had always followed the fights devoutely, and his own son had been a fine middleweight for a time. Boxers and jazzmen were the great folk heroes of that culture. In George's youth, long before black men were allowed into other fields of sports and entertainment, the fighter and the musician were looked upon with reverence and awe. These men, who could beat the hell out of white men with impunity, or blow the corny white society bands off the stand, these men were half-gods in the eyes of their brothers. The jazzman is still respected on the back streets of New Orleans. "Take me," George would say. "Now I always been a little man. But I don't care how bad the neighborhood is--when you walk down the street with a musical instrument in your hand, peoples treat you with respect. Nobody bother a musician." He paused. "At least, no colored man bother a musician." He nodded emphatically.

HE WAS SILENT for a time, looking out the window at a pigeon that was perched on the ledge. Then he looked at his right thumb, the callus which had been formed by more than fifty years of clarinet playing. "See that callus?" he said after a moment. "Slow Drag got calluses like that on all his fingers from playin' the bass."

Slow Drag Pavageau had been the regular bassist with the George Lewis band and with Bunk Johnson before that. He had worked with George for almost 30 years, and had toured all over Europe with him. He had been the grand dad of the group, and now--at 80--he was hospitalized with stomach cancer. Drag was a delightful little man, a creole who spoke little English that was intelligible, and a lot of creole French that no one understood but him. He had grown up--like many New Orleans jazzmen--in a French speaking family, and seemed to personify the blend of Latin and African cultures which had made New Orleans and its music so unique.

"Anybody been over to see Drag lately?" George asked.

"Yeah. I was over there yesterday," I said. "He's mighty sick, George. I gave him some blood."

"Oh, I'm real sorry to hear that. I been with that old man a long time," he sighed, "a long time."

"When did you start to play with him?" I asked.

"Well, I didn't play with him until the 40's. But I started listenin' to Drag when I was only a little bitty fella.' He didn't play no bass, then. He played guitar and sang creole songs. He had a little group of 'bout three or four pieces. Had a fella slappin' a washboard" -- George made a washboard-slapping gesture--"and a fella on violin, and Drag. They would go all around to little picnics, and backyard parties, and wakes and weddin's. Wherever they could find food and liquor." He smiled.

"He made a living that way?" I asked.

"No. Never did get no money in them days. They would play for food and drinks. Drag was a carpenter in the day time." He paused. "Now all that liquor, that's what got Drag started drinkin'. Man, we used to drink anything," he laughed softly, and got sort of a devilish look in his eye. "Canned heat, hair tonic. I mean we drank some terrible stuff. I gave it up finally. Don't drink nothin' now. But you take Drag. Now, Drag say he can take all that stuff. Say he never been sick from it. That's true until we was up in Cincinnati, and he fell sick for two weeks. That was all that liquor in him," George nodded solemnly. "Man, he could put it down. Bunk, too. Bunk used to drink almost as much as Drag. That's what killed Bunk."

"George, did you ever hear Bunk play much before the 40's?"

George looked up suddenly. "Hear him? I was playin' with Bunk the night Evan Thomas got killed. That was the last job Bunk ever played until we made those records," George paused and gazed at the ceiling for a minute or so. The years were peeling back in his memory as he went back to a scene that took place more than 30 years ago. It was as vivid to him then as the night it happened. "It was during the depression. Let me see, it was nineteen and thirty . . . two. I was workin' with Evan Thomas in Crowley, Louisiana. We was all sittin' out in the sun by the railroad tracks one day, and Bunk was ridin' a flatcar on a freight train. He was lookin' for work. When he seen us, he jumped off that train and come over to me with a big grin. He says, 'Hi, George. Need a trumpet player?' We took him on with us."

"Didn't Evan Thomas play trumpet, too?" I asked.

"Yeah. We took Bunk on as a second trumpet. He and Evan started soundin' real nice together--man, we had us a band then. Well, about two nights before Thanksgivin', we was up on the bandstand, and this fella name of John Gilbey come runnin' into the dance hall with a butcher knife. Said Evan been messin' around with his wife. Evan didn't have no time to run, so he grabbed me by the shoulders and ducked down behind me." George raised his eyebrows and smiled his ironic smile, "Man I thought I was finished then. That man reached over me with that big knife and started hackin' at Evan. His wrist kept hittin' my shoulder. Blood was pourin' out all over me. Cut Evan's throat. Then Gilbey ran out of the hall, screamin' and cussin'."

"Didn't you guys run?"

"We didn't have no time. It all happened so fast. After' Gilbey run out, I packed up my horn and put it behind the bandstand. Man, I was shakin' like this," he waved his hand in the air. "Pretty soon, Gilbey run back in the all with a shotgun, and I jumped head first out the window. Everybody scattered. Then he ments with that gun, pickin' 'em up started blowin' holes in the instru-and throwin' 'em on the ground. Slashed the drum heads with his knife. Man, he went good and crazy. Wrecked Bunk's cornet for good. Bunk never played no more until we made those records. Eveybody's instrument but mine was busted. And I have that clarinet case, yet."

Just then another friend of George's came in to see him, and I had to leave. I grabbed George's hand. "Take care of yourself, George."

"You, too, podner." That was the last time I ever spoke to George Lewis. He died of pneumonia three months later.

* * * * *

WHAT IS New Orleans jazz, anyway? What made it different? What made it great? Who were these old men? What priestcraft and sorcery had it worked on me and my counterparts overseas?

All over Europe, young men looked up wide-eyed after hearing a Bunk Johnson record, or a rare George Lewis concert, and said, "I can't be satisfied with listening to records. I must learn to make music like that myself. Some day I will go to New Orleans with my horn, and I will play with George Lewis, and Kid Thomas, and Percy Humphrey." Young foreigners flocked to this Mecca all through the sixties. Some gave up their careers, or postponed them, to spend years at a time soaking up the music and the culture which created it. I had a great advantage in living there. But in the whole city, I was the only young musician--white or black--who was interested in these men and their music, although a thousand Englishmen would have broken their necks to have that chance.

I think it says something about America that it has by-and-large ignored its greatest cultural endowments, or has discovered them second-and from Europe. It took the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to turn Americans on to the rhythm and blues that blacks had been making right under their noses. It took an Eric Clapton and a John Mayall to turn Americans on to B.B. King.

Europeans have been into New Orleans jazz for 15 years, now. Perhaps, one of these days, some young Americans will put aside their Janis Joplin, or their Velvet Underground, or their Dr. John the Night Tripper--just for a moment--and will listen to a Lewis record, or a Bunk record and say, "This is genuine. These men are saying something eternal, something tragic, something joyful, something real."

It probably won't happen. It's too genuine, and such things do not often catch the fancy of a fashion-conscious generation, a generation which rides on fads which Madison Avenue designs for them, a generation which grooves to the music of whatever group Columbia Records' promotion department spends the most money on each month. But sometimes, I get a feeling that it could be different. Maybe the people around here are real enough and human enough to grasp the significance of this music and the lives which created it. If they could just hear it, and learn about it.

* * * * *

IT WAS A cold January night. Three or four people were standing on the front porch of Blandin Funeral Home when I arrived.

I opened the door and saw maybe two hundred people crowded around, talking quietly to one another. Some were sitting on folding chairs, some were standing up in the back of the room. The hallway was jammed and two other rooms were full of people. Every musician I knew was in there: the old men, the young foreigners, women, children, black and white. There were brief smiles and handshakes and soft words. There were tears. There were cameras and floodlights, and reporters from magazines.

At the front of the room sat a handsome old black man in a mason's uniform. Behind him was a cloth-covered casket, surrounded by gay wreaths of flowers. One wreath was in the shape of a clarinet. Another was a mason's insignia. Above the casket was a stained-glass portrait of Jesus, lit from behind. I went up to the casket and looked down. There was a small black man inside it in a mason's uniform. it was George Lewis.

The next day, three brass bands and several thousand people turned out on a gray, rainy day to bid George Lewis farewell. The Eureka Brass Band was there, the Olympia, and a third brass band made up of the young musicians who were in town. The latter had come a long way to hear the music and see the city. They had come from Japan, Sweden, Connecticut, San Francisco, and England. They had gradually gotten better and better seats for the performance, and now they were themselves on stage, playing dirges for their fallen hero.

It was an unforgettable experience. Thousands made the long, slow march from the funeral home to the little white church, and then to the cemetery by the Mississippi River. There were dirges, and hymns, and muffled drums. They lowered the casket into a simple plot with a whitewashed concrete border. "G. Lewis" was painted on it in black letters. We played "The Old Rugged Cross" at graveside, then filed silently out of the cemetery.

One by one, the ranks of the old musicians are thinning out. Four musicians died last year. Slow Drag Pavageau died a week after George Lewis. Of the Lewis band that I heard in 1962, only two are still alive. Twenty or more have died since Preservation Hall opened. With each new death, it seems that the dirges played by the remaining old men are dirges for themselves. When they are gone--as they surely will be in ten years--the show will be over. There will be no one left to play at their funerals.

As we filed out of the cemetery I sensed that it was not only George Lewis that we were playing for, but also a tradition, a culture, and a great people. And so, when the drums picked up the tempo out in the street, and the second line shouted and began to dance, and the flame-painted umbrellas appeared, I played my loudest and gayest music

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