Thursday, September 24, 2009

10 Things

Here's ten things that I've been thinking about:

1. If John Ford was such a tough, grouchy, grudge- holding curmudgeon, why are his movies so full of heart?

2. Desert island discs: First choice would obviously be a disc w/ information as to how get off of a desert island, and something to play that disc. Same with desert island books. A book would probably be better. No need for a player.

3. Why do Republicans court conservatives so assiduously? It's not like the conservatives are ever going to vote democratic.

4. There's no such thing as a "nonstop flight." <--- thanks, George C. We miss you.

5. There is such a thing as a free lunch. Free dinner too.

6. I have health care coverage, but I don't have coverage for prescriptions. Every time I go to the doctor, they prescribe me something for my high blood pressure, or my high cholesterol level, for instance, but I can't get the prescriptions filled. I have a drawer full of unused prescriptions, and I still have hypertension. Especially when I see that drawer.

7. Where's my anti-gravity belt? My shrinking ray? Let's go, science!

8. Who's Kanye West?

9. Who's Taylor Swift?

10. Fashion police and fascist police sound a lot alike. Easy to be confused.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jelly Jelly Jelly

Today may be Jelly Roll Morton's birthday. It may also be on October twentieth. Maybe it's neither of these dates. It might have been in 1890. Records indicate he was baptized in 1891.

We think we know so much, but sometimes, it turns out, we know nothing.

Take Ernest Bellocq, the great New Orleans portraitist who photographed prostitutes in Storyville. The prevailing wisdom was that he was a dwarf, maybe even hydrocephalic, walked and talked like a duck and had a Jesuit preist brother who defaced Bellocq's negatives.

New research by Rex Rose tells us he was not a dwarf, nor hydrocephalic (how could he have survived if he were?), short, maybe 5' 2", a bit of a dandy in fact, high forehead, and a professional, working photographer. He kept his Storyville portraits secret (as well as a stash of photographs of opium dens he did after World War I that have so far not surfaced) and locked in his apartment on Dumaine Street. They were only discovered after his death in 1946.

E. J. Bellocq in his Storyville days

Why even talk about Bellocq? Because he and Jelly Roll were denizens of the Storyville demi-monde, linked together by an odd mutual artistic need that had its roots in, at the time, terrible, albeit legal, vice.

There is a photograph of Bellocq's depicting the interior of Madam Hilma Burt's salon. Like most of the Storyville pictures, it's a remarkable document. Women adorn the furniture like white blossoms: the picture is hallucinagenic. In the background is a pianist, one of the many "professors" who frequented the better houses. According to Jazz expert Al Rose, this pianist is the young Ferdinand La Mothe (or LaMenthe or LaMott- see how little we know?) soon to become Jelly Roll Morton, the self- proclaimed inventor of Jazz.

Hilma Burt's salon, with possibly Jelly Roll on piano, att: EJ Bellocq

Hilma Burt's Storyville salon. Bellocq's photograph. Young Jelly. How rich is this? (Personally, I'm not sure this is a Bellocq photo, but what the heck, right?)

There are two important works about Jelly. The first, and by far the best, is Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz" his oral autobiography told to Alan Lomax. Lomax, by turns sympathetic and condescending (as usual) tries to actually justify Jelly's outlandish- seeming claims. Why bother? This is all the stuff of myth, folks. Who cares if Hercules cleaned the Aeolian stables by diverting a river? It's a great story. And that's what Jelly does over and over again: he tells a great story.

The second is Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich and William Gaines. This is definitely the more factual account, appropriately stuffy and academic, but a good read nonetheless.

Here's what we seem to know: Jelly was born to a middle class creole family, after the term Creole came to be synonomous with mixed race. He loved the opera and learned several instruments before the piano. He was a quick study, like Bechet and Armstrong and so many others in New Orleans, and became a whorehouse professor at a comparatively young age. When his family found out, his grandmother expelled him.

His godmother was a well-known Voodoo priestess, Eulalie Echo (Hecault), who took him in and initiated him in that religion. This came back to haunt him in his later life.

He began an extremely peripatetic career that took him to Mississippi, Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; New York, Washington DC and countless other cities until he finally died in Los Angeles on July 10th, 1941. When he wasn't playing music for a living, he was either pimping or hustling pool.

Jelly's Mexican Visa

He was bilked out of his royalties by his (white) Chicago partners the Melrose Brothers, whose only talent was, apparently, bilking Black artists out of their royalties. Much of his later failure he blamed on a Voodoo curse he had incurred earlier while rooming with his godmother. ©R. Crumb -->

He was penniless when he died, just as the French, and others, were spearheading traditional jazz revival.

He was wildly egotistical, much like his contemprary Houdini, and could be stridently unpleasant. He never loved anyone as much as he loved himself.

Then, of course, there's the music. The music speaks for itself: it is the work of a genius. My favorite is the JSP five- disc box set: Jelly Roll Morton: 1926-1930, featuring the Red Hot Peppers orchestra recordings.

Granted, this is re-mastered, and JSP does great re-mastering, but really, the sound on this is unbelievable. This is one of the many things about Jelly's recordings I find astonishing- with the exception of the Gannett recordings, they are all beautifully recorded. You can really "hear the room." All the instruments are crystal clear. And it's 1926! Or 1927! Lots of the tunes from this era can be heard here:

It's amazing to me how much the stories of the earlier twentieth century black musicians have been mythologized: Robert Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, even Charlie Parker, among others. And it's still going on- Michael Jackson. Hey, look at Elvis, and he's not even black. Amazing because it's really the music that lives on, not these crossroads myths or the Voodoo- inspired variations of the Stagger- Lee stories. Fun as they are, they're stories. The music is real.

And that's why Jelly Roll Morton matters: because that music, that amazing American music is SO real. All you have to do is listen.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thursday Was Freddie King's Birthday

Back in the mid- sixties, my coming- of- age era, young white people discovered blues. Thanks to the influence of the British rock groups that proliferated at the time, mostly The Rolling Stones, white America was introduced to great artists like Muddy Waters and B. B. King, and not a moment too soon.

Muddy's best days were just about over, especially after a debilitating car accident in 1970. B. B. King was at his peak, playing fifteen or more choruses of slow blues as his audience swooned. Albert King mastered the politics of the rock concert arena (see my blog "Happy Birthday, Albert King," April 25, 2009.)

The list goes on, and blues artists who had formerly recorded on tiny independent labels and were making $15- $30 a night in smokey clubs playing to audiences of ten or eleven found themselves playing to thousands and making hundreds of dollars for their efforts.

Which brings us to the Texas Cannonball, Freddie (or Freddy) King (September 3, 1934, to December 28, 1976). Freddie was well- known in the R n' B community for his guitar instrumentals recorded for Syd Nathan of the King label in Cincinatti, Ohio. If you wanted to be a guitar hero, you had to learn Hideaway, King's biggest hit. Eric Clapton recorded Driving Sideways on John Mayall's first record, and more people were turned onto Freddie King.

In addition to his great guitar playing, he was an excellent singer and a great performer. A DVD recently released of his appearances on The Beat!!! television show out of Nashville in the early sixties shows a suave, poised giant at the top of his game.

King left the King label in 1966 and then signed onto an Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion. Two albums produced by King Curtis sold indifferently, despite a fine session band including the great Jerry Jemmott on bass. Luckily for Freddie King, however, he had been discovered by the white audiences, mainly because of Eric Clapton's proselytising. Clapton loved King's music, and regularly performed Have You Ever Loved a Woman at his shows.

He would begin a rigorous touring schedule that included Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. Former Shindig back-up musician Leon Russell signed King to his Shelter record label, and Freddie recorded several influential albums, which, though not as brilliant as his King work with Syd Nathan, were very solid musically. His Going Down became a garage band classic.

He toured extensively with Russell, and their shows would end with a (staged) guitar duel, that somehow Russell always won despite the fact that Leon was actually a pianist with moderate guitar chops and Freddie King was one of the three best urban blues guitarists in the world. Nice one, Leon.

He ended up on RSO records with his biggest fan, Clapton.

Freddie King had made the transition from the chitlin' circuit to the rock palaces of the world. His schedule was rigorous, as if he were living on borrowed time. On December 28th, 1976, he died of complications from ulcers and peritonitis. He was 42.
Seeing him perform in The Beat!!! is a revelation. He is, simply, as good as it gets: big man grace and style (he must have been catnip to his female fans). He uses a thumbpick and a finger pick on his index finger on his Gibson 335, and his lines are incredibly fluid. His singing is sweet and soulful. It's amazing that he was not thought of as a vocalist until later in his career.

He had lived in Chicago in the late 1950's and early sixties. Little Walter used to tell his guitarist Luther Tucker, "Here comes Fat Daddy, Luther. Fat Daddy gonna kick your ass!" Indeed.

Last night, at the blues jam that I run every Thursday, we had a surprise visit from Eugene "Hideaway" Bridges, in DC for a big show this weekend. I thanked him for coming and mentioned that it was Freddie King's birthday. "I know, man," he said. "I got his guitar with me." He pulled out a beautiful brown Gibson 335 and played a short set. I thought, wow. Freddie King's guitar. Is Freddie here somewhere? Well, the answer is always yes. All those beautiful cats who played the music I grew up on, they're all here all the time. It's subtle and mysterious mostly, but sometimes they send their guitar to your gig on their birthday and it kind of kicks your ass. Thanks, Fat Daddy.