GEORGE LEWIS of New Orleans
ORIGINAL ZENITH BRASS BAND (Side 1): Kid Howard (tp) Peter Bocage (tp) Jim Robinson (tb) George Lewis (cl) Isadore Barbarin (mellophone) Harrison Barnes (baritone horn) Joe Howard (tu) Baby Dodds (snare drs) Lawrence Marrero (b-drs)
New Orleans; February 26, 1946
ECLIPES ALLTY FIVE (Side 2): Jim Robinson (tb) George Lewis (cl) Lawrence Marrero (bj) Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau (b) Baby Dodds (drs) with vocals by Sister Berenice Phillips (on #1, 3, 5) and Harold Lewis (on 3, 4, 5, 6)
New Orleans; February 27, 1946
Original Zenith Brass Band:
Fidgety Feet (2:54)
Shake it and Break It (2:43)
Bugle Boy March (2:52)
Salutation March (2:40)
If Ever I Cease to Love (2:46)
‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do(2:45)
Eclipse Alley Five:
I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray (2:27)
Far Away Blues (2:42)
God Leads His Dear Children Along (2:27)
Bill Bailey (2:56)
The Royal Telephone (2:38)
I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself Alone (2:35)
GEORGE LEWIS is a truly classic jazz figure. That may seem a heavy burden to lay on the shoulders of a man weighing approximately 110 pounds and approaching the age of sixty, but the fact is that Lewis in many ways comes close to typifying the spirit of New Orleans jazz. For one thing there is the pure and classic fluid simplicity of his style. For another, he remains at this writing (early 1959) an active and vital performer, the foremost current exponent of the old music. Almost equally relevant is the fact that it took Lewis a very long time before the jazz world found him. Living in New Orleans through a period when jazz there was more a memory than a livelihood, he spent much time working on the docks, and was not in a position on be noticed by the jazz public until the first historic Bunk Johnson records of 1942. It was essentially Lewis’ band that Johnson fronted during the next several years; and after Bunk’s death in 1949 it was Lewis who went on to gain, at long last, a substantial measure of fame.
The recordings that make up this album serve to focus attention on Lewis’ role as a standard-bearer of New Orleans traditions. They also emphasize that, for jazzmen of Lewis’ generation, the origins and pre-jazz sources of the music are not musty research subjects, but well-remembered parts of their own lifetime. For these two groups of recordings are developed to the presentation of important elements in the story of the origins of jazz. These recordings are, in a sense, “recreations,” since the performers are in each case turning back to the ‘pure’ early form. But in another sense, “recreating” is something that only younger musicians do; for such as George Lewis and his colleagues, it is far more apt and more forceful to say that he is “recalling.”
Since technology was not kind enough to coincide with art, there was no phonograph record industry at the turn of this century. Thus the recordings by the Original Zenith Brass Band are about as close as we can hope ever to come to hearing what it actually sounded like when the marching bands paraded down the hot, with streets of New Orleans. These six selections were designed to approach as nearly as possible, the real thing: in 1946, Rudi Blesh went to New Orleans on behalf of his Circle label and assembled a band that combined actual veterans of the earliest days with somewhat younger players who had grown up hearing the traditional music and who had remained faithful to it. Blesh has described this “typical street band” in his book, “Shining Trumpets”:
“The trumpeters were Kid Howard and Peter Bocage, the latter a veteran Creole who played for years with Armand Piron’s Orchestra. Jim Robinson, one of the greatest living tailgate players, was trombonist, and George Lewis, finest living exponent of the New Orleans clarinet style, was included . . . Joe Howard, tuba, (then) seventy-four, was oldest of the group. Originally a trumpeter, he worked on the riverboats around 1916-19 and taught sight-reading to Louis Armstrong when he joined the band on the S. S. Sidney. The incomparable Baby Dodds performed on snares, and Lawrence Marrero, also a fine banjo and guitar player, beat the small parade drum.”
The repertoire displayed here provides and interesting indication of the range of marching-band music. The use of Fidgety Feet, for which members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band are credited as composers, is possibly more a case of borrowing back one’s own than anything else, since much of the “original” repertoire of the early white Dixielanders was clearly derived from traditional material long used by local Negro musicians. Shake It is a specimen of traditional jazz-band material that has been known by more than one name; although not actually a march, it lends itself readily to marching-tempo adaptation. Bugle Boy and Salutation are specifically marches, played relatively straightforwardly and, it must be assumed, much as they were performed at parades and concerts, picnics and funerals, in the early-century era when music such as this was a fundamental part of New Orleans Negro social life. If Ever I Cease to Love dates back into the 19th century and is well-known as the “theme song” of Mardi Gras. This version is a rather impressive production number, with its interpolation of Little Brown Jug as a counter-melody and with Lewis contributing an outstanding stop-time solo and a notable series of beaks.
The polyphony of these recordings, the syncopation with strong suggestions of ragtime, and the heavily brassy sound will probably take some getting used to even for ears relatively familiar with early traditional jazz recordings. But soon enough it’s apt to fall into place, to come through as vibrant and forceful music clearly related to early jazz and an extremely effective preservation of what would otherwise be an almost entirely missing link in the story of jazz. . .
The Eclipse Alley Five material is perhaps not so unique, for the traditional of spirituals and gospel-singing has remained, without too drastic a change in format, an important part of the American Negro cultural pattern. However, although much is constantly written and said about the role of Negro religious music in the initial formation of jazz, so that most of us accept this point as one of the facts of life, it is not actually too easy to grasp the relationship between such music and jazz, particularly since the more formalized spiritual singings of today often seems rather far removed from the raggy music and the rough-and-ready setting of early New Orleans.
On several of the Eclipse Alley Five numbers included here, however, that relationship seems to be made abundantly clear. The quintet itself (Lewis; gutteral trombonist Jim Robinson, who has worked with George for many years; and rhythm) plays firmly in the stomps-and-blues New Orleans honkytonk vein. This is underlined by the inclusion of one entirely instrumental blues (Far Away) and the totally secular Bill Bailey, with a vocal by the full baritone voice of young Harold Lewis. But there is a tremendous and readily apparent meshing of approach when the group works with Sister Berenice Phillips, described by Blesh – who recorded these numbers on the same trip to the Crescent City – as “an authentic singer of the older Jubilee hymns.” (A jubilee, without getting unduly and joyful type of spiritual.) Blesh’s comments, in “Shining Trumpets,” on the nature of the solo singing of early Negro spirituals, refer to “fervor” and “expressive roughness.” He notes that it was “highly syncopated and rhythmic” and that there was a tendency to “improvise variations on the melody.” Certainly all of this terminology applies equally well to the music of a New Orleans group like the Eclipse Alley Five, and certainly the links between traditional religious singing and early traditional jazz are quite concretely demonstrated when Sister Berenice and Harold Lewis (who is, incidentally, her nephew) blend rhythmically with his band.
George Lewis can also be heard on Riverside with Bunk Johnson on –
NEW ORLEANS LEGENDS: Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Kid Rena (RLP 12-219)
And on two alums of his own –
GEORGE LEWIS New Orleans Jazz Band (RLP12-207)
Jazz at Vespers: GEORGE LEWIS Ragtime Band (RLP 12-230)
Notes by ORRIN KEEPNEWS.
Cover produced and designed by PAUL BACON – KEN BRAREN – HARRIS LEWINE
(Audio Compensation: RIAA Curve)
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
553 West 51st Street New York 19, N.Y.