Saturday, May 11, 2013

`No Tears. Just Glad to See Us.'

One of the unexpected pleasures of landing a job thirty years ago this month as court reporter for the Palladium Item in Richmond, Ind., was the opportunity to explore the remains of the Gennett Record Co., a pile of bricks and mortar on the east bank of the Whitewater River. The company was founded in 1917 as a subsidiary of the Starr Piano Co.  In the following decade, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines, Hoagy Carmichael, Muggsy Spanier, Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo and other jazz pioneers, as well as country, blues and gospel artists, recorded there. Most importantly, on April 6, 1923, Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band boarded a train in Chicago and rode to Richmond to record nine songs, among them “Chimes Blues,” featuring Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo. 

On the staff of the newspaper with me was a business writer and piano player, Rick Kennedy. We listened to a lot of music together, in Richmond and Cincinnati, wandered what remained of the old Gennett studios and once escorted band leader/pianist/musicologist James Dapogny around the grounds. Dapogny carried a tape player and played the recordings Morton had made at Gennett sixty years earlier. In 1994, Indiana University Press published Rick’s Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz. Rick calls Oliver “the best New Orleans jazz cornetist,” and writes: 

“After being ignored by record companies for years, Oliver signed his first contract with Fred Gennett in 1923 and opened up a whole new world.  Over a nine-month period beginning with the Gennett debut, Oliver’s band recorded 40 sides for four labels.” 

Oliver customarily gets lost in the shadow of his younger protégé, Armstrong, but Rick works to remind us of Oliver’s importance as a player, arranger and band leader: 

“The avuncular Oliver, with an imposing physical stature, demanded rigid unity within his band of much younger players. Contrary to the loose, free-wheeling approach to ensemble playing associated with jazz, Oliver’s arrangements were highly polyphonic and studiously orchestrated, with the collective sound taking precedence over solo improvisations. A sort of Japanese corporate approach to a jazz band.” 

In his profile of Oliver, “For the Comfort of the People” (American Musicians II, 1996), Whitney Balliett draws the outline of a conflicted man: 

“Two successful weeks at the Savoy Ballroom [in New York City, 1927] had led to an offer to open the new Cotton Club with his group as the house band. But the New Orleans evil, a local affliction made up equally of hubris and perversity, took hold, and Oliver decided he was not being paid enough. He turned down the job and a newcomer named Duke Ellington took it.” 

Oliver was no business man. He lost his life savings when his Chicago bank crashed. He ended up in Savannah, Ga., selling produce and working as a custodian in a pool hall. He died April 10, 1938, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the final resting place of Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Miles Davis, Vernon Duke, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, W. C. Handy, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Illinois Jacquet, Augustus D. Juilliard, Fritz Kreisler, Jackie McLean, Herman Melville, Max Roach and Bert Williams. Balliett quotes a 1966 interview with Armstrong: 

“So Joe winds up in little cheap rooming houses, landladies holding his trunk for rent. In 1937 my band went to Savannah, Georgia, one day—and there’s Joe. He’s got so bad off and broke he’s got himself a little vegetable stand selling tomatoes and potatoes. He was standing there in his shirtsleeves. No tears. Just glad to see us.” 

In his profile, Balliett says Oliver was born “in or near New Orleans in 1885, or earlier.” Most scholars agree he was born on this date, May 11, in 1885.

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