BILL RUSSELL AND THE NEW ORLEANS JAZZ REVIVAL / Ed. By Ray Smith & Mike Pointon / Equinox Publishing, 354 pp. ₤50/$70 for hardback or ebook, order HERE
Most jazz aficionados, but particularly fans of New Orleans jazz or “trad jazz” (an umbrella term that also includes Chicago style “Dixieland” or early New York style based on Chicago or New Orleans jazz), know who Bill Russell was. He was the odd little bald guy—bald, in fact, by the time he hit his late 20s—who was a rabid collector of anything and everything that had to do with early jazz, primarily of black artists of the 1910s and ‘20s. He was also the founder of the American Music record label, the guy who collected the money to pay Dr. Leonard Bechet, Sidney’s older dentist brother, to fit out Willie “Bunk” Johnson with a new set of teeth, the man who bought Bunk a trumpet and cornet, got him playing again and recorded him extensively between 1942 and 1944. American Music was, in fact, one of the seminal labels that helped re-awaken interest in the old music along with the Delta, Circle, Jazz Man and early Blue Note, all of which recorded such early jazz pioneers as Kid Rena, Louis “Big Eye” Nelson, Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall, Jim Robinson, Baby Dodds, etc. In the early 1940s the craze was so pervasive that even RCA Victor and Columbia got into the act, recording sessions with Papa Celestin, Lil Armstrong, “Papa” Mutt Carey and Bunk Johnson himself (Bunk also appeared on Blue Note with Bechet).
But as I began reading this book, which is actually a loving and superbly-edited amalgam of written and oral reminiscences of his life by Russell himself, with interspersed magazine and newspaper articles by both Russell and those who admired him and early jazz, I found myself utterly fascinated and drawn into his story. It turns out that Russell William Wagner, known professionally as William Russell or Bill Russell, was an extraordinarily well-rounded musician and not just another non-musical admirer of the old music. A trained classical violinist, Russell admitted to loving the drums and percussion even better than his fiddle. Starting in the late 1920s and for the next decade, he was also a composer of some very modernistic percussion pieces that were considered quite favorably by such avant-garde pioneers as Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Edgard Varèse and even Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Russell briefly studied around 1940. In fact, this was, for me, the guiding light to my understanding of Russell and his infatuation with early jazz. I was able to locate the one and only recording of his works made for the Mode label in 1993, the year after he died, by a virtuoso percussion ensemble called Essential Music.
These pieces are incredibly complex and interesting and should rightly be the subject of an article in themselves, but I will discuss them here in the context of this book because, as I say, they are the genesis for Russell’s remaining life as a jazz collector and promoter. One of the reasons they are so interesting is that, despite living very close to the bone financially (he lived on bananas as a way of eating cheaply and still being able to pursue his interests), he was able through a $200 grant to go and live in Haiti for several weeks, where he absorbed first-hand the native music of that island, including the secretive voodoo music. In 1931, back in the U.S., he also heard a visiting troupe of genuine African drummers, including those who played the “talking drums,” and even went so far as to study Chinese music, teaching himself to play several of their instruments although he specialized on the “moon guitar.” Russell took part in a concert of Chinese music presented in Washington, D.C. before an audience that included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Russell’s percussion pieces were, by his own admission, so complex that even the modern-leaning classical percussionists of his day found them daunting to play. They included the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for percussion, a 17-minute suite based on Haitian music entitled Ogou Badagri, and several suites based on marching and jazz music. Their difficulty lay in the very complex rhythms he invented, which most classical musicians just couldn’t grasp. I strongly urge you to listen to these pieces for yourself, as they will show you how Russell’s musical mind worked. Here is the list of pieces and movements; by clicking on each title, you will be able to stream them for free on YouTube:
Prelude, Chorale & Fugue
Four Dance Movements:
Three Cuban Pieces:
- Tiempo de Son
- 3525 S. Dearborn
- 5507 S. Michigan
- 4726 S. State
- School March
- Wedding March
- Military March
- Hunger March
- Funeral March
Made in America
Not all of the pieces are jazz-related, although the first of the Chicago sketches, “3525 S. Dearborn,” most certainly is, but their extreme rhythmic complexity—as Russell himself put it, focusing on rhythm over harmony—explain why he was so drawn to a fairly “simple” form of piano jazz, boogie woogie, which does not develop its themes in any way except via rhythm. Russell contributed an excellent article (originally uncredited) to an early book on jazz published in the late 1930s.
His music also explains his fascination with the early polyphonic style of jazz, in which musicians were encouraged to improvise not on the chord changes but on the melody and, as Jelly Roll Morton put it, “always keep the melody going.” Morton was, in fact, the first New Orleans jazz musician whose music he got into, buying a copy of his Shoe Shiner’s Drag in the late ‘20s. Incredibly, he became a collector of nearly every jazz musician who played and recorded in the 1910s and ‘20s, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to the late Morton and King Oliver sessions, without hearing or collecting Louis Armstrong until around 1936!
But poor Russell, like so many such collectors, went overboard in his enthusiasms. He didn’t just collect the seminal records or the important or great recordings; he had to have complete sets of records by those artists he liked, even if this meant buying records of inferior performances. Of course, at the time he did most of his early collecting, 1931-38, it was fairly easy to amass a monstrous collection for, literally, pennies. Once such small-time jazz labels as Paramount, Rialto, Gennett and OKeh went out of business, the huge dealer stocks and even warehouse stocks of these records were practically given away at prices ranging from one to five cents per disc. The panic was on, as the old song said, and in addition to cleaning out dealers and warehouses of their buried treasures, Russell also went door-to-door in Chicago and Harlem, asking residents if they had any old records they wanted to sell. Most did.
I can understand his fanaticism to a point. When I was much younger, in my teens and early 20s, and started getting interested in early jazz, I collected as much Bix Beiderbecke and early Armstrong as I could (Jelly Roll came a little bit later). But I was satisfied to do so on inexpensive LP reissues. I knew full well that the original records, by that time, were already long gone at cheap prices and didn’t have the money, even if I lived on bananas, to afford them. But there was another difference between my collecting and Russell’s. I only went after the best musicians of the early era, and only the best performances by those musicians. I wasn’t interested, and still am not interested, in the musicians who could barely play (Mutt Carey, Kid Ory, etc.) or those who played what to my ears were corny, stiff, ragtime licks (Freddie Keppard etc.). Even some of those really early Morton records left me cold. Nowadays I have nearly-complete collections on CD of the jazz musicians I admire most: Armstrong 1924-1940, with some examples of his later playing that I find really good; Django Reinhardt; Art Tatum; Morton, of course; Bunk Johnson; Earl Hines 1923-1941 and again from 1956-80; Charles Mingus; Clifford Brown; and Toshiko Akiyoshi. I also have a large but by no means complete collection of Fats Waller, and large but not really complete collections of Benny Goodman from 1926 to 1949 and Duke Ellington from 1926-73.
To a certain extent, however, Russell was deeply affected by the stories told him by Morton and other black musicians of how the white-dominated music industry screwed them. This was certainly true, and in fact Morton suffered the most at the hands of his Chicago publishers, the greedy Melrose brothers, but in a sense Russell was the first of many who was embarrassed by this and thus somehow blamed white musicians for appropriating black culture and profiting from it. Never mind the fact that the best of them, like Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa and the Eddie Condon gang, publicly credited black musicians for their influence and hired several of them for their bands. To Russell, it was an unfair advantage that had to be rectified somehow, thus in his view such pioneers who were greatly admired by black musicians, such as Goodman and the Mound City Blue Blowers, one of the first “spasm” bands (using only kazoo, comb-and-tissue paper, and guitar) on records, were “white junk.” Yet for some reason, Russell didn’t seem to realize that by buying these records from dealers and warehouses for pennies, the artists he felt so much for, and thought were cheated by the music business, weren’t even receiving one-tenth of a penny in royalties.
Like so many in the late 1930s-early ‘40s, Russell fought an uphill battle to resuscitate the careers of older black musicians, several of whom, like Nelson and Johnson, were previously unrecorded. There are stories told by Russell in the book, which he got from people who heard them, of such unrecorded legends as Buddy Bolden, Tony Jackson and Buddy Petit. By all accounts, Jackson was the greatest early musician who never recorded; he died in 1921, about a year or two before widespread recording of black jazz artists really got underway (although pianist James P. Johnson, who doesn’t get mentioned, started recording in 1918). Since Jackson, like many who worked in New Orleans, moved to Chicago in his last years, I’m still surprised he wasn’t recorded. But of those three, the one who interests me the least is Bolden. All he was known for was playing very loudly in a ragtime style. Of all those who heard him, none recall him playing anything that was really memorable; Louis Armstrong, in fact, told Russell that Bolden’s drummer was much more rhythmically creative and interesting than the trumpeter himself. Yet five full pages of the book are devoted to the hunt for the missing Buddy Bolden cylinders (there were, it seems, at least two of them), which probably didn’t sell well and have been lost to history. And of course, since he was white, only one brief mention is made of another truly outstanding unrecorded legend, New Orleans cornetist Emmet Hardy. Petit, who does interest me, is described by those who heard him as sort of a cross between Bunk Johnson and early Louis, so that’s at least a good clue to his style. (Interestingly, very little is also said about Lee Collins, who did record, particularly his superb electrical recordings as part of the Jones-Collins Astoria Big Eight.)
Although there was a small but loyal market for the New Orleans revival, as well as for the recreation bands like Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band, the music did not sit well with contemporary musicians and critics. It wasn’t that they didn’t recognize the early importance of these musicians in jazz’s creation; the problem was that most of them who were still around—not only Henry “Red” Allen Jr., Edmond Hall and Buster Bailey but also (perhaps especially) Louis Armstrong, had moved on. The principal aesthetic motivation of the old musicians, to improvise on the melody, was out the window. The goal of the more progressive swing players and those who developed bebop was to improvise on the chords, creating your own melodic structures. Armstrong himself was the prime mover in this revolution, and Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t the only one who disliked it. Many older musicians, and young ones like the West Coast Dixielanders, felt it was a wrong turn in jazz, blamed Armstrong for being the innovator, and wanted to turn the clock back. By the end of World War II, the growing coterie of these musical reactionaries were called “Moldy Figs.” There were even battles of music on jazz radio programs, pitting the traditionalists against the boppers, and in most such battles, audiences chose the latter as victors.
None of this deterred Russell in the least. He was on a mission, and that mission was to preserve as much of the old New Orleans style and record as many of the unrecorded artists as he could. He believed that their music was as important to preserve as that of African drummers, Chinese and Haitian music, and the gamelan players of Bali; and, unlike some of his compatriots, he had sound musical reasons for believing this.
Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement in the jazz field, and the one he should be remembered and praised for, was his revival of Bunk Johnson’s career and subsequent recordings, but the reasons why Johnson’s recordings were important and valuable are quite different from those that Russell and his circle of friends thought they were. The Johnson recordings are absolutely vital to any comprehensive jazz history because they revived a very particular style of New Orleans jazz that was under-recorded in the old days, and that was the classic polyphonic style of the early 1910s that, truthfully, exists nowhere else on records, not even in most of Bechet’s recordings, the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band (which only had two Creoles in it, trombonist Honore Dutrey and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr), or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, though the NORK came closest. This was a style in which improvisation was constantly going on, but in which, as Jelly Roll Morton put it, they “kept the melody going” in one form or another, even if it meant different instruments within the ensemble taking various notes of the melody and sharing it. Happily, many of the Johnson records were 12-inch 78s, which meant that they could keep it up for roughly 4 ½ minutes at a time; a few performances, recorded over two sides of a 12-incher, ran close to nine minutes. No more complete picture of how early jazz operated has ever been preserved on wax (or tape, for that matter). Bunk Johnson’s recordings are a late-period document of what jazz really sounded like in New Orleans before a single jazz band was recorded. They are even more valuable in this respect than the early Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings, because the ODJB was instructed to leave solos out of their performances and recordings once they hit New York. They didn’t make any recordings of their real “original” style until 1936—and those records, too, are immensely valuable for that reason.
But the Johnson band, like many black New Orleans bands, had a looser, “stompier” beat than the tightly-knit, clockwork sound of the ODJB, thus they make an effective contrast. And yes, many of Johnson’s improvisations are remarkably good. In his last series of recordings, issued on Columbia after his death, he even played loose-limbed versions of famous rags from the “Red Back Book” which are far looser and more swinging than the stodgy performances that Gunther Schuller recorded in the 1970s. All of this is of extreme importance to understanding the evolution of jazz. Without the Bunk Johnson recordings, we would have a very imperfect idea of what pre-1920 jazz really sounded like.
The problem with Russell and his friends was that they went to extremes in praising Johnson for things that simply weren’t true. To quote from the book: “I mean, to hear Bunk come in so strong, [with a] stronger tone than almost any trumpet I’ve heard,” and Russell claims he was even more powerful than Louis Armstrong. This is simply untrue, and Russell should know better because he also heard Armstrong. I talked to three people who heard both trumpeters, Jimmy McPartland, Ralph Berton and Max Kaminsky, and they all said that Armstrong was the most powerful trumpeter they’d ever heard. Also, Bunk was playing in the older style, which meant a more circumscribed form of improvisation, making variants on the melody and not on the chord changes, which was Armstrong’s revolution in jazz. You can claim with certainty that Bunk’s records are clearly better examples of the real old New Orleans jazz than any others in that style, but to say that they were more creative than Armstrong or more creative than the most progressive swing and bop trumpeters is just a fantasy, one that cannot be taken seriously. In their one and only joint recorded performance, a one-and-a-half-minute snippet of Basin Street Blues from a January 1945 broadcast, Johnson’s playing is indeed strong, but Armstrong’s is audibly stronger—and this was a single-microphone pickup for radio, so no fooling around with the volume controls was possible.
But the trad jazz revivalist crowd went much further than to claim that Johnson was louder than Armstrong; they laid claim that he and his bandmates were superior to contemporary jazz musicians. Eugene Williams, writing in an advertising leaflet for Jazz Man records, claimed that Bunk’s playing was “so far from ‘dated’ that there is no cornetist today who could not profit from listening to him (p. 137 of the book),” and Russell himself claimed in liner notes for a George Lewis session that “If the world’s jazziest trombonist isn’t JIM ROBINSON that person surely remains undiscovered (p. 145).” Really, now? What about such hot cornet and trumpet players as Roy Eldridge, Pete Candoli, Henry “Red” Allen and Wild Bill Davison, all of whom could play rings around Johnson once he was taken out of his polyphonic environment? Listen to the sides that Johnson recorded with Floyd O’Brien on trombone, or even some of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sides, where the band plays a tighter style. Bunk’s sense of rhythm betrays him as very dated, nice improvisations notwithstanding, and the same is true of his own band’s recording of Shine (the Louis Armstrong specialty from 1931). Bunk was wonderful in his own pond playing with musicians and tunes in his style, not so wonderful outside that environment. And as for Jim Robinson, I heard him play, in person, in New York City with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on April 6, 1974. He, too, was wonderful in that milieu—in fact, probably the most exciting member of that particular PHJB lineup—but to put him alongside “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Jack Teagarden, Bill Harris or J.J. Johnson? I don’t think so. OK, maybe Harris and Johnson couldn’t play tailgate style, but as soloists they could bury him. In fact, on p. 149 of the book, even Bunk himself questioned Robinson’s abilities and wanted him replaced: “Jim in particular couldn’t pick up some of the little harmonies that Bunk wanted. Jim had confided to Orin Blackstone that he would have walked out earlier in the week if it hadn’t been for the way I treated him.”
Sadly, it was Bunk, and not his promoters, who suffered the most from this hyperbole. The more modern jazz musicians of the 1940s, insulted by the outrageous claims of Johnson’s playing, attacked him mercilessly for playing “clichés” and “corny old licks,” which was not always true, and not crediting him with the many brilliant things he laid on wax. They also never stopped to consider that the licks they thought clichés were original with Bunk…he invented them, way back when. They threw out the baby with the bath water, and by 1945 so hated Bunk Johnson that he was made an example of the worst kind of “moldy fig.”
I sincerely hope that trad jazz fans, reading this review, will understand my position. I am clearly not anti-Bunk Johnson; on the contrary, I consider him extremely important, much more so (at least on records) than Freddie Keppard. You really do hear where Armstrong’s style started when you listen to Bunk, and it’s interesting to note that, when he first emerged, Louis continued to praise Bunk and say that when he first heard him, “you heard real music. I was young, but I could tell the difference.” But as the purple prose on Johnson grew, Armstrong began to distance himself from the old man as well, denying that he had any real influence on him. “No, no, it was always Joe Oliver.” This, too, is sad, because Armstrong’s first statements are probably the truer ones. Also, if you read what other musicians said, Johnson’s style was very similar to that of the unrecorded Buddy Petit, who was considered one of Armstrong’s most potent rivals (along with the younger and more innovative Jabbo Smith) until Petit died in July 1931.
And although I take issue with Russell claiming that Johnson was greater and louder than Armstrong, I completely agree with his assessment of the old style as published in the fall 1942 issue of Jazz Quarterly:
…almost every sin known to European musical culture is committed—lack of precision, out of tuneness, smears, muffs—in other words we have with us once again the well known “sloppy New Orleans ensemble,” but an ensemble whose unpredictable rhythms, vitalizing accents, and independence of parts (even when playing isometrically) are more thrilling than any symphonic group. There has been much talk about New Orleans counterpoint, but the performances of Bunk’s Orchestra, among others, suggests that possibly New Orleans ensemble style is more of a heterophony than a polyphony…
For those unfamiliar with the term, here is the Wikipedia definition of heterophony:
In music, heterophony is a type of texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. Such a texture can be regarded as a kind of complex monophony in which there is only one basic melody, but realized at the same time by different voices, each of which plays the melody differently, either in a different rhythm or tempo, or with various embellishments and elaborations. ..Heterophony is often a characteristic feature of non-Western traditional musics—for example Ottoman classical music, Arabic classical music, Japanese Gagaku, the gamelan music of Indonesia, the kulintang ensemble of the Philippines and the traditional music of Thailand.
All of which is true about those Bunk Johnson and his Band recordings. But—hold the phone for a moment. In the book, Russell admits a few things that “shocked” him, to wit: Johnson held great disdain for non-readers in his bands. Like Jelly Roll Morton and, in fact, like most Creole jazz musicians and several African-Americans, Bunk was a good sight reader. He also complained about the wrong notes that clarinetist George Lewis played, and felt that except for the great Warren “Baby” Dodds on drums, his band didn’t hold the rhythm properly. He once said the best band he ever played with was the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, in part because they were all musically literate and in part because they held a steady tempo, and his own last band, in 1947, had good readers who played together better…though they did have a loose New Orleans stomp feel. In addition, Russell admits that when the old New Orleans bands played in the clubs, they had two or three strings (violins and/or viola), which Bunk’s band didn’t have, also that he was surprised to learn that the old bands NEVER used a banjo. But he put a banjo in Bunk’s band.
In fact, although he was much gentler in demeanor than John Hammond, it’s clear from this book that Russell meddled in the creative process when it suited him. Bunk hated having a tuba in his band, but that didn’t stop Russell from hiring Jim Little (real name, Sidney Brown) to play both bass and tuba on some of Bunk’s 1945 records. From the book, Russell writes that “after the session Bunk mentioned to me—he wasn’t objecting to Jim Little’s performance, or his musicianship or anything—but he said he thought the tuba made the band too heavy.” Russell didn’t care, because HE liked having the tuba in there: “But Jim Little did do a fine job on that [tune].” Well, I’m glad you thought so, Bill. Bunk was also “talking about hiring a pianist, and said, ‘You know, a piano would set off the band real nice.’…I changed the subject, and he never brought it up again.”
Thus we have to console ourselves with the fact that Bunk’s band was only semi-authentic; but, as the old cliché goes, it was “close enough for jazz.” Happily, Johnson did record with a pianist (Walter Decou) in 1942, although Decou didn’t meet Johnson’s musical standards, and he also made a few really nice airchecks with an outstanding small group including Sidney Bechet, pianist Ray Parker, bassist Pops Foster and drummer George Thompson. There was also a session in July 1944 with Fred Washington on piano, but that band played more in the Chicago-jazz style of succeeding solos and no funky New Orleans polyphony.
Yet if the reader has been following my train of thought so far, you will probably infer, as I did, that Russell was not meddling in the makeup of the bands with the same attitude that John Hammond brought into the process. Hammond always wanted people to notice what he did and praise him. He was the guy who got rid of Emmett Berry in the Count Basie trumpet section because HE didn’t like him; he was the guy who recommended pianist Mel Powell to his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman. Russell, who clearly didn’t have that kind of ego, just wanted the music to sound loose and “sloppy” because that was how his musical mind worked, and that is what drew him to this specific style of New Orleans jazz. Russell didn’t care for the more streamlined, gliding style of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or their 1930s successors, the Bob Crosby orchestra, because he thought their swing was too “tight” and they didn’t play polyphonically. For the same reason he didn’t like swing, and he clearly had no affinity with the wildly inventive hot solos that the big swing and, later, bebop stars were playing because it was too metrically even for him. If you listen to his percussion compositions, you’ll fully understand his musical aesthetics. Based on African, Caribbean, Balinese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese music, his compositions aimed for that same kind of looseness even within a far more complex and fully-written style.
Ironically, for supporters who were supposedly so concerned about black jazz musicians not getting fair pay, most of the players Jazz Man and American Music recorded weren’t even members of the union. This is why Alfred Lion worried about issuing the George Lewis New Orleans Stompers and the Sidney Bechet-Bunk Johnson discs on his Blue Note label; he thought the union might find out and shut him down, so he created a subsidiary label, Climax, to issue them on 78 (years later he put them out on Blue Note LPs). Yet so few people paid any attention to these and other New Orleans revival records—jazz critics refused to review them, jazz radio stations wouldn’t play them, and they only sold a few thousand copies, not a quarter-million or more like the big jazz hits of the day—that James C. Petrillo, president of the Musicians’ Union, probably didn’t even know they existed. At one point in the midst of the 1945 sessions Bunk said to Russell, “How are you going to sell all of this stuff? Why are you making all of this stuff (p. 149)?” It got to the point where he walked out on the sessions. Russell just replaced him with trumpeter Kid Shots Madison (it seems like there were at least a dozen New Orleans trumpeters named Kid in those days: Kid Shots, Kid Rena, etc.), which made Robinson much happier, and issued the discs as “Kid Shots’ New Orleans Band.”
Russell lived a relatively nomadic lifestyle, moving from city to city to hear the musicians he loved in person, working what we would now call “flunky” jobs and just scraping by financially. At one point in the late 1950s, he admitted to never making more than $1 an hour. He never owned a car, and was not really a sociable person; in fact, one of his friends, later in the book, describes him as a loner who was very happy not interacting with people. And, like many artistic-minded people—myself included—Russell had absolutely no marketing or business sense, but his lack of savvy, indifference, and business acumen often hurt him much more than it helped. Many collectors wondered why his American Music label supposedly came out of Canton, Missouri. That’s because it was his parents’ house. His long-suffering mother and father not only agreed to manage his record business for him, but, although not specifically mentioned in the text, probably housed his massive, growing collection of old 78s, sheet music, photos, and old newspaper and magazine clippings advertising records and performances by the old New Orleans and blues musicians he admired. When he moved to New Orleans in 1956 and opened his own record store, things actually got worse instead of better. Left to his own devices, Russell crammed the store from floor to ceiling with boxes containing his record and memorabilia collection. Later in the book, one of his few friends described a visit to his shop, where he found a huge stack of unopened mail, some of it postmarked back a year: all mail orders for his records, with live checks inside. He never even bothered to open them and fill the orders.
During his time in his shop, he also took to repairing violins and violas, and would leave them lying around unattended. Worse yet, he normally left the store unattended, the door wide open, nearly all day with no one inside it. He was lucky not to be cleaned out. Had it not been for a stroke of luck, a college professor who saw great cultural value in preserving, archiving and writing about early New Orleans jazz and acquiring a Ford Foundation grant of $75,000 to create such an archive at Tulane University—and put Russell in charge of it—he might never have made goods use of his treasure trove.
And yet, for all these and other reasons, the book makes fascinating reading. It is a cultural history of an era that one man stubbornly tried to keep alive despite the entire tide of the jazz world rushing against him like a cultural tsunami. Although he did a good job of locating and interviewing as many of the old-timers who were still alive, it’s sad that he completely ignored the second most important influence (after Louis Armstrong, of course) on New Orleans music in the 20th century, namely Henry Roeland Byrd, known professionally as Professor Longhair. With his wild and fascinating blend of a New Orleans jazz beat with calypso, Longhair had a major impact on music in the Crescent City, spawning dozens of admirers and acolytes including Allen Toussaint (himself an influential figure), Al Hirt (who recorded Toussaint’s tunes) and Mac Rebennack, professionally known as Dr. John. In the 1970s, Toussaint and Dr. John used their more widespread fame to catapult Byrd to a position of national and even international recognition; sadly, he died too soon, in 1980 at age 62.
The book is chock full of interesting illustrations: record labels, rare correspondence, business cards of the old musicians, newspaper ads, sheet music covers and record labels—lots and lots of record labels. It is, however, a bit sad that all of the latter are reproduced in black and white. I understand that modern-day publishing is an expensive proposition, particularly in the case of an independent publisher like Eq uinox that undoubtedly couldn’t afford to sprinkle the book with full color photos, but a single glossy page printed on both sides could have given us a clearer image of the rare records that Russell collected. I have included a two-page Adobe PDF document of illustrations here that you can view online or download. I am not trying to show the publisher up, but merely attempting to add to one’s enjoyment as he or she plows through the book. Posthumously, Russell’s immense collection of recordings, sheet music, letters, newspaper clippings and interviews with jazz musicians were sent to the Historic New Orleans Collection. You can read about it HERE. At the bottom of the page is a link you can use to download a full description of the various segments of his oeuvre.
One correction: in the book, it is claimed that Tommy Dorsey was born in “Mahanoy Plain,” Pennsylvania. This is the way it is incorrectly listed on Wikipedia, but he was not. He was born in Shenandoah (I even knew that as a child), which is part of Schuykill County; neither are part of “Mahonoy Plain,” which is just a five-street adjunct of Shenandoah near the railway station. It is true, however, that both Shenandoah and Mahanoy City, which is entirely different from Mahanoy Plain, are both part of Schuykill County. Since I was born in Shamokin, PA and have been to both Mahanoy City and Shenandoah, I should know.
In the last chapter, Smith and Pointon come full circle, returning to Russell’s innovative and remarkable percussion compositions and their revival in the last three years of his life. It is a sad reminder of the decades in which his remarkable musical mind was put on hold and no compositions written because no one wanted to play them. The authors have done a remarkable, I would even say stupendous, job in giving us the full measure of his modest, gentle, gifted and yet stubbornly recalcitrant man. It is, in my view, the finest and most complete biography published in the last decade, and may well set a standard for such biographies in the future.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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