A living link to George Lewis, New Orleans jazz legend: Our Times
George Lewis had a problem. The clarinetist and several members of his band had played a three-month stint in New York with Bunk Johnson in 1945, several years after the mercurial yet brilliant jazz trumpeter had gotten dentures to replace his teeth that were casualties of a fight at a concert in Rayne. They were introduced at one show by Orson Welles; another performance was a benefit hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt. They were on the cusp of mainstream success, and they could feel it.
But Johnson's demons — ego, alcohol — became too much to overcome. The tour "came down in flames," according to Nick Gagliano, a jazz enthusiast who in the late 1940s was a correspondent for Down Beat magazine. The band broke up, and everyone came home to New Orleans. Lewis resumed working his daytime job on the riverfront and played music on the weekends at Manny's Tavern on St. Roch Avenue at Benefit Street, a venue Gagliano frequented.
"When I met George, he told me how disappointed they were that they lost an opportunity in New York," Gagliano said in an interview last week. "He would say, 'We have got to get back there, but we need someone to talk for us.'
"He said, 'You know how to write letters.'
"I said, 'Sure.'
"He said, 'You know how to talk on the telephone.'
" 'Well, you can help us. I want you to consider being our manager.' "
Get up on the Down Beat
Gagliano, 89, was born in the living quarters above his family's grocery store in the Faubourg Marigny, but his exposure to jazz was limited until he served in the Navy in World War II. He was discharged on July 3, 1946, and spent his first full day home on Independence Day. Soon, he had resumed his studies at Tulane University, where he majored in electrical engineering, and immersed himself in the local music scene.
Gagliano was reading a story about New Orleans jazz in Down Beat in 1947 when he noticed that the writer was from Australia. That didn't make sense to him, that someone from across the globe would be covering jazz in his hometown, so he wrote a letter to the magazine asking what the deal was.
Before long, Gagliano was covering New Orleans jazz for Down Beat.
He wrote numerous stories for the magazine over the next couple of years, including covering Louis Armstrong's triumphant return to New Orleans as Zulu king in 1949.
"Satchmo's fame and personality drew the most enthusiastic and one of the largest crowds ever to witness a Carnival parade," he wrote. "He drank numerous toasts of champagne, tossed hundreds of painted coconuts to his followers, and listened to his own trumpet playing as the many radios and outdoor P.A. systems blared forth his most famous Hot Five recordings."
A Jazz education
By that time, Gagliano had started working with the George Lewis band as its manager, making phone calls and writing letters and lining up gigs. Lewis, who had been playing jazz professionally since 1917, had been struggling to make up for lost time, having taken a serious financial hit after being injured working on the river as a stevedore. Though he was regarded as one of the best musicians still playing traditional New Orleans jazz, Lewis talked about giving up music for good. There just wasn't any money in it. According to a story in Dixie magazine, Lewis sometimes made as little as 50 cents a gig.
"When I first met George, I was very concerned about his living conditions," Gagliano said last week. "I'm talking dirt poor. By the time I met him, he was OK physically, but he was still living in this condition.
"He wanted me to meet his mother. She was living in a walk-up one-room apartment in the French Quarter — no facilities. She had to walk downstairs to use the outhouse."
But one thing Lewis had was talent. He could work magic with his clarinet, and Gagliano, by this time a member of the New Orleans Jazz Club, had watched him play at Manny's on a regular basis. Gagliano was captivated, and in the fall of 1949, he helped arrange for the band to play during homecoming at Tulane.
The performance, Gagliano said, "represents the first traditional jazz concert at a public university," coming at a time when the campus and the city were still racially segregated.
"It was arranged by my connections with the New Orleans Jazz Club and the Tulane Hullaballoo group," Gagliano said last week. "I think they picked up the tab, but I arranged for the concert."
The show was part entertainment, part educational experience.
"One of the highlight presentations of the band was to try to give a sense of what a black funeral was about, with the jazz bands and all of that culture — second-lines and all that," Gagliano said. "And what we would do is we'd march the band off the stage into the audience and give them some commentary on what things mean."
Lewis catches a break
George Lewis and his band had a breakthrough in 1950, when Look magazine featured him in a story written by Joe Roddy, with photographs by a young man named Stanley Kubrick. According to Gagliano, Roddy hadn't set out to write about Lewis, but he got sidetracked by a Tulane faculty member named Robert Greenwood, who would "go to hell and back for George Lewis."
"What Bob Greenwood did," Gagliano said, "he and another couple of his friends, one of them had a contact with Joe Roddy. They contacted him as soon as he got to town, and they sort of hijacked him and brought him to Manny's and George Lewis.
"(Roddy and Kubrick) were down here to do a feature on Sharkey (Bonano) and (Papa) Celestin. They hijacked them and changed the thrust of the article, and they featured (Lewis) instead of the other guys."
It was during the Jim Crow era that Lewis, a black man, and Gagliano, who is white, became friends and began to work together. Segregation "limited my interplay with the guys," Gagliano said last week, adding that he "had to skirt the law on it in some respects" to represent the band. Even Armstrong, who was world famous by 1949, had to stay at a segregated hotel when he was Zulu king, Gagliano noted.
Outside the South, though, the band had a different experience. In a tour of Midwest colleges in 1952, a bidding war erupted among white faculty members to house Lewis, Gagliano and the band.
"These men in the band were overwhelmed by the warmth of the people," Gagliano said. "They never came across this kind of personal reception. We were able to tour the university. I remember bringing them in the classrooms. They had never seen anything like this. They had never had the opportunity. This opened their eyes to another set of experiences they had never encountered, except minimally in New York."
Finding a financial footing
One of Gagliano's tasks was handling the money for the band, and he played it safe, setting some aside in case things went bad.
"George and I talked about it, and I said, 'George, why don't we set up the band financially as a cooperative?'
"You have seven men in the band. Tradition is that as the bandleader, George would be entitled to twice what his sidemen would get. He gets two, the other guys get one share, regardless of what the gate paid. And we took another (share) and created a rainy-day fund."
That fund came in handy when the band was on a West Coast swing.
"We were playing an engagement at a place called the Royal Room in Hollywood," Gagliano said. "The way in which the money would flow, the club owner would send a check for the week to me in New Orleans. I would immediately make out checks to George and the rest of the guys and put them in the mail. I would take the other one share to the bank.
"About halfway through the engagement at the Royal Room, the check to me bounced. I had already sent the money to them, but we had the slush fund and it covered it."
In 1954, Gagliano quit his day job for a construction company and entered law school at Loyola. Soon, managing the band became more than he could handle.
"One of the cataclysmic changes in my life was when I decided to cold-turkey quit and go to law school.
"I'm doing this strictly from New Orleans," he said of his work with the band. "I'm cold-calling people. I'm responding to things people might call about. Everything is letters or calls. I had to work out a transition of management for George when I got into law school. I was able to stay with George throughout my whole freshman year, but by my sophomore year, 1955, I realized I couldn't do it justice."
He turned over the reins to a woman named Dorothy Tait, a former journalist who had helped plan a 1954 West Coast tour and who later wrote a book about Lewis, "Call Him George," using the pseudonym Ann Fairbairn.
A living link
Though he is perhaps not a household name today, George Lewis was recognized around the world in his lifetime as a standard-bearer for traditional New Orleans jazz, helping to revive the genre after the war. His "Burgundy Street Blues" became a hit. He became a fixture at Preservation Hall. And he was successful enough to focus full-time on his music and to build a home for himself and his family in Algiers.
Nick Gagliano received his law degree from Loyola in 1957. He married Marilyn Claret later that year and had what he describes as a poignant reunion with George Lewis and the band in 1958, when he and his wife caught their show at the Stuyvesant Casino in New York, the same venue George Lewis played for three months with Bunk Johnson during the disastrous 1945 tour.
George Lewis, who suffered health problems for much of his life, died on Dec. 31, 1968.
"I went to the funeral," Gagliano recalled. "I was in the limousine with the family. I was so distraught I couldn't do anything.
"There were three bands playing for his funeral, one of which was made up almost totally of foreign-born adherents to his music. They all congregated to play for his funeral.
"It was one of the biggest jazz funerals ever held, and I spent it in the limousine. I wasn't of a mind to deal with it.
"From the first time I met George and the band, I had this fear that the guys wouldn't be around very long and that the music wouldn't be around long."
Gagliano, of course, wasn't with Lewis for long. But he managed the band at a time when Lewis and the other men turned a corner, becoming financially stable, touring the world and gaining acclaim for their contributions to traditional New Orleans jazz. Gagliano is a living link to Lewis, the jazz great who had asked him for help when things were looking grim back in the 1940s, and to the art form that sprang forth from New Orleans in the early 20th century.
"If I look back upon our relationship," Gagliano said, "the thing that makes me feel a little bit warm, it's that I was able to help George."
He continued, "I'll tell you this, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."