Danny Barker's restored '86 memoir recalls early days of jazz
Regardless of whether you believe that Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz, as he famously and grandiosely claimed, he surely established the intellectual framework by which we understand jazz as an art form.
Morton's 1938 Library of Congress recordings with folklorist Alan Lomax, which formed the basis of Lomax's landmark book "Mister Jelly Roll," not only documented the birth of the music but explained how and why a new American art form emerged. By performing historic repertoire, mimicking long-forgotten musicians, analyzing early-jazz techniques and describing life in the late 19th and early 20th century New Orleans, Morton shaped the way the world perceived jazz ever after.
But outside of Morton, no single musician shed more light on the origins, context and meaning of early jazz than guitarist-banjoist-raconteur Danny Barker.
So anyone who values this music can be thankful that Barker's memoir, "A Life in Jazz," has been restored to print in lavishly illustrated, sumptuously produced form by the Historic New Orleans Collection (a repository of documentation on Crescent City life and culture). Originally published in 1986 and edited by Alyn Shipton, the tome reaffirms the singularity of Barker's voice and the value of his insights.
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For though Barker, who died in 1994 at age 85, was several years younger than Morton, he heard and saw plenty.
"The Animule Hall was a notorious joint," Barker writes of a historic nightspot Morton immortalized in the recording "Animule Dance."
"It was nicknamed the Animule because the patrons behaved like animals of the jungle once they entered," Barker continues. "They would be real tame on the outside, but once they entered and began to dance and drink the bad, cheap booze sold there, they became very antagonistic, belligerent, nasty, vulgar and provocative.
"The hall was operated by a very rough man called Joe Baggers, who was the floorwalker and bouncer. He always kept an iron pipe in his hand or under his arm, and when the battles got out of hand he whipped both men and women alike with this pipe."
The scenes where early jazz unfolded clearly were as rambunctious as the music itself.
Some of Barker's most treasured observations concern Morton himself, for when Barker arrived in New York in 1930, Morton already was there and on his way down. The artistic and commercial successes Morton had achieved in Chicago in the mid-1920s were over, and the great composer found himself marginalized by a new generation of jazz stars.
Barker witnessed Morton's descent and chronicled it poetically.
"Jelly was constantly preaching that if he could get a band to rehearse his music and listen to him, he could keep a band working," writes Barker of Morton's long stretches of underemployment.
"He would get one-nighters out of town and would have to beg musicians to work with him. Most of the time the musicians would arrive at the last moment, or send a substitute in their place. I learned later that they were angry with him, because he was always boasting about how great New Orleans musicians were. Jelly's songs and arrangements had a deep feeling lots of musicians could not feel and improvise on, so they would not work with Jelly — just could not grasp the roots, soul, feeling."
In the early 1990s, I visited Barker in his tiny New Orleans home on the outskirts of the city's housing projects, its walls covered with photos of Barker and Louis Armstrong playing together, Barker's books and records stacked floor to ceiling. He generously answered questions about everything he had witnessed.
What was New Orleans like as the Storyville vice district was coming to an end, in 1917?
"You'd hear music anywhere you went," he told me. "You'd hear music in the street — organ grinders pulling their instrument on a two-wheel cart, going from barroom to barroom.
"And you heard peddlers shouting their wares. You heard music everywhere because everything you did was done musically in New Orleans.
"See, New Orleans was a French town and a party town — there was an abundance of entertainment. You could walk down the street and hear a party going on until 11 o'clock the next morning."
Why did Morton encounter not only indifference but outright hostility when he moved to New York from Chicago in 1928?
"Jelly Roll was misunderstood," Barker said to me. "The problem was that back then, they didn't have press agents, except for the circus.
"So Jelly Roll had to promote himself. So he had a diamond in his tooth, wore all these fancy clothes, told all the musicians how to make music, and folks didn't understand all his braggadocio, and they turned against him."
Certainly few welcomed Morton's self-description as the "inventor of jazz," but Barker knew how much truth that statement contained.
"Jelly was partly right in his claim that he invented jazz — that is, his type of jazz," Barker writes in his memoir. "His compositions 'King Porter,' 'Milenberg Joys,' and his recordings for Victor of 'Shreveport Stomp' and 'Shoe Shiner's Drag' were some of the finest, if not the best technically recorded jazz records at that time."
But the music world was changing. The small-group New Orleans jazz of Morton's 1920s heyday with his Red Hot Peppers was giving way to muscular big bands in the 1930s and a new, high-art aesthetic in the '40s.
"When it all started," Barker told me, referring to jazz in its infancy, "you could go to a club to have fun. You wanted to dance and clink glasses. But in the modern joints you could hear a pin drop. Everybody's listening, nobody's drinking or dancing. It was like an undertaking parlor.
"So there was a new era with new music to perform. But that's the way America is — always waiting for the next new thing."
Chi-Town Jazz Festival lineup
The 2017 Chi-Town Jazz Festival, which supports hunger relief, will feature a Jazz Vespers Service, Bourne Family Singers and Steve Rashid Song of Songs, March 5 at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston; Blanche Blacke Quintet, Bobby Lewis Quintet and Tom Matta Big Band, March 8 at the Jazz Showcase; Glenbrook South jazz ensembles, Eric Schneider and Friends, Tenor Madness and Brent Kimbrough Band, March 9 at Andy's Jazz Club; Typhanie Monique Group, Sarah Marie Young Quartet and Aaron McEvers Quintet, March 10 at Winter's Jazz Club; Erwin Helfer, March 10 at First Unitarian Church of Chicago; Tammy McCann and Jeremy Kahn, March 11 at PianoForte Studios; Ron Perrillo Quartet, BakerzMillion and Jon Deitemyer's Tall Tales, March 11 at the Green Mill Jazz Club. For details, visit www.chitownjazzfestival.org.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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