My personal odyssey in “classic jazz”

MARCH 28, 2020 — My vote for the happiest, most uplifting music goes to “classic jazz” Many genres of music have been important to enriching my life, but none more than classic jazz. And in these times, I need plenty of spiritual boost.

My interest in classic jazz started early. Though my developing musical tastes included pop, rock, blues, and many of the classics, I kept coming back to explore the idiom called jazz.

At first, I didn’t know what to call the style of jazz I knew I liked. But over the years I have come to understand it is properly to be called classic jazz, not traditional jazz or any other name. The music of the mighty Joe “King” Oliver exemplifies this style of playing in all respects better than any other jazz band ever recorded (his only equal in this style being Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers recordings in the late twenties).

As my interest in classic jazz grew, I bought the odd book, studied up on the subject, bought and listened to album after album, and went to jazz concerts whenever I could find them. I am especially indebted to Roberta Grace, George Wein, and Quint Davis at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the great jazz musicians they have brought to the Economy Hall stage year after year.

But the more I learned about jazz, it seemed the less I knew for sure. I know of no subject–except maybe politics–where there is less agreement and more finger-pointing and petty jealousy, all at the expense of the listener who wants to understand how the music he likes came to be.

In searching for the music my ear found pleasing and beautiful, I found the personal belief of musicians and jazz experts, as well as established guideposts in jazz literature, to be wildly divergent and unreliable. Typically, if you ask a jazz artist or fan what describes small group jazz played in the New Orleans style, they will call it traditional jazz, or Dixieland. But what does this mean, and who is right?

The term traditional jazz has been slapped on everything from modern white Dixieland groups playing in Seattle to Norwegian style–mimics playing in Europe to Woody Allen’s clarinet–playing in New York to New Orleans’ own Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I don’t know what the term “traditional jazz” describes any more.

The term “classic jazz” in the New Orleans style, however, has a focused and narrow bandwidth: It refers to disciplined ensemble playing with well-defined and consistently played instrument parts for each song which are best performed from written arrangements. Notes are followed and played for each instrument the same way each time. One only has to listen to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band recordings to hear this style.

What about improvisation? The tight discipline of the classic New Orleans style allows for a sure-footed progression through each piece. Since the musicians know exactly where each other are at all times, individual expression in coloration, mood, and beat is not only possible, but comes naturally. The music, contrary to perceived wisdom and instinct, becomes more alive and beautiful. The chaos and cacophony of unbridled improvisation contrasts with the swinging, happy emotion this recording evokes. The perceived wisdom, oft-repeated and rarely challenged, that improvisation and beauty in performance are stifled by scored arrangements in small group jazz, is wrong.

King Oliver as the Touchstone of Jazz

However rancorous the arguments, however, the one thing I found everybody agreed upon, without fail, was that Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing in the period 1922-24 at the Lincoln Gardens Cafe‚ in Chicago, was the Holy Grail of jazz. The band has been revered by every musician, critic, and writer who ever heard it as the perfection of classic New Orleans style and performance. The Creole Jazz Band established a reputation which has never been equaled or surpassed.

Joe “King” Oliver

With the exception of Lil Hardin who hailed from Indiana (and who became Louis Armstrong’s second wife), Oliver’s personnel were experienced New Orleans’ bandsmen who had learned their style of playing and honed their craft in the Crescent City in the early years of this century.

Joe “King” Oliver’s 1922 Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. From left: Baby Dodds (drums), Honore Dutrey (trombone), Joe “King” Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet, 22 years old), Bill Johnson (bass), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano)

(Oliver was also the bandleader who summoned the promising, if young and naïve, Louis Armstrong to Chicago from his home in New Orleans. Joe recognized Armstrong’s talent and put him in the band and on the road to global fame.)

So why was this the one band everyone revered, I wondered? I listened to some of the reissued Oliver material, but the very early mechanical recording techniques (pre-electric) were so primitive and distorted that I was repulsed by the hiss, pop, rumble, and that far-away tinny sound. Just the same, something gnawed at me about it – there was something which called me from the murky depths of that scratchy old sound.

Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo™

When compact discs hit the market, I prowled record stores from coast to coast looking for favorite music, especially classic jazz. One lucky day I spied an unfamiliar label: Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo™. It claimed to be a restoration of classic New Orleans jazz like no other on the market, and high praise was heaped upon it from the likes of the Times of London, The New York Times, and Time Magazine. I bought it.

One playing was enough to electrify me! I had never heard the music sound like this, so vibrant and alive. Somehow Robert Parker had managed the equivalent of a time machine in making those old scratchy recordings sound like modern high fidelity ones, and in stereo.

What had Parker done? It sounded like nothing short of a miracle. I bought every Parker title I could find, and when I could not get any more, I contacted Robert, first in Australia, and later in England. Especially, I asked him for any King Oliver material, and was overjoyed to find he had two King Oliver titles available. On listening to his Oliver CDs, I realized what I had been missing, and my interest in the recordings of the Creole Jazz Band was galvanized.

Robert and his wife, Elaine, and I became fast friends in the years that followed. I became his agent and the Executive Producer for Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics in Stereo™ radio series on over a hundred public radio stations in the United States. During visits together in New Orleans and in England, we often discussed a mutual dream: to produce a contemporary recording in the classic New Orleans style of tight ensemble playing which King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band embodied.

Over almost six years, we kneaded and developed the idea, and searched for the right musicians to interpret Oliver’s repertoire and style. In the Economy Hall tent each year at the New Orleans JazzFest (the venue for the original early forms of jazz), I listened to, met with, and talked to all the musicians giving their renditions of so–called traditional jazz.

I was astonished to slowly grasp that, contrary to my humble assumption, I knew as much–and often more than–many of them about the history of classic New Orleans jazz. I took no pleasure in this discovery; quite the contrary, I was dismayed. I began to despair that the style was a lost art; knowledge and appreciation for the disciplined ensemble element in jazz culture seemed to die out with classic performers like Danny Barker.

Time and neglect led to the over-simplified legend that traditional jazz was an undisciplined improvisation which had never been played to scored arrangements, and this became the perceived wisdom of contemporary small group jazz playing. Only big swing bands played to arrangements, so the story developed, not small groups.

New Orleans today is replete with pious spokespersons on the subject of classic jazz. Some are self–appointed, and some are anointed, as traditional jazz experts. They may be seen pontificating, puffing, and blowing with fine words about saving this New Orleans heritage music, usually with the grand assumption that they are the one and only saviors.

But when those same people attempt to demonstrate their leadership with musical deed, what is heard, more often than not, is a lot of squeaking and squawking and slack performances of the same tired repertoire (ask yourself how many times you have heard “St. James Infirmary” and “When the Saints Come Marching In”), way off the mark of true ensemble playing.

Then we got to know Don Vappie and his wife, Milly. In doing so, Robert and I had crossed paths with perhaps the one person in the New Orleans pantheon of contemporary jazz musicians who understands what classic jazz is really all about. Milly, though not a professional musician, is steeped in the history and culture of classic jazz, and, like Don, understands and appreciates the idiom. Don respects and appreciates the need for scored instrumentation and disciplined performances.

Spiritually attuned to the music, he is a humble supporter and quiet leader who encourages fellow musicians by bringing out the best in their powers of expression. Don does this through demonstration and articulation of the reasoning for discipline in playing, rather than through fear and intimidation. He has thought it through, and he can explain with wit and intelligence and historical reference why this style of playing is better; his band listens and understands.

Don Vappie took Robert Parker’s restorations of Joe Oliver’s repertoire and listened to them carefully for hours, days, and weeks. He painstakingly teased apart the music, separating out each part, and then constructed arrangements for each note for each instrument for each piece.

Vappie’s efforts led to the 1998 album In Search of King Oliver. It is a monumental achievement. Each song was recorded from scores that Don wrote out, and the results speak for themselves.

I was honored to be a producer of that album and it’s been the highlight of my personal odyssey in classic jazz.

Robert Parker, Don Vappie, Will Allen in St. Joan of Arc Church, New Orleans, 1997

One thought on “My personal odyssey in “classic jazz”

  1. I’m surprised you made no mention of George H. Buck who for many years recorded and sold the music of many New Orleans jazz artists like George Lewis, Papa Celestin, George Brunies, Baby Dodds and many others on his GHB and Jazzology labels

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