Author: William A. Allen III

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.

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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.

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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.

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

Go or not go when it’s over?

Been wondering lately:  What is the future of air travel when the novel coronavirus crisis abates?

Whenever that is, will I be one of millions who can hardly wait to get back on planes?  I’m already going stir crazy.

Or will I be among the few who venture back into the air?

I can’t decide if there will be an explosion of demand for what will likely be a slow trickle of flight options for a long period as things ramp back up, hence paying fares through the nose. That happened for several post-Katrina years to New Orleans.

Or perhaps I will be virtually alone on flights as air service gradually returns to normal, whatever “normal” means then.

Either way, I know already that I will be flying again just as soon as this thing is over.

Kruger 2020 diary – days 0 and 1

Getting to South Africa’s Kruger National Park necessitates flying first to Johannesburg. The options from there are either driving a rental car four hours or flying one hour on a South African Express Airways RJ to Skukuza Airport (SZK) in the park  or to Mpumalanga Airport (MQP), a 45 minute drive from the park. Read all about getting here and our first day of the trip here.

Model railroad combats coronavirus blues

Not only has COVID-19 shut down my near-term travels plans to Tampa, Minneapolis, and New Orleans, but the tedium of being cooped up at home wears thin. I like to stay on the move. To keep myself busy, I am spending time operating and maintaining my large model railroad layout.

When I was a kid, I loved trains and railroads, and I still do.  I’ve done a good deal of consulting in the rail industry with both railroad companies and shippers.  Like most mid-twentieth century boys, I had a Lionel train—several, in fact.

My interest in model railroading waned in my teen and college years, and I didn’t come back to it until I was past 50 years old. When did, I was delighted to discover that model railroading had evolved into a complex hobby that appealed to adults more than children.

Model railroading offers many scales.  Mine is 3-rail O-gauge, meaning tracks have a middle (3rd) rail to conduct AC electricity, just like original Lionel trains, and “O” is quarter-inch scale, again the same as the Lionel trains of my youth.  So far, just like the 1950s and 60s.

The difference now is that model steam locomotives, diesel engines, and rolling stock (freight and passenger cars) are much more finely detailed and realistic than ever before, and the engines are computer-controlled and emit prototypical sounds when running.  Engines and locomotives are chock-a-block full of electronics.

That makes digital operation of model trains these days a lot like driving real trains. The fun and challenge of running a model railroad is tantamount to a 3-D computer game. It is endlessly variable and never dull.

Over a decade ago I converted our carport and other space into a thousand square foot “train room” to indulge my hobby.  I used up a lot of good will with my long-suffering wife when I did, but so far my key still works in the lock.

I soon found myself writing articles for magazines like O-Gauge Railroading (OGR). I call my layout the Duckunder Terminal Railway. Here is a much-abridged recent cover piece I did for OGR:


Finally complete after six years of nonstop construction, the Duckunder Terminal Railway in Raleigh, North Carolina, occupies 1,000 square feet in a purpose-built train room attached to my house. It is finished just as I planned it.  It is my design, but it was master craftsman and good friend George Lasley who detailed scenes in ways I could only imagine.

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My strengths in model railroading are track design, electrical wiring, and electronic operation. I can install and make track systems work, but I have limited ability when it comes to screwing together basic bench work, and no expertise whatsoever in scale modeling and detailing. George, however, excels in those fields. His creative spark literally brought every scene to life.

For example, every telephone and electrical pole is wired accurately for the era, and every building on the Duckunder is wired to the prototypical electric grid with accurate service connections. Even the pole transformers are right for single-phase or three-phase service. George’s railroad buildings, trackside structures, telephone-telegraph poles, and scale wiring are in keeping with the pre-1960 era of my design.

When we set out to build and detail the Duckunder Terminal Railway, George was skeptical that the layout could attain a truly high level of realism. However, his doubts vanished as the Duckunder came alive with prototypical detail. George has succeeded in pushing that realism to perfection, with scenes that invite visitors to lose themselves in.

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The Duckunder is an Appalachian coal railroad modeled principally on the Norfolk & Western Railway and Virginian Railway up to 1960. Point-to-point operation is achieved by a track plan with Norfolk at the eastern terminus; Portsmouth and Columbus, Ohio, at the west end; and nine coal mines with tipples in the middle (West Virginia coal country). Each of the nine coal tipples has a distinctive and prototypical style.

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Naturally, coal isn’t the Duckunder’s sole commodity. Tank cars for oil and water, gondolas of many sizes, several variations of flatcars, boxcars of wood and steel, both wood and steel reefers, and short covered hoppers for sand are examples of just some of the other Duckunder rolling stock.

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Norfolk Terminal includes a prototypically flawless union station model and a huge coal pier and yard, complete with a coal dumper and ship.

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Suffolk, Virginia, the first burg of any size west of Norfolk, is a very extensive scene that includes Planters Peanuts and Lipton Tea–the two largest industries there–along with a Smithfield-type ham company, an Outer Banks cold seafood shipper, an Esso fuel oil business, a Dismal Swamp cedar works, a large building supply company, an industrial supply shipper (W.A. Allen & Son), and a steam engine coal, water, and cinder facility modeled after one on the Virginian. The Lipton Tea plant was reproduced to its 1955 look when new. Suffolk passenger station is a prototypical Virginian Railway design.

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Roanoke, Virginia, once N&W headquarters in the real world, is also a major scene, with a remarkable scratch-built passenger station modeled on the classic N&W station at Max Meadows, Virginia. George Lasley made that one from more than 1,800 individual pieces.

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Portsmouth, Ohio is a six-track yard with two additional industry tracks (another branch of W.A. Allen & Son, plus a Gulf Oil distributor). The Columbus, Ohio scene features a nine-track yard, two icing platform tracks, two dairy reefer tracks, an elevated coal yard delivery track, and a local industry track.

The Quack Island Engine Terminal scene features a prototypically accurate N&W water treatment plant, sand facilities, coaling systems, and cinder pit for firebox dump and cinder removal, as well as a turntable that accesses a six-stall roundhouse and 10 other tracks. The engine terminal includes fine details such as a fire-fighting system to suppress the inevitable conflagrations that bedeviled steam engine terminals.

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All trains and engines on the Duckunder are controlled by the Lionel Legacy/TMCC system. The signal is augmented by a Hawking Wi-Fi booster attached to two antennae, one near each end of the 40’ room. Where necessary due to considerable over-and-under track complexity, ground planes have been installed to clarify the Legacy signal. The Legacy base and handset software are version 1.6.

The railway currently rosters 43 engines, including 16 steam locomotives and 27 diesels. Being a sound freak, I have engines with whistle, horn, bell, chuff, and diesel sounds that tickle my fancy.

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Layout height on the Duckunder is built up high (50” minimum, 73” maximum). This provides an improved, more realistic viewing perspective for visitors, and it is easier to duck under than the usual 40-42” layout height.

Some of the scenes on the new Duckunder can only be seen and operated when standing on stepstools, short ladders, or painters’ platforms scattered around the train room. The layout boasts lots of railings and door handles installed everywhere on the benchwork, especially where ladders and stepstools are required. This inexpensive measure ensures safety, but also keeps hands from unintentionally grasping for holds on the layout scenes.

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Despite the impressive God’s-eye spectacle of a thousand square feet seen when entering the train room, I didn’t like being able to see the entire layout at once. To prevent that, contoured and painted wood dividers look like mountains to visually separate scenes. Foam and plaster were added and detailed near the bottom of dividers to add dimension to the backdrops.

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Different scale trees were “planted” in each scene, with large ones near the front edge and small trees placed into the ascending dimension of foam and plaster overlay in order to add perspective to each scene. Overall, this has the effect of focusing visitor attention to a single part of the layout. The compartmentalization also tends to minimize operator distractions.

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Construction on the Duckunder Terminal Railway is complete, showcasing George Lasley’s modeling skills and the astonishing operational realism made possible by computer control. Visitors always comment on the dazzling craftsmanship, lifelike scenes, and how much it feels and sounds like a real railroad. If you get to Raleigh, I  welcome you to stop by.


My big model train layout offers infinite operational variables to keep my mind and body busy.  I’m thankful it keeps me so happily engaged during this period of home-bound isolation.

Johannesburg journey tedium

LOW FARE, LONG WAIT

Delta introduced Premium Economy service to Johannesburg last April with a special low introductory fare.

But that fare required me to act quickly, which I did, snagging it the same day it was introduced. The catch was having to endure an interminable five hour wait between planes in Atlanta prior to a 15+ hour flight.

That day came last week when I had to live through the tedium of both the long connection and the long flight.  It wore on my spirit as much as on my body.

Waiting in the Atlanta F concourse SkyClub, I enjoyed a surprisingly good Korean chicken and rice dish, some delicious humus, and a tasty Thai chicken and rice soup with a red curry look, but a yellow curry flavor. It was as good as a restaurant meal. Even a decent Champagne was poured. All in all, a delightful experience, as my expectations were low.

I just wish the time had passed quicker.

FACIAL RECOGNITION BOARDING

Finally at the gate, I noticed that Delta is now using facial recognition to board international flights. If your face doesn’t produce a green light on the screen, you don’t fly without extra scrutiny. I complied, proffering my boarding pass and passport, and then smiled at the cold heart of the digital camera in order to get to my seat (20B) in Premium Economy on DL200 ATL/JNB.

The Captain announced a relatively short 14 hrs 45 mins flight (usually closer to 16 hrs) as boarding progressed.

FLIGHT IMPRESSIONS AT THE 10 HOUR MARK

Ten hours into flight time and with five hours left before landing in Johannesburg on Delta 200, these were my Premium Economy impressions:

The usual small amenity kit provided socks (throwaway booties), eyeshades, and toothpaste/toothbrush. Separately, Delta gave us a pair of slippers, but they were small and inadequate, and I threw them away mid-flight. Mine were sized for children.

Excellent service on the 777-200ER throughout, beginning with a high quality tray meal (that is, served all at once). I chose ravioli ricotta with broccoli as my entree, and my companion had braised beef short rib. Both were very good and came with delicious, spicy shrimp, a fresh and tasty salad, and a yummy chocolate mousse. The stale bread didn’t diminish our satisfaction with the meal. Lots of the usual cheap wines and okay beers and standard liquors poured in copious quantities. I thought the meal was better than I remembered on Delta in Premium Economy.

Lots of snacks, water, juice, and alcohol available throughout the flight, along with a mid-flight cold Turkey sandwich, which wasn’t bad, and a second meal before arrival. No breakfast, though. Owing to the seven hour time change and the 15 hour duration, we went straight from dinner to lunch before the 4:00 PM local time touchdown.

The all-senior Delta flight attendants were friendly and polite start to finish, and they worked hard to keep the two lavs at the front of the PE cabin clean. Considering nearly constant use and queues from both PE and economy travelers, that wasn’t easy.

The PE seats are the same as I remember: not the lieflat marvels in Business Class, of course, but a vast improvement in comfort over narrow and cramped coach chairs, with enough width, pitch, and recline to sleep well and not feel claustrophobic.

The Delta PE cabin seemed to have more chairs than I remember the last time I flew it, which was Detroit to Beijing a couple of years ago, maybe because every seat was full. Premium Economy on DL200, which Delta calls Premium Select, has a capacity of 48, consisting of 6 rows of 8 across in a 2-4-2 configuration (coach is 9 across, configured 3-3-3).

I didn’t do my normal pre-flight comparative seat analysis using seatguru.com, so I can’t say how the spacial specs measure up to, say, Cathay and Singapore PE. I can only observe that I wouldn’t have been as happy if I didn’t have a bulkhead seat (20B). They seemed more roomy and private than the rows that follow, the downside being proximate to the two lavs and the galley that separates Business and PE.

The in-flight entertainment system had great movie selections that included all the latest Oscar winners, but the clunky headphones provided by Delta were far inferior to my Bose noise-canceling over-the-ear phones. I never go on long flights without them.

The PE pillow was okay, but the Delta Premium Economy blanket was thin, small, and quite insufficient for the cold and drafty cabin we experienced the entire distance of 8,400 miles from Atlanta to Jo’burg. Thank goodness I took a light jacket. Otherwise, I’d have been shivering most of the flight.

I’ve flown on Delta 200/201 to and from Johannesburg many times since it was inaugurated, but this was the first time since the PE cabin was added. Just like always on DL200, every seat was full from stem to stern, reconfirming my speculation that these flights must be among Delta’s most profitable.

The flight is a milk run and nothing special, but it is consistently reliable and adequately comfortable if in Premium Economy, barely tolerable if in Comfort+. It is a good means to get to and from Johannesburg without hating the flying experience per se.

Still, after the long connection in Atlanta coupled with the long flight time, the thrill of the trip wore thin. Being in Business Class would have made it more tolerable.

Travel planning is never done

Never done, that is, until the trip is completed. As hard as it can be to find the right airfare on my preferred dates via my favorite airline in the most comfortable seat to the optimal destination, and then to reserve the best accommodations, at the same time integrating local transportation, that’s just the beginning. As I embark again to the Kruger National Park read about the travel planning hurdles here.

Virus in the air

The novel coronavirus—now officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization—is already impacting air travel worldwide.  I’m about to take off for South Africa and wondering what precautions I should take. Will there be virus in the air while I’m in the air?  Will I need face masks?  Do masks even work?

I was already concerned about whether my connecting flights on South African Express would be canceled, as I wrote about two weeks ago.   Now COVID-19 comes along, though as of today cases are not yet reported anywhere on the vast African continent, let alone the Republic of South Africa.

I never used to worry about catching something on a plane.  Winter after winter over four decades I crammed in beside ill travelers sneezing virus-laden mucus particles airborne while airborne at 35,000 feet with nowhere to hide. I usually didn’t get sick myself, and I never thought twice about sharing the sardine can with a bunch of sick people.  The airlines let anybody on board as long as they proffered a valid ticket.

Obsessed with work and anxious that I might be fired for not showing up, I myself once flew with the flu.  It was in the early eighties when people still smoked on planes, so many passengers were hacking and coughing per usual.  No one noticed that I sounded and looked like death warmed over.  I sat in the back of the plane with the nicotine addicts like me (before I quit cold turkey in 1985).  Didn’t even get a second look.

No one wore a mask then, either.  Certainly wearing face masks is a newish air travel phenomenon that became widespread during the 2003 SARS outbreak. SARS lasted about six months, but the habit of fearing face masks on board planes, particularly in Asia, persisted.  The 2012 MERS outbreak saw the face mask habit resurge, though not so much in the USA that I recall.

But we Americans are up to date on the mask routine now.  I’ve seen pictures lately of U.S. airplanes on domestic routes with lots of flyers wearing masks, so the habit seems to have taken hold quickly here.  Makes me wonder how many travelers are just being cautious, and how many are sniffling and really sick. 

Either way, I thought it prudent to take some masks with me to wear—just in case—on the 16 hour flight from Atlanta to South Africa.  But checking Amazon two weeks ago, I was not able to buy masks.  And nearby local pharmacies have been out since January.

Out already?  Really?  There are only a few known cases yet in this country.

Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.  Reports are that COVID-19 has caused face masks to become a scarce commodity across the globe. China reportedly makes over half the world’s medical face masks, and domestic demand there far exceeds supply. 

Panic buying has gobbled up what surplus there was here, it seems.  So much so that I heard an expert on the BBC opine yesterday that the shortage could shut down surgeries and routine medical procedures in clinics and hospitals everywhere.

All of which made me wonder if I even need to wear a mask on a plane, or if the masks are at all effective.  A Washington Post report says I shouldn’t fret as long I am not too close to someone spraying nasal droplets through sneezes.  More than two seats away is probably safe, as this WaPo graphic indicates:

Graphic by the Washington Post

Heck, the BBC says wearing a mask isn’t that effective against airborne viruses because the masks don’t shield the eyes and are not tight against the face, either.  Masks are probably pretty good at preventing hand-to-mouth transmission of germs, though.

Still, like Linus in Peanuts, I will feel better with a security blanket despite facts to the contrary.  My doctor provided me with a dozen high quality N95 face masks which give me comfort for the upcoming trip.

I just hope I don’t need them.