An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans
With an introduction by Nat Hentoff
Featuring the complete text of chapters 1 – 5 from Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It, a 1955 book by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff
(Published with the consent of Nat Hentoff)
1 2 3 4 5
Nat Hentoff’s Introduction
For every occasion – dances, funerals, parties, and parades
– there was a band and there were some mighty battles.
Among those featured in Chapter 2:
Johnny St. Cyr
New Orleans: Ragging Home, by Romare Bearden,
Flee as a Bird , by Louis Armstrong
As many bands as you heard, that’s how many bands you heard playing right.
I thought I was in Heaven playing second trumpet in the
Tuxedo Brass Band – and they had some funeral marches that would just
touch your heart, they were so beautiful.
| DANNY BARKER
My grandfather worked for Emile Labat, the Creole section’s most successful
burial establishment. Emile Labat owned two famous horses – the most
beautiful in New Orleans. They always pulled the hearse, which was driven
by a very old, dark, very solemn man who never smiled. His name was Joe Never
Smile. On occasions, if the widow of the deceased person was sincere in her
sorrow, the undertaker would suggest that the horses be draped with a beautiful
ace covering. If the deceased was grown, the covering was black. If a child,
white. The fee for that was fifteen or twenty dollars extra, and it gave
the funeral procession a very solemn look. In fact, the spectators felt extra
sad and would say, “They sure putting so-and-so away in fine style.”
Now getting back to Joe Never Smile and the two horses.
It was known throughout New Orleans and vicinity that these two horses cried
on certain occasions. That is if the deceased person were going upward and
not below. It was a mystery to everybody, and, on one of my trips to New
Orleans, I casually asked Grandfather what was the gimmick. He said Joe Never
Smile was a very slick character. Joe always kept a quart wine bottle full
of onion juice, and, in Joe’s spare moments, he would buy a sack of onions
and squeeze the juice in the bottle. Just before leaving for a funeral, he
would pour the juice on a cloth and wipe the horses’ eyes while no one was
Emile Labat would have raised hell as he was kind to
his animals and a humanitarian. . .
Danny Barker, c. 1954
Oh, Didn’t He Ramble, by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
A New Orleans marching brass band, 1950
| As this observer recalls, in the days before they
closed The District (which was 1917), the most exciting form of musical
entertainment (aggregation) was not the jazz bands but the brass bands. The
bass beat on the bass drum, beautifully executed by Black Benny, would suddenly
silence a crowd of some seven or eight thousand loud and boisterous
pleasure-seekers. All ears perked up for maybe a minute anxiously awaiting
the lead trumpet to blow the three double-eighth note, ta-ta, ta-ta,
ta-ta, signaling the band members who were scattered nearby, having wandered
among the crowd. Characters like Bunk Johnson, Buddy Petit, Kid Rena, Frankie
Duson, Chris Kelly, would be in the nearest barroom drinking – jiving
some sporting women and drinking to everybody’s health, ruining his own.
The bandmen who didn’t indulge would be coralled by groups of admirers and
answering questions on the merits and playing abilities of the stars.
It was the greatest thrill of a kid to hold and watch
a musician’s instrument whom he idolized. The most miserable feeling a youngster
in New Orleans can experience is to be in a classroom in school, studying,
and hear a brass band approaching, swinging like crazy, then pass the school,
and fade off in the distance. You will witness a lot of sad expressions in
that room. Now if it happens to be lunch hour, recess twelve to one, when
the bell rings at one P.M., a lot of seats will be vacant. That is in schools
in the barrel-house section. Now that’s an honest fact, as this observer
was guilty three or four times himself. The music would excite and move you
to such an extent that when you would realize it, you had “second-lined”
maybe ten or twenty blocks from school. . .
There were many funerals that had three or four bands
It was not rare to see funerals which had three or four
brass bands in the procession, because a member probably was active in eight
to twelve organizations – Masons, Odd Fellows, Tulane Club or Zulu Club,
the Vidalia, Veterans, Charity, and a few more.
It was more than likely his request to be buried as he
lived, among a crowd and lots of music. As in the case of Giles, the greatest
of them all, the Excelsior Brass Band’s bass drummer – and Black Benny.
Every musician in New Orleans offered their services.
On both occasions it was a sad sight to see their silent
bass drums draped in mourning, carried by a close friend behind the hearse.
The money earned (three or four dollars) for playing
a funeral was and is still called “fun money” and is usually quickly spent
for drinks after the musicians disband.
On the way to the graveyard, they all walked slowly, following the cornet
player. The cornet player was the boss. Sometimes it took them four hours
to get to the cemetery. All the way they just swayed to the music and moaned.
At the graveside they chanted questions, such as “Did he ramble?” “Did he
gamble?” or “Did he lead a good life until the police shot him down on St.
James Street?” Then after the body was buried, they’d go back to town and
all the way they’d swing. They just pulled the instruments apart. They played
the hottest music in the world.
| NAT TOWLES
Yeah, that’s just the way it was in those days. You’d march to the graveyard
playing very solemn and very slow, then on the way back all hell would break
loose! No music, you understand, we didn’t know what a sheet of music was.
Just six or seven pieces, half a dozen men pounding it out all together,
each in his own way and yet somehow fitting in all right with the others.
It had to be right, and it was, because it came from the right place.
Oh, the brass bands might have had more men, two clarinets
maybe, or two cornets. Bolden used Bunk on second, but I never heard that
outfit. Oliver called Louis north to Chicago, but that was an exception.
Usually there were six musicians in a band: a clarinetist, trombonist, banjo
player, drummer, bassman, and trumpeter, who was almost always the leader.
Once in a while a pianist might be added, but never a saxman! One of the
Hall boys, not Edmond and not Robert, tried to make a go of the saxophone.
He didn’t get many jobs.
And during Mardi Gras – man! That’s when we really had fun. All day
and night bands marched up and down the streets playing their heads off.
We played sometimes for a local colored fraternity and marched in front of
The whites had an idea of a real king – he came
in on Canal Street. The colored people had the King of the Zulus and he came
in on Basin Street – dressed in funny feathers and straw – boy,
that was soemething.
Mardi Gras procession on Canal Street, 1900
Louis Armstrong (left) as King Zulu, 1949
When the Saints Go Marching In, by Kid Ory
State Library of Louisiana
Dock workers, c. 1920’s
Station Calls , by Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra
© Louisiana State Museum
George McCullum, Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Band, 1909
Weary Blues , by Bunk Johnson
There were so many bands in New Orleans. But most of the musicians had day
jobs, you know – trades. They were bricklayers and carpenters and cigar
makers and plasterers. Some had little businesses of their own – coal
and wood and vegetable stores. Some worked on the cotton exchange and some
were porters. They had to work at other trades ’cause there were so
many musicians, so many bands. It was just about the most musical town in
the country. Most all the kids took music lessons of some kind, and I got
my inspiration from my uncle, Willie Bontemps, who played bass and guitar
in Jack Carey’s band. I played my first jobs with Steve Lewis – house
parties and such.
We played for society kids on Saturday afternoons –
that was with Papa Celestin and the Tuxedo Band. We also played at the New
Orleans Country Club and the Louisiana Restaurant, which was a fine, high-class
Being a musician was not usually a full-time job in New Orleans. The musician
had trades and professions. They were skilled craftsmen – master
bricklayers, plasterers, roofers, excellent carpenters, cigar makers, pavers,
et cetera. For example, there’d be a whole family, all of whom were slaters.
And another, all of whom were plasterers. They would become apprenticed to
their grandfathers and learn the family craft.
Some of the families were half-French and half-African.
And numerous families were cigar makers, which shows the Spanish influence.
So, if you were a musician, you had a regular trade,
and on weekends, or on some nights, you played music.
I was born in the year 1879. My father was a cigar maker and my mother was
As a boy, the first jazz I heard was a jazz band at the
corner of St. Phillips and Claiborne. It was called the Excelsior Band. The
only musician I remember from that band was Fice Quiyrit, the trumpet player.
It was a long time ago.
Was it ragtime? No, no, it was nothing but marches they
was playing – brass marches – parade music. I think the first ragtime
jazz band I ever heard was Boo Boo Fortunea. He was the only man at that
time who played the slide trombone. It was approximately – well, before
1900. I was still fifteen or sixteen years old then.
He played the trombone and he was a barber at that time.
He was living right around the corner from where I lived and he heard me
practicing my instrument and he came up to my house and knocked on the door.
My mother went to the door and she asked him what he wanted. He said, “I
would like to see that young man who is playing that instrument.” So she
said, “That’s my son.” He said, “Will you call him to the door?” And I went
to the door and he says to me, “Were you the one that was playing the clarinet?”
I says, “Yes.” He says, “Well, I’d like for you to come to my shop around
the corner because I want to talk to you.”
So I went to the shop and we had a talk and he said to
me, “Will you come here tonight and I would like to have you play with me
in my band.” I told him, “Of course, Okay.” He told me to be there at eight.
It was the first time that I ever played with a band. I was sixteen.
I had been taking lessons before that. I took lessons
for about eighteen months. My teacher’s name was Mr. Morand. He was a Creole.
Now let me finish telling you about the band. So I was
invited down to the rehearsal that night and I went to the place and I said
to him, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Do you want me to play my
instrument? Is there any music?” He said, “Music? You don’t need none.” I
said, “How am I going to play?” He said, “You’re going to come in on the
choruses.” I said, “All right,” and then I tuned up; we all tuned up our
instruments. He said that when I couldn’t come in, to stay out and listen
until I could come in. I did just what he told me and we got into it, and
through with it, and the whole band shook my hand and told me I was great.
That was on a Thursday night, the rehearsal, and on the
Saturday night following they had an engagement to play a ball (at that time
the dances were called balls) on Liberty Street. So I went there and I got
there at about eight. The hall was jam-packed. I was not really satisfied
about their not having any music but I thought I would try anyway. I went
and took a few drinks and the first thing you know I was playing more than
Every number we played the people just clapped their
hands. We had to play them two or three times and that’s the way I started
with a band.
That particular style of playing without music was very
new to me. I think it was impossible to me! It seemed a sort of style of
playing without notes.
I remember when we got a new piece of music we would
get the music and play the tunes with the music, then, after that we didn’t
need that music no more. We’d go “out of the way” with it. That was ragtime.
JOHNNY ST. CYR
A jazz musician have to be a working class of man, out
in the open all the time, healthy and strong. That’s what’s wrong today;
these new guys haven’t got the force. They don’t like to play all
night; they don’t think they can play unless they’re loaded. But a
working man have the power to play hot, whiskey or no whiskey. You
see, the average working man is very musical. Playing music for him is just
relaxing. He gets as much kick out of playing as other folks get out of dancing.
The more enthusiastic his audience is, why, the more spirit the working man’s
got to play. And with your natural feelings that way, you never make the
same thing twice. Every time you play a tune, new ideas come to mind and
you slip that on in.
photo W.H. Leeson
Odd Fellows Hall
Nearer My God to Thee , by Baby Dodds
Maryland, My Maryland , by Kid Ory
| DANNY BARKER
There was a variety of prices. In my day, you’d get about three dollars for
a parade or funeral. It was according to the hours. If the parade lasted
from nine A.M. to six P.M. – an all-day parade – you’d probably
get eight or nine dollars.
Everything in New Orleans was competitive. People would
always be betting on who was the best and greatest in everything. That’s
where the battles of music came in.
Lots of the bands couldn’t read too much music. So they used a fiddle to
play the lead – a fiddle player could read – and that was to give
them some protection. The banjo then was strictly a rhythm instrument. Buddy
Bolden would say, “Simmer down, let me hear the sound of them feet.” The
New Orleans bands, you see, didn’t play with a flat sound. They’d shade the
music. After the band had played with the two or three horns blowing, they’d
let the rhythm have it. That’s what Buddy Bolden meant when he said that.
The rhythm then often would play that mixture of African and Spanish syncopation
– with a beat – and with just the rhythm going. They’d let the
people use their imagination for the other sounds.
The marching brass bands used more instruments than the
dance bands. And those brass bands could play legitimate marches, the same
marches the Army Band of the United States would play for the President if
he died. They could play beautiful hymns and marches, like Nearer My God
to Thee and Maryland, My Maryland. But when they came back from
the funeral – and the band, by the way, never went into the cemetery
when the band played for a funeral – well, on the way back, they’d put
their music in their pockets and everybody started wailing.
I remember the Onward Brass Band had to play the marches for the Masonics
or the Odd Fellows. They hired on band during the day – a big military
band – that would play all the marches and that would introduce each
dignitary of the organization with military music. But the band was sitting.
And between those introductions and the marching and the drilling, they would
play some dance music, so they would swing.
They played the shuffle beat on the snare drum and mostly
two beats on the bass drums. At first, in the bands, the snare drums and
the bass drums were played by different men like in the marching bands. But
there was one particular guy in New Orleans who put the two drums together
and played both himself, and that’s where the foot pedal was invented.
As for why New Orleans was such a musical city and had so many bands, I think
one reason had to do with the clubs. There were a lot of private clubs,
organizations, in New Orleans. Two or three guys would get together, you
know, and make up the club and it would grow. So, when a member of the club
died, they would hire a band for his funeral, and if the club had some part
in a parade, they would have a band for that too. All the clubs tried to
outdo each other. Like I remember what used to happen when different clubs
would go to their camps out on the water by the lake front. There would be
one band playing at the camp of one and another band at the camp of another,
and each band would try to outplay each other. You could hear music real
well over the water, you know.
One thing about funerals, by the way, that isn’t made
clear in some of the stories. The bands themselves never went into the
cemeteries. . .
You could always make a living in New Orleans just playing
gigs like that – funerals, lawn parties, parades, et cetera. Buddy Petit,
for example, never did take a steady job. He didn’t have to, and that’s true
of a lot of men who are good musicians, and who, by the way, have never been
written about. Now, Buddy Pedit used to carry a book with him listing the
dates he had in advance. He was his own contractor. Buddy could tell you
one year from the day he spoke to you where you were playing if he had a
job for you – he was booked that far in advance; and Buddy always got
a deposit on a job in advance. Even if the job was a year away. What finally
killed Buddy’s reputation as a contractor was that he often had two or three
jobs a night. He couldn’t play each one so he’d have other bands out and
the people who hired him never knew whether his band was the one that was
going to be there or not.
Louis Armstrong and Buddy played a lot of funerals together,
by the way. Buddy is a man they’ve never written much about. He kind of what
you call set a pace around New Orleans. He was a real leader and he set the
pace for a lot of the other bands. I mean these other bands would hear Buddy
play something and they would all want to play it. So far as I know he only
left New Orleans once to go out to California with Jelly Roll Morton –
to Los Angeles. I don’t know what happened but he didn’t stay out there.
If Buddy had left New Orleans to go to Chicago when a lot of the other men
left, I’m positive he would have had a reputation equal to what the others
got. . .
Buddie Petit Jazz Band
Jelly Roll Morton talks about Funeral Marches
High Society by Edmond Hall
| In the very early days of brass bands, in the ‘nineties
and even before, the music was mostly written – I mean in the kind of
band my father played in. As time went on, there was more improvising.
I started on guitar, not clarinet, in 1917, when I was
seventeen. My father was a musician. His name was Edward Hall. As a matter
of fact, he was a member of the Onward Brass Band that came to New York from
New Orleans in 1891. Some booking agent brought the band to New York that
year. I’m not sure though what the occasion was. I remember my father telling
me they were in New York eighteen days. The last member of the band who was
living, by the way, died a few months ago. He was the tuba player and he
was about eighty-three years old when he died.
The band came all the way from New Orleans just for that
New York event. As I remember the story, every state sent a band. It was
a kind of festival, and that New Orleans band my father was in won first
prize. . .
In the brass band, on my own instrument they used to
have four different clarinets: an E-flat clarinet, a C clarinet, an A clarinet,
and a B-flat clarinet. – and a musician had to know all four. The reason
for that was when there was something to play in the key of E-flat we would
pick up the E-flat clarinet, and the same thing when there was something
in the key of A, et cetera. That shows you how much music advances. Today
you can take one clarinet and play everything on it. But the fact is that
when we had to know all four the standards of musicianship in the brass bands
was pretty high. . .
There were five of us in my family, and when we got to
a certain age my father would pass out clarinets. The first four of us each
got a different kind of clarinet; the fifth was too young but he picked it
up later. He is Herbert Hall, who has the band at the Cinderella Club in
Greenwich Village now. . .
High Society was one of the testing pieces for
a clarinet player who wanted to play in a band in New Orleans. The Picou
chorus was the accepted one. It was first a piccolo solo in a brass band
but Picou was actually the first to play it on the clarinet. Anyway, that’s
the story I heard. Of course, everybody played their own way on the chorus.
Nobody played it note for note. Each man used different ideas, like I remember
Barney Bigard’s way of playing it. But the Picou chorus was the basic one,
the first four bars especially.
I composed so many tunes. How did I happen to play High Society, the
famous chorus? Well, I was seventeen at the time. I was playing at that time
with John Robichaux, and before that I was playing with the Manuel Perez
band, and he used to get all that old-time music – what they’re asking
for right now.
He bought that High Society for me. It was a march
tune. We were at Mahogany Hall then. I took the piccolo part and transposed
it to my instrument. It made a wonderful hit. So the next night we had to
play at another hall where they had all the Creole meetings. At that time
they didn’t allow a dark man to come in. If you were dark you had to stay
out. I was there, and Manuel Perez liked the way I played High Society
and he says, “Come on in” – when a crowd was there – “Come
on and play High Society,” and they let me play that solo by myself.
I made a wonderful hit – Lord! They played High Society all night.
I played parades with Manuel Perez and the Onward Brass
Band, also with Joe Oliver and Kid Rena. I played funerals too.
| KID ORY
I had a brass band too. When I got a job I’d supply any number of men they
wanted. If I didn’t have them, I could pick them up. I had a sign on my house,
“ORCHESTRA AND BRASS BAND.” You couldn’t miss it. At that time they used
to advertise dances and picnics by hiring a wagon with a big sign on the
side with the band playing in the wagon. I decided I’d try a new idea and
advertise my band that way. I rented a furniture wagon and told a fellow
to make signs. “KID ORY,” with address and telephone number. After that I
began to get lots of calls for jobs and got real well known. . . .
They used to have “cutting contests” every time you’d
get on the streets. Freddie Keppard’s band whipped us good because he was
a stronger trumpet player than we had at first. Then we started whipping
everybody. The public was on my side. When the other band was finished, they’d
tie the wagons together. The crowd tied them to keep them from running away
I used to say, “I’ll let you go when I think you should
go.” Mutt Carey’s brother played trombone. I liked him but he didn’t like
me. He was kind of jealous because Mutt came to play with me. I gave him
a spanking in a contest. He stopped me afterward on the corner and said,
“He can beat me playing trombone, but he can’t whip me!” I threw my arms
around him and said, “I just love you, Jack.” He turned out to be a preacher
before he passed.
photo by George Fletcher
Mutt’s Blues , by Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz Band
A Carnival Group advertising the National Biscuit Company
Cornelius Durkee Photograph Collection
Milk Cart, 1901
We used to come to work or go on parades in big horse-drawn trucks, and when
two trucks met, there would be a “cutting contest.” One day we caught Buddy
(Petit) drunk, and our band really wore them out. The following Sunday we
drove up and we saw Buddy sitting there with his head hanging down and his
hands flopping, so we got set to go after them again. And then somebody sneaked
around and chained the wheel of our truck to theirs so we couldn’t get away,
and Buddy jumped to his feet, and that day they really wore us out!
Down the street, in an old sideboard wagon, would come the jazz band from
one ballroom. And up the street, in another sideboard wagon, would come the
band from another ballroom, which had announced a dance for the same night
at the same price. And those musicians played for all their worth, because
the band that pleased the crowd more would be the one the whole crowd would
go to hear, and dance to, at its ballroom later that night.
At the back of the wagon were the trombone players, because
the only way they could handle their slides was over the end of the wagon.
And that’s how they got the name “tailgate” trombonists. They all played
a Dixieland “vamp” style, because there weren’t any room in the wagon for
Bands in those days fighting all the time. One band get a job in the Love
and Charity Hall, another band move right over there and play better through
the windows. During Mardi Gras and parades, bands got taken around in wagons,
and they’d back them, tailgate to tailgate, and play each other down.
If you couldn’t blow a man down with your horn, at least you could use it
to him alongside the head.
An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans
1 2 3 4 5
Nat Hentoff’s Introduction