11 February 2016

Traditional Jazz History: Luthjens Dance Hall

I have long been vaguely aware that there once was a 'Luthjens Dance Hall' somewhere in New Orleans and that our mid-Twentieth Century traditional jazz heroes played there. But it was not until The Shotgun Jazz Band announced that they had recorded their 2014 CD entitled 'Yearning' at Luthjens that my curiosity was further aroused. (The CD, by the way, presents the music with a wonderfully clear 'empty hall' acoustic.)

I have set out to discover what I can about Luthjens and I learned, for example, that there had been an earlier Luthjens Dance Hall at a different location.

But I have not been able to discover any more than I am about to tell you; so if any reader can put me right on a point or two or send me more information, I would be glad to hear from you.

Here's the story.

There has always been a great fondness for dancing in New Orleans, so it is not surprising that many dance halls sprang up. Obviously they gave plentiful employment to musicians.

Having a good night out was not too expensive. The halls themselves would be sparsely furnished. There were bare wooden tables and simple chairs or benches.

Luthjens Dance Hall was situated in the 1200 block of Franklin Avenue (I think at the junction with Marais Street).
The original Luthjens Dance Hall
The location, among quiet tree-lined streets, was pleasant. It was about a mile north-east of the French Quarter.

How did the Hall get its name? It was established by Mrs. Clementine Luthjens, who was born in New Orleans in 1880. (Probably there was some German ancestry - at least on her husband's side: there had been plenty of migration of German people with the surname 'Luthjens' (or, more commonly 'Lutjens' without the 'h', I guess becoming 'Luthjens' in the USA).

She bought the humble, unpretentious building (previously a seafood restaurant) and set it up as a 'beer parlor and dance hall'. Steadfastly, she employed only the authentic old-style black jazzmen. She wanted the establishment to be family-friendly: she liked couples to bring the children. (However, it later acquired the nickname 'The Old Folks' Home': its patrons tended to be elderly white people.)

Informal dress was encouraged. Prices charged for drinks were reasonable. So it was the most economical venue in New Orleans if you wanted to hear the 'good 'ol'-fashioned' jazz; and tourists often sought it out. Dancing took place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On the other nights of the week, Luthjens was merely a kind of bistro, complete with a juke-box.

Many of the legendary musicians of the mid-Twentieth Century played there. Emile Barnes is believed to have led the first band. Later came such players as Big Eye Louis Nelson, George Lewis, Joseph Bourgeau, Alton Purnell, 'Slow Drag' Pavageau, Lawrence Marrero, Harrison Brazlee, Louis Gallaud, George Henderson, Alcide Landry, Ernest Rogers, Benny Turner, Peter Bocage, and Charlie Love; and in the final years the virtual 'house band' was that of De De and Billie Pierce.

The patrons liked the more stately forms of dancing and disapproved of 'jitterbugging'! The two-step, the one-step and the waltz were mostly in demand.
As you can see, it was quite a small building. So I imagine that - if you had a band and about 60 dancers in there - it would have felt crowded. The band was 'protected' from collisions with dancers by being placed at one end of the hall on a small bandstand two feet off the floor, (as at The Dew Drop Hall).

Sadly, the Luthjens Dance Hall in that photo burnt down in the early hours of Saturday, 30 January, 1960, with the loss of the lives of both Mrs. Clementine Luthjens (then aged 81) and her son Jules (aged 50), who were living in the back apartment of the premises. By that time, Mrs. Luthjens was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I wonder whether her son died while trying to save her: we shall never know. Perhaps it is not surprising that a fire - even in a one-storey building - could have had such dreadful consequences: it seems to have been a flimsy wooden structure, covered by tar-paper. Perhaps a smouldering cigarette end, left by a customer, caused the fire. Apparently smoking 'while dancing' was forbidden, but I suppose there was plenty of smoking by customers relaxing at tables.

Clementine's nephew Jerome Luthjens in 1961 opened a new Luthjens at 2300 Chartres (at the corner of Chartres and Marigny Streets - less than a mile from the original building). This was a more substantial brick-built hall, again of one storey, though with a flat roof. It was about half a mile nearer to the Mississippi, or - to put it another way - a mere 250 metres east of the present-day Frenchmen Street jazz bars, such as The Spotted Cat, The Three Muses, and The Maison. It too was in a pleasant, leafy area, among pretty houses - many of them of the 'Shotgun' type.

Jerome Luthjens ran this dance hall until his death in 1975. It continued in business under the management of his widow Louise until 1981, when it finally closed. With the help of Google Maps, I have located the building as it appears today:
In more recent times, bands have not been giving public performances at Luthjens. The reasons may be partly that the area has been re-classified as a 'residential zone' and partly that Luthjens no longer has a liquor licence and mainly that about one-third of the building is now occupied by a recording studio. Here's how it looks inside:
This was where, in 2014, The Shotgun Jazz Band made their CD. They chose not to use the main studio's facilities or equipment. They just set up on the stage as if at a regular gig and used a combination of room microphones and and close microphones.

The resulting product was excellent and nostalgic. Amy Johnson filmed them in the Hall while they were recording one of the tunes. You can watch the video by clicking here. Although there is no audience present, it gives us an idea of what it was like to play there, especially as this band has so much in common with the De De Pierce Band of half a century earlier.

By the way, the name is sometimes given as Luthjen's Dance Hall; but this is the result of a punctuation error. Mrs. Luthjens' name definitely ended with the 's'. It should be written Luthjens' Dance Hall or Luthjens Dance Hall.

[with thanks to several readers, including John Dixon, who have already sent me helpful information]

10 February 2016

An English Traditional Jazz Story: 'The Secret Jazz Band'

The Secret Jazz Band was formed in June 2014. The percussionist Alan Cole had been invited to provide a six-piece traditional jazz band for a once-a-month Thursday lunchtime session at The Dog and Gun public house in Syston, Leicester. He agreed to do this - and then set about forming a band.
Alan Cole at The Dog and Gun
Alan gave the band the working title of 'The Secret Jazz Band' (secret because he did not know who the musicians would be) – and the name has stuck.

Alan did not have much difficulty in finding players who said they would be happy to spend a Thursday lunchtime, at least occasionally, taking part in a relaxed jam session. They knew it would provide a good opportunity to have fun and keep in practice.

Since then, The Secret Jazz Band has played every month at The Dog and Gun. The pub belongs to the 'Steamin' Billy' chain, whose management team are keen supporters of live music.
It is a pub that looks after its customers well, with a cosy log fire:
And if offers a good lunch:
With such a pool of musicians, the fans never know who will be in the band.
Pete Crebbin often turns up and plays trombone.
The Secret Jazz Band plays at The Dog and Gun from 12.30pm until 2.30pm on the first Thursday of every month.
The band does not get together to rehearse, so it wisely sticks to familiar, uncomplicated numbers – tunes such as Make Me A Pallet on the Floor, Running Wild, Alexander's Ragtime BandWhen You're Smiling, The Girls Go Crazy, Hindustan, Careless Love. The Band also welcomes sitters-in.
The audience grew over the months and - by the time of the performance on 7 January 2016 - numbered 45, so the bar was crowded. If you should be interested in hearing a brief sample of the music being played, click on here.

The latest development is that band manager Alan has had some business cards printed. He is becoming ambitious enough to hope The Secret Jazz Band may attract bookings beyond the confines of The Dog and Gun!

You could say the secret is out.

7 February 2016

From Calypsos to Traditional Jazz

Hey, what's this?

Hold Your Hand Madam Khan, Buy Me a Zeppelin, History of Man, Roses of Caracas, Juliana - how is it that such tunes have entered the repertoire of the young street bands in New Orleans?

It seems that someone on the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans has been deeply affected since early 2015 by Trinidadian calypsos from the 1930s.

The history of the calypso over the last 250 years is very complex. Many influences went into its creation, and in its turn it has  spawned music in various sub-genres. If you want to study the history of calypsos in depth, there is plenty to get you started in Wikipedia. But if you are happy with a few over-simple essentials I can offer you some observations.

The origins of Afro-Caribbean calypsos can be found in the music sung by the slaves of French planters in the Eighteenth Century, especially in Trinidad.

The early music had characteristic rhythms and harmonies.

The language of the lyrics moved over the years from a form of French creole to a greater intermingling of English.

The words were frequently subversive - expressing political satire.

In 1912, on a visit to New York, Lovey's String Band (twelve musicians, including piano, bass, flute, violins, etc. - quite an 'orchestra') made the first recording of a calypso - five years before the first jazz recording! You can hear their performance by clicking here.  The Lovey String Band and the pianist-composer Lionel Belasco were important names in the recording of the music over the next few years. To my ear, those early recordings seem to use one or two simple repetitive smooth melodic themes, played (for example on violin or clarinet) against a busy rhythmic - almost ragtime - background.
Lovey's String Band
Try sampling another very early calypso recording - this one a piano-and-violin duet (Lionel Belasco and Cyril Monrose) - by clicking here.

Calypsos flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, when the genre became firmly established. Their subject-matter was wide-ranging, but continued to contain much critical comment on politics and society, sometimes under the guise of double entendre. Entrepreneurial talent scouts fitted some of the best performers up with impressive stage names and sent them from the West Indies to record and find fame in New York. Principal among them were Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon), Attila the Hun (Raymond Quevedo), Lord Invader (Rupert Westmore Grant - who composed Rum and Coca-Cola), Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) and Wilmoth 'King' Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks).
Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender)
Words were often witty and delivered in rapid-fire style (sometimes extemporised), and there were internal rhymes. You can hear Raymond Quevedo and his band performing Coffee Coffee by clicking here. It is hard to imagine anybody not enjoying this!

Note how, in structure, this calypso has much in common with the New Orleans 'Creole' standards Eh La Bas and L'Autre Can Can (a.k.a. Creole Song). But this is unsurprising: they are derived from similar African roots.

From the 1950s, 'toned-down', commercialised calypsos were very much in vogue. For example, there was The Banana Boat Song, made famous by Harry Belafonte. There were several films exploiting the craze - notably Island in the Sun. The use of steel drums became commonplace. (Ironically, the steel drums have generally been manufactured in European countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland.)

There have been hundreds of calypsos recorded and dozens of distinguished performers - far more than my brief survey implies.

But, as the repertoire of the Trinidadian band Codallo's Top Hatters Orchestra has been revived in New Orleans, it is worth mentioning that band in particular. In the 1930s they recorded History of Man and Hold Your Hand Madam Khan. And it was Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) who wrote Exploiter (a.k.a. Buy Me a Zeppelin).

Traditional jazz bands have long enjoyed playing an occasional tune with a Latin rhythm - for variety. In the standard repertoire, there are Creole Song and Eh La Bas, Rum and Coca Cola and Mama Inez, for example; and the minor key section of St. Louis Blues and a few tunes such as Isle of Capri lend themselves to a Latin beat.

But we have recently seen on YouTube that the bands have revived long-forgotten 1930s calypso numbers. There was the Superband (with Madeleine Reidy on vocal) playing Hold Your Hand Madam KhanClick here to view. Great fun.

Possibly Madeleine is behind all this. In fact, one of the groups in which she plays is called Maddie and Her Calypso FriendsShe seems to make a speciality of calypsos and has also been seen, for example, singing Buy Me a Zeppelin - another great number. You can hear Maddie performing this calypso by clicking here. She has memorised the words of plenty of verses for these songs - no mean feat. 

The Lionel Belasco tunes Juliana and Roses of Caracas have been heard on the streets of New Orleans, played by Tuba Skinny. And The Rhythm Wizards included History of Man as one of the twelve tracks on their March 2015 CD. More recently we had Tuba Skinny (at the time sharing three players with The Rhythm Wizards) also playing History of Man in the street:

5 February 2016

'Postage Stomp' - New Tune for Your Traditional Jazz Band?

Does your band play Postage Stomp? If not, how about giving it a try? It's a bright, chirpy, conventional 32-bar number, easy to pick up and improvise on. It has a familiar chord pattern - very similar to that of Has Anybody Seen My Girl?

Maynard Baird's 'Orchestra' - an obscure but very slick outfit - was based in Knoxville, Tennessee; and in April 1930 Postage Stomp was one of two tunes they recorded for the Vocalion label. I have been unable to discover beyond doubt who composed Postage Stomp. One source gives 'Goebel and Johnston'. So it seems a very reasonable inference that they were Sam Goble and Vic Johnston - trumpet player and pianist respectively in Baird's band. You can enjoy the recording (complete with some visual entertainment) by clicking on here. Impressive performances are given by Buddy Thayer on banjo, Harold Taft on baritone saxophone, Horace Ogle on trombone and Ebb Grubb on sousaphone. But the whole performance is polished, using a well-crafted written arrangement that treats the 32-bar theme in a variety of ways. Maynard Baird (who appears to have been the conductor and leader) chose to pitch the tune rather high - in the key of F.
From a newsreel (with no sound track):
A tantalising glimpse of Maynard and some members of his Orchestra
My attention was drawn to this tune because Tuba Skinny seem to have added it recently to their repertoire. But they have opted for the key of Bb, which strikes me as more comfortable. Listen to their delightfully brisk performance by clicking here.

(With thanks to my friend Carsten Pigott for supplying some of the historical information. In his turn, Carsten asks me to give the 'real credit to the majestic work of the great Brian Rust, without whose meticulous research we would all still be flailing around in the dark in these matters'. Thanks also to RaoulDuke504 - maker of the Tuba Skinny video.)