Bill Russell’s Explorations Of The Origins Of Jazz
When The Outspoken Jazz Documentarian Died, Much History Died With Him. But He Left Behind Enough To Keep Historian Arguing For A Very Long Time.
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Jason Berry’s continuing series on the history of traditional jazz, to mark what is roughly the hundred-year anniversary of the emergence of jazz as an idiom. Berry’s work has appeared in many publications. He chronicled rhythm & blues and Mardi Gras Indians in Up From the Cradle of Jazz (co-authored by Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones). His fourth book, The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians, just published by University Press of Mississippi, explores New Orleans’ Spiritual churches.
When Bill Russell died at eighty-seven in 1992, a storehouse of jazz history went with him. For some three decades the bald gent with white curls around his ears eschewed the telephone, using Preservation Hall as his message center. He loved the musicians who played the seminal idiom; he lived a few blocks away in the Quarter amidst a massive collection of recordings, sheet music, interview documents, memorabilia and books.
When the Historic New Orleans Collection acquired Russell’s archives after his death, the story made page-one in the Times-Picayune.
Although he published comparatively little in his lifetime, Russell was more than an inspired collector. A classically trained violinist, he was a composer in that tradition, albeit shy of the limelight. He also performed as a jazz violinist, but searching for the music’s historical origins was the passion of his life. The chapters he wrote in the collection Jazzmen (1939) are key contributions to the history of the music.
In 1938, acting on a tip from Louis Armstrong, Russell and writer Frederic Ramsey, Jr. tracked down the trumpeter Bunk Johnson, whose style was widely held by other jazzmen to rival the sound of the great-and unrecorded — Buddy Bolden.
Bunk Johnson was living in New Iberia, in .bad need of dental work, with a booze problem to boot. Where most writers would have been content to get the interview, Russell made Bunk’s rehabilitation something of a crusade. He helped him get dentures and got him back on his feet, musically if not quite literally. By the early 1940s Bunk was riding a wave of national popularity amidst the revival of the classic New Orleans style. Russell himself recorded Johnson with the majestic clarinetist George Lewis and others in 1944 and 1945 at Lewis’ house on St. Philip Street.
Cuts from those sessions are on a CD that accompanies Bill Russell’s American Music, a book of Russell’s journals with intricate details on the recording sessions. Russell’s devotion to Johnson seems saintly. Bunk was an alcoholic who kept Russell busy keeping the old trumpeter out of trouble. Edited by Mike Hazeldine, the book is one of two by Russell published since his death by Jazzology Press, an imprint of George Buck’s Jazzology mail-order record enterprise at 1206 Decatur Street .
The other, and by far the more interesting, is New Orleans Style by Bill Russell, compiled and edited by Hazeldine and Barry Martyn, a longtime New Orleans drummer, writer and native of Great Britain. The editors’ care with the oral history profiles is admirable; they followed instructions that Russell left. Russell edited out his questions and arranged the book as autobiographical chapters. This may be the most important oral history of seminal jazz since Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro in the 1950s.
The seven main sections are broken down by instrument: drums, guitar & banjo, string bass, piano, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, with a coda on “Seating of New Orleans Bands.” Note the absence of saxophones. Russell wanted to understand the New Orleans jazz style that emerged in the 1890s and reached an international audience in the 1920s, before the swing era. Saxophones were not part of the early picture.
Russell was the first curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane in the 1950s. When he stepped down, Richard B. Allen took over, but the two men still worked closely. On tapes one hears Russell’s voice, sometimes loud and rather grating, bearing down as he questions the sources. Some scholars believe he asked leading questions; in some instances it seems a fair charge.
Exhibit A: Russell accepts Bunk Johnson’s account of playing in Bolden’s band in 1895, an assertion strongly disputed by Don Marquis’s In Search of- Buddy Bolden. Marquis claims that Bunk was off by ten years, and probably fabricated his ties to Bolden. Why did Russell leave the comment in?
“The guys in George Lewis’ band had real problems with Bunk,” says Marquis. “Bill didn’t want to think ill of Bunk. I did ask him specific questions about things that came up in jazzmen. They were working under a lot of time pressure and he took miscellaneous notes, never got a chance to double check …For someone to say [Russell] screwed up an interview – well, I hate to say it. But I think Bill was aware of his shortcomings. To be honest, I don’t think he ever thought anyone would dig into Bolden as deeply as I did. Other things in jazzmen have been proven wrong, though a lot of the book stands up well. Bunk’s one of my favorite musicians, I love the music, but when he throws off the history that has to concern me.”
Editor Barry Martyn, one of Russell’s closest friends, says: “Bill was never convinced that Don was right. ..He believed that Bunk spoke the gospel and was absolutely true. He pointed out time and time again that people like Bunk and Jelly Roll did speak the truth and people tried to debunk them, if you excuse the expression. I think they turned out to be often true. I thought he did invaluable work; he held his positions very strongly. Two people can examine same data and come out with different conclusions. I hate to take sides on that Bolden thing.”
But, he continues, “It’s pretty obvious to me Bunk took his horn and sat in with Bolden band. I don’t think he was a member of the band, but he claims he was. Bunk is a weird sort of character. Still, what was the purpose in 1938 of making all that up? He was hauling cane out in New Iberia when these people [Russell and Ramsey] wrote to him.”
1f Russell has stoked a Bolden controversy from the grave, the larger reach of the book is simply stunning. Listen to the words of the first profiled musician, the great drummer Baby Dodds: “I have the deepest study in mind — even a spirit study. I know that sounds very funny to some drummers to hear me say ‘spirit,’ but drumming is spirit. You have got to have that in your body, in your soul. And it can’t be an evil spirit. It’s go to be a good spirit, because music is no good if you’re evil.
“If you’re evil, you are going to drum evil, and when you drum evil you’re going to put evil in somebody else’s mind, and the first thing you know, that somebody’ll put the evil in somebody else’s mind. Well, what kind of a band have you got?”
Dodds’ reflections on the dynamics of ensemble play are a marvel of simplicity: “In drumming you’ve got to pay attention to each and every one. You must hear that person distinctly and hear what he goes for. You’ve got to give that beat to him. If he don’t like that, if he doesn’t get going, give him something else. In that way, you keep your band smooth, keep your band jumping and keep everybody lively.
“When each man has a solo, I give him a different beat. It may sound to someone that’s listening, even close by, like the same, but it’s not. It has a different sound to it.”
Russell’s portrait of Louis ‘Armstrong is comparatively short; however his reflections on the city in his youth convey’ a beauty of brass band artistry that seems sadly gone today: “The best brass band I ever heard was the Onward Brass Band with Joe Oliver and Emanuel Perez on cornets. Big tall Eddie Jackson booted the bass tuba. A band tuba in a brass band can make work hard for the musicians, but Eddie knew just how to play that tuba. On funerals, Black Benny would beat the bass drum with such a soft touch, and Bebe’ Matthews would put a handkerchief under his snare to deaden the tone. They would play ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ It didn’t matter who was being buried, when they had heard that music played so beautifully, everyone couldn’t help but cry. On the way back, they would strike up with something like “Didn’t He Ramble,’ and all the people would leave their worries behind. Particularly when Joe Oliver blew high register in the last choruses.”
Of the 24 musicians (all now deceased) profiled in New Orleans Style, only three are white. Unlike his contemporary, Al Rose, author of Storyville, I Remember jazz and Eubie Blake, Russell viewed the black artists as shapers of the idiom. Rose was not Eurocentric, although he often said, “Jazz is a product of a place and not a race.” Barry Martyn says that Russell and Rose enjoyed a long friendship despite clashing theories. “Bill knew as much about the early black bands as early white ones,” notes Martyn. “Whereas Al Rose’s knowledge of the early white bands is nothing like his knowledge of the early black bands.”
In various forms, the Russell-Rose dispute about origins of jazz is yet alive. The Afrocentric view beholds a continuous stream of great black music flowing from ancient Egypt through Africa into the New World, hitting high tide in New Orleans. “African is nothing like no New Orleans music,” insisted the inimitable Danny Barker at a 1982 symposium on Jelly Roll Morton at Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive. “New Orleans music came out of New Orleans — King Oliver, Buddy Bolden — out of the experience here. George Lewis, Bechet, and those people, [Alphonse] Picou, ‘High Society’ — all this music, King Oliver, Kid Punch, Buddy Petit, Kid Rena. They don’t know nothing about Africa. They have nothing to do with Africa. Just like oil come out of Oklahoma, jazz come out of New Orleans. This has nothing to do with Africa. You ain’t gonna sell me no Africa.”
One could object to the cultural idea that New Orleans jazz has “nothing to do with Africa,” but Barker, a musician, was defending New Orleans as the birthplace of a musical idiom reflecting unique cultural properties, with the colored Creoles as bridge-builders between African and European sensibilities.
In New Orleans Style, Johnny Wiggs, a white comet player who saw King Oliver’s band (pre-Armstrong) perform at Tulane’s gym about 1915 reflects on early jazz: “None of the white bands ever had a really good rhythm section.
This is most noticeable in the street bands. It has just a wonderful soft rhythmic pulse, a round legato feeling, yet it has enough punch and throb in it to drive the band. The bass drum does a few beats and he lets a big gap occur and the rhythm seems to rock right on.”
Wiggs continued: “A colored New Orleans rhythm section sounds like a great big basket of cotton, so soft and caressing, so liquid, yet it still can whip people into a frenzy. That’s the beat I’ve heard all my life and it’s the same beat that I heard from the Negro woman bendin’ over a washtub washing clothes, or the bottleman coming down the street. When you hear it, grab it. It makes you want to dance and get out your horn and play.”
The beat is still with us, second-lining through time, and thanks to Bill Russell’s industry, the birth of jazz becomes a clearer story, if still elusive, as the wheel of history turns.