In the little river town where I grew up, Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, nearly every family had an upright piano in the house.
I remember sitting on the living room floor, looking up at my mother as she played her teenage recital pieces, "Rustle of Spring" and "Traumerei." Sometimes I sat next to her on the bench. Sometimes I sat there alone, trying out tone clusters and looking for the secret.
When I was six, I started taking piano lessons from Mrs. Muriel Clauson. She was known to play not only from printed music, but also "by ear." I was her first student.
Because there was no local movie theater, somebody got the idea of showing movies at the village hall on Friday nights. There I saw a little black kid who played the most wonderful piano music I had ever heard. It was boogie boogie played by somebody with really small hands. (I learned years later that this must have been "Sugar Chile" Robinson, who is easy to find on the internet these days.
My mother showed me a simple boogie woogie bass that she and her teenage friends used to play. Later she bought me some sheet music in St. Paul, the big city that was 45 minutes away by train. One folio by the blues pianist Sammy Price was a boogie woogie instruction manual, but the printed bass patterns and exercises were over my head. I wished I could hear Sammy Price play.
Sometime in the 50s, my father started bringing home 45 rpm reissues of bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. On one of his Benny Goodman records, "Melancholy Baby" (November 18th, 1936), there was a terrific piano solo by Teddy Wilson. I soon started my own 45 collection with "Swanee River Boogie" (July 2nd, 1946) by the pianist Albert Ammons; it was an arrangement I immediately tried to copy.
I wanted be a trumpet player, but the teachers at Stillwater High School, doubtless over-supplied with brass volunteers, suggested the clarinet. This was all right with me, because I really liked those jazz clarinetists on my father's records, and so as a sixth grader at Marine Elementary I started clarinet lessons in September 1954. By December I could play "Silent Night" in the low register, and I got together with two of my fellow beginners — a cornetist and another clarinetist — to play in the school Christmas program. I had worked out a bluesy "good evening, friends" tag, but when my mother heard me practicing, she talked me out of it. I still wish I hadn't let her hear that!
There was a lot of jazz on TV during the '50s. I saw many of the greats -- Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie -- too many to list here. Above all for me, there was Louis Armstrong. He fascinated me as soon as I saw and heard him. There were variety shows with jazz guests, and occasional specials like the series sponsored by Timex. Louis Armstrong was on frequently; I have a crystalline memory of him standing in front of the Dorsey brothers' band, pointing his trumpet at the ceiling, with his eyes closed.
When I was about 14, my record collection reflected two distinct musical adolescences — my own and my father's. I was buying not only Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Harry James, but also Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. I knew as much about Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa as I did about Jerry Lee Lewis and The Platters. I had Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started With You" burned into my synapses right alongside Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula."
In the spring of 1956, I entered the junior high school talent show. There were two performances, the first a kind of dress rehearsal for the students, the second the evening performance for parents. I was terrified of both audiences, of course; in fact, no stage fright since then has come close. I played a boogie woogie arrangement of "Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley and the Comets. The students went crazy, much to my amazement. I think my career started right there.
I was strongly affected by the 1955 film "The Benny Goodman Story," which I saw five times. Teddy Wilson himself was in it, along with Harry James, Gene Krupa, and the great New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory. The plot didn't bear much resemblance to the facts of Goodman's life, but I didn't know that; what thrilled me was the music.
By now I was collecting 12-inch LPs, and had a multi-speed "high fidelity" record player. I bought everything I could find by Louis Armstrong, including his wonderful tribute LPs to W.C. Handy and Fats Waller, reissues of his Hot Fives and Sevens from the '20s, and even an album of his earliest work, the 1923 acoustic recordings with King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band.
I was also reading Down Beat magazine in the high school band room (George Regis, the director, was a jazz trombonist), and I often bought records by musicians I had read about, but never heard. I joined the Jazztone Society, a mail-order record club, and ordered LPs by the great trombonist Jack Teagarden, New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin, and trumpeter Wild Bill Davison. They sent me a jazz piano sampler with tracks by Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, and a single track by Jelly Roll Morton — "Tank Town Bump," recorded July 12th, 1929.
In 1956, my father and I attended a concert by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars at Northrup Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. Edmond Hall, the clarinetist, played "Stardust," and a woman seated near us whispered the word "Beautiful." After the concert, I went backstage and waited in a long line to meet Armstrong and to have my program signed. He was wearing a white towel like a turban, and he smiled.
In the summer of 1959, I sat in on clarinet with an amateur dixieland band, the Amatooters, who were playing a benefit dance at the village hall in my home town. On the strength of my performance, I was invited to jam sessions at the home of Henry Rhame, their leader. One musician on the band's somewhat flexible roster was Dr. Henry Blackburn, who played soprano saxophone and who would shortly play a key role in my early career.
By this time, I was a bandleader of sorts, with a quartet of high school friends we called "Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves." I ran an ad in the local paper, but the band got no work, so our public playing was limited to school dances, where we had to keep it short so the dancers could get back to their top forty records.
During the summer of 1961, Dr. Blackburn (whom I still saw at those Amatooters jam sessions) invited me to sit in with his quartet at George Conroy's, a St Paul night club. The association continued into the fall, after I had registered as a freshman music major at the University of Minnesota. I attended a few Blackburn rehearsals, and along the way somewhere I borrowed the initiation fee from my parents and joined the Minneapolis local of the American Federation of Musicians.
With a few dormitory friends, I was invited that fall to play for an intermission "Twist" contest at a student union dance. The featured band that evening was the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, a group Dr. Blackburn had described to me as "dedicated." They played a lot of ensemble, he said, which was the -authentic way to play New Orleans jazz; it was called "chorus building."
In June 1962, about eight weeks after joining the band, I made my first trek to New Orleans, a 23-hour trip in DeVore's '57 Chevrolet. We rolled into the French Quarter in the early evening, checked into the Tom Sawyer House on Bourbon Street, and walked to Preservation Hall. The musicians were set up and waiting to play. I followed Charlie inside, and he introduced me to trombonist Jim Robinson. Minutes later, they hit the first number, and my education took a giant leap forward. During that first visit, I met dozens of musicians, most of them born near the turn of the 20th century. Clarinetist George Lewis became my idol, and I tried for years to play exactly like him.
These New Orleans musicians were playing jazz, but it was like no other jazz I had heard. It was music for the sheer joy of it, meant to bring people together. Later, I read this quote by Jim Robinson: "I like to see people happy. If everybody is in a frisky spirit, I can make my trombone sing. If my music makes people happy, I will try to do more. I always want people around me. It gives me a warm heart and that gets into my music."
The timing was perfect. At 18, 1 was ripe for some kind of revelation. I knew I wanted to play jazz, but wasn't sure which style to pursue. Some friends had criticized me for joining a revivalist band, and there were long dormitory discussions about what it meant to be a creative musician. The New Orleans experience wiped all of this out. The power of the music, heard firsthand, was irresistible.
I became a New Orleans habitue. Less than six weeks after that first visit in '62, I was back. In December, I was there again with my college roommate, Mike Polad, who played piano and saxophone, had recently taken up the banjo, and was equally smitten with the music. Over the next few years, I lost no opportunity to hear the music firsthand, and had a chance to sit in frequently.
On New Year's Eve, 1965 — following an afternoon recording session with trumpeter "Kid" Thomas Valentine — Mike and I, then in our early 20s, played our first paid engagement at Preservation Hall.
DeVore's indoctrination, coupled with the New Orleans experience, had been extremely effective. Besides the weekly band rehearsals, I spent hours listening to records. I often camped out in the DeVore attic, the record player next to my bunk. It was like jazz boot camp. It didn't take long for me to zero in on the wonderfully exotic piano playing of Jelly Roll Morton, and I went to work almost immediately trying to learn his style, using his earliest solos from 1923 and '24 as models.
Following my military discharge, I came back to Minnesota and to the Hall Brothers. While I was gone, the band and a group of other investors had opened the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, a suburb of St. Paul. During the '60s, the club often imported New Orleans guests, earning much favorable publicity and doing SRO business. Over its 25-year life (it was officially closed in 1991), the Emporium was a traditional jazz Mecca, and I played there alongside most of the top names in the business. To name just a few: pianists Eubie Blake, Max Morath, and "Little Brother" Montgomery; trumpeters Percy Humphrey, "Kid" Thomas Valentine, Ruby Braff, and Wild Bill Davison; and clarinetists George Lewis, Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern Willie Humphrey, and Herb Hall.
After leaving college, I found a job as a part time sports writer for Sun Newspapers, a chain of suburban Minneapolis weeklies. My initial duties included tabulation of league bowling scores, head shot photography of hockey players, and (in a move to the general news side) collection of police reports. A series of promotions (without benefit of raises in pay) eventually led to an editing position, which meant that I had to write, edit, layout, and paste up one of the papers.
By late 1972, newspapering was wearing thin, and was actually interfering with my music career. I was still working with the Hall Brothers, but couldn't always make the weekly rehearsal. Even worse, I was turning down some paid jobs with other people. It was time to make a decision.
I gave up journalism and joined the faculty of the West Bank School of Music in Minneapolis, where I taught ragtime piano and jazz history. I stayed with the school through most of the 70s, and served as an assistant director for awhile. From 1979 to 1981, I also taught at Metropolitan Community College in Minneapolis.
As my performance schedule heated up during the 70s, I had less time for teaching, and I was cutting back my student load considerably. I had a moderately full schedule of gigs - wedding receptions, shopping mail promotions, weekends at the Emporium - and was doing some traveling. I was a regular at some U.S. festivals, including the St Louis Ragtime Festival and New Orleans Jazzfest. I was also making my first tours abroad, working in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, England, and even Australia. On my first European tour in 1974, I traveled in Sweden with the New Orleans Joymakers, a band of New Orleans veterans led by my friend, clarinetist Orange Kellin. One European sojourn in 1976 kept getting extended; it started with a three week tour with New Orleans trumpeter "Kid Sheik" Colar, during which I was offered some later work in Belgium, which led somehow to two weeks in Oslo, then three weeks with the English trumpeter Ken Colyer in Holland, etc. etc.
My favorite Prairie Home Companion guest was clarinetist Willie Humphrey, whom I had known since my earliest New Orleans visits. By this time he was widely traveled, a mainstay of the Preservation Hall Band, who played in places like Wolf Trap and Carnegie Hall. Willie knew how to work an audience wherever he went, and as usual when I played with New Orleans musicians, he made me feel like I was floating on a cloud.
I managed to fit some traveling in during breaks from the radio show. To commemorate the 100th birthday of New Orleans cornetist Joe "King" Oliver in 1985, Charlie DeVore and I put together the eight-piece King Oliver Centennial Band to play the Festival of New Orleans Music in Ascona, Switzerland. I was also in a band led by veteran trombonist Louis Nelson, another old New Orleans friend, for several tours in Europe and Japan.
In 1987, I worked my first symphony pops concert with the Fairbanks Symphony. The director, Gordon Wright, orchestrated the "Scott Joplin Suite for Piano and Orchestra," which we premiered as the centerpiece of the program. Since then, I have been working regularly as a pops soloist. I nearly always play the Joplin, along with pieces by Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, and my own "Ecuadorean Suite," another Gordon Wright arrangement.
In 1992, "Jelly's Last Jam" finally opened in New York, and was a critical smash. Hines and Wolfe got Tony awards, but there was much discontent expressed by some writers — including me — who felt that the show was a serious misrepresentation of Morton's character and music. Wolfe saw Morton as a racist who denied his African-American heritage and refused to acknowledge the African-American music that was the real basis of his style. It doesn't take much reading to discern that this is bad history, but many of us were concerned, I believe rightly, that audiences would take Wolfe's version literally. I had seen the direction that Wolfe was taking, but I had hoped that the music would be good. Unfortunately, Henderson's score was generic Broadway, with no trace of Morton's originality.
Meanwhile, I got involved with still another Morton show in New York, a two-man off-Broadway production titled "Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man." Created by New Orleans-born actor Vernel Bagneris and Norwegian pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen, both old friends of mine, this much smaller show presented Morton in a much more sympathetic light. As a member of the second cast, I played several runs in New York both at Michael's Pub and the 47th St Theater, and after the show won virtually every off-Broadway award in 1995, I was with the first touring company through 1997.
Looking back on what I've written here, I can think of much that has been left out. To any friends or associates who feel that they should have been included, I offer apologies. Of course, I plan to revisit and massage this narrative from time to time. This maintenance will take the form, I think, of tinkering. The basic structure will remain.
For now, I dedicate this to my various mentors and heroes, from Gene Autry forward, with gratitude and admiration.