Sunday, 21 June 2020

Really the Blues

Having listened to the post-war recordings of blues pianist Cousin Joe Pleasant on which he plays clarinet alongside Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone, I was prompted to pick up Really the Blues, the autobiography of Mezz Mezzrow, who was known in the jazz world as much for being a raconteur and sometime drug dealer as he was for his playing.

Born Milton Mesirow in 1899, into a middle-class Jewish family of "doctors, lawyers, dentists and pharmacists" on Chicago's Northwest Side, he was soon running with a street gang which congregated at the corner of Western Avenue and Division and as a teenager spent time in juvenile detention for car theft (the book's memorable opening lines are: "Music school? Are you kidding? I learned to play the sax in Pontiac Reformatory."). He also found his way to the South Side Chicago jazz clubs, including the De Luxe Café at 35th and State where he first met Bechet.

In 1928, Mezzrow moved to New York, living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the African-American section of uptown Manhattan whose clubs he began playing in, and where he became friends with Louis Armstrong.

In 1941, he was sentenced to 1-3 years for possession with intent to supply marijuana and sent to Rikers Island, where, in an echo of the Rachel Dolezal case, he managed to "pass" as black and be allocated to the block for African-American prisoners which housed friends and fellow musicians from Harlem. Released at the end of 1942, he resumed playing on the New York jazz scene before leaving for France in the early fifties, where he died in 1972 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The book includes an appendix that discusses the technical differences between New Orleans and Chicago-style jazz, an afterword that describes the "transculturation" by which Mezzrow came to see himself as "a pure Black", a self-identification which would surely, and rightly, not go unchallenged now, and a glossary of "hip" slang, including "mezz" for marijuana, as in this song by Stuff Smith.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Cousin Joe from New Orleans

In May 1964, a group of African-American musicians on tour in England assembled on the rainy platform of Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester to perform blues and gospel songs to an audience of mostly white students seated in a temporary marquee across the tracks, transported there on a special steam train from Manchester Central for the Granada TV show Blues and Gospel Train, complete with "Wanted" posters on the ticket office and waiting room, chicken in coops on the piano, and a tethered goat tied to a post, as the producers mocked up the disused buildings as a southern US-style railroad halt.

The show is best known for the performance of gospel singer and virtuoso guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and rightly so, especially her opening and, prompted by the unseasonal Mancunian weather, apparently impromptu number Didn't It Rain, but the man who introduced her, and then helped her down from the horse drawn surrey with a fringe on top which bore here to the makeshift stage, the New Orleans blues pianist Pleasant "Cousin Joe" Joseph, isn't remembered as much it seems, despite his Chicken A La Blues being a hit with the youthful hipsters on the other side of the tracks.

I read Cousin Joe's autobiography Blues from New Orleans a few years ago, and have just picked up a 4 CD box set of his remastered records released by the British blues label JSP. Much of the material is in the West Coast R&B/jump blues genre very much in vogue with African-American record buyers throughout World War II and the post-war years, recorded in New York in the mid to late forties for the Los Angeles label Aladdin and New Jersey's Savoy Records, but there are also some slower numbers, including a few featuring jazzmen in the form of clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and some later ones recorded in the early fifties and produced by bandleader Dave Bartholomew in the legendary New Orleans studio of Cosimo Matassa.

Cousin Joe combined his musicianship with a wry sense of humour very much in need in these uncertain days. Get some in your soul now!

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Jivin' With Jack

I was reading the other day about Manchester Sports Guild, which led me to a live album recorded there in 1966 that I hadn't heard of before, Jivin' With Jack by the New Orleans blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree.

Although, as its name suggests, Manchester Sports Guild was primarily an amateur sports club, many of its members were only nominally there for athletic activities, as throughout the sixties the cellar of its social club on Long Millgate near the Cathedral hosted some stellar jazz artists.

Champion Jack, who picked up his nickname as a professional boxer in the thirties, was also an accomplished cook, a skill which saw him become a US Navy chef in World War II. He left New York in the early sixties and travelled to Europe, moving between Scandinavia, Switzerland and England, where he lived in Ovenden, a village on the edge of Halifax, before ending up in Germany, where he died in 1992.

His 1966 set spans humorous material (The Sheikh of Araby, Income Tax) and more traditional blues standards (How Long Blues, Going Down Slow), interspersed with some well practised banter with the audience.

The album's liner notes mention that "Manchester Sports Guild at the time was home to Manchester Jazz Society. Each Wednesday the society held meetings in the clubroom at which guests would give talks or recitals." Since then, the society - which I've been a member of for the last dozen years or so -  has met weekly at various pubs around the city centre, most recently at the Unicorn and Britons Protection.

Manchester Sports Guild's social club closed in the early seventies - along with numerous other jazz venues whose late night licences, and supposed licentiousness, offended the morals of Manchester police chief, and sometime Methodist lay preacher, James Anderton - and was demolished a few years after that, with the site now occupied by the National Football Museum. I will think of Champion Jack the next time I pop in there.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

No room at the inn

BBC One's One Show was in Manchester last night to look at how pubs might reopen after some of the restrictions on social distancing are relaxed, and the difficulties smaller ones like the Britons Protection (which appears from about 7 minutes into the programme) will still have when they're legally allowed to open their doors again.

Some beer gardens in Germany have already reopened, with table reservations (to stop people from more than two households sitting together), waiter only service, staff wearing gloves and face masks, hand sanitiser stations and payment by contactless card or app. The same model is also being trialled here by Wetherspoons, whose cavernous premises lend themselves to social distancing. I can't say that any of it sounds much fun, and older people, those with a health condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus, and anyone who comes into regular contact with them, like health and care workers, will probably still be advised to avoid going in pubs.

There are only three ways that I can see pubs getting back to how they were before the pandemic, or smaller ones being able to open at all: the virus mutating into a less virulent strain which means that when people are infected by it they only have mild, or even no, symptoms; immunity to it building up in the population (although that doesn't necessarily mean that people couldn't still be carriers and transmit it to others); or scientists developing a vaccine against it. I think that, sadly, we're probably months, or even years, away from any of those things happening.