This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band teams up with New Orleans natives Topsy Chapman and Vernel Bagneris to celebrate the roots of New Orleans Jazz.
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
They call New Orleans the “Cradle of Jazz.” And as the saying goes, “the hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the nation”—and in this case, the world. The sound of traditional New Orleans jazz has been around the world and back since King Oliver first blew his horn in the cafes of Storyville, and Jelly Roll Morton played piano in Basin Street bordellos.
In the heart of the French Quarter on St. Peter Street, an ancient building with peeling paint and squeaky hinges still houses the institution known as Preservation Hall, a mecca for musicians, tourists and hard-core disciples of traditional jazz since it first opened its doors in the early 1960s. Back then the stars of this “anti-showbiz” music scene looked like 19th-century photos come to life.
There was Sweet Emma Barrett with her little red plastic pocketbook by her side and a tiny hat scrunched on her head. The regal Willie Humphrey in a starched white shirt and black pants would be relaxing on a metal folding chair with his clarinet in hand. This broadcast offers several favorites often heard at the Hall, including “My Darling Nellie Gray” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”
The story of the music goes back more than one hundred years. Jelly Roll Morton was part of that first generation of jazzmen in New Orleans. Morton was a teen when he first began to play ragtime piano in the gilt-and-velvet parlors of Storyville. Riverwalk Jazz piano man Jim Turner performs a fascinating piece Jelly Roll composed called “The Crave.”
In the 1940s and ’50s before his days at Preservation Hall, “Kid” Valentine was a popular bandleader playing for Saturday night dances in small towns along the west bank of the Mississippi across the river from New Orleans. A favorite hotspot was a big, old barn of a place called Speck’s Moulin Rouge. There was a bar, a dance floor, rickety tables and folding chairs for dice games and a bandstand. Nearby, taped to the wall was a cardboard sign with the “Kid” Valentine motto—”Let joy be unrefined”—a sentiment as tangible in the culture as red beans and rice, and filé gumbo. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band remembers nights at Speck’s Moulin Rouge with “Algiers Strut” composed by “Kid” Thomas.
The good times continue to roll as Topsy Chapman and Vernel Bagneris team up on vocals with “Cakewalkin’ Babies From Home” by New Orleans composer Clarence Williams. Jim and the band recall trumpeter Bunk Johnson in a soulful rendition of “Lonesome Road,” then steam through chorus after chorus of improvised ensembles to the finish line with a famous ‘test piece’ for New Orleans clarinetists, “High Society.”