On forgotten first king of jazz, glory, misery and the poor of jazz
By: Edin Zubčević
First international day of jazz is behind us and ironically, day after that jazz musicians in New York have hit the streets hoping to finally get health care and pension rights.
The first International jazz day, which was pronounced by UNESCO on initiative of Herbie Hancock, was glamorously celebrated in New York and Paris with the inevitable presence of excellencies, ladies and gentlemen (and people like these have always been jazz audience, but only for Hancock). The jazz day was also celebrated in New Orleans thou less glamorous but probably more spontaneous and merrier.
While I was only half listening to the speeches and waiting to hear at least one of the great names from jazz history, at least one name without whom the jazz maybe wouldn’t even exist in the form it exists now, at the same time I was whispering to myself all those sad stories that the jazz contains the most.
In the ocean of myths and mystifications on jazz protagonists, there is also a hidden sea of tragedies and lives that ended too early. Ten years ago, in the article “Short story on jazz prehistory” or some other article, I wrote among other things that the history of jazz is the history of jazz discography. Just like we have learnt important stuff on jazz musician through their records, in the same way the story on discography is a detailed history of a con.
And conned has been the musicians who often carried huge responsibility for that history of their lives and this art that went a long way, starting from Congo Square and Storyville brothels to the global art form and finally UNESCO.
More jazz orchestras have been destroyed by buses always breaking down and stealing cheating managers than the trends of the “newest” pop music. One Bessie Smith, famous blues singer for her first single in the 1920s – single Downhearted Blues sold in 780.000 copies – earned 150 dollars i.e. 300 dollars if you count B side with the song Gulf Coast Blues.
Jazz musicians then, same as now survived primarily, and in the most cases exclusively due to the live performances, receiving in cash their share from the managers, after the fees are deducted and what they received was more or less everything they had from their music.
Nobody today mentions Joe Oliver, also known as “the King”, the leader of Creol Jazz Band, the man whose life story mirrors the best all the tragedy of jazz musicians, the tragedy that Herbie Hancock did not even mention during the celebration of the first day of jazz. Hancock, who is influential pianist, author, band leader and much more, is after all the man that the jazz history could live without but without one King Joe Oliver wouldn’t exist for sure.
There are more kings like these that are not mentioned at the glamorous jazz events. Sax player Sydney Bechet, pianist Jelly Roll Morton and his band Red Hot Peppers, clarinettists Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone, arranger Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong – not the signer with the trumpet from 1950s and 1960s – but Armstrong from 1020s, the leader of famous bands Hot Five and Hot Seven that only did the recording but no live sessions.
(Armstrong who was recording by day and performing in the clubs by night, was once so tired from the last night session, that he forgot the lyrics of Heebie Jeebies during recording and by improvising on neutral syllable, invented scat singing accidentally, which is one of the references and trademarks of every jazz singer till today.)
And nobody is fool enough to mention for example Jimmy Blanton, the man who transformed double bass from mere element in rhythm section into solo instrument, never lived pass his 24 birthday.
Finally who still mentions and thinks of, not including the critics whose job is to do that, the musician Jaco Pastorius, modern bass player whose influence is so huge and still present, that 9 out of 10 bass players today own to him the most of that they are today as the bass players and Pastorius we talk about died from severe beating and the offender was never found.
Tragic examples are many, too many and they make the most of jazz musicians’ history. I thought about them all, I thought about Bessie Smith and remembered with sadness Billie Holiday. But out of so many tragic stories, the most tragic is maybe the story of Joe “King” Oliver.
Beside playing for sure one of the first solos ever recorded and making the first important series of jazz recordings in history (Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their recordings made 5 years before and all other recordings before Oliver’s have no artistic influence when it comes to important things in jazz, maybe only in historic sense) and being one of the very first musicians using plunger and in this way creating the whole new world of sound colours and effects, he ended working as a doorman and cleaning ashtrays in the pool room from 9 a.m. till midnight.
He died with 1,60 $ of his saving, not saving enough to buy the ticket to New York, the city in which jazz musicians lived and worked performing his music or at least playing solos in way he did in his immortal solo in tune Dippermouth Blues. I felt nothing of this during the first day of jazz, nothing of what is really important.
The most important is that jazz is the expression of freedom, not only because the musicians are free in way to sound the way they want as long as their story makes sense, and not only because being musician is one of the first honourable (thou this is not the right word out of many reasons) professions of the African Americans after they were freed from slavery, but among other things because that music as freedom itself is capable to survive even when no one expect it to survive.
I welcome the announcement of UNESCO and the first international jazz day hoping that in years to come it will be more of the day of what really matters in jazz and not only the day of this or that politics.
And at the end, one local irony – in Sarajevo, at “Pivnica” that turns once a week, on Monday into a jazz club, there is no session after several years and there is no Sarajevo Jazz Guerilla who took the stand as one of the last bands in club jazz in Bosnia and Herzegovina not only as the best but the only band with steady and continuous engagement and the longest performing in that sense – the first day of jazz is without jazz thou it is Monday.
Taking into consideration that citizens of Sarajevo went to celebrate 1st of May, Labour Day, not waiting for Monday and Tuesday, it was decided that on the exact day of jazz, there will be no jazz, not even for mere symbolism. Maybe it is “logical”, when you celebrate Labour day by not working, why should there be jazz session for the jazz day. The logic known by Aristotle presides no longer in Bosnia and Herzegovina for some time.
I think, nevertheless, that maybe somebody on that very day, on that Monday would come to jazz club just for the music, who would listen to what those excellent local musicians are singing and playing and maybe it wouldn’t be so loud of people talking all the time and nobody listening to the music or maybe more of those who listen and not talk while the musicians play, just because it is jazz day. Yazuk.