Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Bunk Johnson/Lu Watters - Bunk & Lu (Good Time Jazz, 1953 & 1957; 1990)
These recordings were already more than ten years old when they were issued as ten-inch LPs by the Good Time Jazz label during the 1950s. The 16 sides presented here date from 1941 and 1944, during the early phase of the Dixieland jazz revival, whose advent roughly corresponds with the release of Frederic Ramsey's landmark book Jazzmen in 1939. The importance of this movement cannot be overstated since it helped lay the groundwork for the blues revival that would begin in earnest not long afterward. This CD serves as a particularly representative document of Dixieland's resurgence because it features performances by one of the most important early white revivalists as well as those by a black musician who had been an originator of the style at the dawn of the 20th century.
Lucius "Lu" Watters (1911-1989) hailed from a small town near Sacramento, California and started playing the bugle while attending military school as a child. Not long afterward, this instrument was ditched in favor of the trumpet. By the time he was a teenager, Watters had become an accomplished blower and was splitting his time between high school and traveling the country while often working as boat band musician. After completing his secondary education, he attended the University of San Francisco on a music scholarship before ultimately dropping out to become a full-time professional horn player. Watters toured throughout much of the United States as a member of various traveling pop bands during the 1930s. His visits to New Orleans proved to be extremely influential as he often sat in with groups of veteran Dixieland jazz musicians whose modus operandi was rapidly going out of style. At the end of the decade, he decided to focus exclusively on this type of music and organized what would eventually become the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which was one of the first - if not the first - revivalist group of its kind. Eight of his earliest sides - "At a Georgia Camp Meeting," "Irish Black Bottom," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," "Smoky Mokes," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Memphis Blues," "Black & White Rag," and "Muskrat Ramble" (on which Country Joe & the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" is based) - offer outstanding interpretations of material made famous by legendary figures such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, and Kid Ory, but are not merely slavish imitations. As the equally celebrated Nesuhi Ertegun explains in the booklet notes, "When one compares these Watters records with those of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, it is apparent the Watters group neither duplicated any single aspect of traditional jazz, nor used any one famous band of the past as a model."
Although his name is not as well-known as Oliver's or Morton's, William "Bunk" Johnson (ca. 1879-1949) was one of the premier early jazz musicians of New Orleans. The ten-year long peak of his early career ended in 1915 when he had to flee the Crescent City as a result of missing a Mardi Gras parade gig and being threatened with physical violence in retaliation. After living in the relative safety of New Iberia, Louisiana for a number of years, he lost the ability to play trumpet when he got his teeth knocked out during a dance at which his band was playing in 1931. Early jazz scholars including Bill Russell and the aforementioned Frederic Ramsey rediscovered him later in the decade and apparently paid for a set of dentures and a new horn to help him get his career going again. In the early 1940s, San Francisco had become a major center for the Dixieland revival, and it was there that, with the support of many musicians from Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band (though not Lu himself), Johnson began a series of extremely well-received shows in 1943. Studio sessions soon followed in 1944, with the results of the earliest recordings appearing here. For those partial to jazz of this variety, renditions of "Careless Love," "The Girls Go Crazy," and "Ory's Creole Trombone" will prove to be sublime experiences. On "2:19 Blues" and "Ace in the Hole," drummer Clancy Hayes provides vocals, while Sister Lottie Peavey does the honors on the superb gospel numbers "When I Move to the Sky" and "Nobody's Fault but Mine." Apparently the good Sister could not be convinced that "Down by the Riverside" was sufficiently sanctified for her to sing on it, so Bunk had to step in and do the job himself. Even though Johnson would go on to achieve even greater fame in New York City before his death at the end of the 1940s, he felt that the musicians in San Francisco were the best group that he performed with during his post-rediscovery years.
1. At a Georgia Camp Meeting - Lu Watters
2. Irish Black Bottom - Lu Watters
3. Original Jelly Roll Blues - Lu Watters
4. Smoky Mokes - Lu Watters
5. Maple Leaf Rag - Lu Watters
6. Memphis Blues - Lu Watters
7. Black & White Rag - Lu Watters
8. Muskrat Ramble - Lu Watters
9. Careless Love - Bunk Johnson
10. 2:19 Blues - Bunk Johnson
11. The Girls Go Crazy - Bunk Johnson
12. When I Move to the Sky - Bunk Johnson
13. Ace in the Hole - Bunk Johnson
14. Ory's Creole Trombone - Bunk Johnson
15. Nobody's Fault but Mine - Bunk Johnson
16. Down by the Riverside - Bunk Johnson