CHRONICLES OF RECENT HISTORY: Jazz Preservationist Doc Souchon
When you hear the gravelly recorded voice of Edmond “Doc” Souchon singing the Mardi Gras anthem “If Ever I Cease to Love,” you can tell it comes from the heart, and you can readily believe that the happiest man in New Orleans on Carnival Day 1949 was mostly likely that singer. Doc Souchon’s daughter Dolly Ann was reigning that year as queen of Carnival, and the foremost practitioner of the music he loved best was reigning as king of Zulu: Louis Armstrong. Life wouldn’t get much better than that for a jazz fanatic who was willing to rise at dawn to see Zulu and stay up through the meeting of the courts at midnight.
Souchon was born in New Orleans on Oct. 25, 1897 – his father, a doctor, played guitar and French horn, and his mother played the piano. Souchon grew up in the city, went to Tulane, became a doctor and practiced medicine also, but he gave his heart to jazz, managing to play, record and write about the music he loved. His record and book collections found their way to the New Orleans Public Library and to the Louisiana State Museum, which absorbed the collection of the New Orleans Jazz Museum. The latter was a project of the New Orleans Jazz Club, of which Souchon was an avid member. Until his death in 1969, he was a staunch supporter of the revival of interest in traditional New Orleans jazz.
In a 1958 interview, Souchon noted that he “had gotten more pleasure from jazz than anyone could dream.” He prided himself on being the sole native New Orleanian who studied early jazz seriously even before interest in it revived in the mid-20th century. “It has been a lonesome one-man stand,” he mused.
The New Orleans that Souchon grew up in was in many ways a small town. Souchon remembered hearing Joe “King” Oliver play; his baby nurse had brought him along to “second-line” funerals that passed near his St. Charles Avenue neighborhood. The Souchons played music in their home, and his grandmother gave young Edmond his first guitar, but his interest piqued only when he heard a small ragtime combo at a ballroom-dancing class.
Always adventuresome when it came to music, Souchon was willing to visit any neighborhood in search of good sounds, and his strong memory made him a useful interview subject for researchers later. Besides following bands to clubs, Souchon danced to small jazz groups at parties in homes, and when he was a student at Tulane, at dances with large bands. He firmly believed that New Orleans jazz deserved to be danced to, that the musicians expected their audience to participate in the music, not just sit and listen. Predictably, the background music in Souchon’s life was always jazz – even his wife, Marie Estoup, played piano and could “rag” a tune.
When he was a teenager, Souchon began playing the guitar his grandmother gave him. He would play with fellow New Orleanians vacationing in Pass Christian, Miss. Back in New Orleans, he and his friends formed the Six and Seven/Eighths String Band – which took its name from the height of violinist and original member Hilton “Midget” Harrison – performing for social occasions such as the queen of Carnival’s supper dance in 1912. Besides Souchon on guitar and banjo, and Harrison, the original group also included Charles Hardy on ukulele, Bill Gibbons on guitar, Shields O’Reardon on mandolin, Earl Crumb on drums and banjo, and Bob Reynolds on guitar.
By the 1950s, when the Six and Seven/Eighths String Band recorded, Souchon was joined by Bill Kleppinger on mandolin, Frank “Red” Mackie on bass and Bernie Shields on steel guitar. The Folkways label released the record, which included versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Tiger Rag.”
On other discs, Souchon recorded with both white and black musicians, including Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Raymond Burke, Monk Hazel, Paul Barbarin, Paul Burke, Jeanette Kimball, Johnny St. Cyr, Chink Martin, Sherwood Mangiapane, Armand Hug, Harry Shields, Mike Lala, Jack Delaney, and Pinky Vidacovich.
The other great love of Souchon’s life was Carnival, especially the Rex organization. As a hobby, he created intricate miniature Rex floats, even forming tiny marching bands from toy soldiers armed with little instruments, his grandson John Parker, also a professional musician, recalls. The Mardi Gras floats were displayed at one time in the Rex Room at Antoine’s and are now treasured by his granddaughter C.C. Langenstein; some are said to be in the collection of the Louisiana State Museum.
Souchon wrote songs. He penned “Deacon, Deacon, Deacon,” a novelty tune, with his friend and fellow guitarist Percy McKay, whose day job was at the Whitney National Bank. In one other creative endeavor, Souchon co-authored a book with jazz enthusiast Al Rose. New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album contains pictures and biographical data on a host of New Orleans musicians, the places they played and the bands they played in. The book was an immediate hit among serious jazz fans and sentimental New Orleanians.
Souchon and his music are not forgotten today. His voice still rings over the airways during Carnival with “If Ever I Cease to Love.”
Early on, Parker mentioned to his grandfather that he was interested in music. he recalls, “Fortunately, he challenged me: ‘If you show that you’re serious with it, I’ll give you a guitar … ’ That was a big deal for me when he gave me that guitar.” Souchon suggested Parker take lessons from Guy Filiberto’s guitar studio. “I did get some foundation there,” Parker says. Luckily, Parker was talented and worked hard.
He used to play a Steinway piano that had belonged to his grandmother, but sadly, it was lost in Hurricane Katrina. Also lost in the flood were Souchon’s tenor banjo and Parker’s first guitar. “But I still have an old Martin guitar and a six-string banjo that belonged to him.” Parker adds.
Souchon died when his grandson was “just shy of 14,” Parker remembers.
“I’m kind of like my grandfather – I don’t have the technical expertise, but, like him, I love to play the music.” Parker says modestly.
“I play solo, and I play with small and large jazz bands,” he continues. “I’m a side man sometimes, and a band leader other times.” While he plays just guitar and banjo in public, Parker is also at home on the piano. Obviously there’s a little bit of rhythm in the Souchon bloodline.
Souchon would be proud that his descendent keeps the music alive, as well as the city he loved so much.
You might say Doc Souchon had his own generational second-line.