JAZZ ALL-STARS: Coming of Age
If our annual Jazz All-Stars feature were a person, it would now be eligible to vote. This is our 18th year of honoring the city’s best Jazz musicians. From the beginning our mission has been to draw attention to those musicians who live and work in the New Orleans area. In its 18th year the list is more important than ever since because of the evil winds of August 2005, we’ve been endangered of losing so many good players. Happily, many have stayed, some who left are coming back and there’s evidence of new talent emerging. As always we present out All-Stars as two complete but non-existent bands – one traditional the other contemporary. We applaud the members of this year’s class. They could have voted with their feet. To our benefit they decided to stay.
Joe Lastie Jr.
It could be said that drumming is in Joe Lastie Jr.’s genes. As a child, he heard his maternal grandfather playing drums in church and his paternal grandfather, Frank Lastie, do likewise. Other drummers in his family include greats Walter “Popee” Lastie and Herlin Riley (All-Star 1991). Plus, he boasts kinship to cousins trumpeter Melvin and saxophonist David Lastie, R&B man Jessie Hill and others. He first started playing when he was 7 years old at the Israelites Spiritual Church in the Lower 9th Ward. When his family moved to New York, he continued his studies and joined his junior high school stage band. Lastie returned to New Orleans for his senior year at George Washington High School, where he studied with the noted Yvonne Busch. During this time he also attended pianist Willie Metcalf’s (All-Star 1996) Academy of Black Arts and his first professional gig was with his fellow academy students at Lou & Charlie’s jazz club. With a focus on modern jazz, the group also performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. R&B was also in the air at his aunt’s home where his uncle Jessie Hill and Professor Longhair would often jam with the young Lastie on drums. He gigged with the two legends at Tipitina’s soon after it opened in 1977. A diverse player, Lastie made one of his first road trips playing drums with the Desire Community Choir and debuted on Bourbon Street playing jazz standards with bassist Richard Payne (All-Star 1992). Working with his cousin David Lastie, he had the opportunity to back vocalist like Irma Thomas and Jean Knight. Lastie honed his traditional chops playing regularly with leaders vocalist Banu Gibson and trombonist Scotty Hill and worked in the band in the musical One Mo’ Time. He credits trumpeter Wallace Davenport for introducing him to a wealth of material. Throughout the ’90s, Lastie held the drum chair with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and is once again playing with the noted ensemble. He also leads his own band and plays with the True Vine Baptist Church Choir.
Quotable: “I was put here for a reason – to keep this New Orleans music going.”
Alton “Big Al” Carson
Though “Big Al” Carson started on trumpet, it was the old story of “give the tuba to the biggest guy around” that landed him on the hefty horn at Andrew J. Bell High School. The demand for tuba players also had him helping out at Booker T. Washington High School and Xavier University. His first professional gig was with trumpeter Doc Paulin’s Brass Band and he went on to play with an array of ensembles including Olympia, Teddy Riley’s Royal, Hurricane, Tornado and Pin Stripe brass bands. Carson says he began singing “accidentally” when he casually started harmonizing with a jazz vocalist at Xavier University. After some encouragement, he got a group together and jumped into hot spots on Orleans Avenue and Basin Street as a vocalist and trumpeter with the R&B group Better Half. While Carson is certainly best known for belting out the blues at Bourbon Street’s Funky Pirate – a gig he’s held down for an amazing 13 years – he says that he’s always incorporated traditional jazz – the music that has taken him around the world – into his music and his performances. He points out that all of his early albums were in the classic jazz style and that his repertoire at the Funky Pirate is spiced with the tradition. “I did a lot of different work at the same time,” says Carson of his career. Like many of the All-Stars, Carson worked in the musical One Mo’ Time and still fondly remembers bassist/tuba player Walter Payton (All-Star 1993) taking him under his wing, training him day and night to play in the required style of the 1930s and ’40s. For several years, Carson was the lead vocalist of Payton’s Snap Bean Band and for 13 years, beginning in the ’80s, he sang with the Kid Johnson Orchestra. He’s also written a number of tunes most notably – and undoubtedly inspired by his years on Bourbon Street – “Take Your Drunken Ass Home.”
Quotable: “I always say, it’s not about me, it’s all about the music. You have to give the music its props.”
“A musician is all I wanted to be,” says Connie Jones, who received piano lessons from his aunt Maude as a child. He took up the bugle at the Gulf Coast Military Academy and switched to trumpet a year later. Jones did a short stint with Pete Fountain and the Basin Street Six in the early 1950s, spent seven years with the noted clarinetist’s 10-piece band during the mid-’60s, and is back at his side at Fountain’s standing gig at Mississippi’s Hollywood Casino. While living in Philadelphia, Jones was introduced to Jack Teagarden. “When he found out I was from New Orleans he was very interested,” says Jones, who would blow with the noted trombonist’s band for about a year. The trumpeter was based back in New Orleans again when he hit the road with pianist and arranger Billy Maxsted and the Manhattan Jazz Band. One night in Columbus, Ohio, Jones’ old friend Pete Fountain stopped in to hear the group and informed Jones that he was putting a band together and he asked him to join up. Jones was eager as it meant playing at home at Pete Fountain’s club on Bourbon and St. Ann streets. When that ended, he signed on with drummer Freddy Kohlman and later took over lead duties with the Dukes of Dixieland before establishing his own ensemble, the Crescent City Jazz Band, in the ’70s. A regular at the Blue Angel, the group lasted a healthy 20 years. Subscription concert series presented by Allied Concert Service and Columbia Artists had Jones playing in small towns across the U.S. “I probably did 350 shows for Columbia,” says Jones, whose first love was always Dixieland though he was glad to play other genres such as swing, big band and show tunes in order to make a living as a professional musician. This Mardi Gras, the trumpeter could again be spotted blowing his horn aboard a float with Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club. He’s also seen more around town enjoying himself as a freelance musician.
Quotable: “There are only two kinds of music – good music and good music played badly.”
When Tom Sancton’s father took him to Preservation Hall in 1962, he was enthralled at once with the sound of legendary George Lewis’ clarinet. “I was hooked on it,” says Sancton. He was soon given his own instrument by English clarinetist Sammy Rimington and started taking lessons from Lewis, who became his role model and friend. Sancton credits his father, a journalist, for sparking his interest not only in traditional jazz but also the musicians and New Orleans’ black cultural heritage. Later in life, Sancton would also become a journalist, moving from editor of Time magazine in the Paris division to bureau chief for 1979-2001. Sancton was about 17 when saxophonist Harold Dejan (All-Star 1992) hired him for his first professional job. Around the same time, he played fraternity gigs and employed veteran musicians such as trumpeter Punch Miller. He also befriended many European artists who were also soaking up the music – including multi-instrumentalist Lars Edegran and trumpeter Clive Wilson, with whom he continues to perform today. Sancton wasn’t involved in school music programs at either Benjamin Franklin High School or Harvard University, where he studied American history and literature. While at Harvard, he established the New Black Eagle Brass Band, an ensemble that continues to perform. In 1971, Sancton traveled to England to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and hooked up with some traditional players such as drummer Trevor Richards who he had met in New Orleans. He suspended his involvement in music after moving to France in ’73, to work on his doctorate thesis on French history. Participating in the New Black Eagle 20th anniversary concert in ’86, however, wetted his appetite to play again. He soon began making trips to New Orleans. He finally returned here permanently in August 2007 – after 40 years – when Tulane University offered him the Andrew W. Melon professorship. His book, Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, was published in 2006.
Quotable: “My experience as a musician has been about much more than music. Music is the vehicle for a larger experience and that is reaching out to people through all sorts of barriers and coming together on the basis of our common humanity.”
Glen David Andrews
Growing up in the musically rich Tremé neighborhood and surrounded by a musically inclined family – including his brother, snare drummer Derrick Tabb, and cousins, trumpeter James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Glen David Andrews first took up bass drum as well as the position of grand marshal on the brass band scene. Some of his early appearances were with the Olympia Kids Brass Band. Around age 13, he switched to the trombone when his cousin Troy, then the leader of Trombone Shorty’s Brass Band, handed him the instrument saying, “You play this” and taught him the fundamentals. Andrews calls the late Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, with whom he spent many an afternoon blowing on Jackson Square, his idol. It was from Tuba Fats, he says, that he learned the importance of professionalism and to respect his fellow musicians. Andrews is noted not only for his strong trombone playing but also for a voice that can be heard over the loudest bands and biggest crowd. Learning much from his elders, he boasts an old school vocal style complete with a knack for often-humorous improvisation. “I sing what I feel,” says Andrews, explaining that he was inspired by the crowd-pleasing showmanship of R&B musicians such as Ernie K-Doe and Ironing Board Sam. Since his teens, the self-taught musician has traveled the world, primarily as a sideman, including a trip to Africa with his cousin, James Andrews. In 2003, however, he stepped out on his own, making his record debut as leader playing classic New Orleans jazz on Dumaine St. Blues. “I want to keep the traditional flame going,” says Andrews who now makes regular appearances at the music’s home: Preservation Hall. “Before the storm, if you didn’t have gray hair you didn’t play there,” he remembers. Andrews is now focusing his energy on his solo career, writing and publishing his own material with an eye toward recording again.
Quotable: “To continue to preserve the tradition, you have to learn the music and the tradition the right way because you have to earn these stripes.”
John Royen got what could be considered a late start as a musician. Because of his father’s interest in music, he grew up listening to the likes of Fats Waller but didn’t take up an instrument until he was 18. “I just loved the music so much I was thinking about it more than anything else,” says Royen, who decided to learn how to play the piano and taught himself to play ragtime. After receiving an associate’s degree in justice administration from Washington, D.C.’s American University, he soon headed to New Orleans for “the music.” He landed here in 1976, and his first gigs were playing solo at spots like Gazebo. Eventually he began working with other musicians. “It was a slow buildup,” says Royen, who regards his first time filling in at Preservation Hall with trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine as a milestone. Winning the approval of the guys at the Hall, he began subbing more often. After the death of Sweet Emma Barrett, he took over piano duties with Kid Thomas, who was then leading the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He toured with the ensemble and also traveled abroad with the Louisiana Repertory Ensemble and clarinetist Tim Laughlin as well as on his own. Significant, too, was Royen meeting and being tutored by Don Ewell, who worked with trumpeter Bunk Johnson and whom he describes as “the last of the great stride piano players.” Royen would go to Ewell’s house in Florida for several weeks at a time to study with his mentor, who bequeathed his ’41 Baldwin grand piano to Royen. It now holds a proud spot in his home. Through the years, Royen has been able to make a living through his ability to perform both solo and band gigs, playing with “everybody.” The stride piano is his forte when he’s alone at the piano performing tunes from the greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. He sings a little, too – “for the sake of a song, not for the sake of my voice” Because he’s always well dressed, even donning a tie and jacket in the summertime, Royen’s fellow musicians have dubbed him “The Mayor of Bourbon Street.” He says, “They say I look like I’m running for election.”
Quotable: “I’m just trying to keep the idiom alive.”
We can thank Jesse McBride’s mother for his presence on the New Orleans jazz scene. He had played music since childhood, concentrating on violin and viola in a classical setting, but she observed that McBride, who had no certain plans after high school, showed an interest in jazz – and that he was in the possession of a tape by pianist Ellis Marsalis. She did some research and discovered Marsalis was the head of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. She set up the audition that landed him at the college in 1998. “For some strange reason they accepted me,” says McBride with a laugh. At UNO, McBride met and studied with saxophonist and producer Harold Battiste, whom he describes as his “life coach” and eventually became the keeper of the flame of Battiste’s conceptual project, Next Generation. He began leading the ensemble in 2001 and made his recording debut in 2007, releasing, Jesse McBride Presents the Next Generation (AFO). The repertoire is in keeping with the ongoing project’s goal of introducing young musicians and new audiences to material from New Orleans greats, such as saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler (All-Star 1990) and drummer James Black. McBride spent some time in New York following Hurricane Katrina, introducing the Next Generation to Big Apple audiences. He hadn’t planned on moving back but decided that he wanted to help the city and the scene by being “a part of the positive.” Describing himself as having “a major allegiance to the youth,” McBride has taught in numerous settings, from summer camps to private lessons to the campuses of Dillard and Tulane universities. “My whole vision is to bring everybody together – the young, the not so young, the middle-aged and the old,” he once said. “You have to bridge these gaps and everybody has to mentor each other. That’s the way this music was passed down – it’s passed down African style, verbally and by playing and hanging [out].”
Quotable: “Get ready for the next generation.”
Dewey Sampson began studying and performing classical violin, while during his high school years he bought an inexpensive bass and began to teach himself the instrument. He “got hooked” on jazz while attending college at Jackson State University, where he’d hang out with friends listening to records and hitting some clubs. “I thought it was cool and hip,” he says, and he decided he wanted to play it. Sampson would spend the summers in Louisiana where his mother’s family resided and where he heard even more jazz on the street and on the radio. His first professional gig came around 1960, playing standards at a hotel in Jackson. After receiving a degree in music, Sampson went into the service. While stationed in Germany, he met a lot of jazz musicians and continued to play. After he was discharged he remained in Atlanta for 16 years, finding work with the likes of James Moody, Freddy Cole and Duke Pearson. Sampson was headed to New York in ’88, when he through New Orleans to say “hello” to his family. Having played some traditional jazz in Atlanta, he was familiar with the repertoire and began performing with trumpeter Teddy Riley (All-Star 1990), pianist Phamous Lambert (All-Star 1998) and many others. He soon began playing on the modern jazz scene, appearing regularly with pianist Ellis Marsalis. “I could bounce between the two [styles],” says Sampson. “I’m not all modern and I’m not all tradition, I’m a musician first.” He left in ’97 and headed to Belgium, where his wife’s family lived, and stayed there eight years before going to live in Burundi, Africa. “I like traveling; I like to open my head up to the world,” he says. Sampson recently returned to New Orleans, feeling it important for his son to know his family in America. He’s gigging regularly and, as always, he continues to teach.
Quotable: “To play music is a joy in itself. It’s the freedom to express yourself. It’s a thing you don’t retire from, you keep learning.”
Efrem Towns has spent all of his adult life playing with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Joining the now world-recognized ensemble when he was 15, he has had the opportunity to see the world while providing for his family and playing the music he loves. When he was a child, the trumpeter’s parents acknowledged his interest in music by providing him with piano lessons – the keyboards were never his bag. As far back as he can remember the trumpet had always caught his ear. He was introduced to the instrument while attending Philip Junior High School and performed in the band, moving quickly from third chair to first. It was during this time that he became a member of the second edition of the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band that was established by the legendary guitarist and banjoist Danny Barker. It was with this group that he made his first public appearance, playing a church parade, as well as his first road trip. He praises the Fairview’s trumpeter Leroy Jones (All-Star 1991) for his great influence. While at John McDonough High School, Towns played in the school bands and blew R&B with a variety of groups. Tunes from the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and the Ohio Players were the sounds of the day. He says that no matter what other musical activities he was involved in, brass bands were always etched into his life. He became a member of the Dirty Dozen when he was still in high school, during the significant era when the ensemble was making the transition from being primarily a parade band to a club band – the Dozen was starting to really shake up the scene by incorporating modern influences and edges to the brass band style. The first of Towns’ lifetime of road trips with the Dirty Dozen came in ’82 and found the young trumpeter blowing with the group in San Francisco’s Old Walnut Room. “I never really expected anything,” he says of his long tenure with the Dozen and its longevity and success. “We were just trying to get some gigs in a crowded gigging city,” he says of those early years. Now the trumpeter is on the road nine or 10 months out of the year. “It’s crazy,” he exclaims.
Quotable: “Be prepared, be ready, because you can never know who is going to come calling or when.”
Eliot “Stackman” Callier
Since childhood, Eliot “Stackman” Callier has traveled between Portland and New Orleans and continues to do so to this day. His travels began as visits to his maternal relatives in the Crescent City; eventually he moved here, graduating from Booker T. Washington High School. There he met fellow saxophonists Fred Kemp and Frederick “Shep” Sheppard. “You had to be on top of your game at Booker T.,” he says, referring to the quality of musicians at the school. As a youngster, Callier played piano and violin but took up the saxophone, the instrument of his father (who spent time blowing with Billy Eckstine). Early musical influences included such notables as bandleader Clyde Kerr Sr., saxman Nat Perrilliat and bassist Richard Payne (All-Star 1992). While Callier might be best recognized on the traditional jazz, brass band and R&B scenes, along with high profile groups like Fats Domino’s and Wardell Quezergue’s bands, as well as the Preservation Hall Band, his attack belays his deep understanding of modern jazz. “I found a way to integrate it into other styles,” he says, explaining that while he remains true to the structure of a tune, when it’s time to solo, many leaders give the go-ahead indicating, “Okay, it’s time to be you.” The mix of modern jazz, funk and R&B was definitely working when he played with the Seminoles, headed by the Turbinton brothers, saxophonist Earl and keyboardist Willie Tee (All-Stars 1992 and 2003). Callier blew R&B at hot spots like Dorothy’s Medallion Inn and Mason’s Las Vegas Strip with Big Dixon and the Cardinals. He played his first parade with the Olympia Brass Band. He never put down his horn while serving in the military or when he returned from Vietnam to play professional football in Canada in the mid-’70s. A much called on studio musician, and a regular at SeaSaint Studios, his singular horn can be heard on numerous recordings. The road has also long been a way of life.
Quotable: “‘Hello, good evening.’ That’s what I say when I know that I’ve had a good night playing my instrument and someone wants to know how I think it went.”
Stephanie Jordan got a surprisingly late start on her vocal career. She didn’t begin singing professionally until the early 1990s, and was never even in a high school or church choir. Growing up in the Jordan family (headed by saxophonist Kidd Jordan), she was naturally surrounded by the music. Jordan took piano and violin lessons but gave those up to pursue her interest in dance. She continued studying classical ballet and modern jazz dance throughout college, where she majored in journalism. She worked in television and radio for many years. Of her sudden emergence as a vocalist she says, “I just got the idea that I could sing jazz tunes because I always listened to a lot of music.” While living in Maryland, she asked pianist Doug Karn, who was working with her brother, flautist Kent, if she could sing for him to see how it would work out. Soon thereafter, she made her debut. Her first song was “I Remember April.” “I got up enough nerve to get up and sing a song with the band at the club one night and the people dug me,” she remembers with a laugh. After that she began collaborating with the pianist and became a regular at Karn’s gig at the Tacoma Station Tavern in Maryland. At Karn’s suggestion, Jordan built her repertoire from a list of songs that she enjoyed and knew. The two worked together consistently for several years. She calls her uncle, the late clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a “lightning rod” in her career. He often invited her to sing with his band including during his Jazz Fest appearance. She also began appearing with her brother Kent at the festival before finally performing in the Jazz Tent on her own. Jordan began traveling and working as a professional musician at both festival and club dates around the world. A classy vocalist, she remains loyal to jazz standards because, she says, “they define a moment of time.” In recent years, Jordan has been performing a lot with what is dubbed the Jordan Family Show as well as working in a trio format with New Orleans pianist Mike Esnault, bassist Peter Harris and drummer John Jones. She also has plans to add horns to the combo with an eye toward taking the act on the road.
Quotable: “I think history itself is worth preserving and jazz music is part of our history. Jazz should continue to mean something to the African-American community and to the greater community at large.”
While Geoff Clapp was a high school student at the North Carolina School of the Arts (studying classical percussion and playing in the school’s jazz band), he had the opportunity to meet and hear New Orleanians, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist Ellis Marsalis and drummer Herlin Riley (All-Star 1991). “I never knew drums could be played like that,” exclaims Clapp of Riley’s style and talents. “That really sparked my true interest in jazz.” These events ultimately resulted in Clapp attending the University of New Orleans in the fall of 1989. He was among the first talented group of musicians, which included drummer Brian Blade (All-Star 1993), trumpeter Jeremy Davenport (All-Star 2000) and bassist Chris Thomas (All-Star 1999) in the new jazz studies program headed by Ellis Marsalis. “We were just a bunch of hoodlums trying to play jazz,” says Clapp with a chuckle. He soon immersed himself in New Orleans drumming, soaking up the style from the likes of Riley, Stanley Stephens and Shannon Powell (All-Star 1995). The road called Clapp away from his studies and he headed out with some heavies, including saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Ellis Marsalis and trumpeter Jeremy Davenport. Because Clapp has made a habit of often returning to New Orleans to gig, it might surprise some that he actually moved away from here in ’99 and was primarily based in Brooklyn until returning to New Orleans in the fall of 2007. Beyond pursuing his jazz career (including tours presented by the State Department tour that took him to Africa), he did his share of teaching. He was active with Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center jazz educational program as well as bassist Christian McBride’s Jazz House Kids workshops in inner city schools. He continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Dillard University, as well as teach privately. Clapp, who began beating Tupperware bowls with wooden spoons and moved from a rock to a jazz drum set, is back on the New Orleans modern jazz scene, playing what he describes as a mix of the “heady New York and soulful New Orleans” drum styles.
Quotable: “I think music was put here as a gift to fill the soul with hope.”