Few people have put a signature on the life of this city with such subtle force as George Buck, who turned 83 in December. The Palm Court Jazz Café – where he often dines and which his wife Nina has operated for many years – is lined with photographs of musicians and album covers that bespeak his life in jazz.
Born in New Jersey, he produced his first jazz disc in New York (with New Orleans-born clarinetist Tony Parenti) in 1949, establishing the GHB label. After working at radio stations he bought one, then another. Radio profits paid for recordings and allowed him to buy vintage jazz labels, such as American Music on which William Russell produced Bunk Johnson, George Lewis and other mid-century players of New Orleans Revival. In the early ’60s, from his base in Atlanta, Buck presided over a constellation of radio stations in medium-sized markets (suburban Philadelphia, Charlotte, small town Ohio – and, in time, the totemic WTIX in New Orleans).
When George and Nina moved to the French Quarter in 1987 it took 10 tractor-trailers to tote the inventory of his labels – Jazzology, GHB and others, like Audiofile and Southland. The mail-order business housed above the Palm Court is a mainstay of New Orleans Style with a monthly Jazzology Newsletter that includes discounts on the CDs. You can join the Collector’s Record club for the princely sum of $5, payable to GHB Jazz Foundation.
Pianist Lars Edegran guides the business as he does Palm Court Jazz All Stars, a sterling CD on the GHB label that features Nina’s husband by her first marriage, Sammy Rimington, on clarinet and alto sax and the late Juanita Brooks on soul-stirring versions of “Basin Street Blues” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The social mosaic on that CD holds a mirror to the international nature of the music. Born in Sweden, Edegran moved to New Orleans in the 1960s, drawn to the sounds of Preservation Hall, just like George and Nina. Drummer Herlin Riley is a third-generation drummer from a Lower 9th Ward dynasty; his grandfather Frank Lastie attended the Colored Waifs Home with Louis Armstrong and began drumming in the Spiritual Churches in ’27. Rimington is a native of England (as is Nina). Vocalist Topsy Chapman, trombonist Fred Lonzo and bassist Bill Huntingon are local mainstays. And the swinging trumpeter Duke Heitger, son of a Midwestern big band leader, is now based in Germany, making periodic trips back.
The New Orleans Style that links this city to jazz aficionados in Scandinavia, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, southern Europe and Japan has never generated the mass appeal of rap or rock; but it has become a foundation of the city’s cultural economy. The endurance of the music owes much to 1950s’ producers like Bill Russell, which Jazzology now distributes.
“This is America’s great original art form and only dedicated collectors with their little labels were recording it when I began,” Buck told me in 1996. “As a teenager listening to pop music on the radio I was attracted to the big bands. Then I heard a broadcast from Coney Island by Muggsy Spanier. At first I couldn’t find any of his records.” At a New York store he discovered jazz on the Bluebird label at 37 cents apiece; his passion for classic New Orleans jazz began amid the decline of the music on major market labels.
Preservation Hall was a magnet to Buck, and as friendships grew from the long listening hours, the decision to move here 25 years ago had major consequences for the town. As he established the record business and home office for his radio interests, Nina launched Palm Court.
There is no empirical data to prove that a club with a restaurant serving New Orleans jazz and a swinging dance floor gave a big boost to the idiom long centered in Preservation Hall. But if you look at today’s entertainment infrastructure, it’s fair to say that Palm Court was a building block. Irvin Mayfield has opened two jazz clubs in downtown hotels (Royal Sonesta and Marriott); the Old Mint has a superb performance space and recording annex for programming by the National Jazz Historical Park; and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has a gorgeous venue in a former library, that can be reached by a tunnel from the main floor. These sites aren’t devoted to New Orleans Style alone, but with Mayfield, James Andrews, Trombone Shorty and a rising generation of players building off that foundation, early jazz proved its staying power as an entertainment infrastructure has taken shape that didn’t exist before Hurricane Katrina.
Buck isn’t in the best of health these days; but his vision of documenting the music is a legacy lived on these newly minted stages. True, sales figures for jazz are a fraction of the rap market; but the music lives in a myriad of other ways: in parades, concerts, clubs, films and TV shows. It is a small footnote to George Buck’s legacy that he lost most of his eyesight before graduating from college, yet built a successful business and the George H. Buck Jr. Jazz Foundation, while legally blind. He saw so much more than the rest of us.