A Brother’s Chronicles
The Lower Ninth Ward in the 1950s was a semirural village of black people, Sicilians and Croatians, living close together. People raised cows and chickens in yards and small pastures. The clarinetist and saxophonist Don Suhor (1932-2003), a stellar jazz modernist memorialized in an eponymous dual CD on GHB records, grew up in the Lower Nine, inspiring his younger brother Charles, a drummer of repute to follow him at Loyola, studying music. Their parents approved.
A few years out of college, Don Suhor like many jazzmen drawn to bebop, was cutting his chops at Bourbon Street strip clubs. “Jazz-for-strippers has some built in musical problems,” Charles Suhor drolly notes in his esteemed work, “Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years through 1970” (2001). In “a classic strip show,” he reveals, “the drummer’s role is inherently invasive. The music, whatever the style, is pitted against rim shots, rolls, cymbal crashes, and tom-tom and bass drum thrusts that must be coordinated with the dancer’s gyrations, all without losing the beat.” Eyewitness Charlie notes that improvisational jazzmen “were not so much mentally blocking out the din of the performance as visualizing it as an asymmetrical phenomenon that was part of the performance, like the Kafka tale in which the frequent disruption of a ceremony by a leopard was handled by making the leopard a part of the event.”
He shifts to a thick list of early modernists who played hard, in a mode of asymmetrical visualization as women disrobed. Among them: Al Belletto, the alto saxist who would lead a big band of high Jazz Fest memories; Sam Butera, who wept on NPR’s American Routes in recalling his work with the late Louis Prima; Earl Palmer, who remembered jazz funerals in Tremé as “the plantings;” Mouse Bonati; Black Mike Lala; Pete Monteleone and twenty-one others, including Don Suhor.
A longtime Downbeat Magazine contributor, Charles Suhor became a teacher in Montgomery, Alabama, continuing as a musician. His tenacity in chronicling the jazz avant-garde in an era of booming rhythm-and-blues (Fats Domino conquers Vegas but still lives in the Lower Nine!) and the mid-century New Orleans-style jazz solidified at Preservation Hall, is a history fraught with insight, and gems, such as Coltrane’s fabled New Orleans gig in ’63 at Hayes Chicken Shack (later, Vernon’s.)
With dysfunctional families the consuming theme of American fiction and memoir, there is a beauty in Charlie’s devotion to Don, driving home to sit with the revered brother as he slowly died of lung cancer, leaving three siblings, a widow and several children. The many recordings on “Don Suhor: New Orleans Clarinet & Sax Virtuoso”, have graceful liner notes by Charles. On late hour 1950s jam sessions, Don found inspiration from “superb bebop alto saxist Joseph ‘Mouse’ Bonati, recently arrived from Buffalo, New York, [who] became his idol, along with, inevitably, Charlie Parker.”
Don Suhor was one of many New Orleans musicians who chose to stay, for various reasons, rather than embark on the long treks holding promise of record deals and fuel for the publicity to secure a national career. A few of the locals who stayed – Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Ellis Marsalis come immediately to mind – built national reputations. Don Suhor might have risen higher had he left; more important is the music he made, which with help from Charlie has been given lasting resonance.