Reviews: Books

LISTENING FOR HENRY CROWDER, Anthony Barnett, Alardyce Book, 2007, paperback, 128 pages, $58. Includes CD recording.

Reviewed by William J. Schafer

This is a dense monograph on one of the fascinating minor characters in the pageant of early jazz. Henry Crowder is best remembered as the lover-partner of Nancy Cunard, an heiress and flamboyant patron of the modern arts in Paris and the U.S. during the 1920s. Barnett presents what facts can be gathered on Crowder's biography and supplies a CD with his music.

Crowder was born in rural Georgia in 1890, made his way to Atlanta, thence to Washington, D.C. Along the way he became a skilled professional singer and pianist, working in restaurants and high-class brothels then becoming a leader of a small band at Harvey's, a famous Washington seafood restaurant. He also founded a black musicians' organization, the Crescendo Club, on the model of James Reese Europe's New York Clef Club. He cut piano rolls for Capitol/Supertone and by the mid-1920s assembled his Alabamians, a big band that was fronted in the late 1920s by Jelly Roll Morton as his Red Hot Peppers around Chicago and as far afield as Canada.

In 1927, Crowder joined with Eddie South, and his quartet was involved in backing such popular performers as Bee Palmer, Gene Austin and Marion Harris. They then tried a junket to France in 1928, in which their plans unraveled, and then Crowder met Nancy Cunard in Venice, which reshaped the next few years of his career. In 1929, the band was involved in the notorious shoot-out between banjoist Mike McKendrick (of South's band) and the ever-volatile Sidney Bechet. On the streets of Paris near Bricktop's place, they had a Wild West confrontation that left three bystanders wounded and Bechet and McKendrick in jail for 11 months. Pianist Glover Compton was never quite right after it, either.

Nancy Cunard was busy patronizing and publishing soon-to-be-big writers and artists with her Hours Press. When she hooked up with Crowder, she planned a volume of songs for him, commissioning texts from Richard Aldington, Harold Acton, Nancy Cunard herself, Walter Loewenfels and the young Samuel Beckett. The folio was called Henry-Music and would be the young black man's ticket into the world of international modern art, literature and music. The admission price Crowder paid was the abandonment of his wife and children in the U.S.

Owing to Nancy Cunard's ministrations, he met luminaries and rising stars such as T.S. Eliot (Cunard was edited out of The Waste Land when she and Eliot quarreled), Ezra Pound, George Anthiel. William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky and many other quintessential 1920s modernists.

His relationship with Nancy Cunard lasted only until 1935, then Crowder moved in the French musical scene, playing with bands and revues. He worked in Brussels in 1938, and after World War II erupted, he was scooped up by the Nazis and interred, first in Belgium, then in Bavaria. He was released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange and returned to Washington. There he visited Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth's hospital and was largely inactive in music. He died in 1954 after a simple surgical operation.

By the aural evidence of the recordings included here, Crowder was a skillful and lyrical pianist with a somewhat raggy style. His role was mainly as an accompanist, but in the brief solos and interjections from the piano with Eddie South, he seems solid and attentive, supplying obbligati and slightly rococo decorations behind the soloists. On the one track from his Henry-Music included, "Memory Blues," aka "Boeuf sur le toit," he plays and sings pensively and with considerable feeling. He recorded "St. Louis Blues" at the same session and is a passable but not distinguished blues singer-pianist.

Henry-Music turned out to be pleasant, slightly jagged work in the vein of most modern art songs. Vocal lines are clear and singable, and the piano accompaniment is solidly pianistic without being obtrusive. Some, like "Boeuf sur le toit," are slightly jazzy and might have come out of a musical or a revue. Some reflect the influence of George Gershwin, a favorite of Crowder's.

Crowder is an interesting case of a working African-American musician of the 1920s and '30s. Beginning as largely self-taught, he mastered vernacular music of the era, acquired good piano technique, reading skills and even complex compositional processes. In his journey, he ran into such masters as Morton and South and became drawn into the esoteric world of ultra-modern art and fashion. Whoever thought America was no longer the land of opportunity?

The book and CD include a modern recording of Henry-Music, texts to these songs, many photographs, notes and writings by Henry Crowder and others to detail his career. It includes in clear order and with copious commentary, about everything likely to be known of this minor but exemplary figure who lived on the edge of both jazz and modern "classical" music. A very intriguing project, well conceived and finished.

This book/CD combination is distributed by www.cadencebuilding.com.

WALKING WITH LEGENDS: BARRY MARTYN'S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ ODYSSEY, ed. Mick Burns, Louisiana State University Press, 2007, paperback, 138 pages, $18.95.

Reviewed by William J. Schafer

This tape-recorded memoir is an intriguing journey into the career of a major figure in the jazz revival in New Orleans from the 1960s through the 1980s. Arriving in New Orleans in 1961, as the era of the "kitty halls" opened, the young British drummer-wannabe Barry Martyn dedicated himself to learning the music and meeting as many veteran musicians as he could find. He became an entrepreneur-bandleader, agent, tour director and record producer and left a considerable legacy of musicians and music rescued from oblivion.

In the course of his adventures with jazz musicians, Martyn was aided by William Russell, Dick Allen, Allen and Sandra Jaffe and many other major figures on the scene. He took drum lessons from Cie Frazier and led bands with some of the best and most famous musicians still on the scene. He was always focused on veteran African-American players, and eventually formed a touring group, the Legends of Jazz, that was an on-the-road version of Preservation Hall, Dixieland Hall, Heritage Hall and other venues in New Orleans.

Musicians in his first bands included such stalwarts as Louis Nelson, Joe Darensbourg, Ed "Montudi" Garland, Alton Purnell, Barney Bigard and many more. Martyn was at the drums and served as tourmaster, watchdog and passepartout for his often unpredictable charges. The book is packed with anecdotes, often very funny, of these jazz elders and their eccentricities. Martyn was an acute observer and gifted with a clear and detailed memory of his work and coworkers. As a naive but intensely curious explorer of the jazz scene, young Martyn soaked up all the sounds, sights and elements of New Orleans at a time when its culture was intact and fabulous.

While he recites interesting tales of musicians, which is what most RAG readers will appreciate about the story, he is also capable of taking the mickey out of his young self, as when he recalls discovering an American institution shortly after reaching the U.S.:

The next morning I walked over to Canal Street in search of breakfast, and found White Castle burgers -- little tiny things, four for a dollar -- they were really good. The lady asked me, "You wanna root beer?" I said, "No, I never drink this early in the morning." She laughed; she thought I was making a joke.

He also captures the character of people he recalls, like a small portrait of the saintly Bill Russell, shortly after Martyn met him:

It was a really windy night, and as we passed a barroom, the door opened and a man staggered out backwards and fell down on the sidewalk. The light from the bar shone on the man's face, and Bill said, "Good evening, Mr. Morgan. Can I help you up?" He got him on his feet, helped him across the street. And rang a bell. A woman answered the door, thanked us, and took the drunk in. He was Isaiah Morgan, the trumpet player. But what struck me was the politeness of it all. That was Bill.

Many little firsthand portraits like this help illuminate the era in ways no academic chronicle or conventional history could.

The book has elegant introductions to chapters from the late Mick Burns and useful appended material on recordings and musicians and notes clarifying the most important players mentioned. It needs more annotation about other people, places and things; someone as important to the period as Larry Bornstein is mentioned but not identified, and many local references are likely obscure to anyone except wholly dedicated obsessive-compulsives.

The text also could have used thoughtful light editing. It is repetitious, as most interviews are, with some notions reiterated verbatim, as in Martyn's complaints about British trad bands' habits of appearing onstage in silly costumes. Some characters are mentioned but left confusing, like an African-American tap dancer named Lon Chaney (aka "Isaiah Chaneyfield"). I kept envisioning the Wolfman.

Finally, editing would lose some hit-or-miss syntax and locutions of spontaneous recollection; most unedited interviews seem like very low-grade writing and are wearing to read. And given the huge cast of characters mentioned, the volume cries out for an index.

Barry Martyn dreamed from childhood on of voyaging to New Orleans in search of the wonderful music he discovered on old 78 rpm records, and his dreams came true, after considerable self-sacrifice and deprivation. Still active in the recording world of George Buck in particular, Martyn is modest about his own accomplishments, but simply narrating his story reveals how large a role he has played in the preservation of the last music from the mecca of jazz. It is a memoir both entertaining and enlightening for vivid details lodged in Martyn's memory. This book shows why oral history should be encouraged and used in mapping the byways of popular culture and its profound impact on the modern world.

Available from Louisiana State University Press, www.lsu.edu/lsupress

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May 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

P.O. Box 19068, Minneapolis, MN 55419.