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Revisiting The Barnes-Bocage Big Five

Date Posted: 2011-09-30

The final issue of New Orleans Music, which sadly ended at the end of 2010, included an article about the magazine's origins- its ancestry can be traced to Eureka, a short-lived journal from the early 1960s.

Eureka's genesis was attributed to the availability at long last of authentic New Orleans jazz records in England. One of the first projects to reach print in the UK was Sam Charters' Music of New Orleans series. Originally issued in the US on Folkways, the series included the earliest recordings of the working lineup of the Eureka Brass Band, documentary interviews with Punch Miller and Tony Parenti, as well as an excellent selection of (at the time) relatively recent recordings of the various small groups still working the neighborhood dance halls in the period just before. The sound quality was not always studio quality, but the music was first rate.
I bought the records when I started out and gave them a quick listen, then opted to listen to better-recorded material. A few years later I pulled the sides out again and was blown away, particularly by Emile Barnes, who was featured in several of the groups.

As time went on the Folkways set was de-anthologized- the Barnes-Bocage Big Five on England's NOJS label, the Kid Thomas dance hall session on MONO, the Kid Clayton and Emile Barnes sessions on Folkways, the Eureka Brass Band and Six and 7/8 String Band in magnificent two-CD sets on American Music.

What have been five LPs became six CDs and a handful of LPs and in recent months the Smithsonian Collection, who own the material from the original Folkways label, issued a pair of CDs drawn from the original LPs, so depending on how much music you want, you can have it all one way or another.

Within the last year, Mina Crais donated her photo collection to the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Ms. Crais is the widow of Bill Crais, who was a musician (trombone) as well as an attorney and one of the sparkplugs of the early New Orleans Jazz Club.

Barry Martyn was asked to help identify some of the photographs, many of which were taken back in the early days of the New Orleans Jazz Club. He was astonished to discover several photographs from the Barnes-Bocage Big Five session, none of which had ever been seen before.

The Barnes-Bocage Big Fives were reissued (AMCD-84) in 1995 using poor reproductions of the photos used in the NOJS LP thirty years earlier. They are one of the best examples of New Orleans dancehall music ever recorded- we'll include the photos along with Jim McGarrell's liner notes as a tribute to this fine small group.

BARNES-BOCAGE BIG FIVE
By Jim McGarrell

In 1950 I went as a penurious art student to New Orleans for a few days. I was following an interst in the music of that city that had begun when I was a teenaged collector of 78 rpm shellac records from the 1920s.

From the writings and recordings made by Bill Russell on his American Music label in the 1940s I learned that there were still musical contemporaries of Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and Jelly Roll Morton plying their craft in the Crescent City and I wanted to meet and hear them while they were still alive. Most were around the age I am now as this is written, in their mid-sixties, which seemed to me quite ancient; I was afraid they might expire any day.

I had no way of knowing when I landed in the city that, just as the genuine jazz sound was unlikely to be heard on used records found in white neighborhoods in Indianapolis, the best musicians usually played the best New Orleans jazz in street bands, bars and dance halls away from Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, where I naively went to look for it. I was lucky, however, because the great early George Lewis Band had just gotten a gig at the El Morocco there and most of his sidemen were known to me from Russell's recordings.

I listened through every set, bought them the occasional beer, visited their homes, and began a friendship which lasted several years.

When I returned for the whole summer in 1951, I noticed two other young white guys lingering on the sidewalk outside the club between sets through which they, too, attempted to nurse a single drink. These kids were Alden Ashforth and David Wyckoff, who were acolytes to Bill Russell and who had stopped off in Chicago to meet him after running away from their freshman year at Harvard on a jazz pilgrimage to New Orleans. When we had exchanged mutual enthusiasms, they told me excitedly of the street and dance band music they had found in just a couple of weeks there, and especially of the clarinetist Emile Barnes who had not been heard by any of the few jazz preservationists from the North of the previous decade, not even Russell. They took me to hear him on his weekend job at a nondescript little back street place with trumpeter Lawrence Toca and two rhythm players.

As soon as I heard a few bars of his warm Albert clarinet vibrato I knew I was in the presence of the same earthly sound that had thrilled me under the hiss and crackle of the shellac records of Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone, the sound that had won me to New Orleans music as a teenager.

I learned from my two friends and from Barnes that he handcrafted mattresses as a day job because he could not support his family from music alone; that he had been the clarinetist in the legendary Chris Kelly Band and the Camellia Band of Wooden Joe in the nineteen-teens and twenties, and that he would like to find the bigger audience that his music deserved. Alden, David, and I were convinced he was too important a musician in the development of New Orleans jazz never to have been recorded.

Meanwhile the families of Alden and David found them by employing a private detective, and Alden's father descended upon us to try to persuade them to return to college. I was the beneficiary of a few wonderful dinners (one at Galatoire's that we never could have afforded otherwise) as part of his gentle and generous persuasion. They struck a bargain that if he would provide an Ampex tape recorder and funds to record the Eureka Brass Band and a couple of studio sessions with dance band musicians—especially Barnes—they would return to college the following autumn. He agreed, and that, of course, is how they made the first recording of an existing, practicing jazz marching band. They decided that Barnes, however, should be showcased in a couple of all star ensembles with the best other they also wanted to record. That Kid Thomas would be one of these became obvious when, following a tip, we went across the river to the town of Algiers and heard his astonishing trumpet playing. Here was another brilliant musician unrecorded and previously unheard by aficionados from outside the city.

Bill Russell came down from Chicago to help Alden and David with technical aspects of all of these sessions. I acted as a gofer and bought beer for the musicians out of my wages as a short order cook in a hamburger joint above Canal Street.

After that halcyon summer of 1951 I went back to being an art student, first at Indiana University-- where I arranged and promoted a concert of the George Lewis Band in 1953—and later as a graduate student at UCLA—where I found myself becoming the chauffeur for the Lewis band when they played a gig in Beverly Hills in 1954.

By this time two of the Ashforth/Wyckoff American Music sessions featuring Barnes had been added to the American Music list, and I kept thinking that, as wonderful as much of the music was, there were only flashes of the brilliance we constantly heard when Barnes was playing on jobs with musicians, maybe lesser ones, but ones of his own choosing, in his own pickup bands. When I learned from friends in New Orleans in the spring of 1954 that he had begun playing regularly with the venerable trumpeter Peter Bocage in a five-piece ensemble, I determined to do a session of my own with that combination. Never mind that they used an electric guitar rather than a banjo, that they blew pop tunes rather than jazz standards, or that they played for the pleasure of neighborhood dancers rather than jazz-conscious listeners. I didn't want to embalm some re-creation of a music from the past; I wanted to capture a live music of that present time.

I was able to put the whole thing together over the summer of 1954 with a couple of auto trips from Los Angeles, some phone calls, and the help of friends like David Wyckoff, Billy Huntington and Dick Allen. I rented the legendary San Jacinto Hall where Russell had recorded Bunk and George Lewis in the 1940's. but where recent visits by Fats Domino had obliterated these occasions in the mind of the proprietor. I paid Union scale wages out of savings from my teaching assistantship, and a Hollywood record entrepreneur, who later lost interest, did lend me his ancient Cadillac for the final trek to do the recording on September 8, 1954.

After forty years the memory of the evening itself seems an anxiety-ridden though exhilaratingly blurred phantasm compared to the events leading up to it. We had, I think, only one rehearsal but since the band had played together on jobs, I didn't think more were needed. We opened the doors to the hall, not only because it was a hot night but because we thought that people coming from the neighborhood to hear the music and dance a bit would relax the musicians and add human warmth to the sound. They did, and it did, in my view. At one point a tap dancer started performing—he can clearly be heard on one take of Sheik of Araby- but as the evening wore on there were more and other dancers of all ages and styles.

Fortunately the recoded sound gives what memory can't. For me this will always be primarily the throbbing intensity of Emile Barnes' playing. Whether in quiet obbligato behind the lead of another instrumentalist or erupting glissando out of his own, he constantly surprises me with new musical inventions of heady delight. How does an under-educated mattress maker wring inexplicably complicated figures of this degree of sophistication from sometimes silly and banal pop tunes?
An older, more educated and "legitimate" musician, Peter Bocage, seems the perfect foil for Barnes. To say that he lays down a solid melody line is not to say that it is without inventiveness. Like Bunk, he can seem to be playing "book" melodies note for note, but his stylish phrasing makes them swing.

The rhythm section was anchored by drummer Albert Jiles, whose work I had previously had previously admired on some of the American Music sessions of the mid-40's. Bassist Eddie Dawson at seventy was the oldest musician on the date, and Homer Eugene on guitar at forty the youngest.

It was probably, but not exclusively, the swing-oriented amplifications of the latter which made these sides unacceptable to commercial "Dixieland" record labels in the 1950s and 60s. A selection was finally issued in England by6 the New Orleans Jazz Society (NOJS) in the 1970's and later by NOLA Records there, and I have heard that it became something of a cult item in the UK.

I am happy that it may now finally find a wider audience in this country and the world.


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