Date Posted: 2006-03-17
ARMAND PIRON AND SAM MORGAN- TWO SIDES OF NEW ORLEANS IN THE 20`S By Paige VanVorst (Ed note: One of our new releases this time is a tribute to Armand Piron and Sam Morgan by the Barry Martyn Band.
As has become common, we have combined two LPs into one CD and we now have the opportunity to hear the Martyn Band pay tribute to two of first New Orleans-based bands to appear on record.) Armand Piron and Sam Morgan surround the New Orleans jazz scene of the 1920s like bookends- they represent the extremes of the genre- the genteel, sophisticated Piron sound on one end contrasting sharply with the visceral, stomping Morgan band on the other.
Armand J Piron was a violinist, a product of New Orleans largely-Creole Seventh Ward. He was from a musical family- his father was a music teacher and taught all three of his sons- brother Milford, a cornetist, led the orchestra of the Autocrat Club, a long-lasting Creole organization. Another brother, Albert was also a violinist.
Piron was born in 1888. He suffered a serious injury to his hip when he was about nine and thereafter walked with the aid of a crutch. His injury may have aided his musical development as he was unable to participate in sports and had more time to practice. He began his musical career about 1904. He was a member of the Bloom Philharmonic, a 22-piece semi-classical unit as well as the Silver Leaf Band and the Peerless Orchestra. By the mid-teens he`d become a prominent musician around New Orleans. He took over the Olympia Orchestra when Freddie Keppard left to join the Original Creole Band on the road, replacing Keppard with Joe Oliver. Other members of the Olympia at different times included Bunk Johnson, Big Eye Louis Nelson Delisle and Clarence Williams.
Piron and Williams went into business about 1915, operating a music publishing company at 1315 Tulane Avenue. One of the firm`s first big hits was I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, though New Orleans lore generally credits composition of the number to Louis Armstrong, who reportedly sold the tune for a pittance to the firm.
Piron began leading a band at Tranchina`s, a popular restaurant at the Spanish Fort, an amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain. This was a fine restaurant and one of the plum musical jobs in New Orleans. Piron gradually assembled his group though there was some movement into and out of the band as his musicians seem to have been attractive to Fate Marable because of their reading ability and several of them left from time to time to take jobs on the steamers.
The Piron band generally included Peter Bocage on trumpet, though he doubled on almost everything else, including violin, trombone, banjo and xylophone.
Bocage came from a large family of musicians from Algiers LA and two of his clan were also with Piron, cousin Henry on string bass and brother Charlie on banjo. Bocage had a long musical career in New Orleans, including a long stint with the Eureka Brass Band and work at Preservation Hall in its early days.
Lorenzo Tio Jr played clarinet with the band- his father emigated from Mexico in the late 1900s and became active with various groups of the pre-jazz era.
Lorenzo Tio Jr was one of the most celebrated New Orleans reedmen of all time, and his students included virtually every great New Orleans clarinetist, including Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon, Louis Cottrell Jr, Emile Barnes, Albert Burbank and Harold Dejan. He wrote a tune, "Dreamy Blues," which was reportedly used a theme by the Piron Orchestra in the 1920s- later it surfaced as "Mood Indigo," with composer credit to Barney Bigard and Duke Ellington.
John Lindsay was the trombonist for most of the band`s early existence. He is better known as one of the very finest string bassists in jazz history, gracing both Jelly Roll Morton`s Red Hot Peppers and Louis Armstrong`s first big band.
Louis Cottrell Sr was Piron`s drummer. He was one of the finest drummers in New Orleans at the time, capable of reading complex arrangements for theatrical
shows in addition to driving a jazz band.
Steve Lewis was Piron`s pianist. He was a Storyville veteran, and one of the madams of the time said he was better than Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, both of whom she`d also employed. He was the prime influence on Luis Russell, who led one of Harlem`s best bands. Lewis was also a consummate cabaret entertainer and worked as a piano bar musician after he left Piron. He was quite unstable in his later years- Willie Humphrey remembered how he came to the job one night wearing a dozen tie clips, one every inch along his tie and told the band this was the latest style; he drove a car in the late 1930`s with a polka-dot paint job. Dr Edmond Souchon tried hard to rehabilitate Lewis beginning in the mid-1930`s but he died in 1939.
The Piron band developed enough of a following in New Orleans that they were lured to New York in 1923 with an offer from the Cotton Club. The resident Sam Lanin unit stayed around in case the band didn`t make it, but they did fine, amazing New York musicians of the era with their easy swing - this band was considerably smaller than most of the NY bands of the time, who had not as yet been subjected to the revolutionary music of Louis Armstrong and generally featured staccato brass and leaden rhythm. The band returned to New Orleans and Tranchina`s briefly and then went back to NY for an engagement at Roseland.
While on their second NY visit they recorded for both Victor and Okeh both by themselves and as accompanists to blues singers, probably through the offices of Clarence Williams, Piron`s old partner. Publicity photos of the era have the band billed as Williams Ten Jazz Kings.
The band ultimately got homesick and took a vote, the result of which was the band`s return to New Orleans and Tranchina`s. The band were recorded in New Orleans by field recording units of both Okeh (1924) and Victor (1925).
The band continued to work throughout the 1920`s, though Piron decided the group was old-fashioned about 1928 and he and the band split. Piron took over an existing band, George Augustin`s Moonlight Serenaders, and took a job on the S S Pelican. Most of the old band regrouped as the Creole Serenaders under Peter Bocage`s leadership and worked successfully for many years.
Armand Piron died in 1943 at New Orleans` Charity Hospital.
The Piron band was a light, swinging group featuring fine musicianship. As such they were able to work in the finest hotels and restaurants in New Orleans, and they seldom lacked for work.
Armand Piron wrote most of the band`s numbers, and they are fine multi-themed compositions. The best known today is probably Mama`s Gone, Goodbye, though many groups over the years have tackled Bouncing Around and West Indies Blues.
Sam Morgan, on the other hand, was described (unfairly, to be sure) by Martin Williams as "crude." The band was as robust as Piron`s outfit was polite, producing a pulsating sound driven by a powerful rhythm section and a five-man front line. Ken Mills, always a master of hyperbole, said "In New Orleans in the 1920`s, Sam Morgan`s band was as anonymous as Denmark`s Touberg Beer sign, which on a clear day can be seen in Sweden."
Sam Morgan was born in Bertrandville LA in 1887- he was the oldest of four musical brothers. Younger brother Isaiah was also a trumpeter, while Andrew Morgan played clarinet and tenor and baby brother Al Morgan played the string
bass- He`s the bass player in the Cab Calloway "Reefer Man" sequence in W C Fields` "International House."
Sam Morgan first came to the attention of New Orleans music fans in the early 1920s with his Magnolia Band. The band was good enough to inspire Big Jim Robinson out of his postwar slump- he gave up music for a year about 1920 but took it up again so he could join the Magnolia. Sam Morgan suffered a stroke in 1925, disbanded his group and took a year off from music.
When the effects of the stroke had worn off, Sam Morgan returned to music as a member of the Young Morgan Band, led by his younger brother Isaiah. Sam Morgan`s name still carried a lot of weight around New Orleans and the group was soon known as the Sam Morgan band.
The band recorded twice in 1927, when Columbia Records set up its mobile recording unit at the Werlein Music Store. The record companies generally never recorded bands that worked in the black dancehalls, but they`d apparently been told about the band by members of Papa Celestin Band, whom they`d recorded earlier. The band recorded eight sides, which were largely sold around New Orleans. The records were obscure collectibles and largely unknown outside New Orleans. They weren`t even listed in Delaunay`s New Hot Discography.
The band`s repertoire was tremendous. Morgan had an ability to convert almost anything into a jazz tune and on their session one of the highlights, "Mobile Stomp" is a stomping rendition of "The Waltz You Saved for Me," featuring a brilliant, unprecedented (at the time) two-instrument stop-time chorus featuring reedmen Earl Fouche and Andrew Morgan. "Bogalusa Strut," another Morgan standard, is drawn from the "Rose Leaf Rag."
The Morgan band recorded three spirituals, apparently a request from the recording engineer. They`d never played the numbers before and never played them again, but they were tremendous, and the first time a jazz band ever recorded religious material. "Over in the Gloryland," "Sing On," and "Down By the Riverside" stayed in the New Orleans repertoire.
During the time of their recordings, the Morgan band generally worked weekends in New Orleans and toured all over the Gulf Coast during the week, traveling on occasional all the way into the Florida Panhandle. Once their records came out they carried them along on jobs much like bands do today, and Sam Morgan even used to stand on the street in front of records stores hawking his records.
The band had a relatively stable personnel, helped in part by having three brothers in the band. The trumpets were Sam and Isaiah Morgan, Jim Robinson played trombone, and the reeds were handled by Earl Fouche and Andrew Morgan. The string bass was brilliantly handled by Sidney "Jim Little" Brown. The banjo chores were handled by Johnny Dave. The rest of the rhythm section varied a
little- Tink Baptiste and Nolan Williams played piano and drums on the first session, while they were replaced for the latter sides by Walter Decou and Roy Evans.
The Morgan band was well known for its time. This was true of the earlier Magnolia band and most certainly the band that recorded for Columbia. Morgan used to drill the rhythm section with a slapstick. Jim Robinson said "Sam would set a tempo and that rhythm would hold you. Oh, Sam was on the time because Sam had one of them slapstick...You couldn`t move them fellows." The band would find a beat the dancers liked and hold it all night except for specialty numbers.
The Morgan band went north once, on an L&N railroad excursion in 1929. They played several concerts at Warwick Hall on 47th St and played a birthday party for Kid Ory at Palm Beach IN. They got to get together with all their friends from New Orleans that were working in Chicago.
The band continued to work through the early 1930`s, though they found they had to stay on the road more in order to find work. Sam had a second stroke in
1932 while they were playing a date in Bay St Louis MS. He lay helpless on the stage until the gig was over and then the band sent him home on the train. He stayed with the band for a while taking tickets, helping out where he could.
The band broke up in 1933.
Morgan joined the WPA music program during the Depression and when he failed to pass a music examination he was dropped from the program and he gave up playing.
He caught pneumonia while watching the parades the night before Carnival in
1936 and he died the next day. He had one of the largest funerals with music New Orleans had seen.
Sam Morgan`s music died with him and it remained dormant until the early 1960s. When Riverside brought their mobile recording unit to New Orleans in 1961, Jim Robinson mentioned how much he enjoyed playing Morgan`s songs and the producers had Richard Allen of the Tulane Jazz Archive play a couple Morgan records for the band. One by one, the men fell into the old songs, roaring chorus after chorus on songs that hadn`t been played in twenty-five years.
Later that same year, Ken Mills recreated the Morgan sound using a band under the leadership of Kid Howard, also featuring Jim Robinson and Andrew Morgan of the original band, along with a brilliant outing from Captain John Handy.
The group succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original band on several of their numbers, with Handy and Andrew Morgan duetting brilliantly in the footsteps of Fouche and Morgan.
The record at hand was done not to long afterward, when Handy and Kid Sheik Cola were touring England with Barry Martyn`s band. Likewise, the Piron tribute was recorded when trombonist Louis Nelson, one of New Orleans most polished musicians, was touring England with Martyn.
The Barry Martyn band shows its versatility by being able to adapt to very dissimilar musical styles while at the same time adjusting so they can work seamlessly with their visiting stars. I`ve had this music in my collection for
almost forty years and it`s nice to have it available on CD.
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