The San Jacinto Mystique by Paige Van Vorst
Date Posted: 2004-11-18

With this issue we present the last recording done in San Jacinto Hall. I recall meeting a jazz fan back in the 60`s bragging about his record
collection- "Yeah, I`ve got records from all the Halls in New Orleans- Preservation Hall, Dixieland Hall, San Jacinto Hall." As if one could have ever walked into San Jacinto Hall during those days and paid to hear New Orleans jazz.
San Jacinto Hall received a great reputation based on a few weeks of activity in 1944. As usual, the protagonist was Bill Russell. In the 1940`s New Orleans was not brimming with recording studios, and the few studios there were weren`t interested in recording black musicians. When Russell and friends first recorded Bunk Johnson they used a piano warehouse at Grunewald Music.
When Russell returned in July 1944 to record Bunk for American Music he decided to use one of the old dance halls then dotting New Orleans` older neighborhoods. He rented San Jacinto Hall, 1422 Dumaine St, for $10 a night.
The building was owned by Beansie Fauria, one of New Orleans all-time great characters. Fauria was the Numbers King of the South and had extensive real estate holdings, mostly bars and dance halls, as well as ownership of most of the slot machines in New Orleans. He was of mixed race and very light, like his relative, Afro-Italian trumpeter Ernie Cagnolatti. As Preston Jackson said, "The police would pick him up for questioning and they`d ask him if he was colored or white. He wouldn`t answer. He`d say, "I`m Beansie."
Fauria had owned the Astoria, well remembered as the home of the splendid Jones and Collins Astoria Hot Eight in the late 20`s, and he was still around in the seventies, as owner (in partnership with Larry Borenstein) of Vaucresson`s, a Bourbon Street restaurant which featured music by Yoshio and Keiko Toyama, Orange Kellin and Lars Edegran back when they were virtual unknowns working for tips. Upstairs was an apartment used as a New Orleans headquarters by no less than three record label owners- George Buck (of GHB), Leonard Brackett (of
Center) and Sonny Faggart (Pearl).
Beansie actually made an appearance at one of Russell`s recording sessions and sent for a case of beer for the band.
The Hall was built during the 1920`s and was named for the Battle of San Jacinto, an 1836 outburst that ended Mexico`s attempts to conquer the Republic of Texas. Locally the hall was usually referred to as San Jacintas. It had been rented to local organizations to house dances ever since it opened. There were apartments upstairs and Russell always had to worry that someone up there would play his radio too loud and spoil a recording, but apparently the neighbors didn`t intrude.
He got just what he wanted from the building- a resilient sound that became the hallmark for New Orleans recordings.
Russell never used the Hall again. When he returned in 1945 he couldn`t get the dates he wanted and they`d begun to operate the bar in the evening and there was the likelihood of having to shush the neighborhood drunks. Russell used Artisan`s Hall (usually pronounced Artesian Hall) for his Wooden Joe session but otherwise did most of his recording at the musicians` homes. I always think about Wooden Joe`s band whenever I drink well water.
Subsequent recording projects used Russell`s 1944 sessions as the ideal.
Decca used Artisan`s Hall in 1952 for a George Lewis session, and when Riverside recorded the Living Legends series in 1961 they used Jeunes Amis Hall, another wooden dancehall. Hope Hall in Algiers was also used occasionally, by both Barry Martyn and Leonard Brackett, despite a fairly bad echo.
San Jacinto Hall returned to prominence with the recording sessions produced by Thomas Bethell. A native of England, Bethell was teaching at a private school in Virginia when he decided to try his hand at recording. He issued four LPS on the San Jacinto label, recorded in the early 1960`s. The hall was in fairly poor shape by this time. Known them as the Five-Four Club, it featured rhythm and blues when there was music, and the upstairs apartments were pretty run
The four LPS Bethell produced were well received, particularly the first two, which featured some of the best George Lewis playing of that period. The first two San Jacinto LPS were recently reissued on GHB, and this time we are issuing the last session recorded at San Jacinto Hall, a previously-unissued 1966 date featuring Kid Thomas and Jim Robinson with Sammy Rimington.
There was at least one more recording done- when Japan`s New Orleans Rascals toured the US in the summer of 1966 they broke into the building, which had been purchased by the City and was awaiting demolition as part of an urban renewal project, and recorded one track just for the experience of it.
San Jacinto Hall burned down on January 9, 1967. Though the building has been gone for 35 years, its sound lives on in the recordings made by Russell and Bethell.

By Paige VanVorst
My wife and I recent repainted our spare bedroom. She tuned the radio to a "Smooth Jazz" station and I spent the day splashing paint to the tune of Kenny G, Ramsey Lewis, Boney James et al. By the end I was desperate for some "rough jazz," so I dug out a CD by Kid Thomas and it quickly blew away the dross.
Thomas` music has been blowing away the competition since the late teens. He is alternately praised as an unsullied exemplar of pre-Armstrong trumpet playing or derided as a musical primitive placed on a pedestal by the same types who earlier worshiped Bunk Johnson.
Thomas Valentine was born February 3, 1896 in Reserve, LA, a small town in St. Joseph Parish, about forty miles upriver from New Orleans. The town was large enough to support two brass bands- the Picquet and the Onward. Thomas`
father played with the Picquet, which had been tutored initially by the legendary Professor Jim Humphrey, who traveled throughout backwoods Louisiana tutoring brass bands in country towns and on former plantations. The Onward included most of the Hall family- the most famous of whom was Edmond Hall.
Thomas` father, who could play most of the brass instruments, ultimately became the keeper of the band`s instruments, which gave young Tom a chance to try his hand at several different instruments. By the time he was ten he`d mastered the valve trombone, impressing his father enough that he bought him a trumpet. By about 1915 he was playing regularly with a small band including various members of the Hall family- Robert, the oldest (who died recently at age 104), Edmond and Clarence all were in the band at one time or another. When they played their first paid gig at the Moran Club, they were a three-piece band- they only knew three pieces, which they played over and over again all night in different tempos. The band settled in for a five-year run at Moran`s. during this time they were also known as the Niles Redcaps, as Moran`s brother-in-law was a pharmacist and used the band to promote his patent medicines.
The musical scene around Reserve dried up in the early 20`s as many of the better players moved on to New Orleans and elsewhere.
Thomas settled in Algiers LA (across the river from New Orleans` French
Quarter) about 1922. Banjoist Elton Theodore had settled in Algiers and heard of Thomas from a friend. He wrote him a letter telling him how to get to Algiers and Thomas departed.
As he said, "We started to get the band together and would rehearse three or four times a week. Six of us altogether, we had George Henderson, drums; "Tete" Rouchon, bass; Albert "Loochie" Jackson, trombone; Elton Theodore, banjo; Steve Angrum, clarinet; and myself. We had jobs and the bass player asked me what my name was. I replied ‘Kid Thomas,` so we called ourselves the Kid Thomas band. We just rehearsed until we were heard by others.`
One of the seminal Kid Thomas stories is the cutting contest with Red Allen.
We`ll hear Thomas` take on it first:
"They decided to hold a two-band contest, just for kicks you know. ‘Sonny`
Allen (as Henry "Red" Allen Jr was known in Algiers) had a band, so there was one fellow for us, the other for Sonny, and they put up the money. Anyway, you couldn`t get in the place where it was held, it was so packed, so Sonny had the main bandstand and we had the bandstand by the front entrance. Sonny played one song, we`d play one, and so on. Now, we were coming to the end, and Sonny said, ‘We play for the prize.` I decided on something different and I picked out a beautiful waltz that I had played with a band in the country. I played it, everyone applauded as they had never heard a waltz like that before. Then Sonny played his song for the prize, which was a briefcase, but that waltz won the prize for me. They didn`t want to give us that prize, I was a stranger, so they wanted to give it to the hometown boy, Sonny. A policeman who was there said that we had won it fair, so I was given the briefcase, which I kept for a long time. As a result of that, I made a lot of enemies in Algiers, and we were not hired any more, although we had a better band than Sonny.
As Allen remembered it,
"It was kind of hard for Kid Thomas to win a contest with me in Algiers, because all of my playmates that grew up with me were there. Well I won it but one of the policemen came and took the prize from me and gave it back to Thomas.
We couldn`t do anything about it because we had no business in the place on
account of our age."
Thomas completed his formal musical education about the same time, with theory and harmony lessons from Manuel "Fess" Manetta, a multi-instrumentalist (sometimes at the same time) who also taught Emmett Hardy, the shadowy riverboat player often cited as a prime influence on Bix Beiderbecke.
Algiers had a flourishing music scene in the early 1920s- Henry Allen Sr led a popular brass band there, and the Bocage family included several prominent musicians. Thomas remained an Algerene for the rest of his life, and balanced his music with a succession of day jobs, mostly housepainting and handyman work.
Thomas` fortunes picked up about 1936 when he started playing at Specs`
Moulin Rouge. Wilfred Bocage had the job and he was getting tired of it. Specs called pianist Joe James who put him in touch with Thomas. The early band included Joe James, piano; Burke Stevenson, bass; Albert "Loochie" Jackson, trombone; Steve Angrum, clarinet, later Reuben Roddy, alto sax; Jimmy Davis, guitar; and Sammy Penn, drums.
As Thomas remembers, "We wasn`t in the Union . Celestin had the Union then and really wanted us in that union. I said to myself, ‘What do I want with the union?` I had more jobs than anyone, had enough jobs without the union. We played at the Moulin Rouge Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. This man Specs, he kept on worrying me that I ought to get in the union, so finally we did. We played nice songs back then. You couldn`t play the same songs on a job as regular as that. I used to go and buy songs to play.
Customers would ask for a number and next week when they came, I had it for them."
Thomas worked for Rodriguez for about twenty years, at the Moulin Rouge, the Tip Top, and the Westwego Old Firemens` Hall, among other sites. Thomas continued to learn the popular tunes of the day right up to the dawn of rock and roll. Some of the dance hall recordings of the 1950`s feature the band playing songs made famous by Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Joe Turner and others.
The New Orleans jazz crowd discovered Thomas during this period. He recorded for American Music in 1951 with pickup band including Emile Barnes and Harrison Barnes (now AMCD-10). The record received very limited distribution (300
copies) but got Kid Thomas on record. Alden Ashforth and David Wyckoff produced this session for Bill Russell and vividly remembered hearing Thomas for the first time. They were lost in Algiers trying to find where Thomas was playing and heard a trumpet coming from the next block. They followed the music only to find that Thomas was five blocks away! He was that loud.
Bill Russell would organize Saturday night car pools at his record store to take visitors to the West Bank to hear the Thomas band. Gradually word of Thomas` band spread and a record of his working band was done, in 1959, by enthusiast Mike Slatter. He issued it on England`s 77 label (now AMCD-49), and it achieved fairly good distribution, especially when leased to Arhoolie Records
for US distribution.
The Thomas band lost their West Bank following with the advent of rock and
roll- their regular customers were getting too old to go dancing regularly and their children were more interested in dancing to the music of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on the jukebox than dancing to the live music of Kid Thomas.
Fortunately for Kid Thomas, the first awakenings of what became Preservation Hall were starting, in Larry Borenstein`s art store, where elderly musicans would "practice" (to get around union regulations) and split a sometimes-sizable kitty. Thomas had one of the few organized bands in those days and they became a popular feature.
Thomas (along with Punch Miller, Charlie Devore, Doggie Berg, Josh Salter and Erwin Helfer) even got arrested about 1957 for violating one of New Orleans`
arcane racial codes, which prohibited black and white musicians from playing music together. Fortunately, Judge Babylon knew Thomas as a good "yard boy"
back in Algiers and let them off with a stern (and unintentionally-hilarious) warning.
In 1961 Riverside Records brought their mobile unit to New Orleans to record the remaining traditional jazz players in town. The Thomas band made a
sensational recording despite having a last minute replacement.
As Thomas remembered it, "I remember poor ‘Mile (Barnes) couldn`t make that High Society for ‘em.They cut him. They didn`t want no saxophone so Emanuel Paul got the 86 too. The records came out pretty good, considerin`."
As Barry Martyn remembered the session, "When it came time to record the session, Thomas blew out one of the microphones on That`s a Plenty, so they moved the equipment back twenty feet to accomodate. The sound filled the hall and spilled out into the street for blocks. Albert Burbank lived within champion spitting distance and his wife said ‘You all drowned the TV.` That was the power
of Kid Thomas and his band in 1961.
The Thomas band was one of the most stable units in New Orleans jazz history.
As Thomas observed, "The only way they get out is to die or quit. And I never had nobody quit." Joe James and Sammy Penn were with the band from its start in the 1930s until they died, James in 1964 and Penn in 1969. Emanuel Paul and Joe Butler joined in the mid-50`s and stayed on board until their deaths. The only real movement was in the clarinet chair, which was occupied in turn by Emile Barnes, Paul Barnes, George Lewis, Albert Burbank, Harry Shields, Raymond Burke and Manny Crusto.
Thomas made one of the first road trips of the Preservation Hall era in 1962 when he took his band (with George Lewis as a guest) to Minneapolis for a concert at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. The band was a sensation (and gave me my first glimpse of a real New Orleans jazz band) and Thomas became a regular visitor to Minnesota for the rest of his life. He also began visiting Connecticut under the aegis of Bill Bissonnette and the Connecticut Traditional Jazz Club about the same time.
International travel followed soon. Barry Martyn brought him to England in
1964 for a series of concerts and recordings and he toured Japan with George Lewis in 1965, where they appeared before massive audiences all over the country and made several recordings. By the time he became too old to travel, Thomas had visited most of the world- Australia, Israel, most of Europe, and Russia were all on his Preservation Hall itinerary, and he also made overseas trips aa a featured attraction with local bands and with the New Orleans Joymakers.
He took all the travel in stride, though there were some anxious moments once when the air marshals found a knife in his trumpet case and he had to prove that he wasn`t an air terrorist. His main rule when traveling was to eat lots of eggs, as there wasn`t much restaurants could do to mess them up.
No matter how far he traveled or who he met in his travels, he was the same man he`d always been back on the West Bank. I had a long conversation with him in 1969, about the time of the first moon landing. He said he didn`t think the astronauts could go to the moon; he said an old lady told him they`d tried that once before and that was why we spoke different languages. I`d never thought of the Tower of Babel as an early space shot, but it made some sense. He said, though, that if the men came back in one piece then he wanted to go up there and buy some farmland. We`d had a lot of rain and he spoke well of that- he knew an old lady in Mississippi who never wore shoes and she had the healthiest feet he`d ever seen because "all the minerals from the mud gets into your feet and makes them strong." He said it rains for forty days in the summer in New Orleans- "why, you can be sitting on the porch and it will just be raining out by the gate."
As a performer Thomas was definitely a master of old-school New Orleans hokum. He was a great showman and carried all sorts of props with him to add to the musical experience. He developed an elaborate routine on Milk Cow Blues, a 1930`s blues associated with Big Bill Broonzy but also associated with Elvis Presley. He acted out an argument between an old lady and a farmer over a stray cow, alternating a growling voice and a convincing falsetto, even donning a cotton-chopper`s bonnet when acting the old lady`s part. Ting-a-Ling was also done up royally, with Thomas trotting out a trunkful of bells which he`d ring during Albert Burbank`s vocal.
Barry Martyn characterized the Thomas band as a "gathering place of lost souls in New Orleans music. An out of town alto man from Kansas City; a less than always sober trombone player; a piano man who didn`t know his chords too well; a bass man who gave up music to become a preacher; and a good time cat who kept Jack Daniel`s busy in Lynchburg, TN. He welded them together in a unit that was hard to beat. Whatever they played it was right on"
The group included (generally) Emanuel Paul on tenor sax, Louis Nelson on trombone, Joe James on piano, Joseph Butler, bass, and Sammy Penn, drums. They all put in at least twenty years with Thomas and were fiercely loyal to him.
And I never saw a band that arrived as early for a job as they did. I spent an afternoon at the fairgrounds during an early New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They didn`t want to take any chances and arrived two hours early for their appearance.
Emanuel Paul took over the reed position from Edmund Washington about 1957.
He had a huge sound on tenor, and his work was one of the highlights of the Eureka Brass Band; his solo on the Westlawn Dirge (American Music AMCD-70) is one of the most moving pieces of New Orleans music ever recorded. Paul belonged to the same church growing up as Mahalia Jackson. He started as a violinist, then migrated to the banjo before settling down on tenor. He was a friendly guy and a master of the old custom of making up little rhymes about the people he met, based on their names and/or characteristics. The existence of a tenor saxophone in a New Orleans ensemble was still highly controversial during the 50`s and 60`s and many of the early projects saw Paul replaced with a clarinetist, though Thomas hadn`t used one in his band after Steve Angrum left in the early 1940s. When the Preservation Hall era began Thomas started using a clarinetist, though he wouldn`t drop the saxophonist, even though that meant his band was one piece larger than the other bands at the Hall and therefore less likely to be hired.
Louis Nelson was different kind of New Orleans trombonist- he had a good ear and a thorough musical education, and alternated a melodic lead with tailgate passages . When they needed to learn a new tune Thomas would buy the sheet music and Nelson would play it over until the rest of the band caught on. He could play more melodic trombone than anyone else in New Orleans, then take barrelhouse solos that were the equal of anyone in town. He was tall, with movie-star good looks, and generally was a man of few words. He came from a well educated background- his father was a physician and his mother graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music- and he always carried himself as a cut above the rest of the men he worked with.
Joe Butler was basically a self-taught bassist, and I doubt he ever worked regularly with anyone other than Thomas. He was a gifted singer, patterning himself after his cousin Louis Armstrong, though with his own very original takes on popular numbers, such as the lecture on the virtues of farming that he slipped into Pennies from Heaven. His Big Lunch Blues, an open-ended string of blues lyrics touching on his experiences during the Depression and the Second World War, was often a highlight of Thomas band performances.
Drummer Sammy Penn was a natural showman, genial in a sort-of Uncle Tom manner. He`d start with a fresh cigar at the start of the gig and it would be totally chewed up by the end of the evening without ever being lit. He served as the master of ceremonies, and when he got out his megaphone and announced that "All good things must come to an end," you knew that was the end of the evening. He was a very good drummer, with excellent bass drum work, and a large arsenal of little runs and fills.
Kid Thomas approached the trumpet unlike anyone else in the business for most of the time he ran his band. He almost played the trumpet as if it were a rhythm instrument. and if he wasn`t playing the trumpet he`d often join the rhythm on tambourine or slapstick. His music consisted of a series of blats and bursts of notes that many considered pre-Armstrong in origin. He did not take solos in the accepted sense, though he was forced in his last years to take more solos, mostly because everyone else at Preservation Hall was doing so, and because he no longer had the same band he`d had originally as his men died off; he outlived all but one of his regular sidemen, working regularly until he was 90.
Valentine made a strong impression on people. When the New York Times asked Woody Allen what he really wanted to do, his answer was simple: "I want to be like Albert Burbank and play the clarinet in the Kid Thomas band." Kenny Davern had suggested to Allen that he visit New Orleans on his way to the West Coast and Allen got one look at the Preservation Hall band and he was hooked.
Thomas was always an inspiration to younger musicians. Charlie Devore of St Paul was stationed in New Orleans with the Navy in 1957 and met Bill Russell and went on many of the Saturday night excursions to hear Thomas at the West Bank dance halls. He took trumpet lessons from Fess Manetta, who had been Thomas`
teacher, and has had a distinguished career playing first rate New Orleans music.
Kid Bastien led a band in Toronto for at least 25 years until his recent death. The Happy Pals were always patterned man-for-man after the Thomas band and it was uncanny to see how closely they had copied the band`s style.
Kid Thomas died June 16, 1987 at the age of 91. He left behind a tremendous recorded legacy and fans and friends all over the world.
This time out, we are remembering Thomas with two new releases. On GHB
BCD-409 we have the final recording made at New Orleans historic San Jacinto Hall, featuring Thomas with an all-star group including Jim Robinson, Sammy Rimington, Chester Zardis, Mike Polad and Sammy Penn.
On American Music AMCD-117 we are reissuing on CD the session recorded in 1960 featuring Thomas` band with Raymond Burke added on clarinet. Dr. John Phelan, a New England physician, had heard the Thomas band on several trips to New Orleans and decided to record them for his private use. He gave a copy of the tapes to the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane and generations of Thomas fans, myself included, went to the Archive to hear this fabulous session. It was finally issued on Jazzology JCD-30 in the late 70`s but it has been out of print for some time. Now we`re putting it out on CD with some additional material to bring it up to CD length.
Both of these sessions are among the best Kid Thomas to appear in recent years and would be a tremendous addition to any comprehensive collection of New Orleans jazz.

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