Date Posted: 2005-01-31
We live in an era of musical riches. One can log onto the Internet and order almost everything you could ever want- complete, chronological representations of the major works of almost everybody in well-remastered and annotated collections. Likewise, everyone is recording- when I started collecting records in the 1960s it was possible to keep up with the new releases, even on my limited college student`s income. The recording business, and recording technology, hadn`t evolved to the point where anyone could put out a record with minimal outlay.
We were still, therefore, beholden to the so-called record industry to decide what we wanted to hear, and even then most of the people who play our kind of music (OKOM) were outside the boundaries of what they thought would sell. A few bankable artists got major label attention but many of the superstars of traditional jazz were unrecorded legends- Marty Grosz had`t recorded in a decade, the Original Salty Dogs had never recorded, Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood were infrequently recorded and Don Ewell, who set the New Orleans jazz world on fire by joining the Bunk Johnson band at Stuyvesant Casino in 1945, had`tt recorded for four years. I bought and internalized his three Good time Jazz LPs and then went looking for more- it was as if he’d dropped off the face of the earth. Why wasn`t anyone recording this magnificent pianist?
Even though no one was recording Don Ewell in the mid-60s, he was far from forgotten. He placed first in the first Jazzology Poll, ahead of better-known pianists like Earl Hines and Ralph Sutton. When the Jazzology Poll results were published Big Bill Bissonnette, trombonist, drummer and owner of the Jazz Crusade label decided to record a band consisting of the poll winners. He enlisted the help of George Buck, who gave him the go-ahead to use the poll results to pick his band and contacted Ewell, whom Bissonnette had never met.
Ewell flew from Florida to New Orleans in April 1965 and did two sessions for Jazz Crusade- Slow Drag`s Bunch, with Albert Burbank and Jim Robinson, and the Jazzology Poll Winners, featuring Kid Thomas (who placed second behind Louis Armstrong, who had prior commitments), George Lewis, Jim Robinson, George Guesnon, Don Ewell, Slow Drag Pavageau and Cie Frazier; basically all musicians associated with Preservation Hall with the exception of Ewell. Ewell, who hadn’t played with any of these men since the 1940’s, fell right into the music and the results were sensational. Both albums were purchased by GHB and the Poll Winners is currently available as BCD-200. A four-year recording hiatus was broken.
The next step in the Ewell Revival came in June 1966 with a unique three-company recording marathon. In addition to GHB, then located in Columbia SC, there were two other one-man record labels in the Carolinas- Pearl Records, run by Sonny Faggart in Salisbury NC and Center Records, operated by Leonard Brackett of Kannapolis NC. They were friendly rivals- between them they were just about the entire New Orleans jazz recording industry at that time. They shared expenses on a pied a terre above Vaucresson’s Bourbon Street restaurant for use on their frequent visits to New Orleans. Small businesses always needed additional capital and occasionally funds were provided by selling the alternate takes from a session for later use. George Buck provided financing for Bill Bissonnette’s Poll Winners LP this way, and provided the same service for Brackett and Faggart when they recorded Kid Thomas, Albert Burbank and Jim Robinson in 1964.
The triumvirate booked the band room of Boyden High School in Salisbury NC for a recording marathon. The idea was to record a small group drawn from the Jazzology Poll Winners- a quartet consisting of Jim Robinson on trombone, George Lewis on clarinet, Don Ewell on piano, and Josiah “Cie” Frazier on drums. There was a spate of records about that time featuring “short bands”- the Louis Nelson Big Four and Big Jim Robinson’s 1944 Revisited come to mind immediately- as companies decided to stretch their budgets by stripping a group down to its bare essentials. The organizers took advantage of every opportunity to save money- Sonny Faggart, who operated a dry cleaning plant, recorded the session himsefl with the assistance of George F Wilson, the school’s band director, using the recording equipment that came with the band room.
The session began at 3PM on June 5, 1966 with eighteen sides destined for Sonny Faggart’s Pearl label. These were never issued on Pearl and were sold to Delmark Records along with the rest of the Pearl label in the mid-1970’s. The sides languished unissued until about 1990, when they surfaced on a Delmark LP, Don Ewell’s New Orleans Reunion. The full Pearl session is now available on Delmark DE-220. Highlights include a beautiful version of The Waltz You Saved for Me, showing how the tune morphs into Mobile Stomp, a stomping Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye, and a beautiful rendition of Of All the Wrongs You’ve Done to Me.
The next portion of the proceedings, the 7:30 PM session, belonged to Leonard Brackett’s Center label. This portion included eleven takes with a trio, omitting Jim Robinson, and seven tracks with the full quartet. Leonard issued ten tracks almost immediately (summer 1967) as Center CLP-3, with liner notes by James Snyder and a grainy snapshot of the band by Sonny Faggart. Highlights include Cie Frazier’s only known vocal, on Stumblin’, a nice version of Georgia Camp Meeting, and fine readings of I’m Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now and When My Dreamboat Comes Home. Biograph bought the Center label in the mid-1970s and reissued the sides as Biograph/Center 3. At present they are leased to Lake Records of England, who issued LACD-50, a Portrait of George Lewis, also including a full band session from Center featuring George Lewis with DeDe Pierce. There remain two unissued numbers from that session (Rose Room and Maple Leaf Rag) and six alternate takes.
GHB owned the midnight session, all of which featured the full quartet. Eight of the sides were issued about 1970 as GHB-68, the number chosen because George Lewis died December 31, 1968. The set included liner notes from no less a personage than Rudi Blesh, author of Shining Trumpets and several other seminal jazz texts. The session includes a nice rendition of All the Girls Go Crazy, Atlanta Blues, a Ewell specialty, and one of the few versions of Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie by a New Orleans ensemble. There is plenty of unissued material to bring this release up to CD length.
It was nice to see three competitors get together for the common good and record that much wonderful music in one massive session. The cost to each individual label would have been prohibitive, but by working together they were able to produce three very fine products which have remained in demand since they were initially recorded.
The small group format is also a boon for those of us who like to study how jazz is performed. With the band stripped down to a bare minimum, one is able to appreciate how the musicians relate to one another. It is truly instructive to hear how Cie Frazier, arguably the best New Orleans drummer since Baby Dodds, varies his drumming from chorus to chorus. A novice drummer could do far worse than to give Cie’s work a close listen.
And whether or not they were responsible, Don Ewell was no longer a stranger to the recording studios. He started recording in earnest with his duet session with Willie the Lion Smith the following year and recorded prolifically for the rest of his life.
Don Ewell was the best pianist in the business for most of his career- no one else had the list of bands on his resume that he did- Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Turk Murphy, Jack Teagarden, the Dukes of Dixieland- and all were blessed by his presence. He was truly a musician’s musician. We’re glad to be able to return one-third of his 1966 marathon to print with a number of additional tracks.