Date Posted: 2009-06-15
MONK HAZEL AND HIS NEW ORLEANS RHYTHM KINGS
By Paige VanVorst
Southland Records’ Joe Mares was one of those idiosyncratic record label owners who make jazz so interesting. He’d been around long enough to know every musician in New Orleans; the fact that his brother was the great Paul Mares, the star of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, one of the first bands to take authentic New Orleans jazz to Chicago provided an entre to almost anyone on the New Orleans scene he didn`t already know.
Joe was in the hide and fur business, which meant he spent his days dealing with trappers, buying dead alligators and various fur-bearing animals. He set up a music room in a corner of his shop, and when he was done with his work for the day he’d get together with his musician friends to talk about music and maybe play a tune or two. These sessions naturally led into recording sessions- he developed into a pretty good record producer by trial and error and his sessions have stood the test of time- Barry Martyn has been plowing through a mountain of tape we acquired almost forty years ago, unearthing unissued sessions and alternate takes from dates we’ve been familiar with for years.
This session is under the nominal leadership of drummer Monk Hazel. Hazel was a veteran New Orleans musician- his career stretched all the way back to the 1920s and he’d been in the big time- during the 1930s he toured extensively with the great Gene Austin as part of the comedy singing group Candy and Coco.
By the time of these recordings he’d settled back in New Orleans and was working on Bourbon Street with Santo Pecora.
The session, held November 1, 1955, was only the second under his leadership- his only other attempt as a leader was a 1928 session by Monk Hazel and his Biennville Roof Orchestra, one of many great sessions recorded when the major labels sent their mobile recording equipment to New Orleans back in the 1920s.
Joe Mares went all-out to find a good band for Monk- he picked two of the youngsters in New Orleans at the t time- Al Hirt and Pete Fountain. They were virtual unknowns at the time, though Fountain had appeared on record with the Basin Street Six and the Dukes of Dixieland.
They were so far out of the musical big time then that they were working day jobs with Orkin- running around New Orleans in orange jumpsuits exterminating pests. The Orkin job was not without its jazz connections- their headquarters was the same building that had housed the fabled Halfway House, roadhouse halfway between downtown New Orleans and the nightclubs at the Spanish Fort on Lake Pontchartrain. Their boss was trumpeter Mike Lala, who’d made a few sessions for Southland himself.
Hirt was not even known as a jazz musician at the time- he was just another jobbing musician around town, working in hotel bands and wherever else he could scare up a gig to support his wife and eleven children. He certainly proves here that he was ready for the jazz world- from the first note of Panama to the last note of Gypsy Love Song you know you’re in the presence of an authoritative jazzman. When I was growing up he was already more famous for his novelty records and in my effete snobbery refused to have anything to do with his music- I guess I should have at least listened to these sides, as he is surprisingly good here.
Al Hirt became one of the most visible trademarks of New Orleans following his period of national popularity in the late 1960s. He opened his own club in the French Quarter and remained a popular tourist attraction for the rest of his life. I remember on my first visits to NO the cabs would all have signs on the roof indicating that he was in town so the tourists would know to flock to his club and see the show.
Hirt even tried his hand at playing traditional jazz during that period- he hired an old black musician, Andrew Morgan, and tried to bill his band as Al Hirt and his Preservation Hall Jazz Band until he was hit by an injunction from Allan Jaffe’s attorneys.
Pete Fountain was also a relative unknown in 1955- lightning would strike him about two years later when Lawrence Welk hired him as a featured soloist on his TV broadcasts- Fountain has been in the musical big time ever since- he’s made dozens of albums, appeared over forty times on the Tonight show, and in post-Katrina New Orleans he’s become a symbol of the town’s resilience- he lost everything he owned to the floodwaters but he picked himself up and continued his career where it left off.
Fountain and Jack Delaney, the trombonist on this session, were products of a unique New Orleans institution, Johnny Wiggs’ music school. Wiggs, a cornetist whose career began in the mid-1920s and ended at Preservation Hall in the 1970s, spent much of his life teaching drafting at Warren Easton High School. During a short period after World War II, however, he also operated a neighborhood music school, and his students included George Girard and Sam Butera in addition to Fountain and Delaney.
Pete Fountain’s career has been long and productive and, like Hirt, he became a French Quarter institution, providing employment for a number of the city’s best musicians over the years.
Trombonist Jack Delaney was one of New Orleans’ hidden treasures. He was a very reliable musician who worked nonstop from the mid 1950s to the 1970s, though in his later years he was buried in Leon Kelner’s Blue Room Orchestra, a popular hotel orchestra that unfortunately was never recorded.
Guitarist Joe Capraro and pianist Roy Zimmerman were in the rhythm section on a number of Southland sessions. Capraro, who had been active in New Orleans as early as the 1920s was brought back into music by Joe Mares when he started Southland. Zimmerman was one of a number of musicians who began playing in the early 1950s and he remained active into the 1980s, doing a bit of traveling out of town to appear at jazz festivals.
The 1955 band contribute five tracks to the session, one of which, Gypsy Love Song, is previously unissued. They lead off with Panama, which is probably the most-recorded New Orleans standard, then they’re joined by Rita St Claire for a lovely vocal on Of All the Wrongs You’ve Done to Me, a seldom-recorded number dating from the 1920s. I Used to Love You features a nice vocal from Delaney.
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was one of the songs that kept the home front happy during World War I- this version features another vocal from Ms. St Claire as well as a mellophone solo from Monk Hazel, one of the few jazzmen to play the instrument, basically a french horn with piston valves. Hazel also doubled on cornet and valve trombone over his long career.
Joe Mares recognized early on that you can’t keep recording the same half dozen standards over and over again- this is a beautiful number that was beloved by early New Orleans musicians- Raymond Burke made a beautiful recording of the number for 504 Records late in his career. Pete Fountain is featured here in nice solo on tenor sax, an instrument he seldom featured once he became an established star. This take includes some beautiful ensemble playing driven by some powerful lead trumpet from Hirt.
The second session that comprises this CD was recorded two years later, April 10, 1957 and features a different band except for Delaney, Zimmerman and Hazel. Trumpet chores are handled by another Southland reliable, Merwyn “Dutch” Andrus.
The standout artist on the second session is Harry Shields, another musician whose career was largely documented on Southland. Shields is best known as the younger brother of Larry Shields, who was one of the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz band to record and one of the sensations of the period following World War I- they were sensations wherever they performed and they even spent significant time in England, where they made a number of recordings and were influential on the few jazzmen then working in England.
Harry Shields, however, seldom left New Orleans. He remained active over the years and worked for a number of bandleaders over the years. In his final years he worked with Kid Thomas at Preservation Hall during a period when the Hall began hiring white musicians, including Wiggs, Shields, Raymond Burke and Chink Martin. He was not pleased with the band he was with, referring to them as the “Worlds Second Worst Jazz Band,” a reference to the then-popular World’s Greatest Jazz Band. When you asked him who the World’s Worst Jazz Band was, he’d explain that was the main band at Preservation Hall, then featuring Billie and DeDe Pierce. He was considered a master of counterpoint and he was a favorite musician of a number of postwar leaders, including Johnny Wiggs.
The other veteran in the second band was Chink Martin, who plays the brass bass here. Martin, whose real name was Martin Abraham, was of German and Phillipine ancestry, hence his nickname. He was born in 1886 and spent seventy years as a jazzman. He recorded in the days of cylinders and he was featured with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, another of the seminal groups that brought jazz to the world outside of New Orleans. He continued to play around New Orleans for the rest of his life- he lived to be 94 and played the string bass at Preservation Hall right up to the end. He was a delightful little man- he was no more than five feet tall- who retained his energy and sparkle right to the end.
The second session comprises eight numbers, four of which are previously unissued. Joe Mares was a perfectionist and usually had his bands do more than one take and most of his LPs involved more than one session, like this one, so the Southland tape vault includes a large amount of material which has never seen the light of day including, in some cases, entire sessions.
Angry opens the session, featuring a parody vocal from Jack Delaney which is oddly enough the same as the vocal recorded years later by Georg Brunis on a Delmark session with Art Hodes. Brunis always claimed to have written the song which he sold for $50- the song is attributed to Jules Cassard, Raymond Burke’s uncle, and Dudley Mecum.
Basin Street Blues is another of those standards you just can’t avoid- here it features a vocal from Jackie Blaine. Let Me Call You Sweetheart, one of those old numbers that has remained popular, features a beautiful clarinet solo from Harry Shields . When You’re Smiling and It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie both receive bouncy performances by the band, which features great rhythm thanks to Monk Hazel and Chink Martin.
Monk Hazel is largely forgotten today- he was kind of a shabby looking man, who looked like the alcoholic he was. He spent his entire life in music and he was always working as he never let his drinking get in the way of his music. He was one of Joe Mares’ old friends and I’m sure Joe was delighted to give him the chance to lead a couple of sessions and get his name on an LP. We’re glad to be able to present the full output of his two Southland sessions at last, including five tracks that are previously unissued. And, of course, it is nice to hear Pete Fountain and Al Hirt before they were household names, back when they were just lean and hungry young musicians.