November 12, 2001
For his 100th birthday, New Orleans decided to throw Pops a party. A crowd of several hundred people is gathered at the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter for Satchmo Summer Fest, the Louisiana Office of Tourism-sponsored celebration honoring the centenary of native son Louis Armstrong.
As the afternoon of lectures, panel discussions and free outdoor concerts draws to a close, the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble takes the stage to present a program by artists other than Louis Armstrong.
"We're going to be playing music by some of the great cornetists who preceded Armstrong," explains clarinet player Fred Starr in introducing compositions by the likes of Kid Shots Madison, Peter Bocage and Paul Mares. "We're working our way up to Armstrong."
As the band prepares to launch into King Oliver's rollicking "Canal Street Blues," Starr relates an incident from the afternoon's academic conference on Armstrong. A visiting academic, Starr says, had the audacity to suggest that the Canal Street of the title might in fact refer to Chicago's Canal Street.
A thunder of boos rings out from the partisan crowd. "If there's a policeman in the audience," Starr says, "I think an arrest is warranted..." Few bands have done more in their careers to strip away the myths and historical distortions that surround early jazz than the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble. For more than two decades, the ensemble has pursued the singular mission of recreating with the utmost fidelity the jazz styles of pre-1930s New Orleans.
Working from dusty, yellowed arrangements and using obsolete period instruments, the ensemble performs the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and others not only in the style of the day but in the distinct style of each band. The ensemble has released five critically acclaimed records, the most recent The Golden Age of New Orleans Jazz.
The band's Hot and Sweet Sounds of Lost New Orleans earned a four-star review in The Penguin Guide to Jazz, the guide's highest rating, and they received the Smithsonian's Doubleday Prize, becoming the first jazz artists to receive such an honor.
The ensemble recently celebrated its 21st anniversary as a group and as the "performing arm" of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane, an affiliation that reflects the band's birth at Tulane and underscores its reliance on archival materials to flesh out the sound of early jazz.
When the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble was founded in 1980, classic New Orleans jazz--the ensemble style played by countless bands of the 1920s and earlier--had all but disappeared from the performing landscape. Few venues in New Orleans or elsewhere even attempted to showcase traditional jazz, and the style at Preservation Hall, a tourist-friendly mishmash of Dixieland and swing, bore little relation to the source.
"The old music just was not being played," says Starr, who, today, when not playing reeds in the LRJE, is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "The repertoire had shrunk to a few dozen hackneyed tunes that were being played badly. The old players had a huge repertoire of stuff, all of them--white, black, Sicilian, Creoles of color. They had very complex, worked-out pieces. They had complicated arrangements. Introductions. Complex endings. Unexpected breaks. Modulations. By the time we started in 1980, not only had the repertoire shrunk but all the complicated pieces were lost."
Finding those lost pieces has become a 20-year pursuit.
To Starr, the acclaim is just lagniappe. The true reward is paid on the dance floor. "We set out to do something that's impossible--to play the music as it was done 60 years before us," he says. "And to our delight, people respond."
Fred Starr was born in Cincinnati in 1940, the son of a businessman-historian father and an artist mother. He picked up the clarinet at an early age and by 16 was a working musician, earning his stripes with jazz combos that played the seedy honky-tonks of river towns like Newport, Ky.
As the sun set on the age of burlesque, he backed fading queens with names like Rose LaRose and Melba, "the Toast of the Town." Urban jazz fans his age may have been embracing bebop and modern jazz, but Starr remained committed to traditional jazz. "I grew up 30 or 40 years out of date," he says.
At Yale, he started the Tin Rainbow Jazz Band and found time to earn a degree in history. He studied at Cambridge, spent several years studying Slavic languages in Russia, and earned his doctorate from Princeton. In 1979, Starr was living in Washington, D.C., where he had founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Smithsonian. In his spare time, he founded the still-existant Federal Jazz Commission ("the only Federal Commission that works nights").
It was there that he got a call from Tulane president Sheldon Hackney, a friend from Princeton, offering him the post of vice president for academic affairs at Tulane.
Starr accepted. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, Starr paid a visit to the Hogan Jazz Archive, where he met Curt Jerde, a young scholar who had just taken over as curator. Jerde was an academic from Berkeley, Calif., who had come to New Orleans to study 19th-century music.
In addition to sharing Starr's passion for early jazz, he was also an accomplished string bass player. Starr and Jerde hatched the idea for a band to recreate authentic New Orleans jazz. Not long after meeting Jerde, Starr wandered over to Dixon Hall to introduce himself to John Joyce.
J.J. Joyce was a scholar and academic of uncommon range, a Juilliard-trained percussionist who had performed with symphony orchestras across the nation and a first-class jazz drummer who had studied with Paul Barbarain and Cie Frasier and played with Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. A classical scholar who published a three-volume work on Italian renaissance music and a jazz educator who in 1969 started the first jazz history course taught at any university. Starr invited Joyce to a Dixon Hall jam session he had organized. Joyce watched as local Dixieland players tore through a few numbers.
When the session ended, Joyce asked Starr if that was the sound he wanted. "No!" Starr scowled. "This is too slick and modern for me." That was the answer Joyce wanted. Joyce joined Starr and Jerde and brought to the band something no other traditional jazz group could match--a world-class musician who also happened to be a nationally renowned scholar.
To this day, Joyce serves as editor of The Jazz Archivist, the journal of the Hogan Jazz Archive. "J.J. has made a major contribution to the serious understanding of American jazz," Starr says. The trio began a series of weekly rehearsals to work on arrangements and find like-minded musicians. Around that time, Joyce told Starr he needed to get in touch with a local banjo virtuoso and Tulane alumnus.
John Chaffe (A&S '61) had been born into New Orleans aristocracy. His great grandfather had cornered the cotton market and his father was a partner in the law firm of Chaffe McCall. Despite his Garden District pedigree, Chaffe was from childhood drawn to jazz. He picked up the banjo at an early age and later studied with two great New Orleans jazz banjo players from the 1920s, Lawrence Marrero and Johnny St. Cyr.
Chaffe was also a protege of Edmond "Doc" Souchon, banjo player and early jazz patron. Also an accomplished mandolin player, Chaffe was a prodigy on banjo, appearing with Al Hirt and Pete Fountain as a child wonder. For years, he led the popular Dixieland band the Last Straws.
"He could get a beautiful orchestral sound out of the instrument that most banjo players don't get," says Joyce, assistant professor of music. "He could create beautiful chordal effects. He had a real gift." "John Chaffe was a breathtakingly subtle player," adds Starr. "Not fancy, but elegant."
Starr recalls the time the ensemble performed a concert attended by the violist Isaac Stern. After the concert, Stern sought out Chaffe. "They were standing face to face," Starr says, "and Stern looks at Chaffe and says, 'I've been sitting in the front row for the last two hours listening. If you played violin, I wouldn't have a job.' I overheard this. This was said only to John Chaffe, because Stern is not a guy to engage in blather. Everybody in New Orleans loved and remembers John Chaffe as a good old boy and hell-raiser, but he was a consummate artist."
After Chaffe's death in 1997, the band staged a memorial concert. Eight hundred people filled Dixon Hall and by the finale, a heartfelt rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross," there was not a dry eye in the house.
Besides Starr, Jerde, Chaffe and Joyce, the embryonic LRJE included septuagenarian bassist Sherwood Mangiapane, a veteran of 1920s bands and the ensemble's living link to their inspiration; pea-shooter trombonist Fred Lonzo; string bass and sousaphone player Walter Payton; piano player John Royen; and trombone player Tom Ebert.
Today, Starr, Joyce, Payton and Lonzo remain the historic core of the still-active band. In March 1980, Starr, Joyce, Jerde, Chaffe and a varying cast of guests began holding weekly rehearsals in Dixon Hall, polishing arrangements and working out the repertoire. Players who lapsed into "loose-change Dixieland," as Joyce calls it, were admonished, and ensemble playing was emphasized. It was a painstaking process, but one the band insisted on.
Drawing on the archive's enormous library of sheet music, the band unearthed obscure, original arrangements. They revived songs that weren't played any longer and discovered parts that weren't played any more. On songs for which they were unable to find original sheet music, Joyce would painstakingly transcribe the music by listening to the original recordings.
Eventually, the band tired of playing to the unresponsive walls of Dixon Hall. Someone suggested contacting the Maple Leaf Bar. Located about 10 blocks from the Tulane campus on Oak Street, the Maple Leaf was a neighborhood watering hole that played host to pianist James Booker, poet Everett Maddox and an eclectic clientele of regulars.
"The first night we played, the place filled up," Starr recalls. "For the first time in eons in New Orleans, there was a place you could dance to this music. Within weeks you had not only the uptown establishment, but you also had the funkiest people from the neighborhood spilling beer on each others' shoes."
The band began a Wednesday night residency at the Maple Leaf that lasted three years. One of the band's most devoted fans was emeritus professor of architecture Franklin Adams. Adams had come to New Orleans in 1958 and had spent many nights taking in traditional jazz at Preservation Hall, but seeing the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble at the Maple Leaf was a revelation.
"Up to that point in my life, I always said I don't dance," Adams recalls. "But this music was so particularly infectious that I decided to venture out onto the dance floor. So basically, for all intents and purposes, I learned to dance at the Maple Leaf."
Adams' reaction is not lost on Starr. "This group that had been formed just to hear the music played with fidelity and integrity suddenly had a dance floor," Starr says. "And that was the fourth missing ingredient. This music was only dance music. The idea of putting it on a stage or in a dusty, gloomy alcove is ahistorical. The band discovered that the dancers make the music."
One day, bandleader Starr got a curious phone call after one of the band's Maple Leaf shows, a tribute to society bandleader Armand J. Piron, which was broadcast on community radio station WWOZ.
The caller was Ruth Dreyfous (N '23), a doyen of New Orleans society and the scion of a distinguished, old line New Orleans family. It was great to hear Piron's music played live again, she told Starr. Dreyfous's father had sponsored dances in their Garden District home each month, and Piron was one of the bandleaders she regularly hired.
"This was like meeting Prince Esterhazy, who had Haydn on his payroll," Starr says. "She hired them all and danced to them all." There is one thing she added. "The tempo to 'New Orleans Wiggle' is all wrong," she said. "You play it too fast." Starr was indignant. "Well, come over for tea tomorrow and I'll show you."
Starr went to Dreyfous's home the next day. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked Starr if he knew how to one-step. "So there we were dancing back and forth on the carpet," he recalls. "She was humming to herself, going a little faster and then a little slower, and then she said, 'That's the tempo!' And I remembered the tempo and we played it the next night at that tempo and, of course, she was right."
After conquering New Orleans, the band turned its attention to a considerably more daunting challenge: the Soviet Union. In 1982, the ensemble was invited to perform in Moscow at the personal behest of the U.S. Ambassador Arthur Hartman.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their chilliest, and jazz was officially scorned in the USSR. State Department policy at the time prohibited funding cultural exchange efforts with the Soviet Union, which made travel to Moscow with a nine-piece band almost unthinkable.
Undeterred, Starr convinced Donald Kendall, chairman of PepsiCo, a company that had pioneered business relations between the two nations, to have the company sponsor an ensemble tour of Russia. The band played a series of concerts at Spasso House, the ambassador's residence. Each performance included an invitation list of a select group of Soviet dignitaries, and each night the size of the crowd grew.
The band's third concert, a command performance for symphony musicians, was moved from Spasso House to the grand Union of Soviet Composers. Word spread across Moscow that a New Orleans jazz band was in town. More than 3,500 people showed up to hear hot New Orleans jazz at the height of the Cold War.
When Starr left New Orleans to become president of Oberlin College in Ohio, he and Joyce contemplated the future of the band. Was it possible to maintain a band given the geographic constraints? Why not, both concluded. The band's nine-member format had almost from the start required finding substitute members to play dates that a regular member could not make.
The result is that the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble is about two players deep at every instrument. If Starr can't make a gig, top-quality New Orleans players like Joe Murayni, a veteran of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, are called on to fill his spot. The balance of performances has shifted from New Orleans nightclubs to national and international concert appearances, but the band's mission remains unchanged and its spirit undiminished. "We still don't play for tourists," Starr says.
This year alone, the ensemble has appeared at Harvard with the Boston Philharmonic, toured California and performed a concert in Salzburg, Austria. Twenty years after conspiring to attempt what no one had attempted, to play original New Orleans jazz, Starr is convinced the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble is playing the best music of its career.
At a recent performance at Bates College in Maine, the ensemble played a student festival that by sheer chance pit them head-to-head against a hip-hop band.
"By the end, no one was at the hip-hop show," Starr beams. "When the hour to close came, they wouldn't let us stop. I don't say that to say we're a great band but to show what glorious music it is."
Mark Miester is an editor in Tulane publications and editor of Freeman magazine. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.
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