JJ 12/61: In My Opinion – George Lewis

Sixty years ago the Crescent City clarinettist thought none of the Hot Fives had the real New Orleans beat and that the ODJB, like all white bands, rushed the tempo. However, he found white Scottish clarinettist Sandy Brown to be a great jazz musician. First published in Jazz Journal December 1961

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George Lewis, clarinettist

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Too many people seem to regard the average New Orleans jazzman as a simpleton, both musically and otherwise. In actual fact nothing could be further from the truth. George Lewis, for instance, is an extremely civilised – in the real sense – human being, with a keen insight into and appreciation of all sorts of jazz. He shows a deep understanding of the mechanics of his own idiom and a sure sense of judgement of others. Oddly enough, he is the first New Orleans musician to have taken part in ‘In My Opinion’. – Sinclair Traill

“Turtle Twist”. Jelly Roll Morton Trio. HMV DLP 1044
Well, I like all those things that Jelly did. Zutty Singleton was playing fine drums in those days, and Bigard was playing real good. I particularly liked that low register stuff he played there – I’m a low register man myself, I like it way down there, like that. Barney always played very tasteful, always did. I knew him and the whole family – father, mother, Alex the drummer, the whole lot. I met Zutty a short while ago when we were passing through New York too. It was a good blues that, the kind of blues Jelly always played. Rather too much swing style for me, but that is how Jelly Roll liked it.

“A Blues”. Wooden Joe Nicholas (“Nite At Artesian Hall”). American Music 640
Wooden Joe on trumpet, Albert Burbank, clarinet (tell him anywhere), and it sounds to me like Louis Nelson on trom­bone. Says here it was Jim Robinson, but it doesn’t sound like Jim Robinson to me. That was real old time music; pity one man was a little off key. The beat is there alright, the beat is really there. I played in that hall, the Artesian, many times. Had to go up a ladder back of that door to get to the stage. I played with Wooden Joe in the early ’twenties, when he was playing better than he was there. He was originally a clarinet player, but he cut his hand real bad, and couldn’t move his fingers fast enough, so he switched to trumpet. He soon became one of the strongest trumpet men we ever had down there. He was a very powerful blower and that’s why they called him Wooden Joe. The picture here on this sleeve is Jim Robinson, but I don’t think it’s Jim playing in there. The bass is Austin Young, uncle to Lester, you know. Band’s full of uncles. Joe is uncle to Albert Nicholas, the clarinet man.

“Gut Bucket Blues”. Louis Armstrong (“His Greatest Years”). Parlophone PMC 1140
Well, of course I liked that, but it was not one of my favourites. I like other things that band did much better, King Of The Zulus for instance. I couldn’t hear the beat there properly, but none of these Hot Fives have that real New Orleans beat. And there was not enough improvising there. Johnny Dodds played the same thing as Louis did in his solo, and then Ory played the same thing again. Pity there aren’t any drums there, for Baby Dodds was one drum­mer who really played that New Orleans beat – did it ’til the the day he died. There aren’t many who can play that way today. Joe Watkins can, but most of the others now use too much sock cymbal and that destroys that New Orleans beat. A real New Orleans drummer uses one cymbal and one only. Any drummer who has played with a large band will naturally use sock cymbals. Paul Barbarin, a New Or­leans man, he hasn’t that beat any longer – he has become a real sock man. He even tried chimes at one time. Gave himself too much to do, and so lost that beat. A real New Orleans drummer, he keeps the beat all the time regardless of what happens – and he doesn’t have all those things on his kit, two or three tom-toms, and lots of cymbals. You can’t play all those things and still give proper attention to the beat. You take Zutty. Now good drummer tho’ he is, he has lost that New Orleans beat. Played up North too long, that’s what did it.

“Sensation Rag”. Original Dixieland Jazz Band. HMV DLP 1065
There were two Shields that played clarinet like that, Larry and Harry – both good. This was recorded ’way back. It has that New Orleans beat alright, but like all white bands they rush the tempo. They up the tempo and don’t take it easy enough. I knew Nick La Rocca well. He wrote a lot of jazz tunes, and just before he died worked on some new numbers with Armand Hug, the pianist. He’s a fine pianist. I had the pleasure of working with him on the radio and other places and he is a real, wonderful pianist. He is one of the few white musicians that I really admire; he’s good in every way – an all round good musician.

“Squeeze Me”. Bechet-Spanier Big Four. Riverside RLP 138
I played with Muggsy Spanier in Germany, but funnily enough I never played with Sidney. He played a lot of soprano, but personally I liked him much better on clarinet. On soprano he played too much like a trumpet. Didn’t really need a trumpet in his band, when he was in there playing like that. You ever heard Joe Darenbourg play soprano, the man who’s with Louis now? He plays beautiful soprano, such a lovely tone. I like him better than Bechet as a matter of fact. But I never cared much for soprano, the sound is too much in and out, too much power somehow. Maybe it’s the reed and metal, yet I have a metal clarinet that sounds alright. It’s the one I used for that first recording of Burgundy Street. It was one of the last Alberts ever made, and I just happened to pick it up at a music store. The metal was as thick as this half crown, and I knew I’d never have to buy another clarinet during the Depression. Don’t play it anymore, but I still have it; I won’t ever let it go. I think that the curved soprano is more true than the straight one. A fish-horn they call it in New Orleans. The mouthpiece is smaller, which makes a lot of difference with the pressure you have to use. Fish-horn? Oh, the men with those fish carts, used to blow a horn to call attention to themselves. Sound just like a soprano.

“Midnight Blue”. Pee Wee Russell-Buck Clayton (“Swinging with Pee Wee”). Prestige SVLP 2008
That’s swing style – I’d know his playing anywhere. I know Pee Wee Russell very well, he’s a wonderful man. He just loves jazz! And he plays hard. If you stand up alongside him when he’s playing, you can hear him grunt, he puts so much into it. A lovely blues man, he plays things you don’t hear nowhere else. Very delicate. This is quite a different style from the New Orleans style of playing. I don’t really think there is such a thing as New York, Chicago style or any other style; that is for the older players such as Pee Wee Russell. The younger musicians may have such styles, as they will have picked up how they play from someone else, but I really think it is how a fellow starts that counts, not where he starts, how he starts. ’Course, the fellows from New Orleans they do have a style of blowing, but it is really the way they phrase the same. You take the New Orleans trumpeters, Red Allen, Louis Armstrong or even Guy Kelly, they all had the same way of phrasing, picked up from their surroundings. And it’s the same way with the pianists, you can tell which city he comes from the minute he sits down to play – it’s usually the way they use the left hand to strike out a bass. Now Buck Clayton there on that record, a fine powerful player. He’s got a whole lot of Louis Armstrong in his playing, but I can tell he doesn’t come from New Orleans. It doesn’t make him any the worse, but there is something missing from his phrasing that Red Allen and Louis both have, even to this day. Did you hear that drumming in there? Remarkable! I don’t know this man but he gets a tremendous beat – makes that cymbal sound almost like a washboard. That’s fine swing music.

“Those Blues”. Sandy Brown (“Blue McJazz”). Pye NJE 1054
Oh, I liked that fine. That boy plays with a great drive and deep feeling. It has that gospel sound to it, like those things that Ray Charles comes up with. A lot of his compositions are in that same tempo, spiritual things. Almost like a hymn. I see Sandy Brown wrote this piece he is playing. He has a most unusual feeling for jazz. What he plays is most unusual and his way of expressing it is unusual too. I do really like that a lot. Lovely tone and his harmonies are real beautiful too; he is a real clarinettist. No, I have never heard him, but I must do. He is surely a great jazz musician – very, very fine!

“Body And Soul”. Benny Goodman Trio. Philips BBL 7001
Well, I must say he’s the King of Swing. He is a great clarinettist and you can’t put him down. You just can’t do that! He has taste, tone and knows his instrument to perfection. Teddy Wilson also plays just right, for a group such as that. Not my type of music, but I do admire it just the same.