The number of readable books about traditional jazz is surprisingly small, so Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White is a terrific find. The author is New Orleans native Tom Sancton, a talented clarinetist with a journalist's chops (22 years at Time magazine) who frequented Preservation Hall, the city's most famous music venue in its 1960s glory days.
This book contains some of the best writing ever about the New Orleans Revival, the rediscovery of some of the city's earliest jazz men (Sancton's musical fathers) that began at the end of the 1930s and gained traction with Bunk Johnson's first recordings in 1942. It also plumbs at length the bittersweet relationship Sancton had with his own father, a southern radical (i.e. integrationist) and failed novelist of sorts who turned him onto the Hall at age 13.
The narrative, basically a series of reminiscences, is neatly sandwiched between two jazz funerals: the 1954 burial of Papa Celestin, which the author attended at the age of 5, and that of clarinetist George Lewis, whose passing in 1969, the year the author left for Harvard, signifies the end of an era for Sancton. Lewis, who along with Johnson was the brightest name of the Revival, is the biggest musical star here; as Sancton's mentor and friend, he is painted in mostly saintly tones. There are also savory sketches of lesser stars in the Hall's firmament: Jim Robinson, Sweet Emma Barrett, the Humphrey Brothers and Chester Zardis among them. A lot of space is given to banjoman Creole George Guesnon, who comes across as a character-and-a-half, and there are telling anecdotes about Danny Barker, Joe Watkins, Papa John Joseph and Albert Burbank as well.
Away from the music, Sancton's tales about growing up in New Orleans, his first loves, his often crazy home environment, his mother's life as a disenfranchised Southern belle from Jackson, Miss., are elegaic and make for fine reading. Through retellings of his father's stories, we get glimpses of A.J. Liebling, Eudora Welty and John Kennedy Toole. Lee Harvey Oswald and Vincent Price flit through creepily too.
Sancton's status as a successful Orleanian-in-exile (he lives just outside Paris) gives him the freedom to write without worrying about flattery or offense. Thus, we have less-than-reverent portraits of Larry Borenstein ("the evil genius behind the Hall") and painter Noel Rockmore. Others, like Allan Jaffe and Bill Russell come across as angel-saviors of the music, which is pretty much in accord with what's always said or written about them.
The book's strongest element may be the insight that Sancton, who as a teen began parading with Olympia and gigging at clubs outside the Hall, gives into the life of a New Orleans musician. There's a dramatic snapshot of parading at a chaotic, shooting-infested second line, and another of relaxing with the cats at Buster Holmes Restaurant after the parade until the second-liners demanded more music. Sancton communicates the joy of discovering and playing the music, but also the hardships of the musicians' lives, and the deplorable musicians' behavior those hardships could provoke.
The book's only major misstep comes when it tries to compare Preservation Hall with other New Orleans music venues:
"Dixieland Hall, by the way, did not actually present 'Dixieland' style jazz. That was the specialty of the touristy Bourbon Street clubs like the Famous Door, Al Hirt's, or Pete Fountain's. Dixieland is a slick, anesthetized, 'white' version of traditional jazz. It tends to be fast, loud, and soulless. Though Dixieland bands and traditional bands might play the same tunes, they are as different as muzak and Mozart, or Pat Boone and Chuck Berry. Anyone with ears can hear the difference."
Well sure, OK. What style of jazz wasn't slicker than what was coming out of Preservation Hall circa 1965? What clubs in the history of New Orleans have drawn more tourists than Preservation Hall? With this purist's outburst, Sancton disses Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, the Assuntos, Sharkey Bonano, Santo Peccora and hundreds of other fine players from that scene, players that don't measure up in extra-musical areas that are dear to him. He should have known better.
Fortunately, there follow another 230 pages to wash this taste out of your mouth, a meal I devoured in one sitting. "Riveting," is how Woody Allen describes Song for My Fathers on a back-cover blurb, and for anyone with even a passing interest in this music, it is just that. And with the rebranding of the Hall to include music other than traditional jazz, this heartfelt book is especially timely. reading, signing & Live music by Tom Sancton
4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 6
Maple Street Book shop, 7523 Maple St., 866-4916
- In Song for My Fathers, Tom Sancton communicates the joy of discovering and playing the music, but also the hardships of the musicians' lives in 1960s New Orleans.