Daily Archives: November 13, 2010


The genial man to the left doesn’t exactly resemble Sherlock Holmes or even Dr. Watson, but he’s helped me solve a nagging mystery.  He’s Dr. Julius “Boo” Hornstein, longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, and chronicler of its varied jazz scenes.  His research, memories, and appropriate photographs have been published in his book, SITES AND SOUNDS OF SAVANNAH JAZZ (Gaston Street Press).  In it, I found more than I’d expected about King Oliver’s last days and his benefactor Frank Dilworth — and anecdotes about Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Ben Tucker, and other improvising natives.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this post.  Exhibit A:

Recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven in 1927, POTATO HEAD BLUES has been a mystery to many for nearly eighty years.  The music itself isn’t mysterious — exultant, rather — but the title has puzzled jazz enthusiasts forever.  Some plausibly have thought it came from the teasing way New Orleans musicians made up names for each other based on essential physiognomy — and one of my readers, Frank Selman, wisely suggested that the title was a sly dig at Clarence Williams, whose cranial structure resembled an Idaho Russet.

Eighty pages into Dr. Hornstein’s book, we meet Sam Gill — not the Brooklyn-born bassist who recorded and played with Randy Weston, Monk, and Blakey, but a Savannah-born trumpet player who (as a young man) had met the down-on-his-luck Joe Oliver. 

But I’ll let Dr. Hornstein lead us back to POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Sam Gill is the kind of guy who likes to tell a story.  Consider this.  We’re sitting around City Market Cafe one early summer afternoon, and Sam is holding forth.  “You ever heard the expression ‘potato head’?  You know, ‘So-and-so is nothing but a potato head?’  No one in our group can rightly say that we have, so Sam proceeds to set us straight.  ‘Well, the expression goes way back in time and has to do with the parades which frequently took place on West Broad Street.  If you were an important figure in the black community, say, a businessman, it was expected of you to have your own band to march in the parades.  The bigger the band, the better in terms of your the image.  So, every now and then you would beef up your band with one or two good-looking men.  The problem was, a lot of the time these fellows looked good, but they couldn’t play.  So, you’d put a potato in the bell of their horns and let them march.  Of course, no sound came out, but that was okay ’cause you only wanted the guys to look good.  That’s how they got to be known as potato heads.” 

You have no idea how relieved I am by this riddle, now unraveled for all time.  And how prescient of Louis not to have turned to his band and said, “Boys, I have a new song for us: it’s about those street parades in New Orleans.  You’ll never forget it: BLUES FOR THE CATS WHO COULDN’T PLAY SO WE HAD TO MAKE SURE WE COULDN’T HEAR THEM PLAY A NOTE EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE SHARP-LOOKING CATS.  One, two!”

Thank you, Sam Gill; thank you, Dr. Hornstein — we’ll all sleep better tonight!



Once the English pianist Harold Bauer gave a concert in San Francisco, and an F-sharp got stuck just after he’d begun his last piece.  He struggled with the note, trying to disguise that from the audience, trying to keep it from ruining the piece, trying to get through.  When he came offstage, his manager said to him, “Harold, I’ve listened to you up and down the world for twenty years, and that last piece was the most moving performance I have ever heard.”  Which means that audiences are rarely on the same wavelength as performers.  In fact, two very different things are going on at once.  The musician is wondering how to get from the second eight bars into the bridge, and the audience is in pursuit of emotional energy.  The musician is struggling, and the audience is making up dreamlike opinions about the music that may have nothing at all to do with what the musician is thinking or doing musically.  If audiences knew what humdrum, daylight things most musicians think when they play, they’d probably never come. 

— told to Whitney Balliett, “Easier Than Working,” American Musicians 312-13.

The Dear Departed Days:

December 1946, Jimmy Ryan’s, New York City: Ed Phyfe (drums), John Glasel (tpt); Bob Wilber, Wellstood, Charlie Traeger (bass).  Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.