Be forewarned: the visual quality on the performance that follows is sub-standard, although you can get used to it. This is what much-transferred forty-years-old videotape looks like, but the audio is loud and clear.
This video is a valuable document, because I don’t know of any other performance footage of cornetist Johnny Wiggs and clarinetist Raymond Burke — lyrical heroes of mine — here accompanied by Graham Stewart, trombone, Bob Greene, piano, Danny Barker, guitar, Freddie Moore, drums: Johnny Wiggs’ Bayou Stompers, introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, sometime singer / kazooist and eternal jazz lover – festival creator.
The song is elusive — TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL — and I couldn’t find any lyrics online, but the opening phrase so neatly fits the title that I am sure JAZZ LIVES readers can (silently) invent their own narratives with the proper scansion.
I am amused by Raymond Burke’s endearing personal choreography — his body mirrors what he is playing more than is true with many players. And his tone is so singular, sweet-tart in the manner of Ed Hall — but you wouldn’t mistake one player for the other. A great underacknowledged poet of the clarinet.
Wiggs continues to astonish. He saw Joe Oliver in New Orleans (I seem to remember this was 1919) and Oliver left a lasting impression. But then Wiggs heard Bix and those wandering odes took over — haunting but always mobile.
I hear in Wiggs, who was 73 at the time of this video, a sweet, sad evocation of what Bix might have sounded like had he lived on this long. Wiggs’ music plunges forward while looking over its shoulder in a melancholy, ruminative way. And although Wiggs recorded early (1927) and from 1949 into the fifties, his late work fully expresses a kind of autumnal sensibility, delicate without being timid or maudlin — the sweet voice of an elder who has seen a great deal and knows that life is sadly finite but celebrates that life with his cornet.
One other thing occurs to me, with special relevance to my own video efforts, where musicians justly want the performances that will be disseminated and preserved for posterity to be as free from flaws as possible. Anyone who watches this video to the end — and why wouldn’t you? — notices a small train wreck (with no one hurt) because the band is not clear whether to go on or stop. I find this, like Burke’s body language, quite endearing. I’d rather have imperfect Wiggs and Burke than know that this flawed performance had been consigned to the trash.
This video — although I do not know the originator — comes to us through the loving diligence of trumpeter / archivist Joe Shepherd, Sflair on YouTube, someone who cares a great deal for and about this music. Thank you, Joe!
May your happiness increase.