The invisible wall between musicians and non-musicians (“civilians” or, worse, “fans”) is often difficult to hurdle. Oh, there are the polite conversations between sets, and sometimes even a chat over a plate of food or a beverage, but the things we want to know of our heroes — “How do you DO what you do? What is the source of your magic?” — usually must be intuited and are rarely spoken of. April DeShields, a long-time devotee and close observer of the music we love, has made it possible for us to eavesdrop on relaxed, revealing conversations . . . beginning with two of my particular heroes, Hal Smith and Dan Barrett. And — delightfully — April is neither Mister Rogers nor Gunther Schuller: she’s admiring but never fawning, erudite but never austere.
I found April’s YouTube channel “ECHOES OF SWING” and watched her casually expert interviews. Before we move on, here’s a sample — the first part of her conversation with Hal, with musical examples of the very best kind as well as informal, informative chat about Hal’s ROADRUNNERS, and about what can be done with a small group where the only horn is the clarinet, and his own beginnings:
and the second part, where Hal speaks about influential drummers Ben Pollack, Wayne Jones, Nick Fatool, Fred Higuera, and two lessons with Jake Hanna; teaching aspiring jazz players at Banu Gibson’s NOLA trad jazz camp; the superb MY LITTLE GIRL by Hal’s Jazzologists; Hal’s own musical development and forming a personal identity . . . with portraits of Sidney Catlett, Lionel Hampton, and Dizzy Gillespie:
and the third part — with Hal’s affectionate memories of his supportive parents . . . up to current gigs in the time of Covid-19; the rigors and pleasures of remote recording, and of course, a few cat tales:
After I’d seen and enjoyed the first part of the Hal Smith interviews, I contacted April to ask her about herself, and after some reluctance, she opened the curtain:
When I was 6 my folks took me to the Sacramento Jazz Festival, and, during Abe Most’s set, he called up Tom Saunders (cornet player from Detroit, not the bass player – his nephew – who lives in NOLA now), of whom played Black Coffee and made the musical lightbulb go off on in my brain. He caught that from the stage, and being that my folks immediately decided it was late and we should get to bed, we walked out and Saunders followed us. He chatted up my folks, found out they wanted to go to bed, looked at me and said, “You don’t want to go, do you?” – to which I promptly replied “Nope.” He grabbed my hand, told my Dad that when I was tired he would take me back to our room, asked my Dad for a spare key so we wouldn’t wake them up, and off he took me- to the bar where I met Wild Bill Davison.
My father never did something like that, but I am so grateful he did, because every year at Sac and at subsequent festivals in other areas, Saunders was protector, teacher, and best friend. He and Chuck Hedges would load me up with lists of records to listen to as “homework” for the next year, and by the time I was 8 years old, I was correcting a guy who had a Saturday morning jazz show on a local public radio station. He invited me to the station, and from then on Saturday mornings would be very early drives with Dad to the radio station and I kept that up until I was nearly 30 and health kept me from doing it anymore.
My old boss at KRML moved to Palm Desert and is on the Board of the American Jazz Institute – he finally convinced me instead of asking me every month to record shows for him if I started to do my own series with no deadlines, he would re-broadcast material he wanted, and here we are. So it turned out to be a long story…. so many people came to me after Saunders died, thinking he was my father or grandfather, I just couldn’t bring myself to go to festivals for a long time without being in a puddle of tears. Many years later I’m finally ready to do what he would have wanted me to do – he would’ve been very mad at me for quitting in the first place!
So much of what I learned from those guys, and eventually the weekly calls with Saunders about everything, is so much a part of who I am in every way I just can’t imagine who I would be without them!
April has also posted some rare historical material: Tom Saunders’ Wild Bill documentary; a Saunders-Wild Bill set done in celebration of Bill’s eightieth birthday; an interview with Chuck Hedges . . . and just now, a two-part interview with Dan Barrett, beginning with his early jazz-conversion experiences and the history of early New Orleans jazz musicians migrating to California; Dan’s interactions with Andrew Blakeney and Joe Darensbourg — a side-portrait of Tom Saunders by April and her “heaven-opening epiphany”; memories of trombonist George Masso, and wonderful music from Dan and George’s CD:
Part Two begins with Mary Lou Williams’ LONELY MOMENTS from BED (Dan, Becky Kilgore, Eddie Erickson, and Joel Forbes); Dan and other trombone-playing arrangers; his long friendship with Howard Alden and how it led to a move to New York — through Jake Hanna, Red Norvo, and Dick Sudhalter — to gigs with Woody Allen and film work, the children’s project BEING A BEAR:
The third and final part of that interview is on the way . . . but I can’t wait to see April’s next gift to us.
May your happiness increase!