Tag Archives: Frank Selman

I JUST FLEW IN FROM SAN DIEGO!

. . . and boy, are my arms tired!  But my ears are still full of wonderful music.  I don’t mean “San Diego” as a city, but the 32nd annual San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival, which began for me on last Thursday night and continued into the middle of Sunday afternoon.

Festivals and parties take on the personalities of their organizers, and this one benefited so much from Paul Daspit, who stepped in after the death of the much-loved trombonist Alan Adams.  Paul is tall, soft-spoken, carefully-dressed, usually sporting a nifty hat (no beanie with a propeller for this gent), and his demeanor is both calm and amused.  Even when he was dealing with a series of flooded hotel rooms, he seemed to know that getting all flurried would do him — and us — no good.  So it was a great delight to see Paul come in, savor the music with a quiet smile on his face, and move on to something else.  His generosity of spirit made it possible for me to attend, for the musicians to play their best.  By the way, when I asked Paul about this, he said he was only carrying on Alan’s philosophy: to establish a space where everyone would be so comfortable and easy that the music would flow out and around everyone.

And it did.  I am a devoted follower of a few bands — my heroes are the Reynolds Brothers and the Tim Laughlin-Connie Jones All-Stars, the Yerba Buena Stompers, High Sierra, as well as the individual musicians Clint Baker, Jeff Hamilton, Sue Fischer, Bryan Shaw, Dawn Lambeth, Hal Smith, Carl Sonny Leyland, Marty Eggers, Kevin Dorn, Marc Caparone, the amazing Paul Woltz, and a dozen others . . . but I looked at the schedule more than a dozen times and figured that if I had been able to see all the sets I’d wanted to, the number would have been more than fifty . . . not possible for one person.  Because the festival was unashamedly a cornucopia, with six or more bands playing at once in different venues, I would have had to be willing to run from the middle of one set to the middle of another, which I wasn’t willing to do.

Too many highlights, and I won’t list them here for fear of leaving something out that was good, better, best.  I think I liked the surprises, though: being outside the main building, coming back from dinner, and hearing a band — it turned out to be Grand Dominion — and recognizing, “My goodness!  That’s Clint Baker — on trumpet — beating out JOE LOUIS STOMP!”  Or, again, hearing music from afar of a small group, around 9 AM, working its way through MUSKRAT RAMBLE — with an absolutely spine-tingling trombone solo . . . none other than tne Saint of Dixieland, Uncle Howie Miyata, playing that thing.  I also had my spirits lifted by people who don’t play instruments, at least not professionally: Jane Lynch and husband Kevin; Allene Harding; Frank Selman; Susie Miyata, Yvonne and Bill Au, Brandon and Justin of the same lineage.  I got to sit between Jane, Laurie Whitlock, and Carol Andersen . . . fun times in SoCal!

I’ll be posting my videos in a few weeks (I have Whitley Bay to share with you) but would point out that my newly-mobile West Coast doppelganger Rae Ann Berry had her video camera, her tripod, and many batteries . . . and she’s already posted a great many videos which would warm the coldest day.

But I’ll just say that there was a Reynolds-Brothers-plus jam session on Saturday night . . . where fourteen musicians got onto a tiny bandstand to wail — and I don’t use that word lightly — on MY LITTLE BIMBO and DIGA DIGA DOO.  You could hear the angels stomping.

More to come . . . . but I have already made a mental space for Thanksgiving 2012.

THE “POTATO HEAD” MYSTERY SOLVED AT LAST!

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!