I’d heard and admired Leon Oakley on records for a long time before I first met him in five years ago. We became friends instantly because of our shared love for lyrical hot music and our reverence for Louis.
But in all the performances of Leon’s that I’ve been privileged to witness, I’d never seen him sing. Although I’m sure he’s done it before in public, this is a first for me — and it’s so lovely.
A little background. The group Leon is leading was originally called the Black Diamond Blue Five, founded by the late George Knoblauch — devoted to a particular sound and approach, that being Clarence Williams small groups of the middle Twenties. “Hot and ready,” would be one way to describe it. This version, called “Friends of the Blue 5,” a title combining “Friends of Jazz” and “Blue 5,” took the stage at the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California in El Sobrante, California, on May 15. 2016. The recording was done by the indefatigable Rae Ann Berry, who’s captured so many hours of pleasure for us all. The other members of the band are the always-amazing Clint Baker, clarinet, trombone, vocal; his son Riley Baker, tuba; Marty Eggers, piano; Bill Rinehart, banjo. The song is a late-Thirties Louis composition about the joys of steamboat travel — going no place in a hurry — down the Mississippi River:
One way to “honor” Louis would involve a handkerchief, grins and grimaces — a caricature that barely evoked the surface. (Joe Muranyi said more than once that Louis hated such acting.) I delight in the approach that Leon takes: gently earnest heartfelt singing and playing, completely loving, completely authentic.
I look forward to the 2016 Steamboat Stomp — where Leon, Clint, I, and other heroes will be on the Natchez, up and down that river. Perhaps Brother Leon can be talked into a few vocal choruses?
And this post is for Jean Knoblauch, a dear friend even when at a distance.
May your happiness increase!