Tag Archives: Snoozer Quinn

UNLOCKING THE DOORS TO FIND THE PERSON HIDDEN WITHIN: “SNOOZER QUINN: FINGERSTYLE JAZZ GUITAR PIONEER,” by KATY HOBGOOD RAY and DAN SUMNER (Out of the Past Music, 2021)

Imagine an improvising musician, a dazzling stylist, whose recorded works add up to perhaps forty minutes. Dead of tuberculosis at 42. Admired by Les Paul and Frank Trumbauer, Danny Barker, Peck Kelley, Paul Whiteman, and Leo Kottke. “Slightly deformed at birth,” blind in one eye. Kept the best NOLA company.

Plain:

and Fancy, both from 1931:

and here’s some aural evidence:

and two ballads, rich and pensive:

Edwin “Snoozer” Quinn recorded in his prime but none of his solo recordings were ever issued. (He is audible, here and there, but never out front.) Those solos and duets we possess, a dozen sides, were informally done by cornetist Johnny Wiggs, in Snoozer’s hospital room, some months before his death.

We have a brief film of Snoozer playing solo in 1932, his hands graceful and fluid, but it is silent (as a footnote, the film was made by photographer-guitarist Charles Peterson, who gave us so much of the jazz world in still photographs):

Snoozer Quinn might have remained one of the most shadowy figures in jazz, an art form that has its share. And until recently, although the dozen recordings he made in 1948 were available on lp and CD, knowledge of him was scant.

Both he and his music deserved careful, deep, serious documentation. They have it now, splendidly, in this large-format book, 104 pages without filler or bloat:

Here is a comprehensive overview of this book. And, if you’re like me, whose immediate instinct was “How can I buy a copy?” visit here: you can purchase a paperback ($22.00) or an e-book ($14.99).

This book is extraordinarily satisfying: I am a severe reader and I stumbled over no flaws. Many jazz books of late are dense with theory and theorizing (we watch the author’s speculations about matters only tangentially related to music or biography overwhelm the presumed subject). Many are recyclings of others’ speculations or reminiscences. Ground well-and-thoroughly covered, leftovers presented as dinner, pick your metaphor. Given that, first-hand narrative about a figure who has been mysterious is precious, as is new information.

Perhaps you never thought your bookshelf needed a book all about Snoozer Quinn, but this one is entrancing, not only as his detailed portrait, but as a model of humane scholarship. It is candid and plain-spoken, full of surprises and anecdotes, stories from people who were there.

Here’s a quick tour. Katy Hobgood Ray, musician and deep researcher, is Snoozer Quinn’s great-great niece, which means that she knew of him in different contexts than even the most devoted jazz researcher would have. It also means that she has access to wonderful photos of Snoozer from the beginning to the end of his life, as well as the bands he played with. Those photographs, even without substantive text, would be an unequalled story of a life.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, after an introduction by guitarist Steve Howell, is a biography of Snoozer, the writing clear and evocative, followed by those photographs. The second is eight Snoozer solos, transcribed for guitarists to work at — thankfully, they can hear the recordings as stars to shoot for. The last, to me the most valuable, is a collection of recollections by Snoozer’s friends and colleagues.

Snoozer’s life, from one angle, is tragedy: tuberculosis and alcoholism, missed chances and benevolences that turned out all wrong. Paul Whiteman’s misguided fascination with the guitarist is a sad, almost unbelievable story. Genius, almost undocumented. But from another angle, he remains a marvel on the basis of the scant evidence, and those who heard him were astonished and remained so. The tale of his life is told through sharply realized evidence: oral histories from people who knew him and played alongside him, from members of the Quinn family to jazz musicians famous and less well-known.

For guitarists, the center of this book will be the eight carefully-created transcriptions of Snoozer’s solos on the sides he did solo and with Johnny Wiggs. I’m not a guitarist, but Dan Sumner’s description of Snoozer’s tuning and the way the transcriptions were imagined, honed, and polished is very convincing.

The recollections and reminiscences that conclude the book are arresting in their intimacy. Musicians Godfrey Hirsch, Monk Hazel, Benjie white, Armand Hug, and of course Johnny Wiggs, speak with tenderness, awe, and humor of Snoozer and his place in the universe. A detailed discography (with biographical information and documentation) is the final flourish to a splendidly realized enterprise.

No stone is left unturned: on page 11 of this book you will learn, almost offhandedly, the source of “Snoozer” as a nickname. It was a compliment.

It’s a reviewer’s cliche-encomium to state that a book like this is so definitive that there never need be another on the subject. I agree. But I also hope that new discoveries will be made so that there will be a second edition. Snoozer, obscure, often admired but not treated kindly, deserves every celebration possible. As do Katy Hobgood Ray, Dan Sumner, and Steve Howell. Their collaboration is so very rewarding. This book is thrilling in so many ways.

On another note, a comic-linguistic postscript. I first encountered Snoozer around 1971 when I purchased the Fat Cat’s Jazz lp THE LEGENDARY SNOOZER QUINN, which contained a dozen tracks Wiggs (bless him forevermore) had recorded. I had never heard Snoozer or Johnny Wiggs, but was fascinated by the air of mystery that surrounded the music, enough to spend money on a mysterious offering.

Al Rose’s liner note to that record offers a memorable crumb of awkward prose that I have never forgotten. Noting that cornetist Wiggs had not played in some time, Rose wrote, Wiggs, for the occasion, took his lip out of a quarter-century of mothballs, more to put Snoozer at his ease than anything else, and blew on some of these cuts. Little rust had gathered in the superb cornet.

Yes, mothballs and rust. But I digress.

Don’t linger here: buy this book. And while you’re waiting for your copy to arrive, visit https://snoozerquinn.com/ — a fine preface to the book.

May your happiness increase!

THE FROLICS AT FRAUNCES (Part One): ROB ADKINS, MIKE DAVIS, CRAIG VENTRESCO (July 25, 2015)

Fraunces Tavern

To some, Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan is most famous as the spot where George Washington held a farewell dinner for his troops in 1789.  Others like it because of their wonderfully extensive beer list and straightforward food — nice servers always, too.  Also, it’s a fine place to bring the family if you’re coming or going to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.

For me, it’s a little-known hot spot of rhythm on Saturday afternoons from 1-4. I came there a few months ago to enjoy the hot music of Emily Asher’s Garden Party Trio [plus guest] — which you can enjoy here — fine rocking music.

But let us live in the moment!  Here are four performances by Rob Adkins, string bass; Craig Ventresco, guitar (the legend from San Francisco and a friend for a decade); Mike Davis, cornet AND trombone.

“Trombone?” you might be saying.  Mike is very new to the trombone — a number of months — and he was playing an instrument not his own.  So he was a little sensitive about my making these performances public (those dangerous eyebrows went up and threatened to stay there) but I assured him that his playing was admirable, even if he was severe on himself.  His cornet work is a complete delight.  The music Rob, Craig, and Mike make is delicate and forceful, incendiary and serene.  You’ll see and hear for yourself on these four performances.  Rob swings out with or without the bow, by the way.

LILA, which I associate with a Frank Trumbauer / Bix Beiderbecke OKeh — a song I’ve never heard anyone play live, so thank you!

WHISPERING, which was once one of the most-played songs in this country and is now terribly obscure:

WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, with memories of Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Andy Secrest, Bix Beiderbecke, and Irving Berlin:

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, another Berlin classic, this performance evoking Red Nichols and Miff Mole:

And although it gets me in trouble with some people every time I write it, these three musicians are not necrophiliac impersonators.  They know the old records — those cherished performances — intimately and lovingly, and the records might act as scaffolding, but they are not restricted to copying them. (Ironically, this session reminds me more than a little of the lovely impromptu recordings made by Johnny Wiggs and Snoozer Quinn, although those two musicians didn’t have the benefit of a wonderful string bassist of Rob’s caliber in the hospital.)

There will be more to come from this Saturday’s glorious hot chamber music performance.  And this coming Saturday (August 1) Rob Adkins has asked trombonist Matt Musselman and guitarist Kris Kaiser to start the good works.  I know they will.

May your happiness increase!

BUNK and WIGGS

 Names to conjure with — the classic monickers of two New Orleans brass giants, Willie “Bunk” Johnson (1879 or 1889-1949) and John Wigginton Hyman (1899-1977).  Bunk is widely-known; Wiggs should be.   

Two new compact discs present these men in very congenial settings. 

Let’s take “Johnny Wiggs” first.  Wiggs is yet another living proof that there are second and third acts in American lives: he recorded in 1927 and then not again for two decades (in the meantime, he had a successful career as a teacher and home-builder); he continued playing until his death.  Wiggs also fascinates me because of his deep lyrical strain: his early influence was Joe Oliver, but he fell under the spell of Bix Beiderbecke and (to my ears) he often sounds the way I imagine an elder Bix would have sounded: melancholy, introspective, singing softly to himself.

Wiggs has often been represented on record as the lead horn in a traditional New Orleans ensemble, and these settings haven’t always done him justice, because the energetic bandsmen have sometimes created a raucous good-time environment.  Best of all are his chamber sessions with only clarinetist Raymond Burke (another poetic soul), guitar (often Dr. Edmond Souchon), and bass — recorded on the Paramount label in the Fifties and I think impossible to find. 

But the Wiggs sessions collected on a new CD show his deep feeling and wide range.  Some of this music was issued on an lp — also called CONGO SQUARE — but this CD issue adds previously unissued material.  Here’s one of the original 78s:

 The music on the CD covers the years 1948-73, and was primarily recorded in New Orleans — one particularly exuberant small group includes Wiggs, clarinetist Bujie Centobie, tenorist Eddie Miller (their limpid sounds intertwining), and the Stacy-Bix pianist Armand Hug.  But to me the most interesting combination was suggested by the ever-inventive Hank O’Neal, who set up a date for Wiggs to record four of his own compositions . . . in New York, with a “New York” quartet of Dill Jones (from Wales), Cliff Leeman (from New England), and Maxine Sullivan (from Baltimore).  The results are special, making me wish that Wiggs had been transported out of his native element more often.  He’s worth discovering or rediscovering.

Bunk Johnson is a different case entirely: someone who has his own mythology, a figure with such a clearly defined identity that there were pro-and-anti Bunk forces at work.  I first heard Bunk on his earliest recordings, and was unimpressed: he seemed a rudimentary player doing his best but not always being able to break free from the near-amateur musicians surrounding him. 

It was only later when I heard his “Last Testament” recordings for Columbia in 1947 that I could hear what he was doing and revel in his beautiful melodic simplicity, the emotional directness of his lines, the delicacy of his embellishments. 

But it was clear to me (although some disagree) that Bunk was a more sophisticated musician than the contexts he was often placed in.  Put next to the vehemently competitive Sidney Bechet in Boston, he often held his own but sometimes sounded as if he had been dropped into the Golden Gloves. 

In front of a sympathetic, swinging band, he blossomed and relaxed.  He had just that setting in the recordings now issued on an American Music CD — a 1947 concert with cornetist Doc Evans’s rocking little band and the perfect support of pianist Don Ewell.

Ewell hasn’t been celebrated enough — certainly not sufficiently in his lifetime.  But he was an elegantly swinging pianist, his subtle approach encompassing Jelly Roll Morton’s ruffles and flourishes and the later swing of Hines, Stacy, Fats, and James P. Johnson.  It says a good deal about Ewell that he seemed to be the favorite pianist of both Jack Teagarden and Frank Chace.  And Bunk Johnson.  A year before this concert, Bunk, Ewell, and drummer Alphonso Steele had recorded as a trio in New York for American Music — playing pop tunes and old favorites: WHEN THE MOON COMES OVER THE MOUNTAIN, I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN KATHLEEN, IN THE GLOAMING, OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL, JA-DA, YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MAMA EVERY NIGHT, POOR BUTTERFLY, and WHERE THE RIVER SHANNON FLOWS. 

At the Minneapolis concert, there are vibrant full-band versions of traditional standards such as HIGH SOCIETY, THE SHEIK OF ARABY, and SISTER KATE, but there are also wonderful examples of the Bunk-Ewell partnership.  (One elaborately wayward performance after hours, where Bunk is trying to teach Ewell the harmonies to HEARTACHES, both of them having imbibed more than they should, has been preserved in the Jazzology book on Bunk: SONG OF THE WANDERER, by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine, as is their IN THE GLOAMING.)

But this concert presents what is, to me, the clearest representation of what Bunk could do — out of the recording studio, having a wonderful time, inspiring and being inspired by a first-rate group. 

 And now for some compelling musical evidence (music also available from the George H. Buck family of labels):

Bunk, Ewell, and Alphonso Steele in New York City, 1946:

Wiggs with the legendary guitarist Snoozer Quinn in 1948:

To order the Bunk / Ewell / Evans CD, click here:

 http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=AMCD-129

To order the Wiggs CD, click here:

http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=BCD-507

REMEMBER TO CLICK HERE TO REPAY THE MUSICIANS:

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PENNY’S FROM HEAVEN

No, I haven’t utterly lost my ability to proofread.  The title of this post is, however, a nearly unforgivable pun.  I couldn’t resist.

YouTube is neck-and-neck with potato chips as an addictive pleasure, and while looking around for something else jazz-flavored, I came across this.  Or, properly, I tripped over it — turning it on simply because I couldn’t believe it.  Perhaps you should turn it on before I describe it, as it might seem indescribable at first.  For the skeptical reader, I assure you, there’s a solid underpinning of jazz here: Bix Beiderbecke’s recording of SORRY.

The performer is Mike Penny, someone I knew nothing about except that he seems a string virtuoso with a hot attack and a swinging terminal vibrato.  And the instrument?  YouTube says that it is a Tsugaru shamisen.  It has three strings and no frets, and to me it resembles a boxy banjo.

Perhaps Mike Perry is somehow channelling Snoozer Quinn’s dextrous ghost?  Stranger things have happened!  But I went to his MySpace page and learned that he lives in Valencia, California, and is a master player of this instrument in every genre imaginable.  In fact, you can hear him play GRACE ANE BEAUTY there, too.  Check him out!

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=43981216

And BIX LIVES, by the way —