Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, November 18, 2010

“The Fabulous George Lewis Band: The Inside Story” by Barry Martyn with Nick Gagliano (Burgundy Street Press)

Clarinetist/bandleader George Lewis (1900-1968) has long been considered one of the great iconic figures of traditional New Orleans jazz. As such, the telling of any portion of his story by someone who knew and worked with him represents a significant contribution to the storehouse of jazz knowledge.

It helps to keep in mind that this characterization, “traditional” New Orleans jazz, has a number of levels of meaning. To many people, for example, the Dukes of Dixieland played “traditional” N.O. jazz in the 1950’s, even though they were a few generations removed from the origins of the music, and were influenced by swing and other post-N.O. developments. One might easily argue that even King Oliver in 1923 represented a stylistic modernization over the “original” New Orleans style. Truth be told, we don’t really know what the earliest New Orleans jazz styles sounded like, since no one bothered to document them while they were happening. What we can say, however, is that the music of George Lewis and his band of the 1940’s and 50’s exemplifies what we believe to be one of the oldest, most purely “authentic” early New Orleans jazz styles to be documented, despite the fact that he was most likely born after the music’s ultimate origins, and was not recorded until the 1940’s. This alone would make the George Lewis Band worthy of study.

Unfortunately, this book is not the definitive telling of George Lewis’ story, as it covers only one period of his life and, for that matter, only one portion - albeit a very crucial one - of the George Lewis Band’s existence. This is the period when Lewis - who had returned to New Orleans and what appeared to be a resumption of his long obscurity, after enjoying a brief glimpse of fame playing with trumpeter Bunk Johnson in the early/mid 1940’s - was trying to establish a new dance band in the traditional N.O. style. He had gathered together such equally unknown, yet eventually renowned musicians as Big Jim Robinson, Lawrence Marrero, Slow Drag Pavageau, among others, with hopes of finding more work as a performer at local dances and clubs. He approached a young, articulate, recent college graduate, Nick Gagliano, about helping the band find work. Gagliano did just that, sending Lewis on his way to relative stardom on the traditional jazz scene of the 1950’s. This book is as much about Gagliano and his relationship to the musicians as it is about the band itself.

There is much to chew on here. English-born drummer/bandleader/historian Barry Martyn employs an interview format to elicit thoughts from Gagliano (who is now in his 80’s) on the nature of jazz tradition, the crucial influence of New Orleans’ unusual racial atmosphere on both the musical life and everyday life of New Orleans, the role of the manager in establishing an artist’s reputation, and many other topics germane to the career of George Lewis, but also to the history of New Orleans music as a whole. Martyn asks trenchant questions, Gagliano answers them, and the results are presented unedited.

And therein lies the book’s biggest problem. The fact that the transcripts are unedited eliminate the question of whether Gagliano’s thoughts have been subjected to editorial interpretation. That’s good. But - and this is a big but - every hesitation, every partial sentence, every tangent and diversion, every bit of personal conversation that should have been kept personal, every repeated question, are all here, slowing down the narrative, making it read rather more awkwardly than it needed to. A bit of judicious editing, retaining the integrity of the interview, but rendering it more readable, would have been welcome. What’s more, there are details Gagliano simply doesn’t recall. The “I don’t knows” and “I can’t remembers” begin to pile up once he nears the part of the story where the careers of Lewis and his band are taken over by another manager. (Gagliano went back to school to get his law degree, and could no longer devote time to his musical hobby.) The overall effect is that a book with the potential to attract more widespread attention will now appeal primarily to scholars of the music and other people with a vested interest in learning more about the New Orleans scene of the pre-Civil Rights” period.

Adding interest to the book, in any event, are an interview with a white man named John Chaffe, who took banjo lessons from Lawrence Marrero, further illuminating the stultifying role of race in New Orleans in the 1950’s, and a wonderful reminiscence by musician-turned-historian Samuel Charters. The book comes packaged with a CD of previously unissued live recordings by the George Lewis Band, recorded in Ohio in 1952-53, along with taped interviews from 1953, which add considerably to the book’s significance.

The book is distributed by LSU Press, another fine example of a University Press making available a book slanted toward a specialist market that is grossly under-served by commercial publishers.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home